The region and state of Bengal in India is situated in the East of the country and is primarily known for its rich culture, literature, history, and heritage. This region has also been quintessential to the independence of India from British rule , as thousands of Bengalis gave their lives in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries to make India free from its colonial masters. However, the people and region of Bengal were consolidated a long time ago under a powerful ruler called Sashanka, who reigned in medieval India in the 7th century AD.
Who was Sashanka?
Sashanka, also written as ‘Shashanka,’ was the first independent ruler of a region roughly corresponding to some parts of the present day Indian state of West Bengal and its neighboring country of Bangladesh. He reigned in the first half of the 7th century AD, with experts placing his rule between 600 (or just before 606) to 637 AD. In a way, we can say that Sashanka was the first independent king of the Bengalis, a community speaking the Bangla/Bengali language and belonging mostly to the aforementioned geographical entities.
He was not only a powerful king – his legacy also comes from his ability to unify people and the land. Before Sashanka, the region of Bengal was feudatory to many powerful empires , namely the Mauryas and Guptas. But Sashanka made it independent from the other regions of the Indian sub-continent. He also followed an aggressive policy of conquest and annexed more area beyond the realm of today’s Bengal.
Sashanka’s name in the Indian language is related to the moon. He has been an obscure historical figure until now because all the facts that are known about him are mainly from the biased accounts of Banabhatta (who wrote Harshacharita), – the court poet of King Harshavardhana (who ruled until 647 AD). This king was an adversary of Sashanka. Other details come from the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang (c. 602 AD – 664 AD), whose patron in India was also Harshavardhana.
Sasanka Deva king of Gauda circa 600-630. Base AV Dinar. Siva seated facing on bull seated left/Lakshmi seated facing on lotus; being watered by small elephants at either side. (CNG Coins/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Sashanka did leave behind a few inscriptions and there are also a few writings referring to him that were made by others. In fact, an inscription in the Rohtasgarh Fort of present day Bihar mentions a Mahasamanta (a high ranking official, possibly the governor of a division), by the name of Sashanka – which probably denotes that King Sashanka was a member of the late Gupta Empire before he rose to power and declared himself a king.
To date, nothing is known about his childhood or family background. The exact circumstances under which he seized such vast power are also uncertain. Some Buddhist accounts provide a little information about his reign though.
Rohtasgarh fort. (Mariyosh/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Rulers Struggling for Power
Sashanka probably worked under the late Gupta Emperor Mahasenagupta, and owing to the weakening of that glorious empire, he took his chances and established his Kingdom of Gour (or Gauda in some accounts). The weakening of the Guptas saw many regional powers coming into the forefront and soon after the ascension of Sashanka as a powerful ruler in the east of India, continuous struggles arose in his life against other rulers.
For example, Sashanka and Malwa ruler Devagupta (probably a son or relation of Mahasenagupta) were on one side, against the Maukharis King Grahavarman and Pushyabhuti King Rajyavardhana (and later his younger brother Harshavardhana) on the other. Later Harshavardhana and Bhaskaravarmana of Kamrupa were on one side against Sashanka on the other.
Let us explore the geographical boundaries of these kingdoms before going further into the above-mentioned complicated and multi-sided struggle. Sashanka’s kingdom had its capital at Karnasuvarna, a place which roughly falls now in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, and his kingdom in its greatest extent included parts of Western and Northern Bengal (of current day West Bengal and the Northern half of Bangladesh).
Remains of King Sasanka’s ancient capital Karnasubarna. ( Public Domain )
He also gained some parts of Magadha (current day Bihar state) after the weakening of the Gupta Empire. Sashanka had power over some parts of what is now known as Odisha state as well. He also extended his boundary to Varanasi at some point of time.
