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LOCATION: Bangladesh (Bengal region); India (state of West Bengal and other northeastern states)
POPULATION: 380 million (estimate, including expatriates)
RELIGION: Islam; Hinduism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Hindus; Vol. 4: Muslims


Bengālīs are the inhabitants of Bengal in the northeastern part of the South Asian subcontinent. Historically, the area was known as Banga, after local peoples who settled in the region over 1,000 years ago. This ancient term survives in many modern names, e.g., the region of Bengal, the Bengali (or Bangla) language, and the country of Bangladesh (literally, "the land of the Bengali people").

Bengal came under the influence of many political empires that arose in northern India. It was ruled by the Buddhist Pala dynasty from the 8th to the 12th centuries AD. Following this, it had a series of Muslim overlords and by the late 16th century formed part of the Moghal Empire. With the decline of the Moghals, the region was governed by the independent Nawabs of Bengal until they were deposed by the British in the middle of the 18th century (1757–64). In 1757, at the Battle of Plassey, a small village and mango grove near Calcutta (Kolkata), the forces of the East India Company under Robert Clive defeated the army of Siraj-ud-daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, and thus the Company gained the right to administer Bengal, and in 1765 it gained the Diwani of Bengal, which virtually conferred upon it the civil authority of the Province in perpetuity.

In 1905, Bengal was divided into the Provinces of Bengal (essentially the modern state of West Bengal and Bihar) and Eastern Bengal and Assam (the modern Bangladesh and the Indian state of Assam). There was considerable opposition to this partition, particularly among Bengālīs, and in 1912 Eastern Bengal was reunited with Bengal. Assam was created as a separate province in 1914. At the same time, at the end of 1911, the capital of British India was moved from Calcutta to Delhi, where Lutyens and Baker created an imperial capital that is today New Delhi.

The political events in the region following Independence in 1947, led to another partition of Bengal into East and West, again dividing the peoples of Bengali culture, not only between two administrative units, but between two countries. The eastern parts of Bengal, where Muslims were most numerous, were assigned to Pakistan when India was partitioned in 1947. East Pakistan, as it was known, became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971, following a bloody civil war between Bengālīs and West Pakistanis.

Calcutta, on the River Hooghly—a tributary of the River Ganges, is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal and is the "Bengali" city, par excellence. It is a major center of intellectual activity (Bengālīs see themselves as the "intellectuals" of India). Today, it has a population of about 5 million and forms an urban conglomeration of approaching 16 million people, ranking third in size in India, after Delhi and Bombay. Until 1911, Calcutta served as the capital of British India (it is the starting point of the Grand Trunk [GT] Road that links the cities of the Ganges Plain over its 2,500 km length to the North West Frontier) and is said to have rivaled London in its splendor. One only has to see the magnificent, decaying mansions that abound in Calcutta to get a sense of what it must have been like in the 19th century. Unlike Delhi, Calcutta is a colonial creation, being founded by the British in 1690. The city was a hotbed of the Free India movement prior to Independence, but experienced massive Hindu-Muslim riots prior to partition. The 1947 Partition of Bengal affected Calcutta's hinterland. For instance, the city, a major regional center of the jute manufacturing industry, lost access to its jute-growing areas, which fell to East Pakistan.

West Bengal is one of the few states in the world that has had a democratically-elected communist government for several decades. The government led by Chief Minister Buddadeb Bhattacharjee of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM), is formed by the Left Alliance, a coalition led by the CPIM. As of 2008, it had been in power since the 1970s.


The 2001 census puts the population of West Bengal at just over 209.5 million and that of Bangladesh at 131.3 million. This, along with the number of ex-patriots and growth since 2001, makes the 2008 estimate of the numbers of Bengali speaking peoples in the world around 380 million people. The greatest number of Bengālīs are found in Bangladesh with the remainder living in the Indian state of West Bengal. Significant communities of Bengali-speaking peoples are distributed throughout other states in northeastern India. Bengālīs have also emigrated in large numbers to the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.

