POPULATION: 120 million
LANGUAGE: Bengali (Bangla)
RELIGION: Islam (majority Sunni Muslim)
Modern Bangladesh is thought to have been settled around 1000 BC by people known as the "Bang." This ancient name is seen in modern words such as the country name, Bangladesh. A region of India, Bengal (where Calcutta is located), also takes its name from the Bang. In the thirteenth century AD , Bangladeshis began converting from Hinduism to Islam. Bangladeshi Muslims (followers of Islam) spoke the Bengali language and displayed a deep commitment to Bengali culture.
Britain was a colonial power in India until 1947. It granted independence to its empire that year and created two countries: India and Pakistan. India was predominantly Hindu and Pakistan was predominantly Muslim. The two areas of land designated as the new country of Pakistan were separated by about 1000 miles (1600 kilometers). These areas were East Pakistan and West Pakistan. Most people in both areas were Muslim, but their language and customs were different from each other. The people of East Pakistan fought for independence from West Pakistan for years. In 1971, after a short, brutal war, they won it, creating the country of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh lies in the eastern part of India at the head of the Bay of Bengal. It is roughly the size of the state of Iowa. In the late 1990s, it ranked as the eighth most populous country in the world. Except for its southern coastline, Bangladesh is virtually surrounded on all sides by India. It shares a short border with Myanmar (Burma).
Roughly 80 percent of Bangladesh is located on a huge river delta. There are about seven hundred rivers in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a subtropical monsoon climate. During the late monsoon season, tropical cyclones (hurricanes) sweep in from the Bay of Bengal, often with disastrous consequences. A cyclone in November 1970, with winds of more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour and waves of 18 feet (5.5 meters), struck Bangladesh (where there were no warning systems). About 250,000 people died.
Over 98 percent of the population of Bangladesh are Bengalis. They speak the Bengali language and identify with Bengali cultural traditions. Biharis, representing a little more than 1 percent of the population, speak Urdu. Most Biharis are Muslim refugees from Bihar and other parts of northern India. Tribal people make up less than 1 percent of Bangladesh's population. The largest of these groups are the Chakmas who, along with the Marmas, occupy the highland valleys of the Chittagong Hills.
Bengali, or Bangla, is the country's official language. An example of the Bangla script can be seen in the accompanying photo. The pronunciations of some common Bangla words appear below:
|ENGLISH||PRONUNCIATION IN BANGLA|
|thank you||dOYNg-no bAHd|
Most Bangladeshis follow the folk traditions of the Bengali culture. They believe in the powers of fakirs (Muslim holy men who are viewed as exorcists and faith healers), ojhas (shamans with magical healing powers), and bauls (religious beggars and wandering musicians). Sufism, a Muslim system of beliefs based on meditation and experiences that seem magical, is strongly entrenched in Bangladesh. Shah Jalal and Khan Jahan Ali are the most celebrated Sufi saints.
Bangladesh's national heroes are those who won the fight for independence. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, their leader, and the fighters are known as the Mukti Bahini.
At its creation, Bangladesh was a secular (nonreligious) state. However, a series of constitutional amendments in 1977 and 1978 led to the adoption of Islam as the state religion. Most Bangladeshis are Muslims, with almost 90 percent of the population claiming Islam as their religion. Hindus account for about 10 percent of the population. Buddhists, Christians, and other groups form other religious minorities, each with less than 1 percent of the total population.
Bangladesh officially celebrates the Muslim festivals of Eid al-Fitr, Bakr-Id, Muharram , and other Muslim festivals as public holidays. In addition, several Hindu festivals (for example, Janamashtami, Durga Puja ), Christian holy days (Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas), and Buddhist celebrations ( Buddha Purnima ) are recognized as holidays.
Secular holidays include Shaheed Dibosh (National Mourning Day or National Matyrs Day) on February 21. This holiday remembers the four people who were killed while marching in a procession, demonstrating their support for the establishment of Bengali as a national language (Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan at the time). Independence Day, March 6, commemorates the day when Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan. National Revolution (or Solidarity) Day on November 7 and Bijoy Dibosh (Victory Day) on December 16 are also national holidays.
