Ancient History of West Bengal

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: September 13th, 2023

The territory of Bengal holds significance since ancient times. Bengal in earlier times had both the present Bengal and East Bengal (Bangladesh) in its territory.  The presence of vast resources and its strategic significance this region has been under the purview of many invaders from ancient times. Different sects of people came and established their estates, including Aryans in the post-Vedic period. Therefore, the history of West Bengal dates back to over four millennia to the Chalcolithic Age.

The territory of Bengal holds significance since ancient times. Bengal in earlier times had both the present Bengal and East Bengal (Bangladesh) in its territory.  The presence of vast resources and its strategic significance this region has been under the purview of many invaders from ancient times. Different sects of people came and established their estates, including Aryans in the post-Vedic period. Therefore, the history of West Bengal dates back to over four millennia to the Chalcolithic Age.

Ancient History of West Bengal

Brief Etymology of Bengal

The first mention of the word Banga is found in Mahabharata. Harivamsha Vanga was one of the adopted sons of King Vali who founded the Vanga Kingdom. The Vanga Kingdom was located in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, comprising part of West Bengal, India and present-day modern Bangladesh. Vanga and Pundra were two tribes in Bangladesh in ancient times.  The region of Bengal was also known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Gangaridai. Some scholars believed that the origin of the name ‘Banga’ is derived from ‘Bong Tribe’.

Ancient Bengal

‘Bengal’ finds its mention in the old epic of Mahabharta, as ‘Vanga’. At that time, the territory was divided into smaller kingdoms and ruled by chieftains. The ancient records in Vedic literature reveal that the region was inhabited by several groups of people, belonging to various races. The Bengal region cradled by the Himalayas and open to the sea at one side has its prominent role in shaping the history of India. The state regarded as ‘West Bengal’ immediately after the partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947 (and considered as the province of Bengal in British India).

Pre-historic Bengal:

The Stone Age remnants have been found in Bengal that dates back 20,000 years. The pre-history of West Bengal includes the Paleolithic period, Mesolithic period, Neolithic period and Chalcolithic period.

a) Palaeolithic period: There are 162 palaeolithic sites in this state. The majority of the lower Paleolithic sites have been reported from Radh plains and are located on the foothills, valley slopes and river banks. The tools in this region were carved from the pebbles of quartz and quartzite.

Notable sites include- Egara Mail (Burdwan), Parihati, Mohanpur, Satbati, Tarapheni reservoir bridge (all in Midnapore), Nakbindhi, Patina, Jibdharipur (Birbhum), Jagannathpuri etc.). Artefacts include- backed blades, spearheads etc. and were made by green quartzite, chert, quartz, sandstone etc.

b) Mesolithic period: Only three sitesBirbhanpur in Burdwan district, Paruldanga in Birbhum district and Chamargora in Midnapore district have been excavated. Artefacts include spears, scrapers, agricultural tools etc. and were made of quartz, quartzite, fossil wood etc.

c) Neolithic period: Eighty-four sites have been identified in West Bengal. The nature and distribution of Neolithic records in West Bengal suggest two focal areas of Neolithic culture. The sites include Himalayan foothills comprising Kalimpong and adjacent Sikkim state and the plateau fringe area comprising the districts of Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia, Burdwan and Birbhum.

Note: The Neolithic culture of plateau differs from that of the Himalayan foothill area as the earlier tools possess distinct grey and pale ceramics. 

d) Chalcolithic period: The first Copper Age or Chalcolithic age site was discovered on the bank of Ajay river in the East Bardhaman district of West Bengal. It dates back to 1600 BC. From these excavations, it was revealed that well-planned towns were built. The roads were made of stones, gravels and clay with the combination of water. Copper tools were also used for agriculture and hunting by pre-historic people. Pre-historic sites have been found concentrated in South-Western part of West Bengal.  

