Bengalis or Bangalis (Bengali: বাঙালি [baŋali]), also rendered as the Bengali people or Bangalees, are an Indo-Aryan ethnolinguistic group native to the Bengal region in South Asia. The population is divided between the independent country Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura and Assam's Barak Valley. Most of them speak Bengali, a language from the Indo-Aryan language family. The term "Bangalee" is also used to denote people of Bangladesh as a nation.
Bengalis are the third-largest ethnic group in the world, after Han Chinese and Arabs. Thus, they are the largest ethnic group within Indo-Europeans. Apart from Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam's Barak Valley, Bengali-majority populations also reside in India's union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well as Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts, with significant populations in Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Uttarakhand. The global Bengali diaspora (Bangladeshi diaspora and Indian Bengalis) have well-established communities in Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, the Middle East, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Italy.
"Bengali" or "Bangali" is used to refer to anyone whose linguistic, cultural, family ancestral or genetic origins are from Bengal. Their ethnonym is derived from the ancient Banga or Bangla. The exact origin of the word Bangla is unknown, though it is believed to come from "Bong", a son of Hind, who colonised the area and his descendants were the Dravidian-speaking people Bang. According to the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Harivamsha, Vanga was one of the adopted sons of King Vali who founded the Vanga Kingdom. The earliest reference to "Vangala" (Bôngal) has been traced in the Nesari plates (805 CE) of Rashtrakuta Govinda III which speak of Dharmapala as the king of Vangala. The records of Rajendra Chola I of the Chola dynasty, who invaded Bengal in the 11th century, speak of Govindachandra as the ruler of Vangaladesa. Shams-ud-din Ilyas Shah took the title "Shah-e-Bangla" and united the whole region under one government.
An interesting theory of the origin of the name is provided by Abu'l-Fazl in his Ain-i-Akbari. According to him, "The original name of Bengal was Bang, and the suffix "al" came to be added to it from the fact that the ancient rajahs of this land raised mounds of earth 10 feet high and 20 in breadth in lowlands at the foot of the hills which were called "al". From this suffix added to the Bung, the name Bengal arose and gained currency". This is also mentioned in Ghulam Husain Salim's Riyaz-us-Salatin.
Archaeologists have discovered remnants of a 4,000-year-old Chalcolithic civilisation in the greater Bengal region, and believe the finds are one of the earliest signs of settlement in the region. However, evidence of much older Palaeolithic human habitations were found in the form of a stone implement and a hand axe in Rangamati and Feni districts of Bangladesh. The origin of the word Bangla ~ Bengal is unknown, though it is believed to be derived from a tribe called Bang that settled in the area around the year 1000 BCE.
Kingdoms of Pundra and Vanga were formed in Bengal and were first described in the Atharvaveda around 1000 BCE as well as in Hindu epic Mahabharata. Anga and later Magadha expanded to include most of the Bihar and Bengal regions. It was one of the four main kingdoms of India at the time of Buddha and was one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas. Under the Maurya Empire founded by Chandragupta Maurya, Magadha extended over nearly all of South Asia, including parts of Balochistan and Afghanistan, reaching its greatest extent under the Buddhist emperor Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BCE.
One of the earliest foreign references to Bengal is the mention of a land ruled by the king Xandrammes named Gangaridai by the Greeks around 100 BCE. The word is speculated to have come from Gangahrd ('Land with the Ganges in its heart') in reference to an area in Bengal. Later from the 3rd to the 6th centuries CE, the kingdom of Magadha served as the seat of the Gupta Empire.
One of the first recorded independent kings of Bengal was Shashanka, reigning around the early 7th century. After a period of anarchy, Gopala came to power in 750. He founded the Bengali Buddhist Pala Empire. Atisha was a renowned Bengali Buddhist teacher who was instrumental in the revival of Buddhism in Tibet and also held the position of Abbot at the Vikramshila university. Tilopa was also from the Bengal region.
The Pala Empire enjoyed relations with the Srivijaya Empire, the Tibetan Empire, and the Arab Abbasid Caliphate. Islam first appeared in Bengal during Pala rule, as a result of increased trade between Bengal and the Middle East.
