ALTERNATE NAMES: Bangalis
LOCATION: Bangladesh (Bengal region); India (state of West Bengal and other northeastern states)
POPULATION: 205 million (estimate, including expatriates)
RELIGION: Islam; Hinduism
Bengalis live in the northeastern part of the South Asian subcontinent. Historically, the area was known as Banga, after local peoples (the Bang) who settled in the region over one thousand years ago. This ancient term survives in many modern names. These include the region of Bengal, the Bengali (or Bangla) language, and the country of Bangladesh (literally, "the land of the Bengali people").
Bengal has been ruled by many political empires. It was ruled by the Buddhist Pala dynasty from the eighth to the twelfth centuries AD . By the late sixteenth century it was part of the Moghal Empire. In the mid-eighteenth century the British established a colonial base there. Bengal remained under British rule for nearly two hundred years. It was from here that the British expanded to take over the rest of India.
The British were driven out of the area in 1947. They divided the subcontinent into two countries, India and Pakistan. The eastern part of Bengal, where Muslims were most numerous, became part of Pakistan. East Pakistan, as it was known, became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971, following a bloody civil war between Bengalis and West Pakistanis.
There are just over 174 million Bengalis. Most live in Bangladesh (106 million). The remainder live in the Indian state of West Bengal (68 million). Large communities of Bengali-speaking peoples, totaling perhaps ten million or more, are distributed throughout other states in northeastern India. Bengalis have also emigrated in large numbers to the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. The worldwide population of Bengalis, including the nonresident communities, is estimated to be around 205 million.
The lower plains and vast delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers lie at the heart of the Bengal region. The many rivers that cross the landscape provide an important means of transportation. They also hinder land travel. 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.
The language of the region is Bengali. Dialects spoken in the western region are quite different from those in the east. Bengali is written in its own alphabet, which contains fifty-seven letter symbols. See the article on Bangladeshis in this chapter.
Bengali folklore is rich and varied. 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 local trees.
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, and that this will eventually be found out and punished.
Over 60 percent of Bengalis are Muslim. Even in the mostly Hindu country of India, more than 20 percent of West Bengal's population is Muslim. Most Muslim Bengalis belong to the Sunn i sect.
Bengalis in India are mainly Hindu. Among the mainstream Hindus, there are some unusual sects. Vaishnavas are followers of the Hindu god Vishnu. But Bengali Vaishnavas believe that Krishna is the supreme god, rather than an incarnation of Vishnu.
Shaktism is a religion based on the worship of female energy ( sakti, 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.
Bengalis celebrate the major holidays of the Muslim and Hindu faiths. For Muslims, these include Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha (Bakr-Eid), and Muharram. Bengali Hindus observe Holi, Divali, and other important religious festivals. Durga Puja is of particular importance to them. Dedicated to the goddess Durga, who is a manifestation of Shakti, the festivities last for nine days. Months before the festival, special images are made of Durga. These show 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 is decorated with flowers and carried through the streets. The parade 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.
Rites of passage for Benga li s are similar to those followed by other Muslims and Hindus. But, they have a distinctly Bengali flavor to them.
For example, Muslims follow the custom of saying the Call to Prayer (azan) to the newborn. The umbilical cord, however, is cut by the midwife who is usually a Hindu. Hindus observe the naming ceremony, the initiation ritual known as the "first feeding of rice" (annaprasana), and the sacred thread ceremony (upanayana). Muslim boys undergo the all-important circumcision rite (sunnat).
As with other Hindus, Bengalis cremate the dead. The funeral pyre is usually lit on the banks of a river or stream. The necessary rites are performed by the deceased's eldest son. Death is followed by a period of mourning (which varies in length), purification rites, and the sraddha or death feast held at the end of the mourning period.
Hindu Bengalis 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 Bengalis greet each other with Salaam or Salaam alaikum.
Rural living conditions in Bengal vary widely. House types and construction reflect local environmental conditions. In the interior, houses are made of mud, bamboo, and brush wood. Roofs are thatched. 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 house, with a porch in front that leads to 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.
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 (India) have a style of living that compares favorably with that found among the wealthy in the United States.
