The Sena Empire: Rise and Fall of the Last Hindu Kings of Bengal
The kings of the Sena Empire, who were part of the Brahmin top-echelon caste in India, originally came from Karnata in southern India before they moved to the Bengali region. The history of the Sena Dynasty can be found etched and inscribed on stones, pillars, and copper plates unearthed by decades of archaeological inquiry which places their reign from 1097 until 1245 and identifies three major kings: Vijayapura, Vallalsena, and Laksmanasena.
Before the Sena Empire: The Pala Dynasty
Before the Sena Empire’s rise to power, it was the Pala Dynasty that exercised overlordship over Bengal. Following the death of Sansaka and vicious civil strife, a confederation of Indian kings elected Gopala as ruler in 750, the first of the Pala Dynasty, putting a stop to the internecine violence that had ravaged the land. Such a move, in which other warlords recognized one supreme ruler, was highly unusual for the time, with claimants more likely to fight each other to death for the prize of sovereignty.
Nevertheless, Gopala brought peace and stability to the region by consolidating and extending his territories to cover the majority of Bengal. A devout follower of the Buddha, he also encouraged the spread of Buddhism among his new subjects, establishing it as the state religion for the next 400 years.
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Gopala’s successor, Dharmapala, is regarded as the greatest king of the dynasty, expanding Pala power to an unprecedented scale upon his assumption of the throne in 770. Soon after his coronation, and despite earlier losses, Dharmapala crushed the kingdoms of Pratiharas and Rashtrakus in a conflict known as the Tripartite Struggle, establishing Pala supremacy on the sub-continent for the remainder of his reign. His power was further solidified by a wide array of vassal states which pledged allegiance to his mastery of north India.
In 810 he was succeeded by his son Devapala, an equally proficient military commander and tactician, who fought his way to the throne after a fierce struggle with his brother, Tribhuvanpala. Like his father, Dharmapala, Devapala was also interested in enlarging and enriching his dominion, conquering the areas of Vindhayas and the Kamboja, as well as receiving large tributes from the ruling clans of the northern reaches. His ambitions were achieved with a notable amount of violence and destruction, as an inscription mentions how he “eradicated the race of the Utkalas.”
The period in which Devapala administered the kingdom represented the pinnacle of the Pala Dynasty, which started to fall into decay at the helm of the next monarch, Surapala. His weak successors eventually lost the entire region of Bengal during the rules of Gopala II and Vigrahapala II. In the midst of decline, independent kingdoms started to challenge Pala strength and rule in the lost territories of Bengal, even bestowing on themselves imperial and military titles that had traditionally only been attributed to Pala regents.
Following a brief revival in 988 under King Mahipala I, who reclaimed the northern and eastern parts of Bengal, the kingdom once again began to falter, suffering a rebellion from vassal states in the 11th century under Mahipala II, who was killed in the uprising. Although re-establishing authority briefly, the last Pala emperor, Ramapala, was eventually usurped by a rising dynasty seeking hegemony: the Sena Dynasty.
Coin of the Pala Empire, Mahipala I and later. c.988–1161. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / CC BY-SA 3.0)
A New Threat: Early Formation of the Sena Empire
Their name of the Sena Dynasty originated from the Sanskrit term Shenya which meant hawk, a particular fitting characterization of the family’s devious machinations in the several decades it took them to finally replace the Pala Dynasty, who ruled from 750 to 1160.
The first Sena to appear in recorded history was a man named Samantasena, who had established a power base in western Bengal as a vassal lord pledging fealty to the Pala after the plundering of the treasures of Karnata, a civilization identified as the Cholas, between 1070 and 1095.
It’s likely that Samantasena, a strong and ambitious general, was employed by the Pala and worked alongside them as a subordinate ruler and military commander. The Pala are known to have had samatas or “subordinates” from Karnata, and there are several recorded cases of intermarriage between the Karnata and the Pala as well as evidence to suggest that they worked together as soldiers.
As he grew older however, Samantasena’s taste for rulership lessened, and he decided to hand over the reigns of power to his son Hermantasena in 1095 before settling down on the banks of the Ganges River. Hermantasena, an obstinate warlord, further developed the nucleus of power established by his father, taking advantage of an internal Pala revolt by conquering large swathes of territory in Bengal to create a principality in Radha.
