For other uses, see Bengal (disambiguation).
Bengal (;Bengali: বাংলা/বঙ্গ, lit. 'Bānglā/Bôngô' [bɔŋgo]) is a geopolitical, cultural and historical region in Asia, which is located in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent at the apex of the Bay of Bengal. Geographically, it is made up by the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta system, the largest such formation in the world; along with mountains in its north bordering the Himalayan states of Nepal and Bhutan and east bordering Burma.
Politically, Bengal is divided between the sovereign Republic of Bangladesh, which covers two thirds of the region, and West Bengal which is now part of India. In 2011, the population of Bengal was estimated to be 250 million, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the world. An estimated 160 million people live in Bangladesh, while 91.3 million people live in West Bengal. The predominant ethno-linguistic group is the Bengali people, who speak the Indo-AryanBengali language. Bengali Muslims are the majority in Bangladesh. Bengali Hindus are the majority in West Bengal. Outside Bengal proper, the Indian territories of Assam, Jharkhand, Bihar and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, are also home to significant communities with Bengali heritage.
Dense woodlands, including hilly rainforests, cover Bengal's northern and eastern areas; while an elevated forested plateau covers its central area. In the littoral southwest are the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest and home of the Bengal tiger. In the coastal southeast lies Cox's Bazaar, the longest beach in the world[vague], at 125 km (78 mi). The region has a monsoon climate, which the Bengali calendar divides into six seasons.
Bengal has played a major role in history. At times an independent regional empire, the historical region was a leading power in Southeast Asia and later the Islamic East, with extensive trade networks. In antiquity, its kingdoms were known as seafaring nations. Bengal was known to the Greeks as Gangaridai, notable for mighty military power. According to Greek historians Megasthenes and Arrian, Alexander the Great withdrew from South Asia anticipating a counterattack from an alliance of Gangaridai. Later writers noted merchant shipping links between Bengal and Roman Egypt.
The Bengali Pala Empire was the last major Buddhist imperial power in the subcontinent, founded in 750 and becoming the dominant power in the northern Indian subcontinent by the 9th century, before being replaced by the Hindu Sena dynasty in the 12th century.Islam was introduced during the Pala Empire, through trade with the Abbasid Caliphate. The Islamic Bengal Sultanate, founded in 1352, was absorbed into the Mughal Empire in 1576. The Mughal Bengal Subah province became a major global exporter, a center of worldwide industries such as muslin, silk, pearl,cottontextiles, and shipbuilding. It was conquered by the British East India Company in 1757 and became the Bengal Presidency, which experienced deindustrialization and famines under British rule. Upon independence, the partition of Bengal (1947) split the region into West Bengal in India and East Pakistan, the latter becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Bengali culture has been particularly influential in the fields of philosophy, literature, music, shipbuilding, art, architecture, sports, currency, commerce, politics and cuisine.
Main article: Names of Bengal
The name of Bengal is derived from the ancient kingdom of Banga, the earliest records of which date back to the Mahabharata epic in the first millennium BCE. Theories on the origin of the term Banga point to the Proto-DravidianBong tribe that settled in the area circa 1000 BCE and the Austric word Bong (Sun-god). The term Bangaladesa is used to describe the region in 11th century South Indian records. The modern term Bangla is prominent from the 14th century, which saw the establishment of the Sultanate of Bengal, whose first ruler Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah was known as the Shah of Bangala. The Portuguese referred to the region as Bengala in the Age of Discovery.
Main articles: Geography of Bangladesh and Geography of West Bengal
Most of the Bengal region lies in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, but there are highlands in its north, northeast and southeast. The Ganges Delta arises from the confluence of the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers and their respective tributaries. The total area of Bengal is 232,752 km2—West Bengal is 88,752 km2 (34,267 sq mi) and Bangladesh 147,570 km2 (56,977 sq mi).