Bengali Hindus, like all Hindus, belong to castes (jati). A caste is a social group into which people are born. It determines their place in society, who they can marry and, often, the kinds of education and employment opportunities they will have. Castes are unchangeable.
Marriages are arranged by the parents. Hindu marriages are governed by rules of caste. 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.
In rural areas, Muslim men wear the lungi, a piece of (often checkered) cloth that is wrapped around the waist. Hindus dress in the dhoti, 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 punjabi as an upper garment.
Women wear the sari (long cloth that forms a skirt on one end a head or shoulder covering on the other end) and blouse. Younger Muslim girls may favor the combination of salwar (loose trousers) and kamiz (tunic). Women in the countryside go barefoot. A variety of rings, bangles, and other ornaments are worn by women of all classes.
In cities, safari suits or Western-style business suits are common. 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. It is eaten with vegetables such as onion, garlic, eggplant, and a variety of gourds according to the season. Fish and meat are favorite foods. Their cost places them beyond the reach of most villagers. 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. 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 upper classes includes pilaf and biryani (rice dishes containing meat and vegetables), kebabs (barbecued cubes of meat), and meat dishes known as korma. Milk forms an important element in the diet. Milk-based sweets are popular throughout the region.
Bengalis living in Bangladesh, especially in rural areas, are likely to be poorly educated and illiterate. About 35 percent of Bangladeshis are literate (able to read and write). This is one of the lowest literacy rates in the region. By contrast, literacy in West Bengal (a part of India) is nearly 60 percent, slightly higher than the average for all of India (53 percent).
Education has long been a mark of higher social status. Vishva-Bharati University, founded by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) in the city of Shantiniketan, is world-famous as a center for the study of Indian history and culture.
Bengalis have one of the richest literary traditions in the region known as the Indian subcontinent. The earliest known works in Bengali are Buddhist books that date to the tenth and eleventh centuries AD . Islam also contributed to medieval Bengali literature.
Modern Bengalis have created literature recognized worldwide. Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), the Bengali poet and writer, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Bengalis have also achieved great success in the field of classical Indian music and dance.
Satyajit Ray (1921–92), the film director from India who won international fame was a Bengali.
Bengalis are predominantly rural and agricultural in nature. More than two-thirds of them are farmers. West Bengal, in India, is 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 that Calcutta is located. Founded in 1690 as a British trading post, Calcutta is now one of the world's largest cities. Its population is just over twelve million people. Its industries include jute processing, engineering, textiles, and chemicals.
Calcutta is perhaps the most important intellectual and cultural center of India. Bengalis take great pride in this. 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 the region of South Asia. These include tag, hide-and-seek, kite-flying, marbles, and spinning tops. Cricket, soccer, and field hockey are major spectator sports, and many children play these games at school as well. Tennis, golf, and horseracing are popular among the urban middle classes who have adopted the sports and hobbies of Western countries.
Recreational activities among Bengalis vary widely. Villagers may derive their greatest pleasure from fairs and religious festivals. They also enjoy Bengali folk traditions such as jatra (traveling folk theater), the bhatiali (boater's songs), and the baul (mystical songs performed by wandering minstrels).
City dwellers have 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 handprinted textiles, embroidered quilt-work, terra-cotta dolls, toys, and religious idols.
Alpana drawings are religious designs prepared by Hindu women. They 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.
Problems among Bengalis vary considerably. Some problems, such as frequent flooding in Bengal, are caused by nature. Bangladesh is also one of the poorest nations in the world. It has experienced civil unrest, suspension of democratic rights, and repressive military governments.
Bailey, Donna, and Anna Sproule. Bangladesh. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1991.
Brace, Steve. Bangladesh. New York: Thomson Learning, 1995.
Heitzman, James, and Robert L. Worden, eds. Bangladesh, A Country Study. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1988.
Lauri, Jason. Bangladesh. Chicago: Children's Press, 1992
McClure, Vimala Schneider. Bangladesh: Rivers in a Crowded Land. Minneapolis, Minn.: Dillon Press, 1989.
Nugent, Nicholas. Pakistan and Bangladesh. Austin, Tex.: Raintree/Steck-Vaughn, 1992.
Ray, Niharranjan. History of the Bengali People. Calcutta, India: Orient Longman, 1994.