Thanks to Hermantasena, the Senas established themselves as perhaps the most important vassal kingdom in the political networks of the Pala. In spite of this success however, the Senas were still subordinates, with one inscription describing Hermantasena as a rajaraksasudaksah or “Protector of the King.” Hermantasena’s reign, which lasted for only a year, represented an intermediary period between Samantasena and the dynasty’s most famous ruler, Vijayasena, who would extend the Sena imperium to unimaginable heights.
Map showing location of the Sena Empire. (Koba-chan / CC BY-SA 3.0)
A Rising Power in the Sena Empire: King Vijayasena
It was during the 64-year reign of Vijayasena, starting in 1096, that power finally started to slip away from the Pala Dynasty. Vijayasena, unhappy at the junior status of his newly inherited realm, which only included a portion of south-west Bengal called Rahra, defeated one of the last Pala emperors, Mandanapala, in 1152 or 1153, reducing his rival’s power to almost nothing and establishing a hereditary capital at Vikramapura in modern-day Bangladesh.
In the years leading up to his victory, Vijayasena had made some astute political moves, establishing independence over his dominion as a reward for helping Ramapala defeat the Kaivartas and further reinforcing his position by marrying Vilasadevi, a princess of the Shura Dynasty who ruled southern Radha, which enabled him to exercise control over the entire region.
Vijayasena’s ambitions however were not just limited to Bengal as he undertook numerous military expeditions against foes that were further afield, such as a naval expedition against the Kannauji Dynasty up the River Ganges, and a triumphant invasion of Mithila against its ruler, King Nanyadeva, who was forced to escape to Nepal where he established the Karnatic Dynasty. Viyasena crushed all of his enemies, reportedly making four kings captive after the conquests of Kamarupa and Kalinga.
Vijayasena’s exploits were so impressive that they were immortalized in two works by Indian poet Sriharsa called the Gaud-Ovisa-Kula-prashast’i and Vijaya-prashasti. His accomplishments were certainly grandiose, as he made the Sena empire the first power in history to rule over all of Bengal.
Copper plate with inscription recording a land grant of King Vijayasena of Bengal. It includes the royal seal of the Sena Dynasty, a ten-armed figure of the god Shiva, at the top of the plaque. (The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
The Sena Pinnacle: King Vallalsena
The next Sena to inherit the throne, Vallalsena, endeavored to extinguish the Sena’s remaining rivals. He finally wiped out the Pala for good after defeating the last Pala monarch, Govindapala in 1160, and consolidated his territories with a marriage to Ramadevi, a princess of the Western Chalukya Empire. The Vallalcharita, by Anandabhatta, listed his territories as including Vanga, Varendra, Rarha, Bagadi, and Mithila, the latter of which he had helped administer in the reign of his father.
Vallalsena is credited with the re-introduction of orthodox Hinduism, which he codified in religious manuscripts called the upperanas. Kulinism, as his doctrine was known, required that a strong caste system be put in place to socially distinguish the hierarchies of society, with the Brahmanas occupying the top-spot. In order to climb the social ladder, women were expected to marry higher-ranking nobles in a practice called hypergamy.
On the other hand, there is some controversy surrounding the claims, which were published in texts written five or six centuries after Sena ascendancy. Some have argued that Kulinism was attributed to Vallalsena in order to provide a historical basis for the system which would help justify its institution into society, as no contemporary evidence from his reign supporting this development exists. Others such as D. C. Sircar, however, contend that the rise of Kunilism could be linked to Sena attempts to associate themselves with the Brahmanas of the west in a bid to increase prestige.
Nevertheless, Vallalsena was remembered mostly for his artistic legacy rather than his military and political feats. As well as being a ruler, Vallalsena was a celebrated scholar and poet, writing the prominent Danasagara in 1168 and starting the Adbhutasagara in 1169, which was later completed by his successor.
He was an enlightened ruler who regularly gave to charity. “His charitable acts were so varied and so numerous that the tila necessary for the purpose rendered the surface of the Ganges dark and made it look like its confluence with the Jumma,” explained a passage from the Adbhutasagara, for instance, in praise of his philanthropic gestures. However, like his great-grandfather Samasena, Vallalsena became disenchanted with governance, and retired to the Ganges with his wife for his final days, gifting the realm to his son Laksmanasena.
