By Peter Bertocci and Ian Skoggard


Bangali, Bangladeshi (formerly Bengalee, Baboo).



The Bengali people speak the Bengali (BANGLA) language, live in the Bengal region of the Indian Subcontinent, located in northeastern South Asia, and most follow either the Hindu or the Muslim faith. The Bengal region is divided politically between the nation of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Bengalis themselves call their region by the name of BANGLA DESH, meaning simply "the Bengali homeland," a term adopted by the people of eastern Bengal when they won sovereign independence for the state of Bangladesh in 1971. The native ethnic term for themselves is Bangli, of which "Bengali" is an Anglicization. However, Bengalis who are citizens of Bangladesh will also most readily call themselves Bangladeshi.

Lying at the north of the Bay of Bengal and roughly between 20 and 27 degrees north latitude, and 86 and 93 degrees east longitude, the Bengal region consists largely of a vast alluvial, deltaic plain, built up by the Ganges River and watered also by the Brahmaputra River system originating in the eastern Himalayan mountains. As in much of southern Asia, monsoon winds bring a rainy season, which can last from April to mid-November. Bengal's total area is approximately 233,000 square kilometers, of which about 38 percent (just under 89,000 square kilometers) is in India, the remaining 62 percent (144,000 square kilometers) constituting the nation of Bangladesh.


According to the 1994 Bangladesh statistics, 100,000,000, or 98 percent of the population speak Bengali as their first language. In 1997, there were 70,561,000 primary speakers of Bengali in India, mostly in West Bengal, but also in the states of India-Assam, Bihar, Tripura, Orissa, Meghalaya, and Nagaland. A kind of "Bengali Diaspora" exists in northeastern South Asia and around the world, with large numbers of Bengalis living as immigrants in Nepal, Malawi, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. In sum, Bengalis comprised a total worldwide population of about 207,000,000 (1999). Bengali speakers make up 85 percent of the population of West Bengal, which is otherwise home to an additional 9 million non-Bengali people. Most of these are from other parts of India, living in the metropolis of Calcutta, the state capital, but there are significant numbers of non-Bengali people locally classed as "tribal" in rural West Bengal as well. Bangladesh is far more homogeneous; all but two percent of its people identify themselves as Bengali. Most of the remaining non-Bengali ethnic groups also locally designated as "tribal," and the majority of these are speakers of Tibeto-Burman and other minority languages, often living in border areas of the country. Some speakers of dialects of Hindi-Urdu remain in Bangladesh as well. Overall population densities in West Bengal were recorded at 767 people per square kilometer in 1991. In Bangladesh, overall densities reached 920 persons per square kilometer in 1999, the highest for any country in the world.


Like most of the languages of northern South Asia, Bengali belongs to the Indo-Iranian (sometimes also called Indo-Aryan) branch of the Indo-European family. Descended from ancient Sanskrit, Bengali contains 47 sounds: 11 vowels, 25 consonants, 4 semi-vowels and 7 "breath sounds" (including sibilants and aspirates). Its script, also Sanskrit-derived, contains 57 letter symbols. The Bengali language is associated with a long literary tradition, pride in which is a major factor in Bengali ethnic and national identity. A Bengali, Rabindranath Tagore, was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1913). The literary language with which educated speakers are familiar is, however, quite distinct from the urban and rural speech of the less well educated. The eastern dialects of Bengali, notably those spoken in the Sylhet and Chittagong districts of Bangladesh, differ quite noticeably from those heard in West Bengal.


Bengal is mentioned as a distinct region of South Asia in some of the earliest Hindu texts, and throughout the first millennium A.D. it was governed by a succession of Buddhist and Hindu rulers. Islamic armies arrived in the region in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and gradual Muslim conquest, culminating in Mughal rule after 1576, set the stage for widespread conversion of the local population to Islam, especially in eastern Bengal. Not long thereafter, European contact with, and competition for power on, the Indian subcontinent began, and the British period of India's history is usually dated from England's takeover of the administration of Bengal in 1757. Lasting until 1947, British rule had a profound impact on Bengali culture and society, especially with the introduction of English as the medium of higher education after 1835. Hindus responded more rapidly than did Muslims to opportunities provided by English education, and the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the rise of a highly Westernized elite, mostly, but not exclusively, Hindu in composition, whose intellectual attainments were coupled with efforts at socio-cultural and political reform.

