Wednesday, December 27


After Sasanka, the principalities that make up modern-day Bengal -- Goura, Pundra, Rarha, Barendra, Samatata, Banga, as well as Sasanka's feudatories in Magadha, Anga, Kalinga, Odra -- were shattered by repeated invasions and slid into a 100 year obscurity. The Tibetan warlord Songtsan Gampo (622-650 CE) invaded and conquered Barendra. Jayavardhana of the Shaila Dynasty from Central India marauded through and killed the king of Pundra (730 CE). Yasovarmana (725-752) of Kanauj killed the king of Magadha and Goura. Lalitaditya (724-760) of Kashmir who defeated Yasovarmana also invaded Bengal in turn. Sri Harsha of Kamarupa ransacked Anga, Banga, Kalinga, Odra. The social and political structure of Bengal was in ruin. According to Lama Taranath in his history of Buddhism in India, in that time 'all across Odra, Banga and the other five eastern provinces every single Kshatriya, every Vaishya and every Brahmin of consequence proclaimed himself to be a local king, but there was no overall monarch capable of uniting these squabbling feudals.' A number of contemporary sources borrowed the world 'matsyanyaya' or 'law of fishes' (i.e. big ones eating the smaller ones) from Chanakya to describe the prevalent situation. Chanakya had said:

अप्रणीतो हि मात्स्यन्यायमुद्भावयति वलीयानवलं हि ग्रसते दंडधराभावे
Apranito hi matsyanyayamudhbhavabayati baliyanbalam hi grasate dandarabhave

Matsyanyaya comes into being if the royal sceptre (danda) remains unapplied. In the absence of a dandadhara (wielder of the sceptre) the strong swallow the weak.

In this situation, in a fine example of democracy in a hot climate, the people of Bengal elected a certain Gopala to be the leader of Goura, Banga, Magadha et al. This took place sometime around 750. Gopala was the founder of the great Buddhist Pala dynasty, which at its zenith under his son Dharmapala had conquered all of North and Central India from 'Kedarnath (in the Himalayas) to Gokarna (in Goa),' and extracted obedience from the kings of 'Bhoj, Matsya (current MP and Rajasthan), Kuru, Yadu (Punjab and Western UP), Panchala (central UP), Avanti (Ujjain and Malwa), Gandhara(Afghanistan), Yavana (the region of NWFP held by Huns and Turkico-Persian tribes) and Kir (Kangra in HP.)' Certainly Gopala seems to have been an aggressive warrior (albeit with a nice Buddhist touch):

His uncountable armies set into motion for war, their feet kicked up such dust that the sun was obscured and the birds could walk about in densely dusty skies rather than having to fly. Upon conquering all his enemies till the farthest ocean coast, he felt no more need for conflict and released his blood-maddened war-elephants to freedom in the forests; they, after a while, returned to meet their human friends with tears of joy running from their elephant-eyes.

Those loath to admit Bengalis as a martial race point out that previous invaders of Bengal now counter-attacked by the turning worm were themselves in decline, and that the hollowness of the Palas' military victories was proven when much of their western conquests were lost, within a few generations, to the Gujjars moving in from Central Asia, and to the Pratiharas under King Bhoj; but the two repeated expensive and successful forays into Uttarapath overlordship -- first by Sasanka in the 7th century and then by Dharmapala in the 9th -- points if not to military prowess, then at least to the agricultural surplus that could be generated by 'Sonar Bangla.'

Gopala's origins are somewhat obscure. Certainly the court poets of the Palas do not boast of the lineage of their patrons, which leads to the suspicion that there was not much to boast of. We read Gopala's father Bapyat was a student of the science of war, and his grandfather, a certain Dayitvishnu, was a 'sarva-vidya-vit' or polymath.

From Wikipedia:

According to Taranatha, Gopala was born of a Kshatriya family near Pundravardhan (north Bengal) and was later selected a ruler of Bangala (Vangala). But some of the historical writings of this period claim that Palas belonged to Shudra caste. Some later writings even claim the Palas were Kayasthas as some of the Pala descendents claimed to belong to the sub-caste. Ramachrita of Sandhyakar Nandi, a court poet of later Palas, states that the Pala dynasty belonged to Samudrakula or Ocean lineage. It is not clear what this really means. Probably, this holds a clue that the ancestors of the Palas belonged to a shipping community of kshatriya cum-trading group who conducted trade via sea with other nations. This may allude to their probable links with the northwest Kambojas who are also attested to have been both a Kshatriyas as well as traders class (varatta-shastropajivins).The Kamauli Grant of king Vaidyadeva of Kamarupa (Assam) connects the Palas to 'Surya lineage' (Mihirasya vamsa).This may again imply their probable connections with the ancient Kambojas who were indisputably Sun/Fire worshipping Iranians.