King Laksmanasena is remembered for supporting the work of renowned poets such as Jayadeva, author of the Gitagovinda, a lyrical poem celebrating the romance between the divine cowherd Krishna and his beloved Radha the milkmaid. (Public domain)
Decline of the Sena Empire: King Laksmanasena
When Laksmanasena came to power in 1178 he was 50 years old, which was considered extremely old for the time, yet the martial achievements of his youth proved he was just as strong and capable as his predecessors. Inscriptions attest to his military forays against the King of Gauda and Varansi and his invasions of Kamarupa and Kalinga, conquests which he probably undertook with his father and grandfather.
Although he may have had a good working relationship with his forbearers, Laksmanasena disagreed with them on spiritual terms, choosing to adopt the Vaishnava religion instead of the traditional Shaiva faith of his family. He was also the first Sena to have the title of Gauresvara, previously used by the Pala and meaning “Lord of the Gaur,” which helped to reinforce his dominion.
His administration was most exalted for its important literary activities which were undertaken by his court of renowned poets. The emissaries included writers such as the Hindu poet Jayadeva, the 12th century author of the lyrical Sanskrit poem Gitagovinda, and Halayudha Mishra, his Chief Minister and Judge who was also the author of the Brahmanasarvasva.
Laksmanasena himself was an esteemed writer, penning many Sanskrit poems and completing the Adbhutasagara originally started by his father, Vallalsena, in 1169. Laksmanasena was just as generous as a ruler as he was with his artistic grants, being described as the Great Rae by Minhaj-i-Siraj, the Islamic author of the Tabaqat-i-Nasiri.
Despite the great literary achievements of his reign, Laksmanasena was unable to keep the Sena Empire together in his old age, which started to crumble towards the end of his life. In a mirror image of the problems faced by the last significant Pala king, Rampala, independent-minded kingdoms began to disobey the Senas and seriously destabilize their power.
The final blow to the Sena Empire happened in 1204, when a Turkic-Muslim force of adventurers led by Muhammed Bakhityar Khaliji took the city of Nadia, a major Sena stronghold, forcing Laksmanasena to flee into exile. Some have proposed that Laksmanasena was the victim of a conspiracy hatched by members of his court and the Muslim interlopers.
In the following years, up to his death in 1206 and after fleeing to Vikramapura, the ancestral seat of power, Laksmanasena ruled from Lakhanuti, retaining a modest presence in south-eastern Bengal. Some claim that like many before him he decided to renounce his kingly titles to lead an ascetic lifestyle on the banks of the Ganges.
His successors, Vishvarupasena, Keshavasena, and the last Sena, Madhusena, were little more than vassal kings dominated by the new Muslim caliphate, yet they still retained local authority, with evidence of land grants illustrating their power continued for at least another 25 years in the area. However, by the mid-13th century the Senas were replaced by the Deva Dynasty, who assumed authority over their ancient capital, Vikramapura, and by the end of the century the whole of Bengal had been overtaken by the Muslims.
The Legacy of Sena Empire
After the fall of their empire in Bengal, Suryasena, the ousted son of Vishvarupasena, moved to the Himalayas in 1220 and established the kingdoms of Suket, Mandi, Keonthal, and Kashtwar, allowing Sena power to once again flourish, this time in the areas around Nepal up until the 18th century, when they were supplanted by the Gorkhalis Dynasty.
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Thanks to Suryasena, the Sena family survived up until the 20th century where they helped forge the future of an independent India. The king of Suket in 1947 for example was also called Lakshmanasena, and his son Lalit Sena was elected as a member of the Lok Sabha of India before becoming the Indian Political Secretary under the premiership of Lal Bahadur Shastri.
The Senas left behind them several important legacies that would forever be present in the fabric of Indian society. As well as being great patrons of Sanskrit literature, they also developed the Bengali script and language and were responsible for many of its current-day features. They expanded orthodox Brahminism, which led to the entrenchment of conservative social norms. Elsewhere, they instigated a new measurement unit of land, called the nala or “reed measure” to more accurately calculate government income.
Top image: Artists impression of Brahmin, representative of the of the Sena Dynasty elite, who were part of the Brahmin top-echelon caste in India who forged the Sena Empire. Source: Olena / Adobe Stock
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
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