Bengali elites provided major leadership to the Indian nationalist movement as a whole, which began to develop in force after the mid-1800s. Bengali Hindus tended to support a nationalist party called the Indian National Congress in its vision of a free, secular India to follow British rule. But most Bengali Muslims believed, as did many Muslims throughout India at that time, that they had benefited less than Hindus under British rule and feared that they would suffer discrimination in a free India dominated by the country's Hindu majority. The Muslims of Bengal were thus more attracted to another nationalist organization, the Muslim League, which in 1940 advocated a separate post-independence state for Muslims, to be known as Pakistan. The British acceded to India's independence in 1947, at which time the Subcontinent was partitioned into two separate nation-states: India, with a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, with a Muslim majority. The predominantly Hindu western districts of Bengal then comprised the Indian state of West Bengal, whereas the mainly Muslim districts of eastern Bengal formed the eastern province of Pakistan (called East Pakistan). Pakistan's national unity was based on common religious identity of its citizens as Muslims, but it was undermined by the nation's linguistic diversity and growing conflict between the country's ethnic groups. Over time the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan came into increasing confrontation with the non-Bengali Muslim groups of West Pakistan, where a preponderance of the economic wealth and political power of the country was concentrated.

In 1971 the schism between East and West Pakistan erupted into a civil war, a national liberation struggle from the Bengali point of view, resulting in the break-up of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh as a new nation. This history helps to explain why the Bengali population is divided into its two major political entities: the Hindu-majority Indian state of West Bengal, with its capital at Calcutta; and the Muslim-majority independent nation-state of Bangladesh, with its capital in Dhaka.


Throughout the Bengal region the officially recognized unit of rural settlement is known as a MAUZA or "revenue village" having surveyed boundaries determined during the British Imperial period for purposes of taxation and general administration. There are more than 40,000 such villages in West Bengal, and some 68,000 in Bangladesh, but it is important to recognize that these officially designated villages do not necessarily always correspond to actual rural communities as locally and socially defined. Peasant communities range from 100 to 1000 in population size, and a typical village in the low-lying Bengal delta consists of one or more hamlets (PARA) of peasant homesteads (BARI) built on land deliberately raised so as to avoid monsoon flooding. Along canals and other waterways the pattern of settlement is more linear, and in areas of the country where monsoon inundations are especially great the pattern tends to be more dispersed.

Peasant homesteads are usually composed of extended families, broken down into households most often consisting of a man and his dependents, who form an independent land holding and/or cultivating and consuming unit. Interspersed throughout one finds a network of periodic rural markets, and the multi-village area served by a local market--what some anthropologists have called the "standard marketing area"--functions not only as the focus of commercial activity, but also socially and politically to weave together the village communities that they serve into a certain degree of wider regional identity.

Dwellings are most commonly constructed from the dense mud of the Bengal delta and local construction engineering is sometimes sophisticated enough to allow the raising of homes of two and three stories in height. Animal shelters and fruit-bearing trees are common fixtures in a homestead area, and the excavation of soil for construction often results in a human-made pond which serves the residents as a source of fish as well as water for bathing and laundering. Thatch grass typically provides roofing, but wealthier families can afford roofs of corrugated iron; the poorest families often have homes primarily made of bamboo only.



Statistical data for 1981 indicate that some 83 percent of the people in the Bengal region as a whole resided in the rural areas (89 percent in Bangladesh, 74 percent in West Bengal), and it is unlikely that the rural-urban distribution of the population or the occupational breakdown of the labor force has changed markedly over the past decade. Two-thirds (67 percent) of the labor was engaged in agriculture, more so in Bangladesh (74 percent) than in West Bengal (55 percent). The region is largely homogeneous in the kinds of crops its people grow, wet rice agriculture being the hallmark of the Bengali economy. There are three cropping seasons: (1) a spring season marked by the onset of monsoon rains in April, during which varieties of rice classed as AUS are typically grown along with jute, the region's major commercial crop, until mid-July. This is followed by (2) the AMAN season which accounts for the bulk of annual rice production, lasting to November; after which commences (3) the dry winter season, lingering through March, in which types of rice called BORO, which can grow under irrigated conditions are sown, along with pulses and oilseeds. Wheat and potato represent relatively recent food crop innovations in Bengal. The raising of farm animals for food and labor is not usually an occupational specialization, although whether or not a farm family will possess any of the animals commonly found throughout Bengal--cows, oxen, bullocks, water buffalo and goats--will depend on its wealth. Farm families with homestead ponds may engage in some small-scale fishing, but extensive fishing is an occupational specialty of particular Hindu castes or caste-like groups among Muslims.