Vedic Period

There is no reference to Bengal in Rigveda. But archaeological records suggest that there was a well-developed culture in Bengal even before the advent of the Aryan settlement. Primitive inhabitants in Bengal were different in ethnicity and culture from the Vedic people and are regarded as Dasyus (Pundras).

Scriptures suggest that Bengal was divided into many small kingdoms – Vanga (southern Bengal), Pundra (Northern Bengal), Suhma (Western Bengal). Anga, Harikela and Samatata kingdoms. Mahabharata mentions Bengali kings who were defeated by Bhima. Kalidasa mentions that Raghu defeated a coalition of ‘Vanga’ kings.

Post-Vedic period

Post-Vedic era starts from the time when the Aryans settled on the land of Bengal. Subsequently, the 16 Mahajanapadas were consolidating themselves in the Post-Vedic period. These were also quoted as in Buddhist text called Anguttara Nikaya as 16 great nations. The 16 Mahajanapadas are Anga, Kosala, kasha, Magadha, Videha, Malla, Chedi, Vatsa, Kuru, Panchal, Matsya, Surasena, Asmaka, Avanti, Gandhara and Kamboja. Among these Anga and Magadha were sited in Bengal and symbolise the Post-Vedic era in Bengal. In a significant development of events, recently a third-century civilisation beneath the surface of Gobardhanpur in Pathar Pratima Block, Sundarbans was discovered. The place has remnants of cauldrons and pots that would have been used to make herbal medicines. The artefacts include terracotta human and animal figurines dating back to pre and early centuries of the Christian era.

Prominent ancient kingdoms in West Bengal:

  1. Vanga Kingdom

Originated in Bengal, this kingdom was an ancient kingdom, and its contemporary neighbouring states included Suhma, Anga Pundravardhana, Samatata or Harikela. The Boundary of the Vanga Kingdom formed by Padma and Bhagirathi rivers in the West, North and East and the Bay of Bengal bounded the South. The founders of Angas, Vangas, Kalingas, Pundras and Suhmas shared a common ancestry. They were all adopted sons of a king named Vali Or Bali, born by a sage named Gautama Dirghatamas.

  1. Anga Kingdom

Anga was an early kingdom covering parts of Bengal and modern central Bihar state. Its capital was Champa (formerly known as Malini). Anga rulers were all descended from KingBali. According to the Mahabharata, Duryodhanamadehis friend KamaKingofAnga. The Ramayana mentions Anga as the place in which Lord Shiva burned Kamadeva, the god of love to death.

  1. Pundra Kingdom

It was an Eastern kingdom located in West Bengal. This group of people was led by King Pundravardhana, who had his territory from North Bengal to the land which is now under Bangladesh. Pundra belonged to the warrior Kshatriya tribes. The Pundra dynasty did not conform to the Vedic culture of the period. One of the legendary leaders of Pundra dynasty was Paundraka Vasudeva. He united the three regions, i.e. Pundra, Vanga and Kirataÿ further entered into an alliance withJarasandha of Magadha.

  1. Suhmas Kingdom

The earliest reference to the Suhmas and their country is found in the ‘Acharanga Sutra’ of the Jainas belonging to the 6th century BCE. Regarding the origins of the Suhmas, there are many traditional and mythical stories recorded in the early texts. In the Mahabharata, it is stated that the Suhmas originated from Suhma, the son of Bali. Suhmas were spread over a large territory which included parts of the area covered by the modern districts of Burdwan, Hooghly, Midnapore, Nadia, portions of Murshidabad and also of 24-Parganas, i.e. extending upto the sea. In the land lying on West of the Bhagirathi extending upto the sea was included within the territorial jurisdiction of the Suhma country wherein lived the Suhmas.

  1. Harikela Kingdom

Harikela kingdom encompassed much of the Eastern regions of the Bengal in the Indian sub-continent. There are numerous references to the kingdom in historical texts as well as archaeological artefacts, including silver coinage. Arab traders recognised Harikela (known as Harkand in Arabic) as the coastal regions of Bengal in the early period. In 10th century CE, Harikela rulers, were defeated by Chandra rulers.

