Eastern Regions: Palas, Senas & Sultans, Causes of Conversions & Military Developments in Bengal

The Eastern Regions

Eastern Regions of India

Like Punjab in the northwest, the region of Bengal in the east saw large-scale conversions to Islam[1]. The causes of the Punjab conversions have been discussed earlier…before discussing the causes in Bengal it is appropriate to study the politico-military background of Bengal.

The Palas

In the latter half of the 8th Century CE, while the Pratihars were rising to power in the west and the Rashtrakutas had emerged in the south, the family of Palas came to dominate the east. The first King Gopala was one of the many chieftains in the former kingdom of Gauda that had disintegrated a century ago. To end the prevailing anarchy, the chiefs and people of Bengal elected Gopala to be their sovereign in the light of his military and leadership abilities.

It was an event unique in the history of India and afforded a striking contrast to the rise of the other two contemporary powers—the Rashtrakutas usurped power from their Chalukya overlords while the Pratihars emerged as leaders of a confederacy of clans[2] that defeated the Arab invaders. And unlike the other two, the Palas[3] were devoted to Buddhism, which had first risen to prominence more than a thousand years earlier in this very region.

A running conflict between the Rashtrakutas and the Pratihars created a political vacuum in North India, which was temporarily filled by Dharmapala who led his forces up to Punjab (in the west) and Nepal (in the north), and is said to have held a grand durbar at Kannauj. But these campaigns did not add any lands to the Pala dominions which remained around Radha (West Bengal), Vanga (East Bengal), Magadha (Bihar), and Gopala’s ancestral lands of Varendri (North Bengal). Dharmapala suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Pratihars in a battle fought at Monghyr, deep in his own dominions—but a Rashtrakuta invasion of the Pratihar lands again saved the Palas.

Devpala in the 9th Century repeated his father’s feat by leading an army into Punjab and further north into the lands of Kamboja (near the Indus). But no territory was gained in this campaign—even the neighboring kingdoms of Kamarupa (Assam) and Utkal (Orissa) were only compelled to render tribute. The two successors of Devapala were more religious-minded and in that period the Pratihars annexed both Magadha and Varendri while Kamarupa and Utkal also resumed independence.

To make matters worse feudatories of the Palas also carved out their own states like the Chandras of East Bengal and the Kambojas of Radha—the latter are believed to be descendants of the Kamboja officers and men that had joined the army of Devapala during his campaign in their country near the Indus. A small Pala state was all that was left of the former empire.

More than a century later in 988 CE this small state recovered some of its power under Mahipala. This was the age of the Ghaznavid invasions in the north and of the Chola expansion in the south—Rajendra Chola defeated several kings then ruling in Bengal and took the holy water of the River Ganga to purify his dominions. The later Palas did not reach the power of their forefathers and political unity to the eastern regions was provided by a new family, the Senas.

The Senas and the Sultans

These were feudatories of the Palas and had come from the south (Karnata-Kshatriyas) but became independent around 1050 CE. Vijaysena acquired complete control over Bengal and Bihar and fought with the neighboring kings of Kamarupa and Kannauj (the Gahadvals)—he also established a second capital at Navadwipa (Nadiya). The Sena rulers continued the tradition of tolerance and practiced Shaivism and Vaishnavism while also patronizing other religions. In 1178 Lakshmansena ascended the throne and completed the subjugation of the last Pala kings—interestingly he also fought against Jaichandra Gahadval[4] of Kannauj.

This period coincided with the invasion of Kannauj by Muhammad Ghori (1194)—one of his ambitious Turk officers, Muhammad Bakhtyar Khalji, was posted in the newly-conquered region of Awadh. From this base in 1200 CE he raided the Sena lands and gradually built up his wealth and recruited more soldiers—taking the permission of Qutb-ud-din Aibak he invaded the town of Odantapuri, which had several Viharas (monasteries) that he destroyed and shaven-headed monks (Buddhists) whom he slaughtered. The region was henceforth given the name of Bihar (a corruption of Vihara ). Within a year he entered the Sena capital Nadiya in the guise of a horse-merchant and cleared the way for the 10,000 Turk cavalry that had surreptitiously laid siege to the city.

Lakshmansena abandoned this capital and retreated to eastern Bengal where his descendants continued to resist the Turk incursions for another half-century. By this time the Delhi Turks had become engrossed in the war against the numerous Rajput chieftains in the former kingdoms of Ajmer and Kannauj—from his new capital of Lakhnawati, Khalji and his men sought to establish an independent state but were defeated. Subsequent governors of the eastern regions were appointed by the Delhi Sultans but some founded their own dynasties and others were overthrown by their ministers—what was common between these dynasties was their desire for independence from the Delhi Sultanate.