The Pala dynasty was later followed by a shorter reign of the Hindu Sena Empire. Islam was introduced to Bengal in the twelfth century by Sufi missionaries. Subsequent Muslim conquests helped spread Islam throughout the region. Bakhtiar Khalji, a Turkic general of the Slave dynasty of Delhi Sultanate, defeated Lakshman Sen of the Sena dynasty and conquered large parts of Bengal. Consequently, the region was ruled by dynasties of sultans and feudal lords under the Bengal Sultanate for the next few hundred years. Islam was introduced to the Sylhet region by the Muslim saint Shah Jalal in the early 14th century.
The Mughal Empire conquered Bengal in the 16th century. Mughal general Man Singh conquered parts of Bengal including Dhaka during the time of Emperor Akbar. A few Rajput tribes from his army permanently settled around Dhaka and surrounding lands. Later, in the early 17th century, Islam Khan conquered all of Bengal. However, administration by governors appointed by the court of the Mughal Empire gave way to semi-independence of the area under the Nawabs of Murshidabad, who nominally respected the sovereignty of the Mughals in Delhi.
The Bengal Subah province in the Mughal Empire was the wealthiest state in the subcontinent. Bengal's trade and wealth impressed the Mughals so much that it was described as the Paradise of the Nations by the Mughal Emperors.
Under Mughal rule, Bengal was a center of the worldwide muslin and silk trades. During the Mughal era, the most important center of cotton production was Bengal, particularly around its capital city of Dhaka, leading to muslin being called "daka" in distant markets such as Central Asia. Domestically, much of India depended on Bengali products such as rice, silks and cotton textiles. Overseas, Europeans depended on Bengali products such as cotton textiles, silks and opium; Bengal accounted for 40% of Dutch imports from Asia, for example, including more than 50% of textiles and around 80% of silks. From Bengal, saltpetre was also shipped to Europe, opium was sold in Indonesia, raw silk was exported to Japan and the Netherlands, cotton and silk textiles were exported to Europe, Indonesia, and Japan, cotton cloth was exported to the Americas and the Indian Ocean. Bengal also had a large shipbuilding industry. Economic historian Indrajit Ray estimates shipbuilding output of Bengal during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at 223,250 tons annually, compared with 23,061 tons produced in nineteen colonies in North America from 1769 to 1771.
After the weakening of the Mughal Empire with the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, Bengal was ruled independently by the Nawabs until 1757, when the region was annexed by the East India Company after the Battle of Plassey.
In Bengal effective political and military power was transferred from the old regime to the British East India Company around 1757–65. Company rule in India began under the Bengal Presidency. Calcutta was named the capital of British India in 1772. The presidency was run by a military-civil administration, including the Bengal Army, and had the world's sixth earliest railway network. Great Bengal famines struck several times during colonial rule, notably the Great Bengal famine of 1770 and Bengal famine of 1943, each killing millions of Bengalis.
Under British rule, Bengal experienced deindustrialisation. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was initiated on the outskirts of Calcutta, and spread to Dhaka, Chittagong, Jalpaiguri, Sylhet and Agartala, in solidarity with revolts in North India. The failure of the rebellion led to the abolishment of the Mughal Court and direct rule by the British Raj.
Many Bengali laborers were taken as coolies to the British colonies in the Caribbean during the 1830s. Workers from Bengal were chosen because they could easily assimilate to the climate of British Guiana which was similar to that of Bengal.
Bengal renaissance refers to a socio-religious reform movement during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, centered around the city of Calcutta and predominantly led by upper caste Bengali Hindus under the patronage of the British Raj who created a reformed religion called Brahmo dharma. Historian Nitish Sengupta describes the Bengal renaissance as having started with reformer and humanitarian Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1775–1833), considered the "Father of the Bengal renaissance", and ended with Asia's first Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941).
Other figures have been considered to be part of the renaissance. Swami Vivekananda is considered a key figure in the introduction of Vedanta and Yoga in Europe and America and is credited with raising interfaith awareness, and bringing Hinduism to the status of a world religion during the 1800s. Jagadish Chandra Bose was a Bengali polymath: a physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist, and writer of science fiction who pioneered the investigation of radio and microwave optics, made significant contributions to plant science, and laid the foundations of experimental science in the Indian subcontinent. He is considered one of the fathers of radio science, and is also considered the father of Bengali science fiction. Satyendra Nath Bose was a Bengali physicist, specialising in mathematical physics. He is best known for his work on quantum mechanics in the early 1920s, providing the foundation for Bose–Einstein statistics and the theory of the Bose–Einstein condensate. He is honoured as the namesake of the boson.