The rites of passage of Bangladeshis follow normal Muslim patterns. Births are occasions for rejoicing, with male babies preferred over females. Muslim prayers are whispered into the baby's ears. The naming ceremony is accompanied by the sacrifice of a sheep or goat. Male children undergo the Sunnat, or circumcision. It is becoming fashionable, especially in urban communities, to celebrate children's birthdays.
Death rituals are performed according to Muslim rules. The corpse is washed, shrouded, and carried to the cemetery where it is interred while prayers are said for the departed soul. The next forty days are marked by various rituals.
Bangla deshi s are friendly and helpful. Home visitors, even casual ones, are expected to stay for refreshments. Even the poorest host will provide a visitor with a glass of water and a spoonful of molasses, a piece of betel nut (areca nut), or offer a hukka (a pipe used for smoking tobacco).
When people meet, one person says, Salaam aleykum (Peace be unto you). The other replies, Wa aleykum as-salaam (Unto you also peace).
Bangladesh is desperately poor. Its living conditions reflect this fact. Life expectancy in 1995 was fifty-seven years—almost twenty years less than in the United States. Bangladesh's infant mortality rate is the highest in South Asia. More than one of every ten babies die during birth.
Bangladeshis are a rural people. About 80 percent of the population live in villages. Rural houses and construction materials depend on local conditions. Reeds are used in the delta. Houses further inland are made of mud, bamboo, and brush wood. Roofs are thatched with palm leaves, though the more prosperous now use corrugated iron. People in the eastern hills build their houses on raised platforms.
Villages may also contain the more substantial houses of former landowners and Hindu moneylenders. Per capita income is among the lowest in South Asia at $220 per year. However, the middle classes in cities such as Dhaka (the capital) live like other urban elites throughout South Asia.
The basic social unit in rural Bangladesh is the family. This consists of an extended family living in a household (chula) residing in a homestead (bari). Individual nuclear families known as ghar are often found within the extended family. Beyond the circle of immediate relatives is an institution known as "the society" (samaj). The samaj deals with issues such as the maintenance of the local mosque, support of a mullah (priest), and settling village disputes.
Women remain subordinate to men in Bangladeshi society. Purdah, the separation of women from men after puberty, is practiced to varying degrees. Some modern groups have rejected purdah, but the custom of separating men and women is still the norm. At public performances or lectures, for instance, it is common for men and women to sit in separate parts of the hall. Purdah also limits the ability of women to work.
In rural areas, Bangladeshi men wear the lungi and a vest or a shirt. The lungi is a piece of cotton cloth, usually checkered, that is wrapped around the waist. The better-educated wear a collarless, tunic-length shirt known as a punjabi and pyjamas (loose cotton trousers).
On formal occasions, the sherwani (long jacket), tight trousers known as churidar, and a turban are worn. Women typically wear a sari (long cloth that forms a skirt on one end and a head or shoulder covering on the other end) and blouse, although girls and young women prefer the salwar - kamiz tunic and pants combination. Western-style shirts, pants, and jackets are commonly worn by men in urban areas.
Rice, vegetables, pulses (beans), fish, and meat are the staples of the Bangladeshi diet. The tastes and preferences of Muslims and other groups, however, differ. Beef is popular with Muslims, though it is taboo (forbidden) for Hindus. All communities eat with their hands rather than with utensils.
At feasts or formal dinners, Muslims often serve pilaf and biriyani (rice dishes containing meat and vegetables), kebabs (barbecued cubes of meat), and kormas (meat served in various kinds of sauces). Ghi (clarified butter) is commonly served at such meals.
Milk forms an important element in the diet. Bangladesh is known for its milk-based sweets, such as sandesh (which means good news), a sweet cheese dessert served on happy occasions and during festivals.
