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The Bengali people are an ethnic community native to the historic region of Bengalmarker (now divided between Bangladeshmarker and Indiamarker) in South Asia. They speak Bengali (বাংলা Bangla), which is an Indo-Aryan language of the eastern Indian subcontinent, evolved from the Magadhi Prakrit and Sanskrit languages. In their native language, they are referred to as বাঙালী (pronounced Bangali). They are mostly Indo-Aryan people from the eastern Indian subcontinent. However, many are also descended from Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian peoples, and closely related to the Assamese, Biharis and other East Indians, as well as to Munda and Tibeto-Burman peoples. As such, Bengalis are a homogeneous but considerably diverse ethnic group with heterogeneous origins.

They are mostly concentrated in the states of West Bengalmarker and Tripuramarker in India and in Bangladesh. There are also a number of Bengali communities scattered in North-East India, New Delhimarker, and the Indian states of Assammarker, Jharkhandmarker, Biharmarker, Maharastramarker, Karnatakamarker, Andhra Pradeshmarker, Madhya Pradeshmarker, Uttar Pradeshmarker and Orissamarker. In addition, there are significant Bengali communities beyond South Asia, the most well established Bengali communities are in the United Kingdommarker and United Statesmarker. Large numbers of Bengalis (mainly from Sylhet) have settled in Britain, mainly living in the East boroughs of Londonmarker, numbering from around 300,000, in the USA there are about 150,000 living across the country, mainly in New Yorkmarker. There are also millions living across the Gulf States, majority of whom are living as foreign workers. There also many Bengalis in Malaysiamarker, South Koreamarker, Canadamarker, Japanmarker, Australia and many other countries.


Ancient history

Remnants of civilisation in the greater Bengalmarker region date back 4,000 years, when the region was settled by Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic peoples. The exact origin of the word Bangla or Bengal is unknown, though it is believed to be derived from the Dravidian-speaking tribe Bang that settled in the area around the year 1000 BCE.

After the arrival of Indo-Aryans, the kingdoms of Anga, Vanga and Magadha were formed in and around Bengal and were first described in the Atharvaveda around 1000 BCE. From the 6th century BCE, Magadha expanded to include most of the Biharmarker and Bengal regions. It was one of the four main kingdoms of Indiamarker 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 Persiamarker and Afghanistanmarker, 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 Gangesmarker 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.

Middle Ages

One of the first recorded independent king of Bengal was Shashanka, reigning around the early 7th century. After a period of anarchy, Gopala came to power in 750 by democratic election. He founded the Bengali Buddhist Pala Empire which ruled the region for four hundred years, and expanded across much of Southern Asia, from Assammarker in the northeast, to Kabulmarker in the west, to Andhra Pradeshmarker in the south. Atisha was a renowned Bengali Buddhist teacher who was instrumental in revival of Buddhism in Tibet and also held the position of Abbot at the Vikramshilamarker university. Tilopa was also from Bengal region.

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 Khilji, an Afghan 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 Delhi Sultanate for the next few hundred years. Islam was introduced to the Sylhet regionmarker by the Muslim saint Shah Jalal in the early 14th century. In the early 17th century, Mughal general Islam Khan conquered 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 Murshidabadmarker, who nominally respected the sovereignty of the Mughals in Delhimarker. 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.

Bengal Renaissance

The Bengal Renaissance refers to a social reform movement during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the region of Bengalmarker in undivided India during the period of British rule. The Bengal renaissance can be said to have started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1775-1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), although there have been many stalwarts thereafter embodying particular aspects of the unique intellectual and creative output. Nineteenth century Bengal was a unique blend of religious and social reformers, scholars, literary giants, journalists, patriotic orators and scientists, all merging to form the image of a renaissance, and marked the transition from the 'medieval' to the 'modern'.

Independence movement

See also: Freedom fighters from Bengal

Bengal played a major role in the Indian independence movement, in which revolutionary groups such as Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar were dominant. Bengalis also played a notable role in the Indian independence movement. Many of the early proponents of the freedom struggle, and subsequent leaders in movement were Bengalis such as Chittaranjan Das, Khwaja Salimullah, Surendranath Banerjea, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Netaji Subhash 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 many more. Some of these leaders, such as Netaji, 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 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, that was recognized and supported by the Axis powers. Bengal was also the fostering ground for several prominent revolutionary organisations, the most notable of which was Anushilan Samiti. A large number of Bengalis were martyred in the freedom struggle and many were exiled in Cellular Jailmarker, the much dreaded prison located in Andaman.

Partitions of Bengal

Bangladesh Liberation War


Main articles: Demographics of Bangladesh, Demographics of West Bengal, and Demographics of Tripura

Two major religions practiced in Bengal are Islam and Hinduism. In Bangladesh 88.3% of the population follow Islam (US State Department est. 2007) while 9.2% follow Hinduism. In West Bengal, Hindus are the majority with 70% of the population while Muslims comprise 23%. Other religious groups include Buddhists and Christians. Since West Bengalmarker has a long history of Socialism, there are also atheist Bengali people such as Amartya Sen, Prabir Ghosh, Subodh Banarjee, and Sibnarayan Ray.


Noted Bengali saints, authors, scientists, researchers, thinkers, music composers, painters and film-makers have played a significant role in the development of Bengali culture . The Bengal Renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries was brought about after the British introduced Western education and ideas. Among the various Indian cultures, the Bengalis were relatively quick to adapt to the British rule and actually use its principles (such as the judiciary and the legislature) in the subsequent political struggle for independence. The Bengal Renaissance contained the seeds of a nascent political Indian nationalism and was the precursor in many ways to modern Indian artistic and cultural expression.

The Bengali poet and novelist, Rabindranath Tagore, became the first Nobel laureate from Asia when he won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. Other Bengali Nobel laureates include Amartya Sen (1999 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences) and Muhammad Yunus (2006 Nobel Peace Prize). Other famous figures in Bengali literature include Ram Mohan Roy, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and Bangla science fiction writers such as Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, Humayun Ahmed, Jagadananda Roy and Roquia Sakhawat Hussain (Begum Rokeya). Famous Bengali musicians include Ravi Shankar and Norah Jones; Famous Bengali scientists include Jagadish Chandra Bose and Satyendra Nath Bose; famous Bengali engineers include Fazlur Khan and Amar Bose ; famous Bengali filmmakers include Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Aparna Sen and Tareque Masud; and famous Bengali entrepreneurs include Sake Dean Mahomed, Amar Bose and Jawed Karim.

See also


  1. Ethnic Groups National Statistics Online (2001 census). April 2001. Retrieved on 2009-05-024.
  2. Census Profile: New York City’s Bangladeshi American Population Asian American Federation of New York Census Information Center (2005). Retrieved on 2009-05-24.
  3. A. Shiefner, History of Buddhism in India.
  4. History of the Bengali-speaking People by Nitish Sengupta, p 211, UBS Publishers' Distributors Pvt. Ltd. ISBN 81-7476-355-4.
  5. Calcutta and the Bengal Renaissance by Sumit Sarkar in Calcutta, the Living City edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, Vol I, p 95.

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