“Who are we?” is that ever present reverberating question lingering in the corners of our minds.
It is definitely a long story to tell; and an acceptable first question instead of “who we are”, would be: where should we begin?
Like many philosophical dilemmas, this question also has a simple answer: let us begin from the beginning.
Assuming Darwin to be correct, let us begin from when modern humans evolved from our brethren “apes”. According to the Recent African Origin (ROA) model, anatomically modern humans, or homo sapiens sapiens, evolved in Africa, more specifically and arguably in Ethiopia, around 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. These bright minded good looking fellows felt adventurous and soon began migrating. Some believe that around 60,000 years ago they crossed the Red Sea into Yemen and some say they crossed through Egypt into northern Middle East. Their advent commenced, and with passage of time and land they soon reached the soil that we now call Bangladesh. A quaint timeline of the sequence of events is described below:
the Aryans and the Janapadas, 7th Century BC
Bangladesh thereafter faced an influx which created a melting-pot of the ancients: the Proto-Australoids from Africa, Mongoloids from the East namely Tibet and Burma and the Dravidians from Southern India, to name a few. The latest of the arrivals were the Aryans; with their fairer skin, towering height, lengthy noses, Sanskrit language, iron and horses, they reached Bengal around 900 BC. The different races and their cultures mixed and mingled, mated and bundled until the broad package of the people that we are today was finally delivered.
During the age of the Ramayana, 7th to 6th century BC, Bengal is believed to have been divided into six territorial units, each representing a janapada or human settlement: Vanga in the south containing Khulna, Pundra in the north and north-west occupying Bogra, Gaud in the middle-west containing the famous Murshidabad, Samatata in the middle-east enclosing Comilla and Noakhali, Harikela in the east identified with Chittagong and Sylhet and also Rard containing West Bengal.
Pundranagar and its Descendants, 3rd Century BC
Sadly, not much is known regarding ancient Bengal till the 3rd Century BC, when the great Mauryan Dynasty was at rule giving birth to the city of Pundranagar (locally more known as Mohasthangarh), home of the Pundurus, located in Shibganj, Bogra. Before the arrival of the Aryans, Pundurus were the natives of the region. Founded by Chadragupta Maurya (a name that should ring a bell from old school texts), Pundranagar also saw the reign of Ashoka the Great.
What makes this venue so amazing is that it is not only the recorded earliest urban settlement of Bangladesh with civilization ranked side by side with that of Athens, Babylon, Egypt and of the Assyrians by many historians, but it also was the home to civilizations following various religions – Buddhism flourished here during the time of Ashoka, Hinduism stepped in during the strict reign of Pashuram, and Islam settled in after the great battle between Pashuram and Shah Balkhi Mahisawar, an interesting battle shrouded with myths that is sadly not too famous. I will ascribe the story the below as brief as possible.
Mahasthan Side-Stories: Pashuram and the Well of Life
Jumping a little in the timeline, during the reign of Pashuram in about the 13th century (a little after Bakhtiyar Khilji’s attack on Bengal), Hindu was still the widespread religion of Mahasthan and the killing of cows was banned. Evidently, as the story goes, there used to be a Muslim man named Borhanuddin. He did not have any children and he prayed to God that if he ever has any child, he will sacrifice a cow. Months later, he had a son, and keeping his word, he secretly sacrificed a cow and buried its remains. However, the locals saw the incident and reported so to the king. Pashuram called upon Borhanuddin who, on inquiry, told the truth to the king. Pashuram furious, took away Borhanuddin’s son and sacrificed him to the Hindu God, Kali.
During that time period, Islam was being preached in parts of Bengal and Muslim rule was gradually taking over. Borhanuddin, reclaimed his son’s dead body and went to a Muslim council, and pleaded for justice. Consequently, Shah Sultan went to Mahasthan to preach Islam and lore has it that Shah Sultan arrived via the river Padma, riding a great fish, giving him the Mahisawar title which is a Sanskrit word meaning “man who rides a fish”. Historians however think he was just riding a boat shaped like a fish. Boring people. As Sultan laid down his prayer mat on a hillock, Pashuram, furious that anyone would dare openly practice Islam on his land, declared war.
The battle began and it is at this point that the lore of Jiyat Kundu, also called the Well of Life is first mentioned. Tradition ascribes that King Pashuram resurrected his dead soldiers with the water from this well during the war with Shah Sultan and his followers, which is definitely a handy thing to have at time of war. Sultan soon learned about this well and polluted it by dropping a piece of beef inside the well with the aid of a kite. Supposedly, the well’s water then lost its power and slowly the armies of Pashuram diminished till Shah Sultan defeated the king using his staff. Pashuram was not killed but he fled and Sultan preached Islam in Mohasthan till his death. His tomb remains here and has been greatly renovated, and a mosque has been built where Shah Sultan had first laid his prayer mat.
