The Bengal Region

The History of Modern-day Bangladesh and West Bengal, India

Bengal is a historic and linguistic unit now divided between India and Bangladesh.
Map of the Bengal region. via Wikipedia

Bengal is a region in the northeastern Indian Subcontinent, defined by the river delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. This rich agricultural land has long supported one of the densest human populations on Earth, despite the danger from floods and cyclones. Today, Bengal is divided between the nation of Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal, India.

In the larger context of Asian history, Bengal played a key role in ancient trade routes as well as during the Mongol invasion, British-Russian conflicts, and spread of the Islam to Eastern Asia. Even the distinct language, called Bengali or Bangla — which is an eastern Indo-European language and a linguistic cousin of Sanskrit — spread throughout much of the Middle East, with about 205 million native speakers.

Early History

The derivation of the word "Bengal" or  "Bangla" is unclear, but it appears to be quite ancient. The most convincing theory is that it comes from the name of the "Bang" tribe, Dravidic-speakers who settled the river delta sometime around 1000 B.C.

As part of the Magadha region, the early Bengal population shared a passion for arts, sciences, and literature and are credited with the invention of chess as well as the theory that the Earth orbits the Sun. During this time, the main religious influence came from Hinduism and ultimately shaped early politics through the fall of the Magadha era, around 322 B.C.

Until the Islamic conquest of 1204 — which placed Bengal under control of the Delhi Sultanate — Hindu remained the region's main religion and though trade with Arab Muslims introduced Islam far earlier to their culture, this new Islamic control led to the spread of Sufism in Bengal, a practice of mystic Islam which still dominates the region's culture to this day.

Independence and Colonialism

By 1352, though, the city-states in the region managed to unify again as one nation, Bengal, under its ruler Ilyas Shah. Alongside the Mughal Empire, the newly founded Bengal Empire served as the subcontinent's strongest economic, cultural and trade powers — its sea ports meccas of commerce and exchanges of traditions, art and literature.

In the 16th century, European traders began to arrive at Bengal's port cities, bringing with them western religion and customs as well as new goods and services. However, by 1800 the British East India Company controlled the most military power in the region and Bengal fell back to colonial control.

Around 1757 to 1765, the central government and military leadership in the region fell to BEIC control. Constant rebellion and political unrest shaped the course of the next 200 years, but Bengal remained — for the most part — under foreign rule until India gained independence in 1947, taking with it West Bengal — which was formed along religious lines and left Bangladesh its own country as well.

Current Culture and Economy

The modern-day geographic region of Bengal — which encompasses West Bengal in India and Bangladesh — is primarily an agricultural region, producing such staples as rice, legumes and high-quality tea. It also exports jute. In Bangladesh, manufacturing is becoming increasingly important to the economy, particularly the garment industry, as are remittances sent home by overseas workers.

The Bengali people are divided by religion. Around 70 percent are Muslim due to Islam first being introduced in the 12th century by Sufi mystics, who took control of much of the region, at least in terms of shaping government policy and national religion; the remaining 30 percent of the population are mostly Hindu.