Reign of Dharmapāla

By the middle of the eighth century, northern India was in political chaos. Gopāla, a new king, and his dynasty, the Pāla, exerted control over the region. On Gopāla’s death, his son Dharmapāla expanded the empire from the Bengal region across northern India to the modern Afghan city of Qandahār.

Summary of Event

During the medieval period of Indian history, northern India was a collection of small states stretching from the Himalayas to the Ganges River and west to the border of modern Afghanistan. Much of the knowledge of this era is fragmentary and based on archaeological findings all over northern and eastern India. Many of the sources for the period are literary in nature, sometimes leading to distortions in the facts and portrayals of the people and events of the time. [kw]Reign of Dharmapāla (770-810)
[kw]Dharmapāla, Reign of (770-810)
India;770-810: Reign of Dharmapāla[0700]
Expansion and land acquisition;770-810: Reign of Dharmapāla[0700]

Indian history is filled with tales of the battles among the many states in the Indian subcontinent. Monarchs of small states and tribes battled each other to gain control over their neighbors or to fend off the advances of those same neighbors. Frequently these mini-states would ally themselves with a dominant state in order to maintain their independence and the protection of the dominant state. Then, when the tide turned, they would switch alliances just as easily with a new, more powerful leader.

Such a revival of the fortunes of northern India was begun under the Pāla Dynasty. The Pāla followed the Gauḍa Dynasty Gauḍa Dynasty[Gauda Dynasty] . When the last Gauḍa ruler, Ṣaṣāṇka Ṣaṣāṇka , died, chaos ensued in the region. The Gauḍa Empire broke up into numerous mini-states that proved unable to protect their citizens from outside powers.

In an effort to produce stability, the rulers of the region chose a king, Gopāla Gopāla , who was the first of the Pāla rulers. The word pāla is interpreted to mean “protector,” which is an appropriate description of the role played by the dynasty. Gopāla was one of the era’s more effective leaders. He first secured his kingdom and then expanded it. Unlike most monarchs in India, Gopāla did not claim divine heritage but rather was a ruler with an ordinary past. The Pāla Dynasty would continue for more than four centuries, finally falling in 1161.

In 750, Gopāla’s kingdom was in the Vanga region of East Bengal. East Bengal was located in the Ganges Delta region of modern Bangladesh. Gopāla began expanding his kingdom by advancing northward and defeating several kings and their armies. He established a set of vassal kingdoms with rulers who paid tribute to him. Gopāla’s conquests involved him in a series of wars that continued even past his death.

Gopāla died in 770 and was succeeded by his son Dharmapāla. Almost immediately on taking his father’s throne, he was forced to fight off several challenges to his authority. His first victory was against the Kanauj tribe and its prince, Indrayadha Indrayadha . With this victory Dharmapāla called a durbar, or meeting, at Kanauj. He met with his allied kingdoms including Punjab, Rayputana, Malava, and Berar. Establishing his authority among those tribes, Dharmapāla felt strong enough to challenge his neighbors. He attempted to extend his dynasty’s control westward into north-central India.

In battling his western neighbors, Dharmapāla proved to be an effective leader who was able to recover from defeats and take advantage of opportunities to expand his kingdom. One of his first wars was with the Pratihāra Pratihāras[Pratiharas] , a neighboring tribe led by Vatsarāja Vatsarāja , an accomplished general who was able to defeat Dharmapāla. After his victory, though, Vatsarāja found himself under attack from another tribe fearful that the Pratihāra would acquire too much power. Vatsarāja was forced to fight King Dhruwa Dhruwa of neighboring Rārakūṭa Rāśṭrakūṭas[Rastrakutas] . Vatsarāja was defeated and fled the field. Dhruwa did not attempt to advance, leaving the area open for Dharmapāla, who moved his control west toward the Deccan plain.

Under a new leader, Nāgabhaṭa II Nāgabhaṭa II , the Pratihāra returned to challenge Dharmapāla, defeating him at the Battle of Monghyr, throwing Dharmapāla’s armies back eastward to their home territory. The Pratihāra then invaded Kanauj and overthrew Dharmapāla’s handpicked leader, Chakrayudha Chakrayudha . The Pratihāra occupied Kanauj and made it a vassal state for Nāgabhaṭa II.

Dharmapāla moved quickly to expel them from Kanauj. He allied himself with another powerful king, Govinda II Govinda II , who was able to attack and defeat the Pratihāra. In exchanged for Govinda’s aid, Dharmapāla agreed to become a junior partner in a loose confederation of the two kingdoms.


Dharmapāla’s reign saw the focus of power in India move to the north and east. His empire stretched from the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal to modern Pakistan. He established his capital in Pataliputra, making it a cultural and political center for the region.

Dharmapāla played a major role in the cultural development of the region. A Buddhist, he was responsible for constructing the Vikramasila monastery. He also built the Odantapurī monastery in Bihar. He was a patron for the famous Buddhist author Haribhadra. He supported learning by founding nearly fifty religious schools in his kingdom and spending considerable funds to advance religious learning. Buddhism;India

As the second ruler of the Pāla Dynasty, Dharmapāla expanded on his father’s conquests. During his reign, he established control over the region from Nepal to Afghanistan. Medieval writers described him as presiding over a huge army and an overwhelming navy. His army was thought to have numbered in the thousands, with hundreds of elephants that were used to move men and equipment quickly and to intimidate less well-equipped opponents.

Dharmapāla’s legacy includes the continued use of the Pāla name in the modern state of Nepal and the construction of Buddhist temples in northeast India. He succeeded in passing his empire to his son Devapāla, and the Pāla Dynasty continued to rule northern India until 1161.

Further Reading

  • Ali, Daud. Culture and Politics in the Courts of Medieval India. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A detailed work on the internal politics of medieval Indian kings.
  • Chandra, Satish. Essays on Medieval Indian History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A series of articles by a renowned student of Mughal history, analyzing the social, economic, state, and religious facets of India’s medieval history and their interrelationships.
  • Crewe, Tara Boland, and David Lea. The Territories and States of India. New York: Europa Press, 2002. Details the development of the many Indian states from the north and south of the country.
  • McLeod, John. A History of India. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. A broad-ranging work on ancient through modern India with focus on the various states and dynasties that ruled the country.
  • Metcalf, Barbara, and Thomas Metcalf. A Concise History of India. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A survey of the entire history of the subcontinent that places the various dynasties that ruled India in context.
  • Nizami, Khaliq Admad. Royalty in Medieval India. New Delhi: Munshoriam, 1997. Discusses the various monarchies in south, central, and northern India during its medieval period.
  • Saha, B. P., and K. S. Behera. Ancient History of India from Earliest Times to 1200 A.D. New Delhi: Vikas, 1988. Focuses on ancient through medieval India with emphasis on the social and political development of the people.
  • Sandha, Gurcharn Singh. A Military History of Medieval India. New Delhi: Vision Books, 2003. Discusses the weapons, tactics, and battles that occurred during India’s medieval history.
  • Sengupta, Nitish. A History of the Bengali Speaking People. New Delhi: UBS, 2001. Examines the Bengal region of northeast India and the development of the separate Bengali people.
  • Thapar, Romila. Early India: From the Origins to A.D. 1300. London: Allen Lane, 2002. Describes the development of civilization in India and the rise of the dynasties that came to rule it.