Haribhadra, a contemporary of Gopala's son Dharmapala mentioned in his Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita that the Palas ‘fell from the line of Rajbhatta (Rajbhatta-Vamsa-Patit).’ Rajbhatta can mean Royal Bard, or Royal Servant, and there is also a historical Rajbhatta, who was the son of Devakhadga of the Khadga Dynasty that ruled Banga in the 7th century. Sandhyakar Nandi further states that Barendra or North Bengal was the fatherland (Janakabhu) of the Palas. In a copperplate inscription it has been described that Mahipala recovered his fatherland (Rajyam Pitram) from his enemies -- apparently North Bengal occupied by the Kambojas. Another story in the bard Ghanaram's Dharmamangal describes the Palas being planted out of wedlock in the womb of a princess by the Ocean.

It seems plausible, to echo the treatment of scholars like Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay, that Gopala originated from Banga (East Bengal) -- deep enough from the deltaic area to qualify as being of Ocean-lineage, obscure enough for even the most enterprising bard not to be able to shed much light on his historical lineage, and that his descendants later settled in Barendra (North Bengal).

However, according to Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Rajbhatta was also the name of a tribal people of ancient India, who lived in the swathe between Gorakhpur and Bundelkhand. The Cheros, who ruled for example in Palamau in Jharkhand till the 17th century, are a branch of the Rajbhattas. There are still many Chero landlords in Palamau, and they consider themselves to be Rajputs, and have surnames like Sisodia. If, indeed, a Bais Rajput tribal soldier from Ayodhya's Baiswara could establish a landlordship in Bengal, convert to Islam, and later rule as Isa Khan, is it so farfetched to think of another wandering charismatic Rajput lord inserting his genes in the coastal Bengal pool of ocean-faring, Indo-China-facing naval chieftains, out of which several generations later arose a great Buddhist warrior, elected into kingship?

In a copperplate inscription from the reign of Dharmapala found in Khalimpur we read: 'In order to banish the Law of Fishes, the Natures (Prakriti-punj) gave to [Gopala] the hand of the Kingdom-goddess Lakshmi. He whose great deeds can only be imitated in lustre by the white light of the full moon, that leader of men and the great diamant gem of his clan, Gopala was born of Bapyat.'

The reference to 'Nature' giving Gopala the kingship is interesting. In the Arthashastra, Chanakya says:

स्व्यम्यनात्य जनपद दुर्ग कोष दण्ड मित्रानि प्रकृत्या
Swamyanatya janapad durga kosh danda mitrani prakritya

i.e. Nature is consisted of the ministers and the friendly officials in charge of the administration of countryside forts, fortified towns, treasury and the army.

In other words, when Matsyanyaya prevented the peoples from organizing a general election on the basis of adult franchise, the mandarins from the official corps could be considered a representation of the nature or essence of the people.

In other words, Gopala may not have been elected in a modern sense, but selected by his peers -- other feudals.

Under the patronage of the Palas, Mahayana Buddhism rose to greatness in Bengal. The Universities of Nalanda, Vikramashila, and Paharpura (pictured above) flourished again after Sasanka's Brahminical counter-reformation. It was through the Pala missionaries that Buddhism was finally established in Tibet. The celebrated Buddhist monk Atisa Dipamkara Srijnana (981-1054) of Vajrajogini in Banga, who reformed Tibetan Buddhism, was the head abbott of the Vikramashila monastery. The Palas maintained relations with the Hindu-Buddhist state of the Shailendras of Sumatra and Java. Also under Pala patronage arose a distinctive school of art, an example of which is shown below.

Saturday, December 23

Freedom Song

In the words of Catherine Masud, half of the duo who created Muktir Gaan (above) from Lear Levin's footage:

Tareque and I had been in the U.S. for almost one year. We didn’t really have any particular plan in mind at the time for staying in the States. Rather, it was a ‘decompression’ of sorts, after a hectic period in Bangladesh and India when we had to undergo enormous struggle to complete ‘The Inner Strength’, Tareque’s documentary film on the life and art of the painter S.M. Sultan. In New York, Tareque was working in a famous used bookstore called the Strand, and amassing an enormous collection of books on film and Indology in the process. I was an executive in an advertising agency, halfheartedly climbing the corporate ladder. We were both looking for something inspiring to throw ourselves into, but weren’t quite sure how and where to start.

At that time, we were spending almost every weekend with my brother Alfred, who was completing his postdoctoral work in physics in Princeton, New Jersey. One day Tariq Ali, an old friend of Tareque’s cousin Benu, stopped by. He was in the neighboring town of Lawrenceville, working for a pharmaceutical firm. He invited us to come over for lunch at his place the following weekend. The following Saturday found us sitting cozily in Tariq bhai’s living room, exchanging stories of Dhaka and dreams of return. The conversation drifted to the Liberation War. Tariq bhai and Benu bhai were together at that time, singing in a cultural squad made up of refugee artistes. Tariq bhai recalled that an American film crew had traveled with them for some time, documenting their experiences during the war. Tareque vaguely remembered that in the early 1970’s, Benu bhai had often mentioned this filmmaker in passing during reminiscences of the War. His name, according to Tariq bhai, was Lear Levin. We were immediately intrigued. What an unusual name: Lear. It conjured up images of grandeur and tragedy. What had become of his footage? Perhaps it was a journalistic catalog of events of the war. Certainly Lear no longer lived in New York. Perhaps he was long since dead.

