The Pala Empire: An Indian Dynasty Ruled by Protectors of Buddhism
The Pala Empire was an empire that was centered on the area of Bengal and Bihar, in the north and northeastern parts of India. This empire was founded during the 8th century AD and existed for about 400 years. One of the most significant aspects of the Pala Empire is the fact that its rulers were Buddhists and made several important contributions to this faith.
Prior to the establishment of the Pala Empire, the area of Bengal was experiencing a period of anarchy and confusion. This period came about as a consequence of the death of Shashanka, the ruler of the Gauda Kingdom. It was under Shashanka that the region of Bengal was unified and transformed into a separate political entity for the first time. A weak central government resulted in internal disorder and raised the risk of external invasion.
Carved shankhas (conch shells) from the Pala period. (Claire H./CC BY SA 2.0)
Naming the Pala Dynasty Founder
After a century of this chaotic situation, the people of Bengal had had enough, and the leading men of the state assembled and elected Gopala to serve as the ruler of the whole area. This event is deemed to be politically significant, as Gopala was democratically elected as ruler by independent political authorities.
The word ‘pala’ is said to mean ‘protector’ in Sanskrit, and the Pala Empire derived its name from the fact that all its rulers from Gopala onwards had the suffix - pala in their names. The first ruler of the Pala Empire, Gopala, is believed to have been a local chieftain whose family rose to power during the chaotic decades of the 8th century AD. His father and grandfather are recorded to have been Vapyata and Dayitavishnu respectively.
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Whilst Gopala’s grandfather is reported to have been a learned man, he is not known to have had any significant military achievements. Gopala’s father, on the other hand, is reckoned to have been a powerful chief who vanquished his enemies on the battlefield. It is plausible that it was thanks to Vapyata’s achievements and reputation as a warrior that Gopala was chosen as ruler.
Unfortunately, not much is known about Gopala. What is certain, however, is that he brought order back to the area of Bengal. Gopala is also recorded to have been a devout Buddhist and is credited with the establishment of the Odantapura monastery in the modern Indian state of Bihar. By the time of Gopala’s death, commonly said to have been around 770 AD, the area ruled by the Pala Empire was enjoying a period of peace and prosperity. Gopala was succeeded by his son, Dharmapala, who continued the work of his father.
Buddha, Mahayana tradition, Pala Dynasty, 11th century. (Public Domain)
Rise and Fall of an Empire
During this time, there were two other powers that were in competition with the Palas. One of them was the Pratihara Empire in the northwest of India, and the other was the Rashtrakuta Empire in the Deccan. Dharmapala was not able to defeat either power, but circumstances worked in such a way that he profited the most from the conflict.
Whilst the Palas were defeated by the Pratiharans, they in turn were beaten by the Rashtrakutans, who also defeated the Palas in battle before returning to the Deccan. Once the Rashtrakutans had left, Dharmapala was able to turn the Pala Empire into the dominant power in the north and was even successful in setting up one of his nominees on the throne of the coveted city of Kannauj, which had served as the capital of the North Indian Emperor Harsha.
Shiva and Parvati, Gurjara-Pratihara Dynasty of Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, India, 9th to early 10th century - Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (CC0)
Dharmapala was succeeded by his son, Devapala, and the empire continued to prosper during his reign. It was after Devapala’s death that the first decline of the Pala Empire began. This situation continued until the ascension of Mahipala I around the end of the 10th century, who succeeded in restoring some of the empire’s lost prestige.
Nevertheless, the successors of Mahipala were not as capable as he was, and the empire began to decline once more. The last Pala ruler of note was Ramapala, who ruled between the 11th and 12th centuries AD. Like Mahipala, he was somewhat successful in reversing the fortunes of the Pala Empire, though not long after his death, the Pala Empire was replaced by the Sena Empire.
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Sculpture from the Pala or Sena period. (Sailko/CC BY SA 3.0)
Legacy of the Pala Empire
The most prominent legacy of the Pala Empire is the contribution it made towards Buddhism. Thanks to the patronage of the Pala rulers, important Buddhist centers of learning, such as Odantapura, Vikramashila, and Somapura Mahavihara were built.
Additionally, the arts and culture flourished as well, as evidenced by the sculptures in stone and metal that have survived till today. Last but not least, it was due to Buddhist missionaries sent by the Pala rulers that the second dissemination of the faith occurred in Tibet, allowing Buddhism to be finally established in that part of the world.
Ruins of Vikramashila Mahavihara. (Rakesh Ranjan/CC BY 2.0)
Top Image: Central shrine decor at Somapura Mahavihara, a Buddhist center of learning from the Pala empire. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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