In the continuing conflict with their overlords in Delhi, the Sultans of Bengal founded new cities further east like Satgaon (Hooghly district) and Sonargaon (Dacca district). They also annexed portions of Sylhet and Tripura and carried out attacks on other regions of the east with little success. The old feudatories of the Palas and Senas must have been part of the Sultanate administration because, in another unique event, one of them usurped power briefly from the Muslim ruler. Raja Ganesa, pronounced Kans in the Muslim records, continued the old administration of Bengal for seven years in the early 15th Century with the help of other Hindu and Muslim nobles[5].

Until the Mughal conquest though, the control of the Sultans remained firm only over the eastern plains of Bengal. But in this region, the people were completely converted to Islam.

Cause of conversions

The large Muslim populations in Punjab and Bengal, as against the lesser proportions in the UP region, which was the center of Islamic power, have been the basis of heated debates from the 19th Century. Qazi Abdul Wadud, in his book The Mussalmans of Bengal, claimed that large numbers of foreign Muslims came to Bengal as soldiers and administrators and that the Pathans in a later age also colonized large areas in Bengal. In his view then the Bengali Muslims were of foreign origin—but the reason why many local Muslims claim foreign origin has been given in this earlier post.

The leftist view, voiced by Richard Eaton, is that ethnic groups only lightly exposed to “Brahmanical culture” converted to Islam. In the northwest, it was the Pathans and the Baloch, in Punjab the Jat clans, and in Bengal, it was the Rajbanshi, Koch, Pod, and Chandal communities. But this does not explain why the same Koch or Rajbansis remained true to their ancestral faith in Cooch Behar, Assam, Tripura? And in the case of Punjab, why did the same Jat clans east of Lahore not convert to Islam?

In fact, the conquest of the Shahi lands (in Punjab) was successfully completed and the conquest of the Sena lands (in Bengal) was also completed by the end of the 13th Century, major resistance ceased and the people were thus forcibly converted to Islam. By contrast, the conquest of Ajmer and Kannauj remained unfinished for a long time—these two kingdoms and the adjoining regions formed the heartland of the Rajput resistance. The entire land was an arena of the “back and forth” battles—the Turks would capture a fort, then lose it to the Rajputs, capture it again, and lose it again[6]. Such contests were repeated in a hundred forts spread across the heart of North India. As has been shown in another post all resistance is linked together, and so in this region, the resistance of villagers was far stronger than in Punjab or Bengal. For these reasons, even though the sword of Islam was active in this region, there were few conversions to Islam because that sword was not successful.

As has been shown in the case of Punjab, only the regions where Hindus were politically dominant and militarily strong did they remain true to their ancestral faith. Politically, eastern Bengal was completely conquered by the Turks but we need to see the reasons why the local warriors could not continue a military resistance? Or why the plains of Bengal had an entirely different history than the plains of Bihar?

Military developments

The renowned historian Jadunath Sarkar, a Bengali himself, wrote[7], “ Bengal has no indigenous race capable of the long-continued exertion, the ready submission to discipline, the concerted action in large bodies, and the cool and steady fighting that are required in resisting the hardier races of invaders .”

This was of course written for a later age because the Palas and the Senas had comparable military power with their contemporaries in other parts of India—what is interesting is the varying composition of this military power. In the Gwalior inscription describing their victory over the Palas, the Pratihars have recorded the Pala army as having dense masses of elephants, horses, and chariots. Chariots! The vehicle of war that had disappeared from most parts of the world was still being used by the rulers of eastern India.

The Arab merchant Sulaiman (850 CE) has recorded that the Pala kings were at continuous war with their neighbors and that they took 50,000 elephants in each campaign. By contrast, the Pratihars are described by the same author as having the best cavalry in India augmented by elephants, camels, and infantry. The Arab writers describe the Rashtrakuta troops as mostly infantry but with units of elephants and cavalry—the latter being imported through the Arab merchants.

Horses have been bred in the relatively dry parts of western and northern India, which was the home of the Pratihars, but were never found in the humid regions of the east, the land of the Palas. That area has been the breeding ground of the best elephants found in India and quite naturally has been home to empires that fielded large squadrons of elephants, beginning with Magadha and the Mauryas. Before the elephants became important, the kingdoms in northern India had relied on chariots, and the eastern empires continued this reliance even though they had to import horses to pull these chariots.