According to Nitish Sengupta, though the Bengal renaissance was the "culmination of the process of emergence of the cultural characteristics of the Bengali people that had started in the age of Hussein Shah, it remained predominantly Hindu and only partially Muslim." There were, nevertheless, examples of Muslim intellectuals such as Syed Ameer Ali, Mosharraf Hussain, Sake Dean Mahomed, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and Roquia Sakhawat Hussain. The Freedom of Intellect Movement sought to challenge religious and social dogma in Bengali Muslim society.
Bengal played a major role in the Indian independence movement, in which revolutionary groups such as Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar were dominant. Many of the early proponents of the independence struggle, and subsequent leaders in the movement were Bengalis such as Chittaranjan Das, Khwaja Salimullah, Surendranath Banerjea, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Titumir (Sayyid Mir Nisar Ali), Prafulla Chaki, A. K. Fazlul Huq, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, Bagha Jatin, Khudiram Bose, Surya Sen, Binoy-Badal-Dinesh, Sarojini Naidu, Aurobindo Ghosh, Rashbehari Bose, and Sachindranath Sanyal.
Some of these leaders, such as Netaji, who was born, raised and educated at Cuttack in Odisha did not subscribe to the view that non-violent civil disobedience was the best way to achieve Indian Independence, and were instrumental in armed resistance against the British force. Netaji was the co-founder and leader of the Japanese-aligned Indian National Army (distinct from the army of British India) that challenged British forces in several parts of India. He was also the head of state of a parallel regime, the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind. Bengal was also the fostering ground for several prominent revolutionary organisations, the most notable of which was Anushilan Samiti. A number of Bengalis died during the independence movement and many were imprisoned in Cellular Jail, the notorious prison in Andaman.
The first partition in 1905 divided the Bengal region in British India into two provinces for administrative and development purposes. However, the partition stoked Hindu nationalism. This in turn led to the formation of the All India Muslim League in Dhaka in 1906 to represent the growing aspirations of the Muslim population. The partition was annulled in 1912 after protests by the Indian National Congress and Hindu Mahasabha.
The breakdown of Hindu-Muslim unity in India drove the Muslim League to adopt the Lahore Resolution in 1943, calling the creation of "independent states" in eastern and northwestern British India. The resolution paved the way for the Partition of British India based on the Radcliffe Line in 1947, despite attempts to form a United Bengal state that was opposed by many people.
The legacy of partition has left lasting differences between the two sides of Bengal, most notably in linguistic accent and cuisine.
The rise of self-determination and Bengali nationalism movements in East Bengal, led by Mujibur Rahman, culminated in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War against the Pakistani military junta. Upwards of an estimated 3 million (3,000,000) people died in the conflict, particularly as a result of the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. The war caused millions of East Pakistani refugees to take shelter in India's Bengali state West Bengal, with Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal province, becoming the capital-in-exile of the Provisional Government of Bangladesh. The Mukti Bahini guerrilla forces waged a nine-month war against the Pakistani military. The conflict ended after the Indian Armed Forces intervened on the side of Bangladeshi forces in the final two weeks of the war, which ended with the Surrender of Pakistan and the liberation of Dhaka on 16 December 1971.
Bengali cuisine is the culinary style originating in Bengal, a region of the Indian subcontinent which is now located in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Some Indian regions like Tripura, Shillong and the Barak Valley region of Assam (in India) also have large native Bengali populations and share this cuisine. With an emphasis on fish, vegetables, and milk served with rice as a staple diet, Bengali cuisine is known for its subtle flavours, and its huge spread of confectioneries and desserts. It also has the only traditionally developed multi-course tradition from the Indian subcontinent that is analogous in structure to the modern service à la russe style of French cuisine, with food served course-wise rather than all at once.
