The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is a country in South Asia, bordered by India on all sides except for a small border with Myanmar/Burma to the far southeast and by the Bay of Bengal to the south. The name Bangladesh means ‘Country of Bengali or Bangla’, the official language.
Bangladesh became one of the last major nation to be created following its secession in 1971 from the nation of Pakistan, which along with India achieved its independence from the British Empire in 1947. The region’s history combines Indo-Aryan, Austro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Mughal, Arab, Persian, Turkish and British influences. Bangladesh today including its surrounding territories (present-day Indian states of West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Meghalya, Assam and Tripura) was historically known as Bengal. It was first part of the Mughal empire for more than five centuries and then of the Bengal Presidency and finally of the British Empire. A.K.Fazlul Haque, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman struggled to lead the Bengali nation to independence in 1971. Since independence, successive governments have sought to define Bangladesh’s democracy.
According to archeological findings in the Wari-Boteshwari region, human settlement developed in Bangladesh some four thousand years ago. It is speculated that the Dravid and Tibet-Bormi clan made their settlement in this region at that time. Later this region was divided into small kingdoms and was being ruled by local and foreign rulers. Between 1205-1206 a Turkish origin soldier named Ikhtiar Uddin Mohammad Bakhtiar Khilji defeated King Lokkhon Sen and ended the kingship of the Sens. In the 16th Century, before the rule of the Mughal emperors, Bengal was ruled by local sultans and landlords. After the victory of the Mughals Dhaka was established as the capital of Bengal and it was named Jahangirnagar. European traders arrived late in the 15th century and their influence grew until the British East India Company gained control of Bengal following the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
The land, the rivers and the lives of the people of Bangladesh formed a unique history, dating back more than 2500 years, and a rich heritage with marked differences from neighboring regions. Bangladesh’s culture has evolved over the centuries, and encompasses the diversity of several social groups.
The culture of Bangladesh over centuries has assimilated influences of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Islam. It is manifested in various forms, including music, dance and drama, art and crafts, folklores and folktales, languages and literature, philosophy and religion, festivals and celebrations and in a distinct cuisine and culinary tradition.
The era of modern Bengali literature matured in the nineteenth century. Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Laureate is a vital part of Bengali culture. Kazi Nazrul Islam, Michael Madhusudan Datta, Sharat Chandra Chattapadhaya, Bankim Chandra Chattapadhaya, Mir Mosharraf Hossain and Kazi Ahdul Wadud are the pioneers of modern Bengali literature. Bangladesh also has a long tradition in folk literature, evidenced by Maimansingha Githika, Thakurmar Jhuli and stories related to Gopal Bhar.
Bangladesh has a rich tradition of folk songs, with lyrics rooted into vibrant tradition and spirituality, mysticism and devotion. Most prevalent folk songs and music traditions include Bhatiali, Baul, Marfati, Murshidi and Bhawaiya. Lyricists like Lalon Shah, Hason Raja, Kangal Harinath, Romesh Shill, Abbas Uddin and many unknown anonymous lyricists have enriched the tradition of folk songs of Bangladesh.
Several musical instruments, some of them of indigenous origin, are used in Bangladesh including bamboo flute (banshi), drums (dole), a single stringed instrument named ektara, a two stringed instrument called dotara, a pair of metal bawls used for rhythm effect called mandira. In recent time, western influences have given rise to several quality artists and bands, particularly in urban centers like Dhaka.
Food and Fruits
Bangladesh is famous for its distinctive culinary tradition, and delicious food, snacks and savories. Bangladeshi food has a close relation to Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine as well as having many unique traits. Boiled rice constitutes the staple food, and is served with a variety of vegetables, fried as well as curries, lentil soups, and fish, especially Hilsha fish and meat preparations of beef, mutton and chicken.
Sweetmeats of Bangladesh are mostly milk based, and consist of several delights including Roshgulla, Sandesh, Rasamalai, Gulap Jamun, Kalo Jamun, Chom Chom. Bengali cuisine is rich and varied with the use of many specialized spices and flavors.Bangladesh abounds with a large variety of tropical and sub-tropical fruits.
The most widely cultivated fruits are mango, jackfruit, pineapple, banana, litchi, lemon, guava, custard apple, wood apple, papaya, tamarind, watermelon, cashew nut, pomegranate and Indian olive. May, June and July are specially treated as fruit festival months in Bangladesh when almost all fruits are matured and available. A few fruits including papaya, coconut and banana are available throughout the year.
Bangladeshi people have distinctive dress preferences. Bangladeshi men wear panjabi on religious and cultural occasions, lungi as casual wear and shirt-pant on formal occasions. Sari is the main dress of women. Sari weaving is a traditional art in Bangladesh. Salwar Kameez, a three piece costume, is popular especially among the younger ladies.
Seasons and Climate
The Bangladeshi year is subdivided into six seasons: Grismo, Barsha, Sharat, Hemanto, Sheet and Bashonto.