Over the next week or so, Tareque and I gradually forgot about Lear Levin. But the following Saturday, I was suddenly inspired to pick up the phone book and look through the L’s. And there it was. Lear Levin. And Lear Levin Productions. I am always nervous about phone calls, so I handed the phone to Tareque. He called the production office—it was the weekend, but he could leave a message. But someone picked up the phone.

Tareque: Yes, I was trying to reach a Mr. Lear Levin.

Lear: This is Lear Levin.

Tareque: Oh...were you by any chance in Bangladesh in 1971?

Lear: Yes.

Tareque: You did some shooting then?

Lear: Yes.

Tareque: Well, I wanted to talk to you because I’m also from Bangladesh, I’m a filmmaker, my name is Tareque Masud.

Lear: Ah. Well, in 1971 I was a young man, thirty years old. I went to Bangladesh to make a film about the Liberation War. I put a lot of myself into that film, a lot of money and time, but eventually I had to abandon the project. And now, you have called. I think I have been waiting nineteen years for this call.

(Extended quote borrowed from Read the rest of her recollection here.)

Saturday, December 16


Here is Part 1 of 12 short clips on Cambodia from a trip to the region a couple of years ago. We start with an overland bus ride from Bangkok to Siem Riep ( the gateway to Angkor Wat.) Footage of the major temples and monasteries of Angkor Wat, including the Bayon, Ankgor Thom, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Phnom Bakeng etc. is included. At Angkor Thom you can see the famous giant Avalokiteshwaras, the citadels, and the statue of the Leper King. At Ta Prohm we get to see a rare temple to Prajnaparamita. Thereafter, there are some thoughts on the Killing Fields under the Khmer Rouge, and also some footage of the major art of Angkor including statues of Jayavarman, as well as major Hindu and Buddhist deities, from several prominent museums. We conclude with a boat ride down the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers all the way to Phnom Penh, and end with sights of the capital of Cambodia. All 12 parts are listed here. Overall running time is 100 minutes.

Tuesday, December 12


Bhagaban tumi juge juge doot pathayechho bare bare
Dayaheen sangsare.
Tara bole gelo 'kshama karo sabe', bole gelo 'bhalobasho'
'Antara hote bidwesh-beesh nasho.'
Baraneeya tara, smaraneeya tara, tabuo bahir dware
Aji durdine phiranu tader byartha namaskare.

Ami je dekhechhi gopan hingsa kapat-ratri chhaye
Henechhe nih-sahaye.
Ami je dekhechhi pratikar-heen, shakter aparadhe
Bicharer baani nirabe nibhrite kande.
Ami je dekhinu tarun balak unmad hoye chhute
Ki jantranay marechhe pathare nishphal matha kute.

Kantha amar ruddha ajike, banshi sangeet-hara
Amabasyar kara
Lupta karechhe amar bhuban duswapner tale
Tai to tomay shudhai asrujale
Jahara tomar bishaichhe bayu, nibhaichhe taba alo
Tumi ki tader kshama kariachho, tumi ki besechho bhalo?

Age after age, hast Thou, O Lord, sent messengers again and again
into this pitiless world.
And they have said 'Forgive all', said 'Love.'
'Kill rather the poison of hatred inside you.'
Worth admiration, worth remembrance, all; yet I turn them away
With failed greetings from my door on this dark day.

For I have seen secret hatred murder the helpless
Under the shade of hypocrisy
For I have seen redressless crimes of the powerful
Make silent justice weep furtively.
For I have seen frenzied young boys
Die in agony dashing their heads against stone, to no use.

My voice is choked today, my flute songless
A black moonless prison
Has submerged my world into a nightmare.
So in tears I ask Thee:
Those who poisoned Your air, those who extinguished Your light,
Is it that You have forgiven them? that You have come to love them?

-- Gitanjali.

Sunday, December 10


Photos by SMB.

Wednesday, December 6

Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven

The final part of 3 clips from a 2002 trip to China. In Beijing, we visit the Temple of Heaven and watch people in the surrounding gardens. Thereafter, we go to the Tien An Men Square area and thence proceed into the Forbidden City (now officially called the Palace Museum.) Various halls and galleries, like Bao He Dian -- the Hall of Preserving Harmony with its yellow Imperial throne, where the emperor held banquets and interviewed imperial-examination candidates -- can be seen. Running time 51 minutes.

Friday, December 1

Facebook India III

Photos by SMB.