Much later, during the 1760s, Mohasthan was also the spot for the Fakir Sannyashi Movement against the British and the Zamindars led by Fakir Majnu Shah. So a part of the social fight for justice is also linked to this venue.
the power of Shashanka and the Unruly Reign, 6th Century AD
Coming back to our timeline, the next significant watermark in the history of our land appears in 6th century AD during the kingdom of Gaud ruled under the later Guptas. By 7th century however, Shashanka, the acknowledged first most important king of Bengal, captured power in Gaud and for the first time, a king of Bengal extended his suzerainty far beyond the province of Bengal.
During that time, northern India was ruled by a powerful king by the name of Harshavardhana, and it was no simple feat that Shashanka was able to maintain his sovereignty against such a powerful adversary. He could be in many ways considered the predecessor of the great territorial expanders that followed later, such as Dharmapala and Devapala. Shashanka’s capital was named Karnasuvarna, which is in present day Murshidabad of West Bengal.
Shashanka’s death was followed by a period of havoc and anarchy from 650 AD to 750 AD – a situation that predominantly arises when a powerful ruler passes without any apt descendant. The Pal dynasty (that followed soon after) ascribed this period as the rule of Matsyanyayam. Matsyanyayam is a proverb meaning that the large fish always swallows the smaller ones when punishment is kept in abeyance, as such was the state of affairs. Out of this chaos came out a new hero possessing a name that we nowadays make fun of – Gopal, and he founded the Pal Dynasy.
Advent of Sompura Mahivihara and Religious Tolerance, 8th Century AD
The Pala Dynasty ruled for 18 generations and is considered to be the most glorious period in the history of Bengal. A devout of Buddhism, the second king, Dharmapala built Sompura Mahivihara, locally known as Paharpur at present day Naogaon in Rajshahi. According to Tibetan sources, five great Mahaviharas or Monasteries acting as universities for teaching Buddhism stood out during the time and Somapura Mahavihara is one of them. Interestingly, the five monasteries formed a network, all of them being under state supervision and their existed a system of co-ordination among them. They were an interlinked group of institutions, and it was apparently common for great scholars to move easily from position to position among them (kind of the Ivy League in America). This shows the depth the Pala Dynasty had achieved in terms of education.
The Pala Dynasty also developed an amazing level of religions tolerance. Interesting to note is that while the rulers of the dynasty were preacher of Buddhism, majority of the population at one point were Hindu followers, and there is no record of an instance during the Pala Dynasty which records religious intolerance. People following the two religions coexisted beautifully along with Pala Dynasty’s strong and stable governance.
Terracotta art flourished during this timeframe and we here we also find the predecessor art form of the beautiful Hindu terracotta plaques that followed later on. The power of the Palas started to decline during the end of 11th century and that is when Hemanta Sen grabbed power and began the Sena Dynasty, which was to become the last Hindu Dynasty in Bengal.
End of Religious Tolerance to Hindu Orthodoxy, 12th Century AD
Hemanta Sen was part of the Pala Dynasty and usurped power and made himself king in 1095 AD. His successor Vijay Sen laid the foundations of the dynasty, and had an unusually long reign of over 60 years. This period is considered as the revival of Hinduism in Bengal, but accordingly it also saw the decline of Paharpur. Ballal Sen, successor of Vijay Sen, wanted to establish a Hindu orthodox social order with caste rigidity in a land which had long lived a social milieu of Hindu-Buddhist amity. This led to the decline of Buddhism in Bengal, and along with the decline of religious tolerance which is still a major cause of suffering.
Major monuments of this period include the Dhakeshwari temple, the capital temple of our country. Ballal Sen is accredited to the building of this temple and ironically the religious tolerance that the Sena Dynasty had destroyed was also the reason of great ache of the temple. During the 1971 liberation war, the temple attendants were tortured and killed and the temple was used as an ammunition storage area. This period also saw the development of Sanskrit literature and sculptural art.
During the reign of Laksman Sen, Bakhtiyar Khilji made his appearance into Bengal and the spread of Islam slowly dominated. The rest of the advents of our lineage will be covered in Part II of this historical account. Stay tuned.
Illustrations by Ehsanur Raza Ronny.