The History of the Bengali Language/Lecture 3

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Section 2

The Geography of Old Bānglā and of other related tracts

In order to fix with some definiteness the land which was the principal home of the non-Aryan Vangas, let us follow the geography of the ancient time, as we find in the Mahābhārata and in the Purāṇas. I am strongly inclined to think, that the eastern portion of the indefinite tract which was once called Kālaka-vana, and which once formed the eastern boundary of Āryāvarta, came to be designated as Jhāḍakhaṇḍa in comparatively later times. It is pretty clear that the name Jhāḍakhaṇḍa came to be associated with the tract which lay to the south of Gaya, to the east of Shahabad, to the south of Bhagalpur and to the west of Bankura and Midnapur. The temple of Baidyanāth at Deoghar in Bengal (now in Bihar), is still considered to be situated in the Jhāḍakhaṇḍa tract, for the priests of Baidyanāth recite a mantra by indicating this geography, in worshipping the image of Baidyanāth. A portion of Jhāḍakhaṇḍa got the name Rāḍha or Lādha as we notice in the Jaina records. The Avāranga Sutta of the Jainas, though it narrates things of Buddhistic and pre-Buddhistic era, was composed at a time which may be regarded recent. According to the accounts of this book, the temple of Baidyanāth is in Rāḍha or Lādha country. The people who inhabited Rāḍha are described to be black-skinned and rude in manners, and are reported to have been fond of robbing the pious Jaina intruders. In the Brahmāṇḍa section of the Bhaviṣya Purāṇa, the whole tract lying to the north of the Dārukeśvara river and extending along the Panchkot hills, has been called the Rāḍha country and the temple of Baidyanāth has been mentioned as existing in that tract.

That the main portion of the Bhagalpur Division was designated as Anga country, is well established now, and there is no need of demonstrating it here. It has also been well ascertained that the Suhma country which had Dāmalipti or Tāmralipta for its capital, must be identified with a very considerable portion of the district of Midnapur. We get in the Mahābhārata, that the five sons of Bali were the progenitors of the allied races of the Angas, the Puṇḍras, the Vangas, the Suhmas, and the Kalingas (Adi, C. IV, 4217-21). All these tribes have been so described in the Mahābhārata, as to indicate that they lived in close proximity to one another. The Puṇḍras have been mentioned as Suhmottaras in the Matsya Purāṇa, and in the Mahābhārata too, the Puṇḍras and the Suhmas have been placed near to each other (Adi, C. XIII, 24, 53). No doubt the Puṇḍras proceeded northward subsequently, and founded Puṇḍravardhan in North Bengal, but their early distribution points to the fact, that they occupied the tract of Bengal which lies to the north of Midnapur.

The account we get of Bali Raja from the Dravidian source should interest us all. The Hindu account is that Śrikriṣṇa by resorting to a godly trick sent Bali, to Pātāla or Nether world. It is interesting that Bali, who was a Daitya, is worshipped in Southern India as an ideal Raja of the good old days, and there is a town by the sea-coast of the name Mahabalipuram over which Bali presides. Bali is called Mābali or Mahābali, and there is a religious festival of high importance to celebrate his memory in the Malayalam tract of the Madras Presidency; this festival is called Onam. It is narrated, that no one ruled the earth with so much justice as Bali did, and all sorts of sins and iniquities were unknown in his time. The song that is sung at the Onam festival, relates these accounts; two lines of it are given here, which purport to say that in Bali's time theft and other crimes were unknown:

Māveli nadathu bajjum kalam
Kalla khedilla kalabhu milla

You can clearly see that it is the Southern country which is our Pātāla, and the Pauranic account relates to the invasion of the country by the Aryans. That Bali was considered to be the forbear of the Vanga people as well as of other allied races, shows that the non-Aryan origin of all these races was fully known to the Aryans. That Bali's queen gave birth to Anga and his brothers, was narrated to Hiuen Tsiang when he was at Monghyr. The feminine form of Bali as Bali-amma, is the name of the principal goddess of the Sinhalese and the Vaeddas of Ceylon; her consort Kande has assumed now the name Skanda because of Tamil-Hindu influence.