Specialized, mostly Hindu, artisan caste groups, weavers, potters, blacksmiths, carpenters and so forth have always carried out pre-industrial manufacture and the provision of non-agricultural goods throughout Bengal. Because of the usually small size of Bengali villages, it is rare for a full complement of artisan castes to be present in most, but the latter are usually sufficiently dispersed throughout standard marketing areas to make their wares generally available. It should also be emphasized that industrial manufacturing is widespread in Bengal, concentrated primarily in its major cities.


As noted above, periodic local markets dot the Bengal countryside, and these in turn are linked to permanent, daily markets in larger provincial towns and ultimately to major urban commercial centers. Many peasants engage in petty marketing to supplement their primary occupation, but large-scale accumulation and transportation of major crops, especially rice and jute, and artisan products are typically carried out by middlemen who move from market to market. As elsewhere in South Asia, some Hindu caste groups specialize in certain kinds of trade and commercial transactions (e.g., those related to gold and other jewelry, or specific consumption items other than rice). Because Bengal possesses a labyrinthine network of rivers, providing boat transportation to and between riverside centers is a major activity for many. Commerce is overwhelmingly male-dominated, since adult women are usually required to limit their activities to their homesteads and immediate surroundings and thus are not permitted to engage in significant trading activity.


The division of labor by both gender and occupational specialization is highly marked throughout South Asia, including Bengal, particularly so in the rural areas. Regardless of a rural family's occupational specialty, men engage in activities which take place outside the home, while women are limited to those which can be performed within its confines. Thus, for example, in rice-farming families men perform all the work in the fields, plowing, planting, weeding and harvesting, and once the crop is brought into the homestead women take up the tasks of threshing, drying, and husking the crop. A similar kind of intra-versus extra, homestead division of labor by gender occurs in families with non-agricultural occupational specializations. Not surprisingly, domestic and child-rearing tasks fall within the women's domain as well. The degree to which women are permitted to work outside the home is, however, related to the economic and social status of the family. A poor or landless farmer's wife may spend part of her day processing agricultural goods in a wealthier household, for example, to supplement her family's meager income, and among the lower-ranked service castes (see below) the taboo on women working outside the home is considerably less strict. In the urban middle class and upper classes, it is by no means uncommon for women to have a profession, especially in the teaching and medical fields (nearly all gynecologists are women), and work outside the home.

The other major feature of the Bengali division of labor is occupational specialization by caste, already mentioned and discussed more fully below. In traditional Bengali Hindu society, nearly every occupation is carried on by a ranked hierarchy of specialized caste groups, not only the artisan and trading occupations already discussed, but also personal and domestic service functions, e.g., barbering, laundering, latrine cleaning, as well as, non-menial tasks such as those related to public administration and, of course, the priesthood.

There is some caste-based specialization among Muslims as well. In the modern sectors of Bengal's economy, the division of labor is not formally organized by caste. But the caste hierarchy tends to be visible in the distribution of the work force nonetheless; the professions and management jobs are likely to be taken up by persons of higher caste background, whereas laborers and lower level service workers are most often members of the traditionally lower ranked castes.


Land has always been individually owned and small family farms, typically little more than a single hectare (or 2 to 3 acres) in size, are found throughout Bengal. Farm holdings are often highly fragmented, consisting on average of between 7 and 9 separate plots per holding. Recent land tenure surveys from Bangladesh indicate that around 80 percent of the cultivated area is owned by only 35 percent of the land-owning households; 30 percent of rural households are landless and 10 percent more own farms of less than an acre. No significant land reform has been attempted in Bangladesh in the past 40 years. In 1970, only 20 percent of the land holdings in West Bengal accounted for some 60 percent of the total cultivated area, and a large number of cultivating families were landless laborers, tenants and sharecroppers as well, since then West Bengal has made a significant effort at land reform with some beneficial results.



The commonest kin group in rural Bengal is the homestead-based patrilineal extended family, whose members jointly own homestead land and may, but usually do not, also own agricultural land in common. The homestead is typically composed of a senior male head, his married sons with their families, unmarried children and grandchildren, and other dependents.


In conventional classifications, the Bengali kinship terminology is of the "bifurcate collateral" type in terms of first ascending generation terminology; and the Sudanese type from the point of view of cousin terminology. Thus, each of Ego's parental siblings is denoted by a separate term, and so therefore is each parental sibling's child (i.e., "cousin" in English terms). In this respect, Bengali terminology does not differ from that found across North India and the Middle East. Although both Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim terminologies share the same pattern, Muslims employ seven kinship terms which are found in Urdu, and in several cases actually derived from Arabic and Persian, all languages distinctively identified with Islamic rather than Hindu civilization. (Recent discussions of Bengali kinship, however, suggest that the conventional anthropological classification system has limited utility for understanding the basic cultural categories of kinship in Bengali culture.)



