FIRST INHABITANTS OF BANGLADESH
The first inhabitants of Bangladesh were thought to be short, curly haired proto-Australoids and proto-Mongoloids from the lower Himalayas. Stone Age tools found in Bangladesh indicate human habitation at least 20,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered relics in West Bengal that as old those found at Mohenjadro and Harappa from the Indus Valley civilization that dates to 3000 to 1500 B.C. Remnants of Copper Age settlements date back ro 2000 B.C.
Ancient Bengal was settled by Austroasiatics, Tibeto-Burmans, Dravidians and Indo-Aryans in consecutive waves of migration. Historians believe that Bengal, the area comprising present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, was settled in about 1000 B.C. by Dravidian-speaking peoples who were later known as the Bang. Their homeland bore various titles that reflected earlier tribal names, such as Vanga, Banga, Bangala, Bangal, and Bengal.
Archaeological evidence shows that by the second millennium B.C., rice-cultivating communities inhabited the region. By the 11th century B.C. people lived in systemically-aligned housing, buried their dead, and manufactured copper ornaments and black and red pottery. The Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers provided transportation routes between the Bay of Bengal and the Ganges Plains. The early Iron Age saw the development of metal weaponry, coinage, agriculture and irrigation. Major urban settlements formed during the late Iron Age, in the mid-first millennium B.C.. when the Northern Black Polished Ware culture developed. [Source: Wikipedia]
Indo-Aryans, Dravidians and Buddhism in Ancient Bangladesh
Indo-Aryans who came from central Asia and followed the Ganges invaded what is now Bangladesh in the 5th and 6th century B.C. The Aryan invaders spoke and Indo-European languages, which provide the basis for all the languages in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as English, French and Spanish. The Ayrans intermarried with the local population. Aryan society was led by a warrior aristocracy whose legendary deeds are recorded in Rig Veda. Dravidian immigrants from southeastern India arrived in Bangladesh around the same time as the Aryans. People also migrated from Tibet and Burma.
Around 1500 B.C. the precursors of Hinduism, the system of beliefs, practices, and socio-religious institutions of the Hindus, was introduced in the Indian subcontinent by Indo-Aryans (Indo-Europeans) . Over the next 2,000 years the Indo-Aryans developed a Brahmanic civilization, out of which Hinduism evolved. From the Punjab Indo-Europeans spread east over the Gangetic plain and by c.800 B.C. were established in Bihar, Jharkhand, and Bengal. Bangla (Bengali), the language of Bangladesh and Bengal, is derived from Sanskrit (the ancient Brahman language), and is a member Indo-European family of languages.
Bengal is mentioned as a distinct region in some of the earliest Hindu texts. The earliest mention of it is found in the Mahabharata (an epic story of a great 9th century B.C. battle). Ancient Sanskrit literature mentioned a kingdom called Banga. The Vedas, composed between 1500 B.C. and 600 B.C., mention the Pundras tribes of Bengal and the Sabaras of Orissa. In 1879, Alexander Cunningham identified Mahasthangarh as the capital of the Pundra Kingdom mentioned in the Rigveda. The oldest inscription in Bangladesh was found in Mahasthangarh and dates from the 3rd century B.C. It is written in the Brahmi script
Buddhism was introduced to Bangladesh at least by the 3rd century B.C. Some historians believe the religion may have arrived because Bangladesh is very near the birthplace of Buddhism (Magadh in the Indian state of Bihar). Buddhist rulers — the Guptas, Pala, Senas, Chandras and Deva Kings — ruled Bangladesh until the 12th century. Missionaries from Bangladesh introduced Buddhism to Indonesia. Chittagong rose to prominence under the Buddhist king of the Arakan, the Hindu kings of Bengal, medieval Muslim rulers and Mogul kings. Then Hindus arrived
Bangladesh and Ancient India
For most of its history, the area known as Bangladesh was a political backwater — an observer rather than a participant in the great political and military events of the Indian subcontinent. In ancient times, the area now known as Bangladesh was the eastern portion of a huge river delta region called Bang, where the Ganges and Brahmaputra River systems empty into the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. The region became known as Bengal in more modern times.
The Bengal region was home to a flourishing riverine civilization in the 4th century B.C.. It was conquered by the Maurya empire that reached its height under Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C.. From that time onward, the history of Bengal was part of the wider history of the Indian subcontinent. The oldest surviving remains of this civilization are the ruins of the city of Mahasthan, the ancient Pundranagar, which continued to flourish for more than 1,500 years, even after it was conquered by Hindu Maurya empire. During most of India's classical Hindu period — A.D. 320 to 1000 — Bengal was a loosely incorporated outpost of empires centered in the Gangetic plain. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]
From the 3rd century B.C. through the A.D. 1st millennium, Bengal was ruled by a succession of Buddhist and Hindu rulers.The first great indigenous empire to spread over most of present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh was the Mauryan Empire (ca. 320-180 B.C.), whose most famous ruler was Asoka (ca. 273-232 B.C.). After the decline of the Mauryan Empire the eastern portion of Bengal became the kingdom of Samatata; [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]
Bengal was a tributary state of the Indian Gupta Empire (A.D. ca. 319-ca. 540). Next came Harsha Empire (A.D. 606-47), which drew Samatata into its loosely administered political structure. The disunity following the demise of this short-lived empire allowed a Buddhist chief named Gopala to seize power as the first ruler of the Pala Dynasty (A.D. 750-1150). He and his successors provided Bengal with stable government, security, and prosperity while spreading Buddhism throughout the state and into neighboring territories. Trade and influence were extensive under Pala leadership, as emissaries were sent as far as Tibet and Sumatra.