The lower plains and vast delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers lie at the heart of the Bengal region. The rich fertile soils, renewed by periodic deposits of sediment, support some of the highest agricultural population densities found anywhere in the world. Water is constantly present, in rivers, streams, and ponds. The many rivers that cross the landscape provide an important means of transportation, but also hinder land communications. Frequent floods in the region cause extensive damage and loss of life. In the extreme north, a narrow strip of West Bengal State reaches into the foothills of the Himalayas around Darjiling. The climate on the plains is hot and humid, with mean monthly temperatures at Calcutta ranging from 20°C (68°F) in winter to 30°C (86°F) in summer. In May 1991, maximum temperatures in Calcutta rose to 40° (104°F). Heavy rains, most of it falling between May and early October, occur during the monsoon period. Calcutta receives 158 cm (62 in) annually, though this total increases to nearly 400 cm (over 150 in) in some parts of the region.


The language of the region is Bengali, which is a member of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European linguistic family. Like most of the other languages of northern India, it is derived from Sanskrit. Dialects of Bengali, such as Radha, that are spoken in the western region are quite different from those in the east, which show strong Arabo-Persian influences. Other regional dialects include Rajbangshi, Varendra, and Vanga. Bengali is written in its own script, which contains 57 letter symbols. Numerous Bengali speakers have migrated into the Indian state of Assam, so much so that Bengali is one of the state's official languages.


The folk traditions of Bengal include folk tales, songs, and riddles that express the values, beliefs, superstitions, and taboos of the common Bengali people. One popular folk tale, known all over the region and even forming the basis for a film, is "Seven Champa Brothers and One Sister Parul." (The Champa and Parul are trees native to the Bengal area.) There once was a king, so the story goes, who was married to seven queens. When the favorite youngest queen gave birth to seven sons and a daughter, the barren elder queens were jealous. They killed the babies, buried them in a garbage heap, and substituted puppies and kittens instead. Fearing witchcraft, the king banished the youngest queen. Seven Champa trees and one Parul tree grew out of the garbage heap where the babies were buried. When the evil queens, and even the king, tried to pluck the flowers from the trees, the flowers moved away. They asked for the banished queen to be brought to them. She plucked the flowers, and a boy emerged from each Champa flower and a girl from the Parul flower. They were reunited with their mother and their father, the king. When the king learned the truth, he had the jealous queens killed and lived happily ever after with his remaining wife and children. The main theme of this tale is that jealousy leads to wrongdoing, but this will eventually be found out and punished.


Bengālīs, though unified by a common language and culture, are divided by religion. Over 60% of Bengālīs, most living in Bangladesh, are Muslim. Even in Hindu India, more than 20% of West Bengal's population is Muslim. This reflects the historical importance of Islam in Bengal during nearly 800 years of the region's history. Most Muslim Bengālīs are Sunnis, though Sufism also plays a role in their religious lives.

Bengālīs in India are mainly Hindu, with beliefs and customs conforming to the orthodox forms of the religion. West Bengal, however, is also known for some unusual Hindu sects. Vaishnavas are followers of the Hindu god Vishnu. But Bengali Vaishnavas believe that Krishna is the supreme deity, rather than an incarnation of Vishnu. Accordingly, the rituals of this devotional (bhakti) movement focus solely on the forms and images of Krishna. Shaktism is a religious cult based on the worship of the female principle (śakti, literally "energy"). The Bengal form of Shaktism involves the worship of the goddess Kali. Kalighat in Calcutta, where animal sacrifices are carried out in the name of the goddess, is one of the major Shakti centers in the region. Popular religion in Bengal reflects a mixing of Hindu and Muslim folk beliefs, deities, and customs. For example, Hindus as well as Muslims worship at Sufishrines.

Bengal is known for its itinerant religious musicians such as the Bauls. These, who are both Hindu and Muslim and tend to ignore sectarian differences between the two religions, wander from village to village singing devotional hymns and folk songs for the local people.