Let us now halt to consider a point of ethnic interest. The writer of the passages occurring in the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas as relate to the history of the non-Aryan tribes, did not certainly make a scientific ethnological study of the tribes in question, but the facts narrated above justify us in holding that they carefully observed and noted some important points of agreement and difference between those tribes. The Angas, the Vangas, the Puṇḍras, the Suhmas and the Kalingas were noted in the first place as tribes perfectly distinguishable from one another, and in the second place as peoples closely allied to one another. It was noticed that they were all Nāga-worshippers and that they were all the sons of Bali. Regarding Nāga worship, I may remark in passing, that the story of Behulā commemorates how the new-comers in the lands of the Angas and the Vangas had to accept and venerate the religious cult of the original inhabitants. We can see from the account we now obtain of Bali, that the name of the common ancestor of the tribes under review was not the creation of a fancy of the Aryans. It has been stated in the previous section, that those who proceeded to Southern India from Bengal, and its neighbourhood, had Nāga for their totem, and we have now seen that Bali is still worshipped in the Southern Presidency. The cumulative effect of the whole evidence is in favour of this supposition, that the original inhabitants of Bengal were by race and habits allied to those who are now designated as Dravidians.

The Vangas who were always connected with the Puṇḍras and the Suhmas, must have occupied the tract of country which lay to the east of our modern Burdwan Division. The fact that the Pāṇḍavas conquered Vanga after subverting the Puṇḍras, and led their victorious soldiers to Suhma after devastating Vanga, supports this position fully (M. Bh., Sabhā, XXX, 23-25). We find also in the Raghuvamśa, that Raghu conquered the Vangas after finishing his task with the Suhmas, and planted his victorious banner in the midstream of the Ganges. The popular notion that Vanga, as described by Kālidāsa, should be identified with the modern Eastern Bengal, is erroneous. To clear up the point, I have first to note that in all old records we get the Vangas in close proximity to the Puṇḍras and the Suhmas; we may then refer to the historical fact, that when Suhma lost its old name and became a sub-province with the name Daṇḍabhukti, it became a Bhukti or sub-province of Banga. The Tirumalai inscriptions decide this point clearly and unmistakeably. It has been recorded in the inscriptions (E. I., Vol. 9) that the celebrated Chola Raja first came upon Dakṣiṇa Rāḍha on crossing the northern frontier of Orissa; he then raided Vanga, and at a place in the north of Vanga (not in Barinda, nor in any other province) defeated the then Pāla Raja in a battle, and just after finishing that work came upon Uttara Rāḍha which was the adjoining country. It was from Uttara Rāḍha, i.e., from the tract covered by the districts of Hooghly, Burdwan and Birbhum, that the adventurer proceeded to the coast of the greater Ganges on the other side of which lay Barinda.

What was the extent of this Vanga in olden days, has next to be ascertained. With reference to the geography of the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas, we may say that the main portion of Northern Bengal and some portion of the district of Mymensingh were included in the Prāgjyotiṣa country or Assam, over a portion of which the Kirātas predominated. The Tripura country or the Chittagong Division was no doubt once under the sway of the Telegus of Kalinga, but as the Vangas also extended their influence over Annam in Farther India, their extension in the Tripura country in the dim past cannot be very much doubted. It is highly interesting that not knowing them to be the relics of bygone days, the present ruling chiefs of Tippera use the ensigns of those old rulers who are now almost forgotten in history. The ensign bearing the representation of a fish and the pān or betel-leaf-shaped ensign are used among other ensigns on ceremonial occasions. Let me mention, that fish has always been a subject of veneration and an emblem on the royal banner of a powerful section of the Dravidians, and a broad leaf is the emblem of the Kirātas, who now reside in the wild tracts of Cachar. As to the eastern limit of Vanga, we have obtained a rough and indefinite idea only. We have to approach this point again, after considering some other facts which are important for the history of our language.

