After the death of Sasanka, there was anarchy and confusion for more than a century in Bengal. It was realized that the state of affairs could be improved by the establishment of a central authority in the country. As a result, the people selected ‘Gopala’ in 750 AD as their ruler, and the Pala rule in Bengal began. The 5th century of Pala and Sena rule led to the flowering of Bengali culture. In literature and various fields of knowledge, the Pala-Sena period witnessed remarkable progress. This period saw a significant development of Sanskrit literature, which positioned Bengal as a significant cultural hub in India.
Literature – In Sanskrit literature, the ‘Gauda style’ or ‘Gaudi riti’ of composition held a special place. This ornamental style of Sanskrit writing was unique to Bengal and Magadha. The Buddhists wrote in a different style of Sanskrit mixed with Prakrit. Folk literature was composed in Magadhi or Ardha Magadhi. In the field of drama, Bengal also developed a school called “Ardha Magadhi Riti.” Keshava Mara and Devapala, who were contemporaries, wrote a commentary on Chandogya Upanishad. The famous historical Kavya was also composed during the Pala period by Shandhyakara Nandi. It was a Slesha Kavya, where each verse had a twofold meaning. Shreedhara Bhatta composed a commentary on the Naya Shastra named Naya Kandali, and Avinanda, a scholar of Naya Shastra, wrote a book named Yoga Bashishtha. A few commentators like Saribananda and Bhattaji Dikshita also flourished during this period. Chakrapanidatta was the author of a famous medical treatise, Chikitsa Sangraha. He also composed two more books on medical science. The famous book of Hindu law, Dayabhaga, was composed during the Pala period by Jimutavahana.
The establishment of the Pala empire in the 8th century was an epoch-making event in the evolution of the Bengali people, their language, and culture. It became the foundation of the national language of the province, which had mass appeal. Buddhist poets composed verses called “Charyapadas” in this language. Pandit H.P. Shastri collected four manuscripts from Nepal. Brahmanical poets also composed devotional poems in Old Bengali.
Sculpture – The Pala period witnessed the birth of a local Bengali school of sculpture with its own distinct characteristics. According to Dr. N.R. Ray, the sculpture of Bengal, which had previously been dominated by Gupta influence, surpassed that influence and developed a style unique to Bengal. The subject matter of the sculptures revolved around stories from the Puranas and Brahmanical literature. Two great sculptures from the Pala age were Vitapala and Dhiman. According to an eminent scholar, “Dhiman and Vitapala acquired the highest fame as painters, sculptors, and bronze founders.” Some famous sculptures from their era include the Vishnu image of Bagaura village and the Sadashiva image of Gopala III. The subjects of the sculptures were either the life of Krishna or scenes from folk life. Most of the sculptures were carved from stone, while only a few were made of gold or silver.
Painting & Architecture – The Pala paintings deserve mention. Faxian mentioned that he saw some paintings of Buddha during his stay at Tamralipti. These paintings were used to illustrate manuscripts, mostly written on palm leaves or cotton-based paper. Some were also made on papyrus or paper. The paintings mostly depicted ideals of Mahayana, Vajrayana, and Tantra, featuring figures like Tara (Kali Maa), Avalokita, Maitreya, Vajrapani, Lokanatha, and stories from the Buddhist Jataka tales, as well as various tantric ideals and philosophies. Very few paintings were related to Shaivism and Brahmanical deities. The paintings were multicolored in the Ajanta style. Dhimana and Vitapala were famous painters of that time.
The Pala period witnessed remarkable progress in architecture. Few remains of such edifices are visible today. Pala architecture can be divided into three categories – stupas, viharas, and temples. Examples of Pala period architecture include the Yogi Gumpha of Ashrafpur in Dhaka, the Jhaveri and Baharpore stupas. A bihara discovered in Paharpur was built under the patronage of the Pala dynasty. Dharmapala founded the Sampura Bihara towards the end of the 8th century A.D. Temple architecture was also a significant contribution during the Pala period. Dr. M.R. Ray classified Pala temples into four categories:
1.The Bhadra Temples
2.The Rekha Temples
3.The Stupa Type Temples with Pidas
4.The Sikhara Temples with Pidas or Bhadra. Examples of Pala temples include the Ashrapur Temple in Dhaka, the Balakar Temple in Bardhaman, and the Buddha of Pundravardhana.
The Sena rule constitutes an important landmark in the history of Bengal, similar to the Pala period. The Sena period also witnessed a remarkable development of Sanskrit literature. Valla Sena and his son Lashmana Sena were eminent authors of many texts. “Danasagara” and “Adbhuta Sagara” are two of the many texts composed by Valla Sena. Halayudha is another renowned Sanskrit scholar who flourished during the Sena period. The court of Lakshmana Sena was graced by Jayadeva, the writer of “Gitagovindam.” Dhoyi was the writer of the political work “Avanadhutam,” and other notable authors of the time include Umapatidhara, Sarana, and Govaradhana.
Religion: The Sena period was marked by the revival of Brahmanical Hinduism in Bengal. The Sena dynasty became champions of Brahmanical revival. Buddhist and Tantric influences had brought many corrupting influences into the fold of orthodox Hinduism, and the Senas attempted to purify Brahmanical Hinduism from these heterodox influences. Valla Sena personally composed a number of Sanskrit treatises on Vedic rites and practices. They helped the creed to attain a position of supremacy in Bengal. While the Sena period was a time of Brahmanical revival and supremacy, the Pala rulers were followers of Buddhism and patrons of this religion. The basic difference between these two periods was that the Palas tolerated different religions and followed a policy of synthesis, while the Senas rejected this policy of tolerance. Through their rearrangement of the caste system, the Senas fragmented Bengali society, destroyed its homogeneity, and created social exclusivity.
The five centuries of Pala-Sena rule truly nourished Bengal’s culture. They made Bengal a special cultural unit in India, encompassing religion, art, and architecture. In summary, with the advent of the Pala and Sena dynasties, Bengal emerged as a shining star in Indian culture.