Bengālīs celebrate the major holidays of the Muslim and Hindu faiths. For Muslims, these include Id ul-Fitr, Id ul-Adha (Bakr-Id), and even Muharram. Bengali Hindus observe Holi, Divali, and other important festivals on the religious calendar, but Durga Puja is of particular importance to them. Dedicated to the goddess Durga, who is a manifestation of Shakti (female energy), the festivities last for nine days. Months before the festival, special images are made of Durga, showing her mounted on a lion and killing the evil demon Mahishasura. These images are lavishly painted and decorated. They are worshiped on each day of the festival. On the tenth day, the image, garlanded with flowers, is carried through the streets in procession by an excited crowd. The procession makes it way to a river or the ocean, where the image of Durga is thrown into the water to be carried away by the current or tide. Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and Saraswati, goddess of learning, also have their annual festivals. At the level of folk religion, both Hindus and Muslims worship local deities such as Shitala, the goddess of smallpox.


Rites of passage followed by Bengālīs are prescribed in outline by Islam or Hinduism but have underlying currents that are specifically "Bengali" in nature. For example, Muslims follow the custom of saying the Call to Prayer (azān) to the newborn, but the umbilical cord is cut by the midwife who is usually a Hindu of the Hari caste. She performs the same task for Hindus, except for those who are of too low a rank to receive her services. Hindus observe the naming ceremony, the initiation ritual known as the "first feeding of rice" (annaprāśana), and—for the higher castes—the sacred thread ceremony (upanayana).Muslim boys undergo the all-important circumcision rite (sunnat).

As with other Hindus, Bengālīs cremate the dead. The funeral pyre is usually lit on the banks of a river or stream, with the necessary rites normally performed by the deceased's eldest son. Death is followed by a period of mourning (which varies in length according to caste), purification rites, and the śrāddha or death feast held at the end of the mourning period. Muslim practice requires that the body be ritually bathed and wrapped in a shroud before being taken to the place of burial. There the body is laid in its grave with the face turned to the west, i.e., in the direction of Mecca. Prayers for the dead and readings from the Quran are part of the funeral rites.


Hindu Bengālīs greet each other by saying "Namaskar," placing the hands together in front of the body with the palms touching. This form of greeting is widespread throughout India. Sometimes the phrase "Kamen asso" (How are you?) is added. Muslim Bengālīs use "Salaam" or "Salaam alaikum," accompanied by the appropriate gestures.


Rural settlement patterns in Bengal vary from the compact, shapeless villages of West Bengal, to the isolated farmsteads of the Ganges Delta, to the hamlet clusters of the northern plains. House types and construction reflect local environmental conditions. In the interior, houses are made of mud, bamboo, and brush wood. Roofs are thatched, though the more-prosperous now use corrugated iron. In Bangladesh, a typical village house consists of several huts around a compound. Facing the compound is the main structure, with a veranda in front that leads into the living quarters. These may consist of one or more bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. Other huts on the sides of the compound are used for storage and cattle sheds. There is usually no latrine, with villagers using the fields for their daily functions. Such a lifestyle and standard of living are in marked contrast to those of the urban elites, who enjoy all the modern conveniences of city living. Some of the wealthy industrialists and business owners of Calcutta have a style of living that compares favorably with that found among the wealthy in the United States.


Bengālīs follow the normal patterns of Hindus and Muslims in South Asia in their social organization. Bengali Hindus belong to castes (jāti), and their caste ranking influences many aspects of their economic and social lives. Muslims are, in theory, egalitarian but they also retain traces of a social hierarchy. In both communities, marriages are arranged by the parents. Hindu marriages are governed by rules of caste endogamy (i.e., marriage within the caste) and lineage exogamy (marriage outside one's immediate line of descent). In contrast, Muslims have no caste restrictions, although marriage partners are usually chosen from families of similar social standing. Cousin marriage is common among Bengali Muslims. The actual wedding ceremonies follow standard Hindu or Muslim rites. After marriage, the newlyweds typically take up residence in the household of the husband's father.

The extended family is common among both Hindus and Muslims, though this is changing among the educated, urban elites. As in most communities in South Asia, women remain subordinate to men. Some Muslims continue the custom of purdah (the seclusion of women from males). Divorce and widow remarriage reflect traditional Hindu and Muslim practices.


