After the death of the Gauda King Shashanka, Bengal passed through a period of chaos and confusion for almost a century. The internal disorder made Bengal vulnerable to the external invasion.
To end the prevailing environment of anarchy, leading members of Gauda met at an assembly and elected Gopala as their king. Thus, Gopala (also Known as Gopala-I) became the founder of the famous Pala dynasty of Bengal around 750 AD.
Political Sphere of Influence
Dharmapala succeeded Gopala-I and was known as the ablest of the Pala rulers. He had a great military brain and conquered many States. He even dethroned the reigning prince of Kannauj and set up his own nominee. His long and glorious reign lasted for almost 30 years.
Devapala was also a vigorous ruler like his father. He fought successfully against the Huns and the Gurjara-Pratihara king of Kannauj. His territories included the vast region from Kamboj in the north to the Vindhyas in the south. The king of Sumatra also sent an ambassador to his court.
The death of Devapala, marked the beginning of the end of the Pala dynasty. Though his successor Mahipala tried to maintain the control over the dominions, the successor kings were weak and gradually succumbed to pressure from neighbouring kingdoms.
Prominent Rulers of Pala Dynasty
Gopala (750–770 AD):
The Pala dynasty was founded by Gopala, who also served as the kingdom’s first emperor.
He unified Bengal under his control, and even brought Magadha (Bihar) under his control.
The monastery at Odantapuri, Bihar, was founded by Gopala.
He was regarded as the first Buddhist monarch of Bengal after converting to the religion.
His reign was marked by a tripartite struggle between the Palas, the Pratiharas and the Rashtrakutas for the control of Kanauj and North India.
Dharmapala (770-810 AD):
Dharmapala succeeded Gopala as ruler in around A.D. 770.
Dharmapala was the second ruler of Pala Empire. He was the son of Gopala.
He fought a number of battles against the Pratiharas and the Rashtrakutas.
Dharmapala captured Kanauj and conducted a grand darbar.
He took the greatest imperial titles of the period, including Paramabhattaraka, Paramesvara and Maharajadhiraja.
Devapala (810–850 AD):
Devapala was the son of Dharampala and Rannadevi, the princess of the Rashtrakuta dynasty.
Devapala had expanded the empire to eastern India, including the kingdoms of Assam, Odisha, and Kamarupa.
He had constructed several monasteries, including temples, in Magadha.
Devapala carried out raids in the north, the Deccan, and the peninsula.
In 988 AD, Mahipala-I ascended to the throne.
When Mahipala-I came into power, the Pala kingdom started to flourish once again and reclaimed the northern and eastern portions of Bengal and Bihar.
Along with his brothers Stirapala and Vasantapala, Mahipala-I is thought to have conquered Varanasi.
The Pala rule was monarchical in nature with the king being the centre of all the power. Pala kings generally adopted imperial titles like Maharajadhiraja, Parameshwara and Paramvattaraka. The Pala kings also appointed Prime Ministers for better administration of the kingdom.
Administratively, the Pala Empire was divided into several Bhuktis (Provinces). Bhuktis were further divided into Vishayas (Divisions) and Mandalas (Districts). The Smaller units were known as Khandala, Bhaga, Avritti, Chaturaka, and Pattaka. Thus, it is evident that administration covered widespread area from the grass root level to the imperial court.
The Pala kings were the patrons of Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Gopala-I was a devout Buddhist, and built the famous monastery at Odantapuri.
His son, Dharmapala, made the renowned Buddhist philosopher Haribhadra as his spiritual guide. He established the famous Vikramashila monastery (located near Bhagalpur, Bihar)and the Somapura Mahavihara Bangladesh.
After his death, Devapala restored and enlarged the architecture at Somapura Mahavihara, which featured several themes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Mahipala I carried on the restoration work and ordered construction and repairs of several sacred structures at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Nalanda.
Apart from Buddhism, the later Palas also supported the Shaiva ascetics. Narayana Pala himself established a temple of Shiva and patronized the Brahmins. Besides the images of the Buddhist deities, the images of Vishnu, Shiva and Sarasvati were also constructed during the later rule of Pala dynasty.
The reign of Palas was marked by general economic and material prosperity. Agriculture was the main occupation during the Pala period. The Pala kings granted land to the farmers for cultivation and the chief source of income of people was derived from agricultural products of the land granted to them. During this period, paddy cultivation had become the chief source of economy in Bengal. This was mentioned in the ‘Monghyr (Munger ) inscription’ of Devapala as well as “Bhagalpur inscription” of Narayanapala.
Apart from agriculture, mineral resources were also important constituents of the economy during the Pala period. Though the use of iron ore was still not very extensive, yet the process of smelting ore was well known to the people of Bengal. Copper deposits and pearls were also found in the various parts of the Pala Empire.
Agro-based industries thrived during the Palas reign in Bengal. Textile industry was flourishing during the Pala period and cotton textiles were the principal industry in Bengal. Silk industry was also very popular in Bengal during this period and it catered not only to the domestic market, but foreign market as well.
Though economy had flourished during the Pala phase, there was a general decline in trade and commerce. The decline in the standards of trade is evident from the coins of the Pala period. The scarcity of gold and the silver coins led to dependence on copper coins. This resulted in drastic decline of the foreign trade. Consequently, the economic system became entirely dependent on agriculture and the flourishing agrarian economy gave rise to feudalistic society. Thus, it could be said that the agricultural economy and feudalism developed simultaneously during the Pala’s reign.
Pala Kings patronized several Sanskrit and Buddhist scholars, some of whom were also appointed as their officials.
The Gauda riti style of composition was developed during the reign of Palas. During their rule, many Buddhist Tantric works were authored and translated. They have a distinct influence even today in the Tibet region.
Jimutavahana, Sandhyakar Nandi, Madhavakara, Suresvara and Chakrapani Datta are some of the significant scholars from the Pala period.
The first signs of the proto-Bengali language can also be seen in the Charyapadas composed during the Pala rule.
Art and Architecture
The sculptural art of Pala period is recognized as a distinct phase in Indian art, and is famous for displaying the artistic genius of the Bengal sculptors. It was largely influenced and inspired by the Gupta art. As discussed earlier, the Buddhist Palas built a number of monasteries and other sacred structures. The Somapura Mahavihara in presentday Bangladesh has been given the status of a World Heritage Site. The gigantic structures of other Viharas, including Vikramashila, Odantapuri, and Jagaddala are other masterpieces of the Palas.
The temples constructed during the Pala period depicted a distinctive vanga style. The Siddheshwara Mahadeva temple at Barakar in Burdwan district is one such fine example of early Pala style. Terracota sculpture was very popular for decorative purposes. In painting, murals were highly popular for wall paintings. Miniature paintings also showed considerable development during this period.