Bengalis celebrate festivals like Pahela Baishakh, Shakrain, Nabanna and Pahela Falgun regardless of their faith. Otherwise they celebrate the major holidays of the Hindu and Muslims faiths. For Muslims, the festivals include Eid-ul-Azha, Eid-ul-Fitr, and Muharram. Although Bengali Hindus observe Holi, known as Dol-Yatra in Bengal, Diwali, and other important religious festivals, Durga Puja is the biggest and most important to them. Dedicated to the goddess Durga, who is a manifestation of Shakti, the festivities last for five days. Months before the festival, special clay idols of Durga and her children are made with the central supporting skeleton as a "Kathamo" from Bamboo. Mahalaya is celebrates days before the main festival. It is a lyrical chant of poems from the life of Maa Durga and her dominion and victory over the "asur"(s), in the voice of Sri Birendra Krishna Bhadra, played as a record in AIR. The festivities start on Panchami with the Bodhon. The five day-long festival consists of Maha-Shashti, Maha-Shoptomi, Maha-Oshtomi, Maha-Nobomi and Bijoya-Doshomi. These show The Durga mounted on a lion and killing the evil demon Mahishasur. Along with her, arrives her Four children, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Kartikeya and Saraswati. These lavishly painted and decorated idols are displayed and worshipped on each day of the festival in the pandals and at homes. Sondhi pujo is celebrated on the merge of Maha-Oshtomi and Maha-Nobomi. Kumari Pujo, introduced by Swami Vivekananda (who worshipped a Muslim girl on this day) is the worshipping of a girl-child as the Durga. On the tenth day, the idols are decorated with flowers and carried through the streets in processions. The procession makes its way to a river (mostly, The Ganga) or other body of water, where the image of Durga is immersed in the water.
Bengali or Bangla is the language native to the region of Bengal, which comprises present-day Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura and southern Assam. It is written using the Bengali script. With about 170 million native and about 210 million total speakers worldwide, Bengali is one of the most spoken languages, ranked seventh in the world. The National Anthem of Bangladesh, National Anthem of India and the National Song of India is composed in the Bengali language by nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
Along with other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, Bengali evolved circa 1000–1200 CE from eastern Middle Indo-Aryan dialects such as the Magadhi Prakrit and Pali, which developed from a dialect or group of dialects that were close, but not identical to, Vedic and Classical Sanskrit.
Bengali people may be broadly classified into sub-groups predominantly based on language but also other aspects of culture:
The earliest extant work in Bengali literature is the Charyapada, a collection of Buddhist mystic songs dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries. Thereafter, the timeline of Bengali literature is divided into two periods: medieval (1360–1800) and modern (1800–present). Bengali literature is one of the most enriched bodies of literature in Modern India and Bangladesh.
The first works in Bengali, written in new Bengali, appeared between 10th and 12th centuries CE It is generally known as the Charyapada. These are mystic songs composed by various Buddhist seer-poets: Luipada, Kanhapada, Kukkuripada, Chatilpada, Bhusukupada, Kamlipada, Dhendhanpada, Shantipada, Shabarapada, etc. The famous Bengali linguist Haraprasad Shastri discovered the palm-leaf Charyapada manuscript in the Nepal Royal Court Library in 1907.
The Middle Bengali Literature is a period in the history of Bengali literature dating from 15th to 18th centuries. Following the Mughal invasion of Bengal in the 13th century, literature in vernacular Bengali began to take shape. The oldest example of Middle Bengali literature is believed to be Shreekrishna Kirtana by Boru Chandidas. In the mid-19th century, Bengali literature gained momentum. During this period, the Bengali Pandits of Fort William College did the tedious work of translating textbooks in Bengali to help teach the British local languages including Bengali. This work played a role in the background in the evolution of Bengali prose.
The largest religions practised in Bengal are Islam and Hinduism. According to 2014 US Department of State estimates, 90.39% of the population of Bangladesh follow Islam while 8.3% follow Hinduism. In West Bengal, Hindus are the majority with 70.54% of the population while Muslims comprise 27.01%. Other religious groups include Buddhists (comprising around 1% of the population in Bangladesh) and Christians.
Bengali theatre traces its roots to Sanskrit drama under the Gupta Empire in the 4th century CE. It includes narrative forms, song and dance forms, supra-personae forms, performance with scroll paintings, puppet theatre and the processional forms like the Jatra.
The Bengali contributions to modern science is path breaking in the world's context. Renowned Indian physicist Satyendranath Bose made first calculations to initiate Statistical Mechanics. He first hypothesised a physically tangible idea of photon. Meghnad Saha contributed to the theorisation of Thermal ionization. Jagadish Chandra Bose first practicalised the wireless radio transmission. But Marconi got recognition for European proximity. He also described for the first time, Plants can respond, by demonstrating with his crescograph, recording the impulse caused by bromination of plant tissue.
Bengalis are very active in politics of their region. In Bangladesh, the Prime Minister of the nation is Sheikh Hasina, belonging to the Awami League party. In West Bengal, India, the chief minister of state is Mamata Banerjee from the party All India Trinamool Congress.