Grismo is divided into two months, Boishak and Jaistha. The 1st Boishak is the starting of the Bangla New Year. The advent of Bengali New Year is gaily observed throughout the country. Jaistha is called the ‘Modhu Maas’ (Honey Month) as there are lots of seasonal fruits ripe in this month.
The months of Ashar and Srabon are in Barsha, the rainy season. The rains are at first a welcome relief from the baking, dusty hot season. But as they continue, the land turns into a brown and watery mass, ever-changing in shape and texture. It is during the rainy season that Bangladesh’s main crop, jute, begins to ripen and is harvested. The stalks are placed on high ground to dry. Aside from the practical problems, the rains and water also inspire the poetry, art and songs of the people.
Vadro and Ashhin months are in Sharat, the season when the land turns into a carpet of bright green rice shoots while the smell of drying jute invades the air. Flowers bloom, the rice ripens and the harvest begins. Blue sky, golden sun and green vegetation are the colors of Sharat. Although the air is humid, there is a slight chill late at night.
Hemanto has two months; Kartik and Augrahayon. Once the land has emerged from its watery grave, it is time to replant in new, fertile soil that is rich in nutrients. During this season, the land is at its luscious best. Festivals flourish to hail the harvest, the end of the floods, the coming of the new soil and the wonder of the rivers. The land and its people come to life during Hemanto, when the flowers bloom – jasmine, water lily, hibiscus and bougainvillea. By the season’s end, the air is no longer humid. Fresh scents replace the dry jute smell. Hemanto marks the start of the wedding season.
Poush and Magh are in the winter season or Sheet. The weather becomes more arid and less humid. The earth dries and dust forms. Warm clothes are pulled out. Bashonto brings the months of Falgun and Chaitro. Bengali people celebrate the 1st Falgun in a big procession. People wear colorful dresses to welcome spring. The last day of Chaitro is another big celebration, an occasion when businesspersons close their old account books and invites their customers to visit their shops to clear all outstanding bills. The days are golden with light, and the nights and early mornings are chilly. The countryside hums with fairs, parades and commemorations. Festivals celebrate painting and handicrafts, poetry, music and drama. In Dhaka, basanto heralds the beginning of the social season with a frantic whirl of invitations to weddings, parties and dinners.
Holiday & Festivals
There are as many festivals in Bangladesh as there are days in the year. Fairs and festivals play an important role in the social life of Bangladeshis. The two Eids, Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Ajha are the largest festivals in the Islamic calendar.
Eid Festival, Courtesy: Al JazeeraMajor Hindu festivals are Durga Puja and Saraswati Puja. Buddha Purnima, which marks the birth of Gautama Buddha, is one of the most important Buddhist festivals while Christmas, called Bôŗodin (‘Great day’ in Bangla) is celebrated by the minority Christian population. The most important secular festival is Pohela Boishak or Bengali New Year, the beginning of the Bengali calendar.
Eid-ul-Fitr, the biggest Muslim festival observed throughout the world, is held on the day following the Ramadan or the month of fasting. After a first glimpse of the moon of the month of Ramadan the fasting starts. For the whole month, the Muslim community fasts from dawn to dusk.
Eid-ul Azha, the second most important festival in Islam is held marking the Hajj in Mecca on the 10th Zilhaj, the lunar month. Animals are sacrificed in reminiscence of Hazrat Ibrahim’s preparedness for the supreme sacrifice of his beloved son to Allah.
Eid-e-Miladunnabi marks the birth and death day of Prophet Muhammad. He was born and died the same day on 12th Rabiul Awal (lunar month). The day is a national holiday. Special food is served in orphanages, hospitals and jails. At night, important public buildings are illuminated and milad mahfils are held.
Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Hindu community, continues for ten days, the last three days culminating with the idol being immersed in rivers. In Dhaka the big celebrations are held at Dhakeswari Temple and at the Ram Krishna Mission.
Kali Puja is a Hindu religious festival, particularly of the Shakta community. Kali is the first of the ten female energies of Shiva (the third god of the Hindu Triad). Much information about her is given in different Puranas. She is shown as dark, four-armed and wearing a string of human heads with blood still dripping from them. Usually male goats, sheep or buffaloes are sacrificed during Kali Puja.
Rathayatra or chariot journey is an important Hindu festival, referring primarily to the journey of the god Jagannath or Vishnu to the sea. The Rathayatra at Dhamrai was famous because of a towering 60-foot chariot built by the zamindars of Saturia Baliyati towards the middle of the 19th century. During the War of Liberation, the chariot was burned by the Pakistan army. A newly built chariot has now replaced the old one. A month-long fair is held at Dhamrai on the occasion of the Rathayatra in the month of Ashar (June-July).
Rash Mela is the principal festival of the Manipuris and a major Hindu celebration observed at different places in the country on the night of the full moon in Kartik-Agrahayan. Thousands of devotees visit the places during the fair, which concludes with a holy bath in the sea at dawn. The fair signals the opening of the fishing season in Sundarban.