In rural areas, Muslim men wear the lunglī, a piece of (often checkered) cloth that is wrapped around the waist and extends to the ground, covering the legs. Hindus dress in the dhot1ī, the long piece of white cotton cloth that is wrapped around the waist, then drawn between the legs in the manner of a loincloth. Village men usually go shirtless but on occasion may put on a vest or a long shirt called a punjāb1ī as an upper garment. Wooden sandals are common, and during the rainy season almost everyone sports an umbrella. Women wear the sari and blouse, though younger Muslim girls may favor the combination of salwār (loose trousers) and kam1īz (tunic). Women in the countryside go barefoot. A variety of rings, bangles, and other ornaments and jewelry are worn by women of all classes.

In large metropolitan areas such as Calcutta and other cities and towns, safari suits or Western-style business suits, shirts, and jackets are a common sight. Younger urban women may also dress in Western fashions, although the sari is retained for formal occasions.


Boiled rice is the staple food in rural Bengal, eaten with vegetables such as onion, garlic, eggplant, and a variety of gourds according to the season. Fish and meat are favorite foods, but their cost places them beyond the reach of most villagers. The vegetables, fish, and meat are prepared as spicy curried dishes. Beef and water-buffalo meat are popular with Muslims. Hindus view the cow as sacred, and so they do not eat beef. Most Bengali Hindus are not vegetarians, however, and will eat goats, ducks, chickens, and eggs, in addition to fish. Cuisine among the more-affluent includes Mughal-style dishes including pilaf and biryan1ī (rice dishes containing meat and vegetables), kebābs (barbecued meat), and meat dishes known as kormā. Milk forms an important element in the diet, and milk-based sweets are popular throughout the region. Tea may be drunk, as it is throughout India, at any time of the day.


Literacy rates vary among Bengālīs. Those living in Bangladesh, especially in rural areas, are likely to be poorly educated and illiterate. Bangladesh has the lowest overall literacy rate (34.8%) of any South Asian country. By contrast, literacy in West Bengal (57.7% in 1991) is slightly higher than the average for India (52.6%). Education has long been a mark of higher social status among Bengālīs, and this is reflected in the high college enrollment in West Bengal. Vishva-Bharati University, founded by the Bengali writer Rabrindanath Tagore in Shantiniketan, is world-famous as a center for the study of Indian history and culture. The University of Calcutta, with its numerous affiliated colleges, is one of the major academic institutions in India.


Bengālīs are heirs to one of the richest literary traditions in the Indian subcontinent. The earliest known works in Bengali are Buddhist texts that date to the 10th and 11th centuries AD. The influence of the Vaishnava saint and mystic Chaitanya (1485–1534) on the development of medieval Bengali literature was immense. Some of the gems of Bengali poetry at this time were the songs dedicated to Krishna and his consort Radha. Islam, too, contributed to medieval Bengali literature through the devotional works of the Sufis and the writings of other Muslims.

More recently, Bengālīs have created a vibrant modern literature ranging from the novel and short story to poetry and drama. Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and writer, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Bengālīs have also achieved great success in the field of classical Indian music and dance. Satyajit Ray (1921–1992), the only Indian film director of his era to gain international fame and acclaim, was a Bengali. There still exists an important film industry in Calcutta producing Bengali films.


Bengālīs are predominantly rural and agricultural in nature, with over two-thirds of the region's population engaged in cultivation. Bengal's climate allows three crops to be grown in the year, with wet-rice cultivation dominating the economy. Jute, produced mostly in Bangladesh, is the major cash crop of the region. West Bengal, however, is also an industrial area. The cities and towns along the banks of the Hooghly River (an arm of the Ganges) make up one of India's most important manufacturing regions. It is here, 154 km (96 mi) upstream from the Bay of Bengal, that Calcutta is located. Founded in 1690 as a British trading post on the banks of the river, Calcutta is now one of the world's largest cities with a population of over 12 million people. Its industries include jute processing, engineering, textiles, and chemicals. Calcutta is perhaps the most important intellectual and cultural center of India, a fact of which Bengālīs are extremely proud. The city is the birthplace of Indian nationalism, and of modern Indian literary and artistic thought.