The flat and fertile Bangladesh Plain dominates the geography of Bangladesh. The Chittagong Hill Tracts and Sylhet regions are home to most of the mountains in Bangladesh. Most parts of Bangladesh are within 10 metres (33 feet) above the sea level, and it is believed that about 10% of the land would be flooded if the sea level were to rise by 1 metre (3.3 feet). Because of this low elevation, much of this region is exceptionally vulnerable to seasonal flooding due to monsoons. The highest point in Bangladesh is in Mowdok range at 1,052 metres (3,451 feet). A major part of the coastline comprises a marshyjungle, the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world and home to diverse flora and fauna, including the royal Bengal tiger. In 1997, this region was declared endangered.
West Bengal is on the eastern bottleneck of India, stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south. The state has a total area of 88,752 km2 (34,267 sq mi). The Darjeeling Himalayan hill region in the northern extreme of the state belongs to the eastern Himalaya. This region contains Sandakfu (3,636 m (11,929 ft))—the highest peak of the state. The narrow Terai region separates this region from the plains, which in turn transitions into the Ganges delta towards the south. The Rarh region intervenes between the Ganges delta in the east and the western plateau and high lands. A small coastal region is on the extreme south, while the Sundarbans mangrove forests form a remarkable geographical landmark at the Ganges delta.
At least nine districts in West Bengal and 42 districts in Bangladesh have arsenic levels in groundwater above the World Health Organization maximum permissible limit of 50 µg/L or 50 parts per billion and the untreated water is unfit for human consumption. The water causes arsenicosis, skin cancer and various other complications in the body.
A mustard and date palm farm in West Bengal
A tea garden in Bangladesh
North Bengal is a term used for the north-western part of Bangladesh and northern part of West Bengal. The Bangladeshi part comprises Rajshahi Division and Rangpur Division. Generally, it is the area lying west of Jamuna River and north of Padma River, and includes the Barind Tract. Politically, West Bengal's part comprises Jalpaiguri Division (Alipurduar, Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur and Malda) together and Bihar's parts include Kishanganj district. Darjeeling Hills are also part of North Bengal. Though only people of Jaipaiguri, Alipurduar and Cooch Behar identifies themselves as North Bengali. North Bengal is divided into Terai and Dooars regions. North Bengal is also noted for its rich cultural heritage, including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Aside from the Bengali majority, North Bengal is home to many other communities including Nepalis, Santhal people, Lepchas and Rajbongshis.
Northeast Bengal refers to the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh and the Barak Valley in the Indian state of Assam. The region is noted for its distinctive fertile highland terrain, extensive tea plantations, rainforests and wetlands. The Surma and Barak rivers are the geographic markers of the area. The city of Sylhet is its largest urban center, and the most spoken vernacular language in the region is the Sylheti dialect of Bengali. The endonym of the region is Srihatta. The region was ruled by the Kamarupa and Harikela kingdoms. It later became a district of the Mughal Empire. Alongside the predominant Bengali population resides a small Bishnupriya Manipuri minority.
The region is the crossroads of Bengal and northeast India.
Central Bengal refers to the Dhaka Division of Bangladesh. It includes the elevated Madhupur tract with a large Sal tree forest. The Padma River cuts through the southern part of the region, separating the greater Faridpur region. In the north lies the greater Mymensingh and Tangail regions.
South Bengal covers southwestern Bangladesh and the southern part of the Indian state of West Bengal. The Bangladeshi part includes the proposed Faridpur Division, Khulna Division and Barisal Division. The Indian part of South Bengal includes 12 districts: Kolkata, Howrah, Hooghly, Burdwan, East Midnapur, West Midnapur, Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum, Nadia, South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas.
The Sundarbans, a major biodiversity hotspot, is located in South Bengal. Bangladesh hosts 60% of the forest, with the remain 40% in India.
Southeast Bengal refers to the hilly and coastal Bengali-speaking areas of Chittagong Division in southeastern Bangladesh and the Indian state of Tripura. Southeast Bengal is noted for its thalassocratic and seafaring heritage. The area was dominated by the Bengali Harikela and Samatata kingdoms in antiquity. It was known to Arab traders as Harkand in the 9th century. During the medieval period, the region was ruled by the Sultanate of Bengal, the Kingdom of Tripura, the Kingdom of Mrauk U, the Portuguese Empire and the Mughal Empire, prior to the advent of British rule. The Chittagonian dialect of Bengali is prevalent in coastal areas of southeast Bengal. Along with its Bengali population, it is also home to Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups, including the Chakma, Marma, Tanchangya, Tripuri and Bawm peoples.