Nearly 59 percent of Bangladeshis five years of age and over have no formal schooling. Only about 15 percent have completed their secondary education. This is reflected in literacy rates that are among the lowest in South Asia, with only 35 percent of the population over fifteen years old able to read and write. This figure drops to 24 percent for females.
Bangladeshis are proud of their Bengali culture, with its traditions of music, dance, and literature. The country shares in the classical and devotional traditions of Hindu and Muslim music. It has also developed its own regional forms of popular music. These include bhatiali songs about boatmen and life on the river, and baul, mystical verse sung by a group of religious musicians called Bauls. Indigenous dance forms include the dhali, baul, manipuri, and snake dances.
The Bengali literary tradition is one of the oldest in South Asia. Its greatest figure was the poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who was part of the nineteenth-century revival of Bengali culture. Kazi Azrul Islam is a modern poet and playwright known as the "voice of Bengali nationalism and independence." A distinctive regional style of architecture may be seen in mosques and other monuments built by Muslims beginning in the early fifteenth century.
Bangladesh is primarily an agricultural country. About 65 percent of the people work in agriculture. Rice is the dominant food crop. Jute is the country's major cash crop and an important export item.
The manufacturing sector of the economy is small. Since 1965, it has been illegal for children under the age of fifteen to work in factories. Since the 1970s, however, Bangladesh has become a major producer of ready-made clothes for export to the West (particularly the United States). Based on cheap Bangladeshi labor (mostly women), this now accounts for over 60 percent of export revenues. The export of frozen shrimp and fish has also increased in importance over the last two decades.
Large numbers of Bangla deshi s are working in other countries. Money sent home from these people is an important source of income for the country.
Children in rural areas play games such as hide-and-seek, flying kites, and spinning tops. Ha-do-do is a traditional child's variation on the sport of kabaddi. Teams are formed, and each team establishes a territory. Teams then take turns sending one member into the opponent's territory to tag as many people as possible while holding his or her breath. The tagged players are eliminated. The first team to tag all of the opponent's members wins.
Kabaddi is a popular sport in Bangladesh. Two teams of six players each defend a territory. Each team attempts to tag and capture opponents who enter their territory. Soccer (known as football) is the most popular modern sport, while cricket, field hockey, badminton, and table tennis are also played. Wrestling is a favorite pastime for young men.
In villages, festivals and fairs are occasions for entertainment and relaxation. Dance, music, and song are popular, as are the jatras (village operas based on local myths).
In urban centers and those villages that have cinema houses, movies are by far the most popular form of entertainment. Chess was becoming more popular as a pastime in the 1990s. Radio and television broadcasts are available, but these are controlled by the government. The press is relatively free, but because of the low literacy rates, newspapers have low circulations.
Among the arts and crafts for which Bangladesh is known are kathas (finely embroidered quilt-work); handprinted textiles; terra-cotta dolls, toys, and idols; and sikhars (elaborate rope hangings for pots, bottles, etc.).
Alpana drawings are designs made on floors and courtyards out of rice-paste. They are prepared by Hindu women in connection with certain religious festivals and rites. Copper and brass metalwork, basketry, and mat-weaving are also traditional crafts among Bangladesh i artisans. The region also has an important boat-building industry. The decoration of boats is a thriving folk art in Bangladesh.
When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, it suffered from overpopulation, extreme poverty, malnutrition, and lack of resources. By the late 1990s, little had changed.
Yet the country's very survival is an achievement. Slowly, with generous foreign aid, the economy is struggling upward. Food production has increased and a nationwide birth control program has lowered population growth. Flood control projects help limit the incidence of flooding. Economic reform has increased the value of the country's exports.
Ethnic unrest by Chakmas and other groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts has resulted in violent conflict. Groups living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts want to be independent, but the Bangladeshi Army keeps troops in the area to discourage violence. The way the army has treated civilians has caused many Chakmas to flee to India.
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.