Bengali children play games common to children all over South Asia. These include tag, hide-and-seek, kite-flying, marbles, and spinning tops. Youths and young adults enjoy wrestling. Cricket, soccer, and field hockey are major spectator sports, and many children play these games at school as well. Sports such as tennis, golf, and horse-racing are popular among the Westernized urban middle classes.


Recreational activities among Bengālīs vary to a considerable degree. Villagers in isolated rural areas may derive their greatest pleasure from fairs, religious festivals, and Bengali folk traditions such as jātrā (itinerant folk theater), the bhātiālī (boater's songs), and the baul (mystical songs sung by wandering minstrels). On the other hand, the sophisticated resident of Calcutta has access to radio, television, theater, movies, films, museums, and other cultural activities.


The folk arts and crafts of Bengal reflect the diversity of its people and the skills of its artisans. Among the items produced are hand printed textiles, embroidered quilt work, terra-cotta dolls, toys, and idols such as those used during Durga Puja. Alpana drawings, religious designs prepared by Hindu women, are made on walls, floors, and courtyards out of rice-paste. The decoration of boats is a thriving folk art in the delta region. Copper and brass metalwork, pottery, weaving, basketry, and carpentry are among the many activities pursued by the craftspeople in the region.


As might be expected in such a large and diverse population, problems vary considerably in their nature and scope. Some problems, such as frequent flooding in Bengal, reflect the region's environmental setting. Others—for example, poverty and illiteracy—result from the fact that the people live in countries that are still developing. Thus, malnutrition among villagers in rural Bangladesh mirror that country's standing as one of the poorest nations in the world. Similarly, the plight of the urban poor in cities like Calcutta and Dhaka is linked to the dynamics of urban growth in the Third World. Still other problems originate in the political volatility of the region. Bangladesh, for example, has experienced civil unrest, suspension of democratic rights, and repressive military governments.

Social tensions in the region often arise from a mix of cultural, historical, and political factors. There are non-Bengali minorities in both West Bengal (the Gorkhas in the north who want a Gorkha homeland) and Bangladesh (e.g., the Chakmas in eastern Bangladesh) who have resorted to violence to fight what they see as Bengali cultural imperialism. Similarly, large numbers of Bengālīs fled Bangladesh during both Partition and the country's 1971 War of Independence. In West Bengal, this refugee problem was largely one of numbers. However, in India's northeastern states such as Assam and Tripura, where the population is non-Bengali, this created ethnic tensions between Bengali refugees and the local peoples. Resentment against these "foreigners" is strong and periodically, as in Assam in the early 1980s, leads to ethnic violence. An armed militant organization namely United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was established in 1979 "with a purpose of liberating Assam from the illegal occupation of India," i.e. limiting the Bengali presence in Assam. Such events, however, are but the most recent chapter in the story of a people that extends back almost 1,000 years. Language, history, and shared traditions give Bengālīs a sense of identity that makes Bengali culture one of the most unique and distinctive in all of South Asia.


Despite the efforts of governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Women for Women to promote gender equality for women among Bengālīs, Bengali women suffer from the constraints of the society in which they live. Thus Hindu women face problems of arranged marriages, exploitation of girl children, child marriage and dowries, while Muslim women face issues of purdah, the wearing of the burqa and the role of women in Islamic society. Among both Hindus and Muslims, women are regarded as inferior to men and their main role is to take care of the household and bear (male) children. In rural areas, women participate in agricultural activities. Poverty is an issue for many Bengali women (though institutions such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh are providing capital for poor women wishing to go into business). Literacy among women in Bangladesh hovers around 40%, over 25 percentage points below the male average, and of course is much higher in urban areas than in the countryside. Fewer than 10% of Bengali women continue with higher education. However, women writers, such as Suchitra Bhattacharya and Bani Basu, have made a considerable name for themselves in the world of Bengali literature, in keeping with a tradition that extends back several centuries.


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—by D. O. Lodrick