In the Vṛhatsamhitā of Barāha Mihira (6th century A.D.), Vanga is mentioned by the name Samataṭa but no definite geography is indicated; all that we know is, that Samataṭa lay between Utkala and Mithilā. This statement tends to show, that even as early as the 6th century A.D., one general name Samataṭa could be used for all the provinces of Bengal, as lay between Orissa and North Bihar. In this connection it is interesting to learn, that in the enumeration of some tribes of minor importance, dwelling in the Rāḍha country on the Bengal frontier, the Purāḍas have designated the tribes as Pravangas. The extension of the name Vanga to the Rāḍha country, is clear in this statement. Let us then refer to the accounts of Hiuen Tsiang who is not much removed in time from Varāha Mihira. The celebrated Chinese traveller went from Champā in Bhagalpur to a place called Kie-chu-ho-khi-lo which was 400 li from Champā to the east. The traveller or pilgrim kept the hilly or jungly tracts of Rajmahal to the right, and proceeded to this place, following the stream of the Ganges. No identification of this place has yet been made, but this country or province appears to have been composed of the northern portion of the Burdwan Division, the whole of the district of Berhampore and a considerable portion of the district of Nadia, since, going from this country eastward and crossing the Ganges after trudging the distance of about 600 li, Puṇḍrabardhan was reached. At this time Kie-chu-ho-khi-lo contained six or seven Buddhistic monasteries and there were 300 Buddhist priests there.[1] It has been stated that the people were fond of learning and were simple and honest. It is reported that the people spoke a dialect of the Midland language. By "Midland" the Magadha country is meant. Existence of ten Hindu temples was also noticed by the traveller. It appears from his description, that the country had then only recently lost its independence and was being governed by the king of a neighbouring country, before Śilāditya Harṣavardhan annexed it to his kingdom. It will be presently seen, that the Rāḍha country was at this time being ruled by Raja Śaśānka or rather by his descendants who were sworn enemies of Harṣavardhan. I think therefore, that the neighbouring Raja who then dominated Kie-chu-ho-khi-lo was, of the family of Śaśānka alias Narendra Gupta. The description that somewhere on the northern portion of this country, not far from the Ganges, was a high tower made of bricks and stones, and that this structure was ornamented with rare sculptures, and on the four faces of the tower there were sculptured figures of the saints, Devas and Buddhas in separate compartments, is of great archaeological interest. Looking to the fact that wild elephants roamed about on its southern frontier, it may be supposed that between Samataṭa (which stretched along the coast of Bay of Bengal) and Kie-chu-ho-khi-lo, lay a tract covered with wild vegetation, which could invite the wild elephants of Rajmahal hills. Who knows that Banagrām (now the headquarters of a sub-division) does not carry in its name the memory of the old physical aspect of the locality?

The description given of Puṇḍravardhan of rather vast area, shows that a very considerable portion of Northern Bengal was then under the influence of the culture of Magadha country, and that this country extended to the frontier of Assam. It is to be noted, that the culture of Magadha which prevailed over all parts of Bengal, was absent in Assam, where Buddhism could not make any impression. This phenomenon partly explains why the Assamese speech was not then exactly identical with that of Northern Bengal. The people of Assam of those days are reported by the traveller to have been "of small stature and of dark-yellow complexion"; this description leads me to think, that the Mongolian element predominated then in Assam, and because of this ethnic character, the language of mid-India became slightly different in Assam. Hiuen Tsiang then goes to Samataṭa of Bengal, after travelling a very long distance from Kamrup. As particulars of that route are not on record, the geography remains incomplete as to the extent of Vanga to the east. But it seems to be implied in a statement, that the hilly tracts of Tippera and Chittagong which were not visited by the traveller, were included in the Samataṭa country, for the traveller speaks of those tracts, when describing the Samataṭa country, as a wild country difficult of access. Another fact is quite clear, that just to the west of Samataṭa was the Suhma country. This tallies exactly with what we inferred regarding the geography of old Bengal from ancient Indian records. It must be specially noted, that the influence of Buddhist priests and Magadha culture were as extensive in Samataṭa as they were in Suhma, Kie-chu-ho-khi-lo, Puṇḍravardhan and Karṇasuvarṇa. The Puṇḍras, the Suhmas, and the Vangas, who were kindred tribes, were dominated by one and the same cultural influence, during the seventh and very likely during the sixth century A.D.

Śaśānka or Narendra Gupta who annexed some portions of Orissa and Ganjam to his empire, had his principal seat at Karṇasuvarṇa in the seventh century A.D. This Karṇasuvarṇa was no doubt located somewhere to the south of the wild tract which stretched forth from the Rajmahal hills, since going 700 li north-west from Tāmralipta, Karṇasuvarṇa was reached. Having narrowed down the limits of different provinces with the help of Hiuen Tsiang's topographical survey, it may be safely asserted that Karṇasuvarṇa was the capital of the Rāḍha country, in the seventh century A.D. The records of moral and intellectual advancement of the people of Karṇasuvarṇa, as left behind by Hiuen Tsiang, justify us in making this inference, that all over the country which forms now the presidency of Bengal, the influence of the Magadha civilization of the seventh century A.D, did effectively and extensively prevail.

