It was a pleasant afternoon in the mid December of Kolkata. We came to our home town from Delhi for vacation. I was sitting in the balcony, reading a book, and watching the butterflies play in our garden. Coming from the busy life of Delhi it was a luxury, but here it was life as usual. This lazy careless elegance is what makes this place City of Joy. With plenty of time in hand, I took this opportunity to travel on the trails of Bangla’s, or Vanga as it was called, past. Lost amidst this laziness is a past filled with power, bravery and bloodshed.
The first recorded history goes back to the time of Mahabharata when Vanga was said to be ruled by Karna who fought against the Pandavas. Later, Prince Vijaya Simha of Vanga Kingdom conquered Sri Lanka in 544BC and named it Sinhala. They also established colonies in Malay Archipelago and Siam (in modern Thailand) as early as 2500 years ago. Some Indians do take pride in the fact that they never colonized the world. Their pride is slightly misplaced.
Ruins of Gangaridai Empire
My journey begins 2300 years ago when Alexander the Great stood at the corridors of India. After he annexed the Persian Empire and the western fringes of India he eyed the riches of Eastern India. According to the writings of Greek authors like Megasthenes and Ptolemy, Alexander retreated fearing a valiant attack from the joint forces of Nanda and Gangaridai Empire (or the Ganga Empire/Vanga Empire). Gangaridai was the most powerful empire in India at that time possessing an army of “20,000 horses, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots and 4,000 elephants trained and equipped for war”. When I heard that the ruins of the empire have been excavated from a small village called Berachampa, just ~35kms from where I live I could not hold back. It took me longer than I thought to reach the place due to the pot hole filled roads, but it was worth the drive. When I stood on the mound below which lay the walls of the ancient fort I could feel the vibrant city. West Bengal government has applied to make this place a world heritage site, a museum is also planned. The place has a continuous sequence of cultural remains from 400BC to 12th century Pala Period, including the Gupta Empire who finally conquered the land from Gangaridai Empire.
My interest in history took me to Malda where the first political entity of Vanga was being created by the controversial king Shashanka around 590 AD. The start of Bengali calendar falls in his reign, and was probably created by him. He took back the kingdom from Gupta dynasty. He fought a major battle with powerful Gupta king Harshavardana and checked the latter’s eastward march. Chinese traveler Hsuen Tsang mentions an ancient Buddhist university called Raktamrittika in Karnasubarna that flourished under the rule of Hindu king Shashanka. 10kms from Baharampur lays the ruins of Raktamrittika. It is a less known place, but a must see if you visits Murshidabaad. The ruin is a testimony of the king’s tolerance of different religions even though history mentions otherwise. But then, the history was written by the people of Gupta dynasty, against whom Shashanka competed.
Rajbari in Gaur
In 750 AD Gopala, a Buddhist, won the first democratic election in South Asia since the Mahajanapadas and became the king of Vanga. It marked the beginning of the great Pala Empire. It is often known as the golden period of Bengal. As I went around Malda visiting the ruins of old monuments I stumbled upon a recently excavated site in Gaur that locals call as Raj Bari. Locals say that it is older that the rule of Pathans. Research is still going on about the date. When I went there I wondered if it is a Buddhist site. The ruins looked so similar to the ones in Sanchi, Nalanda and Karnasubarna that I could not help thinking that they must belong to the Buddhist Pala Empire.
Ruins of the Pathans
The Buddhist Empire was followed by the Hindu Sena (11th-12th century) and Deva (12th-13th century) Dynasty. The Hindu dynasties were finally defeated by first independent Muslim ruling dynasty of Bengal, the Ilyas dynasty (14th-15th century). The monuments of Ilyas dynasty are well maintained in Malda and worth a visit. Later Vanga came under the Mughal rule and finally under the Europeansuntil independence. A mix of Mughal and British architecture is found in Murshidabaad.
Looking back, Bengal is not just a blend of Mongoloids, Aryans and Dravidians; it is also a mixture of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Yet, when you look at a Bengali you cannot easily separate them because they have got mixed so evenly. We all love our ‘Maach-Bhat’.