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Ancient NB in Epics, Myth, LITERATURE

The Aitareya Brahmana (seventh century BCE) was the most primitive work that specifically mentions Pundra, and in this text, the reference to the Pundra was in the sense of people who lived in the northern part of Bengal.

Subhrajit Roy | Kolkata |


Although the primeval historical account of Northern Bengal is still trying to find its foothold in the firmament of ancient Indian history, the early Indian literary sources as well as foreign accounts, ie the Brahmanical sources (chiefly Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas), the Buddhist and Jaina sources, the Greek and Chinese accounts, and other contemporary literary works provide rich resources relating to the societal, cultural, and demographic graffiti of primordial North Bengal. In the epics, mythological stories, and literary sources, we come across numerous references to Pundravardhana, the identity by which the northern part of Bengal was known in early times. The Aitareya Brahmana (seventh century BCE) was the most primitive work that specifically mentions Pundra, and in this text, the reference to the Pundra was in the sense of people who lived in the northern part of Bengal, interpreted as ‘non-Aryans,’ implying people who did not subscribe to the Vedic culture. The Manusmriti (dated second century CE) also described the Pundras as Sudras (Servant class) as they abstained themselves from respecting the Brahmanas.

The two great epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, have infused indelible impression on the mind and soul of Indian people over the years. These grand epics give a few glimpses of the Pundras’ political evolution. The Ramayana describes Pundras as the people, and King Dasaratha claimed that his superiority and the pre-eminent position was recognized in the several kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent, including Pundra and Vanga. In the Ramayana, although Pundra was referred to as one of the kingdoms in the subcontinent, it did not mention the ruler.

In the Mahabharata, Pundras are mentioned as the denizens of the east. The Mahabharata, as well as some Puranas, indicate to a legend that alludes to the primogenitor of the Pundras with a Vedic sage. According to fable, Dirghatamas, the son of Vedic sage Ucathya was a blind man and Mamta was his wife. While living in his cousin’s hermitage, he was involved in gross immorality-trying to build up an illicit relationship with his brother’s wife. Subsequently, he was banished from the hermitage and set adrift in the Ganges. He was carried downstream to an eastern kingdom where he was taken into the possession of Bali, the king of that territory. Afterward, Dirghatamas tied the knot with a Sudra (servant class) nurse of Bali’s wife Sudeshna and procreated Kasivanta and other sons. Now King Bali desired to have sons in the womb of her wife Sudeshna from Dirghatamas. Consequently, Dirghatamas begot Bali’s queen Sudeshna five sons named Anga, Vanga, Kalinga, Pundra, and Suhma. After this event, astoundingly the personality of Dirghatamas metamorphosed through the atonement and spiritual ferment; he regained his eyesight and was admired as Gautama who was said to be a Vedic sage scripting the Rig Veda as one of the authors. King Bali divided his kingdom among those five sons and as per this legend, the Pundra kingdom was founded by the third prince Pundra, and people who were denizens of this Pundra territory came to be known as Pundras. If this fable is to be believed, it signifies that the Pundras were already present in the sociopolitical spectrum in the Indian subcontinent from the period of Rig Veda.

The Mahabharata unambiguously specified the kingdoms in the Bengal regions and Paundraka Vasudeva, a powerful king in the northern geographic divisions of Bengal, who kept up close connections with the contemporary rulers of his period. The great epic also referred to the indigenous tribes of Bengal taking account of Sabaras, Kiratas, and Pundras. The Digvijaya part of the Mahabharata seems to locate the Pundras to the east of modern Monghyr and correlated them with a king who ruled on the banks of the Koshi. According to the script of the Mahabharata, the eastern part of the subcontinent was conquered by Karna, Krishna, and Bhima. Karna who was the ruler of Anga is said to have triumphed over the Suhmas, Vangas and the Pundras, and unified Anga, and Vanga into one dominion with himself as the monarch. However, the status of Suhma and Pundra after the trouncing is not specified. Afterwards, Bhimsena invaded in the eastern direction and subsequently won a victory over the lords of Suhma and Pundra. After this incident, Paundraka Vasudeva, the ruler of Pundra could not concede the disgraceful defeat; united Pundra, Vanga, and Kirata, and made a strong alliance with Jarasandha of Magadha to avenge the Pandavas. He, however, did not succeed in his mission, and Krishna finally vanquished him in an internecine battle. The Mahabharata also describes that after the Kurukshetra war, the Pundras had to bring tributes to the court of Yudhisthira. Historians and scholars of history reckon that Paundraka Vasudeva, like Bali and his son Pundra, was indubitably amongst the historical figures who had ruled over the northern part of Bengal in early times-as established by the Epics and ancient literary sources.

