Dharmapala : The Great Emperor of Bengal




Dharmapala would found some of the greatest universities in early medieval India

The Buddhist universities of ancient India like Nalanda, Vikramshila, Somapura, Odantapura and others, were located in Kingdom of Bengal. This was no coincidence, for this great education system could only flourish here thanks to the patronage extended to it by the mighty Pala dynasty which ruled over Bengal and Bihar between the 8th -12th century CE.  At their height the Palas controlled a vast empire covering parts of Nepal in the North to Bangladesh in the East and Bihar in the south. Their capital was the ancient city of Gaur, remains of which in India and Bangladesh as an international border cuts across it. The greatest ruler of the Pala dynasty was Dharmapala, who expanded the empire to its greatest extent and captured the imperial city of Kanauj.

Historian differs on when Dharmatala ascended the throne.  RC Majumdar estimates his reign from 770 CE to 810 CE while DC Sircar estimates it to be from 775 CE – 812 CE. But what we do know is that soon after ascending the throne, Dharmapala had to face two formidable enemies, the Gurjara-Pratiharas of the West and the Rashtrakutas of the Deccan, all of whom were trying to control Kanauj.

In the 8th century CE, Kanauj in present day Uttar Pradesh, was at the centre of the most vicious battles of the time. In the fray, for control over this once imperial capital of Harsha were 3 rulers pulling from different directions - the Gurjara-Pratiharas of the West, the Rashtrakutas of the Deccan and the Pala’s of Bengal. Known as the great tripartite struggle of the time, a brief victory here, led the then Pala king Dharmapala to declare himself the Lord of the North. This is the first reference to the king who would go on to leave a great mark - as the founder of some of the greatest universities in early medieval India.

The kingdoms vying for Kanauj
The kingdoms vying for Kanauj|Wikimedia Commons

The ruler of Kanauj could build a single powerful kingdom and control the norther

These powers focused on capturing the city of Kanauj as the states which controlled Kanauj would eventually control the northern plains. After Harshavarshan (606 – 647 CE) made Kanauj his capital city, it became one of the most important cities in North India and an important trade and strategic hub. Kanauj was an important stop over for travelers from the North going East or South. As a prized city, the Rastrakutas, Pratiharas and Palas were perpetually at war to conquer the city from the 8th to 10th centuries CE. Even Lalitaditya of Kashmir sought to control Kanauj in the 8th century CE.

By the end of the 8th century, Dharmapala occupied Kanauj and placed Chakrayudha, one of his ministers, on the throne of Kanauj, only to lose it for some time and recapture it again.  His conquest over Kannauj made Dharmapala the most powerful ruler in North India. The poet Soddhala of Gujarat calls Dharmapala Uttarapathasvamin (Lord of the North) for his suzerainty over North India.

Khalimpur copper plate
Khalimpur copper plate|Umesh Chandra Batavyal via Wikimedia Commons

The copper plate of Dharmapala found in Khalimpur village in Maldah district of West Bengal gives an account of Dharmapalas great power and influence -

‘His court was attended by the rulers of Bhoja (possibly Vidarbha), Matsya (Jaipur region), Madra (East Punjab), Kuru (Delhi region), Yadu (possibly Mathura, Dwarka or Simhapura in the Punjab), Yavana (Greeks), Avanti, Gandhara and Kira (Kangra Valley). These kings accepted the installation of Chakrayudha on the Kannauj throne, while ‘bowing down respectfully with their diadems trembling.’

While the veracity of the claims made in the copper plate are questionable, we do know that Dharmapala was one of the greatest patrons of the great Buddhist universities in Bengal.

Ruins of the Vikramashila University
Ruins of the Vikramashila University|Rakesh Ranjan via Wikimedia Commons

He is said to be the founder of the Vikramshila University in Bhagalpur district of Bihar. Vikramshila University built between late 8th and early 9th century was one of the most important Buddhist centers of learning. Vikramshila University was built 200 kms from Nalanda. It was built as a response to the declining state of University of Nalanda, due to general decline in Buddhism, and loss of patronage from merchants and kings. Vikramashila had more than one hundred teachers and about one thousand students. It is from Vikramshila that the second wave of Buddhism spread to Tibet.



Somapura Buddhist University
Somapura Buddhist University |Kazi Rashed Abdallah via Wikimedia Commons

Dharmapala also established the Somapura University and Mahavihara in present-day Bangladesh around 781-821 CE. The great university at Somapura was spread over 21 acre of land and the complex had 177 cells, numerous stupas, temples and a number of other subsidiary buildings. It is one of the few Buddhist centers which survived the invading forces of Bakhtyar Khilji, turkic military general of Qutb ud-Din Aibak, but later died out due to lack of patronage.

Today, only few remains of built heritage -sculpture and stupas and literary texts remain of the great Pala empire of Bengal and the memory of its greatest emperor. The great city of Kannauj , over which three empires were perpetually at war, is now a middle rung city in Uttar Pradesh.

Cover Image: Masum-al-hasan via Wikimedia Commons

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