So it isn’t surprising that the Palas a thousand years later had large elephant forces but it is puzzling why they continued using chariots when those horses could have been used to boost their limited cavalry. But this tradition of using chariots continued in the east—the later Palas in the 11th Century defeated the Varman kings of eastern Bengal and took from them chariots and elephants as booty. For this same reason, the cavalry of the Sena kings was very deficient and proved to be their doom against the heavy cavalry and mobile archery of the Turk invaders.

By contrast the kingdoms of Ajmer and Kannauj had adequate cavalry, but they also had large contingents of elephants and infantry—these varying arms proved difficult to coordinate when faced by mobile archery and cavalry maneuvers. But their proficiency in cavalry allowed the Rajputs to continue the resistance from the innumerable forts and strongholds. This did not happen in the east.

The broken remnants of the Sena power continued to resist the Turks who had established their capital in Lakhnawati—in one such battle the Turks are said to have captured a few elephants from the Senas. Concurrent with foreign invasions the Sena Kingdom was also breaking from within, and the Deva dynasty that usurped power from them is said to have cooperated with Sultan Balban against the Turks of Lakhnawati. But they were ultimately defeated, their kingdom was annexed, and their people were converted to Islam.

Some Hindu principalities remained in the western portion of Bengal bordering Orissa and Jharkhand—this region had outcrops of hills covered with jungles. Their military power was inadequate because of the lack of cavalry—they did not even have the resources to maintain elephant forces and consequently, their troops were mostly infantry. These principalities were of no consequence to the Bengal Sultans who fought mostly against outside independent powers like Orissa, Assam, Myanmar, and their own overlords of Delhi. But they were useful in guiding armies through the jungle roads, providing supplies to those armies, and in defending their own homes from invaders. Late in the 17th Century Shova Singh, the Zamindar of Chatwa-Barda in the Medinipur district plundered the lands of his neighbors and the Mughal territories before he was killed and his army defeated by the Mughal prince Azim-ush-shan.

So even when politically inconsequential, these principalities at least had the minimal military strength to keep their own people free. For this reason, people in the western areas of Bengal remained with their ancestral faith and traditions.

Under the Sultans the forts of the region, though built of mud or clay, were effective in design in repelling invaders. The Rajputs in upper India adapted to the improved construction of forts that had taken place in Muslim and Christian lands and built some magnificent forts of their own in this period, but the indigenous Bengalis in the east could not do the same. The Bengal Sultans also adapted to the use of naval flotillas in the numerous rivers, and in defensive wars against armies from upper India or in the invasions of Assam—these naval wars will be described later. The Turks in Bengal also adapted the use of elephants in their own armies as they had done earlier in Punjab and Delhi.

It remains to study the use of infantry. Jadunath Sarkar again wrote “ the army of the Nawabs of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa…was filled entirely with Afghans and Hindu foot-musketeers of Buxar, with a sprinkling of Sayyids of Barha…and Bahelia musketeers from Awadh .” In other words, the indigenous Bengalis did not form any part of the army of the Nawabs or of the British who succeeded them. On the other hand, Hindus from Bihar and UP dominated both the Nawab’s and the British infantry—which again brings up the question of why the plains of Bihar were different from the plains of Bengal when both were under the same rulers?

Credits: Original Post by Airavat Singh on his blog, "Horses and Swords"

  1. The eastern portion of Bengal and parts of Assam are today’s Islamic state of Bangladesh. ↩︎

  2. The other clans were the Guhilots, Chauhans, Parmars, and Chaulukyas. ↩︎

  3. The descendants of Gopala (cow-protector) turned the latter part of his name into a hereditary family surname. In the same way as the descendants of Chandra Gupta had made Gupta a hereditary surname in an earlier age. ↩︎

  4. Jaichandra’s contemporary Prithviraj fought against the Muslims, the Chaulukyas of Gujarat, and the Chandellas of Kalinjar (in Madhya Pradesh state). In a later work, Jaichand and Prithviraj were considered enemies whose “infighting” caused their defeats against the Turk invaders! ↩︎

  5. But the fact that he was not a Muslim was repugnant to a local Muslim saint, Nur Qutb-ul-Alam, who called on the neighboring Sultan of Jaunpur to invade Bengal and “save Islam”. Raja Ganesa met the saint who agreed to ward off the invasion only after Ganesa’s son converted to Islam and became Sultan Jalal-ud-din. ↩︎

  6. In another version of these “back and forth” battles the Turks would fit out a large army and besiege a Rajput fort. Failing to conquer the fort they would impose tribute and march away, and immediately the Rajputs would stop payment of that tribute, forcing the Turks to again go through the same cycle with little hope of ultimate success. ↩︎

  7. Fall of the Mughal Empire, Volume I. ↩︎