The Senas, orthodox and militant Hindus, replaced the Buddhist Palas as rulers of a united Bengal until the Turkish conquest in 1202. Opposed to the Brahmanic Hinduism of the Senas with its rigid caste system, vast numbers of Bengalis, especially those from the lower castes, would later convert to Islam.
Bangladesh During the Maurya Ashoka Era
The first great indigenous empire to spread over most of present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh was the Mauryan Empire (ca. 320-180 B.C.), whose most famous ruler was Asoka (ca. 273-232 B.C.). Although the empire was well administered and politically integrated, little is known of any reciprocal benefits between it and eastern Bengal. The western part of Bengal, however, achieved some importance during the Mauryan period because vessels sailed from its ports to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. During the time of the Mauryan Empire, Buddhism came to Bengal, and it was from there that Asoka's son, Mahinda, carried the message of the Enlightened One to Sri Lanka. After the decline of the Mauryan Empire the eastern portion of Bengal became the kingdom of Samatata; although politically independent,it was a tributary state of the Indian Gupta Empire (A.D. ca. 319-ca. 540). [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]
North India's political landscape was transformed by the emergence of Magadha in the eastern Indo-Gangetic Plain. In 322 B.C., Magadha, under the rule of Chandragupta Maurya, began to assert its hegemony over neighboring areas.Chandragupta, who ruled from 324 to 301 B.C., was the architect of the first Indian imperial power — the Mauryan Empire (326-184 B.C.) — whose capital was Pataliputra, near modern-day Patna, in Bihar not so far from Bengal. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Magadha was mentioned in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The four strongest states — Kasi, Kosala, Magadha and Vrjji — were all along the Ganges River. Of those four, Magadha had several advantages that would help it to prevail in the struggle for supremacy. It has risen to power during the reigns of Bimbisara (544 - 491 B.C.) and his son Ajatashatru (491 - 460 B.C.). Bimbisara whose city of Rajagriha (modern Rajgir, near Gaya, Bihar) controlled nearby iron-mines. Bimbisara established dynastic relations by intermarriage with the nobility of neighbouring Kosala and Vrijji, and easily dominated the territory of Vanga to the southeast. He was, however, murdered by his son Ajatashatru in 493 B.C., who established a fort at Pataliputra (Patna), by the Ganga and near to her confluence with the Gandaki, Sona, and Ganghara Rivers. Ajatashatru was also murdered (461 B.C.) by his impatient heir and so too, the next five generations. Magadha expanded to include most of Bihar and much of Bengal with the conquest of Anga
Extending from Afghanistan to Bengal to Mysore, the Mauryan Empire was the Indian subcontinent's first centralized power . By 303 B.C., Chandragupta Maurya (known to the Greeks as Sandracotta) had gained control of an immense area extending to Bengal in the east.
When the A.D. 6th century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang visited India he noticed several Ashokan stupas in the different parts of Bengal. According to legends Ashoka (304-232 B.C., r. 268-232 B.C.) went as far as Tamralipti (Tamluk) in West Bengal to see his son and daughter off to Ceylon. Kalinga, which was conquered by the Emperor, may have mebraced parts of Bengal. The inclusion of Bengal in the Mauryan Empire further receives some confirmation from the Mahasthan (Bogra district) Pillar Inscription, engraved in Brahmi characters of the Mauryan period.
After the Maurya and Ashoka eras, coins indicated the Satavahanas (72 B.C. to A.D. 195) ruled an area that extended to the Bay of Bengal. Kanishka (r. A.D. 127 -147) — the Great Kushan King — ruled a vast empire that comprised Afghanistan, Bactria, Kashgar, Khotan, and Yarkand. His coins are found all over Northern India including Bihar and Bengal.