Southeast Bengal is considered a bridge to Southeast Asia.
Places of interest
There are four World Heritage Sites in the region, including the Sundarbans, the Somapura Mahavihara, the Mosque City of Bagerhat and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Other prominent places include the Bishnupur, Bankura temple city, the Adina Mosque, the Caravanserai Mosque, numerous taluqdar and zamindar palaces (like Ahsan Manzil and Cooch Behar Palace), the Lalbagh Fort, the Great Caravanserai ruins, the Shaista Khan Caravanserai ruins, the Kolkata Victoria Memorial, the Dhaka Parliament Building, archaeologically excavated ancient fort cities in Mahasthangarh, Mainamati, Chandraketugarh and Wari-Bateshwar, the Jaldapara National Park, the Lawachara National Park, the Teknaf Game Reserve and the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Cox's Bazaar in southeastern Bangladesh is home to the longest natural beach in the world and a growing surfing destination.St. Martin's Island, off the coast of Chittagong Division, is home to the sole coral reef in Bengal.
Flora and fauna
The flat Bengal Plain, which covers most of Bangladesh and West Bengal, is one of the most fertile areas on Earth, with lush vegetation and farmland dominating its landscape. Bengali villages are buried among groves of mango, jack fruit, betel nut and date palm. Rice, jute, mustard and sugarcane plantations are a common sight. Water bodies and wetlands provide a habitat for many aquatic plants in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta. The northern part of the region features Himalayan foothills (Dooars) with densely wooded Sal and other tropical evergreen trees. Above an elevation of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft), the forest becomes predominantly subtropical, with a predominance of temperate-forest trees such as oaks, conifers and rhododendrons. Sal woodland is also found across central Bangladesh, particularly in the Bhawal National Park. The Lawachara National Park is a rainforest in northeastern Bangladesh. The Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh is noted for its high degree of biodiversity.
The littoralSundarbans in the southwestern part of Bengal is the largest mangrove forest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The region has over 89 species of mammals, 628 species of birds and numerous species of fish. For Bangladesh, the water lily, the oriental magpie-robin, the hilsa and mango tree are national symbols. For West Bengal, the white-throated kingfisher, the chatim tree and the night-flowering jasmine are state symbols. The Bengal tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh and India. The fishing cat is the state animal of West Bengal.
Main article: History of Bengal
Human settlement in Bengal can be traced back 20,000 years. Remnants of Copper Age settlements date back 4,300 years.Archaeological evidence confirms that by the second millennium BCE, rice-cultivating communities inhabited the region. By the 11th century BCE, the people of the area lived in systemically-aligned housing, used human cemeteries and manufactured copper ornaments and fine black and red pottery. The Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers were natural arteries for communication and transportation.Estuaries on the Bay of Bengal allowed for maritime trade. The early Iron Age saw the development of metal weaponry, coinage, permanent field agriculture and irrigation. From 600 BCE, the second wave of urbanization engulfed the north Indian subcontinent, as part of the Northern Black Polished Ware culture.
Ancient Bengal was divided between the regions of Varendra, Suhma, Anga, Vanga, Samatata and Harikela. Early Indian literature described the region as a thalassocracy, with colonies in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. For example, the first recorded king of Sri Lanka was a Bengali prince called Vijaya. The region was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Gangaridai. The Greek ambassador Megasthenes chronicled its military strength and dominance of the Ganges delta. The invasion army of Alexander the Great was deterred by the accounts of Gangaridai's power in 325 BCE. Later Roman accounts noted maritime trade routes with Bengal.Another prominent kingdom in Ancient Bengal was Pundravardhana which was located in Northern Bengal with its capital being located in modern-day Bogra, the kingdom was prominently buddhist leaving behind historic Viharas such as Mahasthangarh. In vedic mythology the royal families of Magadha, Anga, Vanga, Suhma and Kalinga were all related and descended from one King.