  1. Samatata Kingdom

Samatata, an ancient Indian region in South-Eastern Bengal finds its earliest reference in the Allahabad Prashasti. Samatata boundaries were well defined by the mountains of Tripura and Arakan in the East and the Meghna (the combined waters of the Padma, Meghna, and Brahmaputra rivers) in the West. Not much is known about this kingdom. It was ruled by Buddhist kings in the late 7th century. Chinese travellers like Xuan Zang andYijing and Romangeographer Ptolemy mentioned about this kingdom in their writings.

  1. Gauda Kingdom

Gauda kingdom was a Hindupower during the late classical period on the Indian sub-continent, which originated in the present-day region of Bengal. The citadel of Gauda served as the capital of the Gauda kingdom. KingShashanka, first created the separate political entity ina unified Bengal called Gauda. Shashanka was a strong ruler who developed Bengal’s architecture and calendar. He is famous for oppressing Buddhist communities and driving them out of Bengal. Shashanka’s capital Karnasuvarna is now known as Murshidabad. It was during the rule of Shashanka that Bengalwitnessed a flourishing period. After his death, Shashanka was succeeded by his son, Manava who ruled only for eight months.

  1. Nanda Dynasty

During the 4th century BCE, the Nanda dynasty originated from the region of Magadha in ancient India and lasted between 345-321 BCE. At its greatest extent, the empire ruled by the Nanda dynasty extended from Bengal in the East to the Punjab region in the West. The rulers of this dynasty were famed for the great wealth which they accumulated. Jaina, Buddhist and Puranic sources stated that the Nanda Kings were nine in all. Mahapadma Nanda and Dhana Nanda were famous rulers of this dynasty.

  1. Mauryan Dynasty

It came into existence in 322 BCE when Chandragupta Maurya established his rule around Magadha. The Mauryan empire was one of the world’s largest empires in its time and the largest ever in the Indian sub-continent including Bengal. The empire was expanded into India’s Central and Southern regions by the emperors Chandragupta and Bindusara. The entire region of Bengal came under the Mauryan empire. After the Kalinga War, the Empire experienced nearly half a century of peace and security under Ashoka.

  1. Gupta Dynasty

The Gupta Dynasty (320 to 550 CE) was an ancient Indian empire, founded by Srigupta covered much of the Indian sub-continent including Bengal. A portion of Northern or Central Bengal has been the home ofGuptas at that time which is evident from the writings of Buddhist MonkYijing of around 690 CE. The Poona copper inscription ofPrabhavati Gupta, daughter of Chandragupta, describes Maharaja Srigupta as the founder of the Gupta dynasty. Ghatotkacha was a pre-imperial Gupta KinginNorthern India, the son of Maharaja Srigupta, who started the Gupta dynasty. He ruled from 280-319 CE. Chandragupta I, was a major king of the Gupta empire around 320 CE. As the ruler of the Gupta empire, he is known for forging alliances with many influential families in the Ganges region. Samudragupta was the ruler of the Gupta empire, and successor to Chandragupta I. Samudragupta was the third ruler of the Gupta dynasty. His reign included whole Bengal and Assam. Chandragupta II was also known as Vikramaditya and was one of the most powerful emperors of the Gupta empire in India. His rule spanned 380-415 CE during which the Gupta Empire reached its peak.

  1. Malla Dynasty

It came into existence in694 CE. The Western District (Bankura) in modern-day West Bengal was once known as Mallabhum, the land of the Mallas. The Alalia kings ruled the Western provinces of Bengal from the 7th century, and their dynasty can be traced to this date. Some prominent Alalia kings are AdiAlalia (694-710), Jay Malla (710-720), Benu Malla (720-733), Kinu Malla (733-742), IndraMalla (742-757), etc. Alallabhum was the kingdom ruled by the Alalia kings ofBishnupur. Their last king Kalipada Singha Thakur became the king of Mallabhum in 1930 an ruled till his death in 1983.

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