- For the breed of cat, see Bengal cat; for the tiger, see Bengal Tiger; for the American football franchise, see Cincinnati Bengals
Bengal, known as Bango (Bengali:বঙ্গ), Bangla (বাংলা), Bangodesh (বঙ্গদেশ), or Bangladesh (বাংলাদেশ) in Bengali, is a region in the northeast of South Asia. Today it is mainly divided between the independent country of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, although some regions of the previous state of Bengal (during local monarchial regimes and British rule) are part of the Indian states of Bihar, Tripura and Orissa.
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The first Buddhist Pala king of Bengal came to power in 750 in Gaur by election. The dynasty's most powerful kings, Dharampala (reigned 775-810) and Devapala (reigned 810-850) united Bengal and made the Pala family one of the most important dynasties in ninth-century India. Internecine strife during the reign of Narayanpala (reigned 854-908) and administrative excesses led to the decline of the dynasty.
A brief revival of the kingdom under Mahipala I (reigned 977-1027) ended in battle against the powerful, South Indian Chola kingdom. The rise of the Chandra dynasty in southern Bengal expedited the decline of the Palas, and the last Pala king, Madanpala, died in 1161.
The Malla dynasty emerged in Bengal in the seventh century, although they only rose to prominence in the 10th century under Jagat Malla who moved his capital to Vishnupur. Unlike the Buddhist Palas and Chandras, the Hindu Mallas worshipped first the Hindu god Shiva, then the Hindu god Vishnu. The Mallas built temples and spectacular religious monuments during their rule in Bengal.
The Turkic invasion of India (including Bengal) came in the early 13th century. The invaders defeated the Sena king Laxmansena at his capital, Nabadwip in 1203 (1204?) The Deva family — the last Hindu dynasty to rule in Bengal — ruled briefly in eastern Bengal, although they were suppressed by the mid-fourteenth century.
During the early Muslim period, the former kingdom became known as the Sultanate of Bangala, ruled intermittently from the Sultanate of Delhi. The chaotic shifts in power between the Afghan and Turkish rulers of that sultanate came to an end when Moghul rule became established in Bengal during the sixteenth century.
In 1534, the Afghan Sher Shah Suri, or Farid Khan — a man of incredible military and political skill — succeeded in defeating the superior forces of the Mughals under Humayun at Chausa (1539) and Kannauj (1540). Sher Shah fought back and captured both Delhi and Agra as he established the most powerful Bengali kingdom that would ever exist, stretching far into Panjab. Sher Shah's administrative skill showed in his public works, including the Grand Trunk Road connecting Sonargaon in Bengal with Peshawar in the Hindu Kush. Sher Shah's rule ended with his death in 1545, although even in those five years his reign would have a powerful influence on Indian society, politics, and economics.
Shah Suri's successors lacked his administrative skill, and quarrelled over the domains of his empire. Humayun, who then ruled a rump Mughal state, saw an opportunity and in 1554 seized Lahore and Delhi. Humayun's death in 1556 led to the accession of Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, who defeated the Karani rulers of Bengal in 1576 and ruled through governors. Akbar exercised progressive rule and oversaw a period of prosperity (through trade and development) in Bengal and northern India.
Bengal's trade and wealth so impressed the Moghuls that they called the region the "Paradise of the Nations". Administration by governors appointed by the court of the Mughal Empire court (1575-1717) gave way to four decades of semi-independence under the Nawabs of Murshidabad, who respected the nominal sovereignty of the Mughals in Delhi. The Nawabs granted permission to the French East India Company to establish a trading post at Chandernagore in 1673, and the British East India Company at Calcutta in 1690.
When the British East India Company began strengthening the defences at Fort William (Calcutta), the Nawab, Siraj Ud Daulah, at the encouragement of the French, attacked. Under the leadership of Robert Clive, British troops and their local allies captured Chandernagore in March 1757 and seriously defeated the Nawab on June 23 1757 at the Battle of Plassey, when the Nawab's soldiers betrayed him. The Nawab was assassinated in Murshidabad, and the British installed their own Nawab for Bengal and extended their direct control in the south. Chandernagore was restored to the French in 1763. The Bengalis attempted to regain their territories in 1765 in alliance with the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, but were defeated again at the Battle of Buxar (1765).
The center of northern Indian culture and trade shifted from Delhi to Calcutta when the Mughal Empire fell. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 replaced rule by the Company with the direct control of Bengal by the British crown.
A centre of rice cultivation as well as fine cotton called muslin and the world's main source of jute fibre, Bengal, from the 1850s became one of India's principal centres of industry, concentrated in the capital Kolkata (known as Calcutta under the British, always called 'Kolkata' in the native tongue of Bengali) and its emerging cluster of suburbs. Most of the population nevertheless remained dependent on agriculture, and despite its leading role in Indian political and intellectual activity, the province included some very undeveloped districts, especially in the east. In 1877, when Victoria took the title of "Empress of India", the British declared Calcutta the capital of the British Raj.
India's most populous province (and one of the most active provinces in freedom fighting), in 1905 Bengal was divided by the British rulers for administrative purposes into an overwhelmingly Hindu west (including present-day Bihar and Orissa) and a predominantly Muslim east (including Assam). Indian nationalists regarded this as a way of dividing a Bengali population united by language and history. Following a violent agitation, the British reunited east and west Bengal in 1912, and made Bihar and Orissa a separate province.
As partition of British India into Hindu and Muslim dominions approached in 1947, Bengal again split into the Hindu state of West Bengal and a Muslim region of East Bengal under Pakistan (later renamed East Pakistan in 1958). East Pakistan (East Bengal) later rebelled against Pakistani military rule to become independent republic of Bangladesh, literally "Land of Bengal", after a war of independence against the Pakistani army in 1971. The western part of Bengal, now the state of West Bengal, remains a part of India. However, culturally and sociologically, the two segments of Bengal share considerably more than just a single language.
Bengal experienced two devastating famines costing millions of lives in 1770 and 1943. However, the people of Bengal have been able to overcome such disasters and, some would say, rebuild their land in the fashion the Nobel Laureate Bengali poet Tagore described as "Golden Bengal".
Maps during British rule on external sites
Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at University of Texas Libraries
- India 1700–1792 from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923
- India 1760 from The Public Schools Historical Atlas edited by C. Colbeck. Longmans, Green, and Co. 1905
- India 1882 from A Dictionary Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation by J.R. M'Culloch. Longmans, Green and Co. London, 1882