Ancient Bengal was considered a part of Magadha region, which was the cradle of Indian arts and sciences. Currently the Maghada region is divided into several states that are Bihar, Jharkhand, Tripura, Southern and Northwestern Assam and West Bengal and East Bengal)  The legacy of Magadha includes the concept of zero, the invention of Chess and the theory of solar and lunar eclipses and the Earth orbiting the Sun. Secular Sanskrit, or standard Old Indo-Aryan, was spoken across Bengal. The Bengali language evolved from Old Indo-Aryan Sanskrit dialects. The region was ruled by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain dynasties, including the Mauryans, Guptas, Varmans, Khadgas, Palas, Chandras and Senas among others. In the 9th century, Arab Muslim traders frequented Bengali seaports and found the region to be a thriving seafaring kingdom with well-developed coinage and banking.
Further information: Pala Empire and Bengal Sultanate
The Pala Empire was an imperial power in the Indian subcontinent, which originated in the region of Bengal. They were followers of the Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhism. The empire was founded with the election of Gopala as the emperor of Gauda in 750. At its height in the early 9th century, the Pala Empire was the dominant power in the northern subcontinent, with its territory stretching across parts of modern-day eastern Pakistan, northern and northeastern India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The empire enjoyed relations with the Srivijaya Empire, the Tibetan Empire, and the ArabAbbasid Caliphate. Islam first appeared in Bengal during Pala rule, as a result of increased trade between Bengal and the Middle East. The resurgent HinduSena dynasty dethroned the Pala Empire in the 12th century, ending the reign of the last major Buddhist imperial power in the subcontinent.
Muslim conquests of the Indian subcontinent absorbed Bengal in 1204. The region was annexed by the Delhi Sultanate. Muslim rule introduced agrarian reform, a new calendar and Sufism. The region saw the rise of important city states in Sonargaon, Satgaon and Lakhnauti. By 1352, Ilyas Shah achieved the unification of an independent Bengal. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Bengal Sultanate was a major diplomatic, economic and military power in the subcontinent. It developed the subcontinent's relations with China, Egypt, the Timurid Empire and East Africa. In 1540, Sher Shah Suri was crowned Emperor of the northern subcontinent in the Bengali capital Gaur.
Mughal era (1576–1757)
Main article: Bengal Subah
Further information: Muslin trade in Bengal and Mughal Empire
The Mughal Empire conquered Bengal in the 16th century. 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. The region was also notable for its powerful semi-independent aristocrats such as taluqdars and zamindars, including the Twelve Bhuiyans and the Nawabs of Bengal. It was visited by several world explorers, including Ibn Battuta, Niccolo De Conti and Admiral Zheng He.
Under Mughal rule, Bengal was a center of the worldwide muslin, silk and pearl 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, saltpeter 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
Download Table of Contents (26 KB)
Download Acknowledgements (32 KB)
Download Chapter 1: A Historian’s Introduction to Reading Mangal-kabya* (182 KB)
Download Chapter 2: Kings and Commerce on an Agrarian Frontier Kalketu's Story in Mukunda's Candimangal (204 KB)
Download Chapter 3: Marriage, Honor, Agency, and Trials by Ordeal Women's Gender Roles in Candimangal (214 KB)
Download Chapter 4: 'Tribute Exchange’ and the Liminality of Foreign Merchants in Mukunda's Candimangal (236 KB)
Download Chapter 5: ‘Voluntary’ Relationships and Royal Gifts of Pan in Mughal Bengal (205 KB)
Download Chapter 6: Maharaja Krsnacandra, Hinduism, and Kingship in the Contact Zone of Bengal (228 KB)
Download Photo - Left to right: the Rājarājeśvara Temple, 1754; the Mahārājnῑśvara Temple, 1762; and the Rāmā-Sitā-Lakṣmaṇa Temple, 1762, at Śib’nibās (20.1 MB)
Download Photo - The Rājarājeśvara Temple, 1754. (20.1 MB)
Download Photo - The Rāmā-Sitā-Lakṣmaṇa Temple, 1762, at Śib’nibās (20.1 MB)
Download Photo - Temple detail (20.0 MB)
Download Chapter 7: Lost Meanings and New Stories Candimangal after Britsh Dominance (215 KB)
Download Index (726 KB)