I have related several facts which have some bearing upon the province which is now known by the name Orissa; it will be necessary also to relate what relation subsisted between Bengal and Orissa, to explain some points of linguistic unity between the languages of those provinces. I have just now mentioned that Śaśānka alias Narendra Gupta annexed some portions of Orissa, but it must be stated that his influence can only be traced in Kongada (i.e., over the Puri district) and in some parts of Ganjam, where Oria language now prevails. It must be made clear, that the Kalinga country of historical note and the territories of Śaśānka had no connection with the land, which was possessed in ancient time by the tribes which got the names Oḍra and Utkala. With reference to the people of that part of Orissa, which was within the range of Śaśānka's influence, we get this account from Hiuen Tsiang, that with respect to their written characters, they were the same as those of Mid-India, but their language and mode of pronunciation were quite different.

It is a significant fact, that we do not get a well-defined country bearing the name Utkala in the Mahābhārata though the situation of Kalinga to the south of Suhma and Vanga, is rather well defined in many parts of that work. In the Viṣma Parva for instance (IX, 348), the Utkalas have been mentioned as rude people, and nothing has been stated regarding their owning any country in an organised form. Vanga seems to have been in olden times connected with Anga on one side, and with Kalinga on the other; for the Angas, the Vangas, and the Kalingas are found constantly linked together in the Mahābhārata, as people closely allied by race and position. [Vide for instance Drona Parva (Chap. LXX).] In the Purāṇas also the Utkalas have been distinctly mentioned as a rude tribe of very early origin, having no affinity with the races around them. (Vide Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa, Canto LVII, Hari-vamśa, X, 631-32.) From the description given by Kālidāsa in the 4th Canto of the Raghuvamśa, it becomes clear that just on crossing the river Kapisā, the country of the Utkalas was reached. Here too, there is mention of the Utkalas, i.e., of a tribe but not of any country possessed by that tribe. The river Kapisā is the modern Kasāi or Kānsāi, which flows through the southern parts of both Chutia Nagpur and Midnapur. The Utkalas in Kālidāsa's days, had no political organization, for Raja Raghu had not to conquer the country of the Utkalas, and the people only showed the soldiers of Raghu their way leading to Kalinga. Again, in the Purāṇas the Utkalas have been mentioned in the east, near about the Bay of Bengal, and in the west, in connection with the wild tribes of Mekhala of the districts of Raipur and Bilaspur in the Central Provinces. It is also to be noted, that in the Purāṇas, the river Vaitarani is described to be flowing right through the Kalinga country. All these facts taken together lead us to suppose, that the hilly and wild tract of the Utkalas, extended from Nilgiri and Mayurbhanj to the borders of Bilaspur and Raipur, and that the Utkala country lay to the south of the river Kānsāi, and did not extend much to the south beyond the northern portion of the district of Balasore. The sea-board districts of Orissa were then within the Kalinga country, and the whole of the Kalinga country as far as the Godāvari to the south, had the designation of Muḍu (three) Kalinga. This Muḍu Kalinga became Trikalinga in the language of the Aryans, and the people who had their sway over the country, got the name Trikalingas or Telingas or the Telegu people. Thus we see, that a very long and narrow strip of land, extending mainly through hills and forests, was recognised in olden days, as the land of the Utkalas. But about 200 years after the time of Kālidāsa, the political situation was much changed. A considerable portion of the district of Midnapur to the south, was no doubt still then a part of Utkala or Oḍra, but the bulk of the population continued to be the rude Utkalas, whom Hiuen Tsiang describes as uncivilised, tall of stature and of a yellowish black complexion. Some portions of the districts of Balasore and Cuttack, seem to have been included at this time in the Oḍra country, and the Rajas having their seat somewhere in the district of Midnapur (J. R. A. S., N. S., Vol. VI, p. 249) presumably governed the newly formed Utkala country, during the seventh century A.D. That the capital town of Utkala, during the earliest days of Hindu influence, was in Midnapur, is fully supported by the statement of Hiuen Tsiang, that the capital of "U-cha" (Utkala) was over 200 miles to the north of "Kongada" country. It has now been established by the discovery of old inscriptions that, the district of Puri bore the name Kongada in the seventh century A.D., and Śaśānka alias Narendra Gupta of Karṇasuvarṇa was about then its mighty lord. The country of Kalinga became limited at the time to the territories where Telegu is now spoken.


  1. Kuchiākol is a familiar village name in this tract; it is not unlikely that such a name the capital town of this province or political unit bore in the 7th century A.D.