Bangladesh During the Gupta-Harsha Empire
Bengal was a tributary state of the Indian Gupta Empire (A.D. ca. 319-ca. 540). The Gupta Empire was a great empire Indian civilization expanded into much of Bengal during this time, which was previously a lightly inhabited swampy area. The Gupta ruler Samudragupta (A.D. 335 - 380) focused some attention on the region. Frank E. Smitha wrote in his Macrohistory blog: “Ten years into his rule, Chandragupta lay dying, and he told his son, Samudra, to rule the whole world. His son tried. Samudragupta's forty-five years of rule would be described as one vast military campaign. He waged war along the Ganges plain, overwhelming nine kings and incorporating their subjects and lands into the Gupta Empire. He absorbed Bengal, and kingdoms in Nepal and Assam paid him tribute. In those early times the Ganges was the highway of traffic linking up all the country from Bengal to “Mid India”, and the supremacy of Kanauj over this vast Gangetic region. Among the frontier (pratyanta) states were Assam, Nepal and kingdoms in Bengal.
Chandragupta II (380 - 413) is believed to be have been the subject of an inscription on the Iron Pillar, which stands near Kutb-Minat (Delhi), not far from the village of Mehrauli, which records the exploits of a king named Candra. He is said to have vanquished a combination of his enemies in Vahga (Bengal); perfumed the Southern ocean by “the breezes of his prowess;” But if he is identical with Chandragupta II, as seems quite probable, we have then definite evidence that the Gupta monarch firmly established his supremacy in Bengal, and destroyed the remnants of the Saka and the Kushan power in the northwest, a task which Samudragupta could accomplish only partially.
Kumaragupta I Mahendraditya (414-55 A.D.) was another Gupta ruler. Not much is known of Kumaragupta’s career, but the number and variety of his coins, as well as the wide distribution of the inscriptions of his reign, indicate that he maintained the strength and unity of the empire, which extended from Bengal to Saurastra and from the Himalayas to the Narmada. The inscriptions say Ciratadatta was governor of North Bengal (Paundravardhana-bhukti). Budhagupta was on the throne in 476-77. The inscriptions, discovered at Damodarapur (Dinajpur district), Sarnath (Benares district), and Eran (Saugor district, C.P.) 4 demonstrate that Budhagupta’s authority was acknowledged all over the country from Bengal to Central India. At that time North Bengal was under his Viceroys, Brahmadatta and Jayadatta; His son, Devagupta, formed an alliance with the Shasanka of Bengal.
When the Hunas (Hunas) in invaded India in A.D. 510 A.D., according to a 6th-century CE Buddhist work, the Manjusri-mula-kalpa, Bhanugupta lost Malwa to the "Shudra" Toramana, who continued his conquest to Magadha, forcing Narasimhagupta Baladitya to make a retreat to Bengal. Toramana "possessed of great prowess and armies" then conquered the city of Tirtha in the Gauda country (modern Bengal).
The great Harsha Empire (A.D. 606-47) — a sort of reborn Gupta Empire — drew Bengal-based Samatata into its loosely administered political structure. The disunity following the demise of this short-lived empire allowed a Buddhist chief named Gopala to seize power as the first ruler of the Pala Dynasty (A.D. 750-1150). He and his successors provided Bengal with stable government, security, and prosperity while spreading Buddhism throughout the state and into neighboring territories. Trade and influence were extensive under Pala leadership, as emissaries were sent as far as Tibet and Sumatra.
Bengal and the Medieval Indian Kingdoms
During the medieval period (8th–13th centuries) several independent kingdoms, notably the Palas of Bihar and Bengal, the Sen, the Ahoms of Assam, a later Chola empire at Tanjore, and a second Chalukya dynasty in the Deccan, waxed powerful
The Pratihara dynasty ruled much of Northern India from the mid-8th to the 11th century. Their king Mibira Bhoja (c. 836-85) battled the Palas of Bengal, who "Under the vigorous rule of king Devapala (circa 815-55) had once again launched upon their Imperial schemes. The latter was a leader worthy of his steel, and it is alleged he “brought low the arrogance of the lord of the Gurjaras.” Mahendrapala I (c. 885-910) was Mihira Bhoja’s successor and son. Inscriptions prove that his most noteworthy achievement was the conquest of the greater part of Magadba and North Bengal just in the beginning of his reign.
The Chalukyas were the dominant power in the Deccan region of southern India during A.D. 6th to 8th century. During the A.D. 10th century they regained their power and ruled in the 12th century. The Chalukyas who ruled from Badami were the Western Chalukyas. According to certain epigraphs, they arms penetrated right up to Bihar (Magadha) and Vanga (Bengal) in the north,, but in the absence of any other corroboration it is doubtful if the alleged exploits are founded on fact.
The Chola king Rajendra I (r. 1014–1044 CE) increase Cholan power by defeating rivals in southern India and expanding Cholan territory north. In 1023 CE, Rajendra sent his army north toward the Ganges River and defeated the Bengal kingdom of the Pala. We are told in the Tirumalai (near Polur, North Arcot district) inscription that Rajendra I subjugated Orissa; Kosalainadu (Southern Kosala); ; Ranasura of Takkana-ladarii (South Radha); Govindacandra of Vangaladcsa (Eastern Bengal);Mahipala, the Pala ruler (r. 988–1038) was defeated.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (www.bangladesh.gov.bd), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022