Christmas is celebrated with pomp in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country. Several day-long large gatherings are held at St. Mary’s Cathedral at Ramna, Portuguese Church at Tejgaon, Church of Bangladesh (Protestant) on Johnson Road and Bangladesh Baptist Sangha at Sadarghat Dhaka. Functions include illumination of churches, decorating Christmas trees and other Christian festivities.
Buddha Purnima, the main religious festival of the Buddhist community, is observed on Baishakhi Purnima , the day of the full moon in Baishakh (mid-April to mid-May). Three important events in the life of Buddha are believed to have occurred on this day: his birth in 623 BC, his gaining enlightenment in 588 BC, and his death in 543 BC. On Buddha Purnima, Buddhists arrange collective prayers and various other religious ceremonies, recite stories of the Buddha and his disciples, and organize social and cultural events. Many Buddhist Monasteries (vihara) organize three-day celebrations. The day is observed as a public holiday. Fairs are held on the day at different villages and viharas.
Prabarana Purnima is a Buddhist festival, also known as Ashvini Purnima. Prabarana means both adopting wholly and forbidding. In the first sense it means dedicating oneself to the ideal of a life of humility; in the sense of forbidding, it means avoiding all acts contrary to the ideals of Buddhism. Prabarana is observed on the day of the full moon in the month of Asvin. At the end of Prabarana, every vihara celebrates the festival of Kathin Chibar Dan, when robes are given to the monks (viksus). According to Buddhist scriptures, on this day Lord Buddha went to the abode of the gods, and, after blessing his mother, returned to earth. To mark this event, the Buddhists send special hot-air balloons called ‘Fanush’ as a symbol of lighting up the sky.
Pahela Baishakh, the first day of the Bangla year, is celebrated in a festive manner in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. In Bangladesh Pahela Baishakh is a national holiday on April 14. The most colorful New Year’s Day festival takes place in Dhaka. Large numbers of people gather early in the morning under the Banyan Tree at Ramna Park where Chhayanat artistes open the day with Tagore’s famous song, Eso he Baishakh eso eso (Come O Baishakh, come), welcoming Baishakh. A similar ceremony welcoming the New Year is also held at the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka Students and teachers of the institute take out a colorful procession and parade round the campus. In the rural areas farmers’ wives prepare ‘amani’ by soaking green mango and rice in a large earthen vessel on the last day of Chaitral. A leafy mango twig is also placed in the vessel. At dawn everybody eats the soaked rice while the water in the vessel is sprinkled on the bodies with the help of the mango twig. This keeps the body cool in the hot summer. Families prepare special dishes in the belief that a good meal at the start of the year will set the trend for the whole year.
March 26 marks the Independence of Bangladesh. On this public holiday the citizens of Dhaka wake up early in the morning to the booming of guns heralding the day. Government leaders, sociopolitical organizations and freedom fighters place floral wreaths at the National Martyrs Monument at Savar. Bangla Academy, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and other socio-cultural organizations hold cultural functions. Similar functions are arranged in other parts of the country.
On 21 February 1952 (8 Falgun 1359 in the Bangla calendar) a number of students campaigning for the recognition of Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan were killed when police fired upon them. All subsequent movements including the struggle for independence owe their origin to the historic language movement. The Shahid Minar (martyrs monument) is the symbol of sacrifice for Bangla, the mother tongue. After liberation, the day became a national holiday. Colorful Alpana designs are painted on the ground, and Bangla verses and prose passages are written on the walls facing the Shahid Minar. Ekushey February (21 February) played an important role in making Bengalis aware of their cultural and national heritage and ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Since 2000 this day is also observed as International Mother Language Day in tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue.
Water festival is the biggest festival of the Marma community, akin to Boisabi of the Tripuras and Biju of the Chakmas. In mid-April, this celebration of the New Year falls around the same time as Bengali Pahela Baishakh and Assamese Bihu. Apart from songs and dances Sangrai is marked by the water festival and magic charm competitions. Water festival is a game of splashing water from two sides of a marked arena by unmarried boys and girls.
Nobanno or “new rice” is the festival of harvest in Bengal, taking place in the Bengali month of Augrahayon. Festivities include the making of traditional cakes named “pitha”. The most common ingredients of pitha are rice or wheat flour, molasses or sugar, coconut and oil. Meat, vegetables and fruits are also used in preparing some pithas. Date juice and molasses – both important ingredients of pithas – are readily available in the winter.
The birth anniversary of the Nobel Laureate and writer of the national anthem Rabindranath Tagore on 25th Baishakh (early May) and that of the national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, famous as ‘Rebel Poet’ for his fiery writings, on 11th Jaistha (late May) are observed throughout the country. Big gatherings and songs sessions organized by socio-cultural organizations are the main features of the observance of the days.
The name of Bangladeshi currency is the Taka (BDT). Notes are available in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 Taka; coins of 50 Paisa and 1, 2 and 5 Taka are available. 100 Paisa equals 1 Taka.