On the other hand, Harshavardhana came to be known as the most powerful ruler of Northern India, with his capital at Thaneswar, in the modern day Haryana state. Maukharis had their capital at Kannauj (Kanyakubja then) of Uttar Pradesh state. The Malwa region corresponds to present day Madhya Pradesh, and Kamarupa is the North Eastern Indian state of Assam now. So we see which geographical regions had the most importance in Sashanka’s life and his rule.
Coin of Harshavardhana, circa 606-647 AD. (CNG Coins/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The late 6th and early 7th century AD saw bitter struggles for supremacy among these powers. Sashanka was shrewd when it came to military policies and hence he soon formed an alliance with Devagupta, to counter the balance of power with the Maukharis on one side and Bhaskaravarmana on the other. Because of the increasing pressure of the Maukharis, who were powerful due to their alliance with the Pushyabhutis, Sashanka inspired Devagupta of Malwa to march against the Maukharis and together their armies charged to Kanyakubja and killed the Maukhari king by the name of Grahavarmana.
Grahavarmana was married to the Pushyabhuti king Rajyavardhana’s sister Rajyashri. Upon hearing that she was imprisoned by Devagupta, Rajyavardhana marched with his army to confront Devagupta – leaving his younger brother Harshavardhana with the throne. In his enthusiasm, Devagupta moved towards the Thaneswar ruler without waiting for Sashanka, and was defeated by his enemy on the way, probably getting killed in the process.
Sashanka tried to come to Devagupta’s aid though it was too late by then. In some way he killed the Pushyabhuti king Rajyavardhana, the details of which are obscure. When he heard about this, Harshavardhana, who became the Thaneswar king, sought vengeance on Sashanka and moved towards the kingdom of Gour with a huge army.
Harshavardhana also formed an alliance with the Kamarupa king Bhaskaravarmana, who was an arch enemy of his neighbor Sashanka. However, what happened in the subsequent battle has not been recorded anywhere, not even in the biography of Harsha by Bana. But possibly, there was a stalemate – and though Sashanka was pushed back from gaining possession of Kannauj and the Maukhari kingdom – he retained much of his original dominions in the East.
Few Secrets of Sashanka’s Personal Life Have Been Revealed
Little is known about how Sashanka died. It was probably in 637 AD or sometime before 637, maybe due to some illness. His kingdom was soon annexed by both Bhaskaravarmana and Harsha. Gradually total chaos arose among the local chiefs in this region, before the emergence of the powerful dynasty of the Palas, with Gopala coming to power in the mid-7th century AD as a ruler of Bengal.
Though not much is known about Sashanka’s personal life, it is fairly well-known that he was succeeded by his son Manava, whose reign was short. Sashanka was also a Shaivite by religion – which is/was a sect of Hinduism which followed Lord Shiva as their supreme deity. If we have to believe the accounts of the Chinese monk Xuanzang, Sashanka was possibly anti-Buddhist and propagated Shaivism in his kingdom.
Statue of Shiva. ( Pixabay License )
That Sashanka was a capable warrior and adept general is now known; but he seemed to have been an able administrator too because no accounts of any rebellion or discontent are known during his reign. He also retained many of the Guptas’ systems – a period in Indian history which was considered to be its golden age.
His army probably consisted of the traditional infantry, cavalry, and elephant units, together with an additional navy force. Sashanka was a glorious ruler whose true might and victories were somehow not documented properly. That he was fearless can be gauged from the fact that he successfully encountered both Harshavardhana and Bhaskaravarmana and held his sway against both of them, not an easy task in those days.
That he was powerful is also quite evident by the extremely biased accounts of Banabhatta and Xuanzang, who were naturally quite perturbed by his actions as they belonged to the opposite camp. Sashanka in a way can now be considered the ruler who founded the entity called Bengal.
Top Image: A mysterious Indian king. Bengal king Sashanka has long been a historical mystery as well. Source: venkatvasa/ Deviant Art
Majumdar, R.C. 2011, History of Bengal: Volume I. BR Publishing Corporation
Sengupta, N. 2002, History of the Bengali Speaking People. Ubs Pub Distributors Ltd