Many other ancient literary sources mentioned Pundra either as people or as a region or both related to the northern part of Bengal. From the work of Susruta, it is found that a distinct variety of sugarcane grown in Pundravardhana was known as ‘Paundraka’. As per descriptions made in the Kathasaritsagara, Pundravardhana had an abundant market-place, and its streets were lined with shops. It also informs that the merchants and traders used to travel from Pundravardhana to Pataliputra for mercantile activities. Sandhyakarnandin’s Ramacharitam (eleventh – twelfth century) serves as an important account for the deciphering the history of early North Bengal, expounding it by the end of the eleventh century was recognized as Varendra-mandala and the region was prevalently known as Varendri, and Pundravardhana was its cardinal city. Analogously, in Kalhan’s Rajatarangini Pundravardhananagara was adverted as the capital of prince Jayanta, subordinate to the king of Gauda, and reigned from CE 782 to 813. The Rajatarangini also pointed out that Kashmiri King Jayapida (CE 762-763), the grandson of Laitaditya, came to Pundravardhana as he wandered after being uncrowned by his brother-in-law, Jajja. Thereupon, he is said to have married the daughter of Jayanta, the ruler of Pundravardhana. Jayapida is stated to have a resounding victory over the five chiefs in the vicinity and made his father-in-law Jayanta their overlord.

Early Buddhist text Vinaya Pitaka mentions that Buddhism was considerably spread in the Pundra region. From the Bodhisattavavadana Kalpalata, we come to know that Lord Buddha had spent six months in the Pundravardhana region to preach his teachings and doctrines. Similarly, Jaina sources also allude to the Pundra region. The Jaina work Kalpasutra mentions Tamralipti, Kotivarsa, and Pundravardhana as renowned places in the subcontinent.

The Greek accounts as well play significant roles to comprehend the geographical changes that had happened in eastern India since the fourth century BCE. According to Greek sources, the land corresponding to modern Northeast India and submontane Himalaya were by that time dwelt in by the Kiratas. Ergo, the sources recount that the Pundra and the Kirata territories bordered or even merged. It probably corroborates the inference that the larger region was earlier known as Kirata, and a segment of the Kirata terrain subsequently came to be identified as Pundra. The name of Pundra is also scripted in the early Chinese accounts which referred to it as a region situated in the northern part of Bengal. According to the descriptions of Chinese travellers Fa-Hien, Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing, the river Karatoya had made the boundary between Pundravardhana and Pragjyotisa Kamarupa. Buddhism was booming that time in Pundravardhana-as elucidated by Fa-Hien. Hiuen-Tsang mentioned Pundravardhana as Pun-na-fantan-na in his writings. The Tang-Shu by Hiuen-Tsang described that from the Gupta period onwards Pundravardhana formed a bhukti (translated as province) under different imperial eras. Hiuen-Tsang’s elucidation points out the location of Pundravardhana between Kajangala and the river Karatoya.

The fables and chronicles from epics, mythologies; as well as the elucidation of early Indian and foreign literary sources quite extensively expound the political, social, cultural and demographic discourse on the historical accounts of ancient North Bengal. The primeval literary accounts would indubitably act as rich resources for researchers for exhuming the unexplored apocalyptic attributes of primordial North Bengal from the eternal sagas of great epics, from the immortal oeuvre of early litterateurs, and of course from the factual description of the foreign travellers.