Bengali marriages are arranged, but Hindu and Muslim marital practices differ in certain key respects. Among Hindus, considerations of caste rank are important; that is, marriage usually occurs between persons of the same caste. Hypergamous unions, between members of closely ranked castes, with women marrying upward, are not forbidden. But hypogamous marriages, in which a woman marries a man of a lower caste, are strongly discouraged and rarely occur. Because of the egalitarian ideology of Islam, caste-related restrictions are not formally required for Muslims. But since Bengali Muslim society as a matter of fact reflects some caste-like features, social rank is also a strong consideration in the selection of mates, and there are some low-ranked Muslim occupational groups which are perforce highly endogamous. Among Hindus also lineage exogamy is the basic rule and matrilateral cousin marriage is also forbidden. By contrast, as Islam raises no barrier to cousin marriage, its occurrence among Bengali Muslims is common, although empirical studies show that it is neither pervasive nor necessarily preferred.

Similarly polygyny, rare and strongly discouraged among Bengali Hindus, is of course permitted to Bengali Muslims, although its actual rate of occurrence is not high. Divorce among high caste Hindus is strongly discouraged and, at least until recently, has always brought great stigma. Islam discourages but nonetheless permits divorce, and thus its rate among Bengali Muslims is much higher than among Bengali Hindus. Finally, among high-caste Hindus, widow remarriage, despite a century of legislation outlawing the ancient custom of proscribing it, is still greatly frowned upon. Islam places no barrier on remarriage for either sex after spousal death or divorce, although the incidence of remarriage of elderly Muslim widows is not high.

For both Hindus and Muslims patrilocal/virilocal post-marital residence patterns are much preferred and almost universally practiced, at least in the rural areas. Neolocal, nuclear family households are much more common among urban professional families in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.


Throughout rural Bengal the patrilineally extended family homestead is subdivided into its natural segments, called PARIBAR, consisting of men, their wives, children and other dependents, who form the basic subsistence-producing and consuming kinship units. The economic and social "jointness" of the PARIBAR is underlined by the sharing of a common kitchen or hearth, as well as the ownership or control of land and/or other productive assets, if any.


Among Bengali Hindus, inheritance is governed by the DAYABHAGA system of customary law in which a man has sole rights in all ancestral property until his death and can in principle pass it on to his survivors in any manner that he wishes. Unless he makes a will to the contrary, upon his death a man's sons are to inherit equally all property as a matter of survivorship, not a matter of right; his wife and daughters have no claim by right to any of his property, but they do have the right to maintenance so long as they are dependent on their sons or brothers. Among Muslims inheritance is governed by Islamic law, which permits a man's female dependents to inherit a portion of his property; since sons are expected to be the sole providers for their families, the law permits them to receive more of a father's property than do daughters. In actual Bengali Muslim (at least rural, peasant) practice, however, daughters commonly forego or are deprived of their inheritance of immovable property in favor of their brothers, in anticipation that if they need to return to their natal homes after widowhood or divorce their brothers will take care of them. Although joint retention and use of the father's property by his sons is the cultural ideal for both Hindus and Muslims, in practice the subdivision of a man's property begins not long after his death, and the formation or further proliferation of the domestic units discussed above begins.


Children learn proper behavior from parents and older siblings, gradually becoming differentiated according to gender as they mature. The pattern of older children caring for their younger siblings is widespread. While small children of both sexes are warmly indulged, as girls approach physical maturity their movements outside the household are gradually curtailed in anticipation of the relative restrictions that both high caste Hindu and Muslim adult women will experience for most of their child-bearing years. Schools abound throughout Bengal, but whether and how long a child will attend depends much upon gender as well as the social standing and financial condition of the family. Schools for religious education--Hindu PATHSALAS for boys and Islamic MADRASSAS open to both sexes--are found everywhere and commonly attended, at least during childhood years.



Bengali Hindu society is organized along the lines of the Hindu caste system, in which every individual is a member by birth of a corporate, ranked, endogamous occupational group, called a caste (JATI). One's place in society is determined by the rank of one's caste, and the latter is determined by the relative prestige--measured by the degree of ritual purity or impurity--associated with the caste's traditional occupation. The castes traditionally associated with religious leadership are considered to be the most pure ritually and so have the highest rank. At the bottom of the hierarchy are found those castes whose occupations, because they involve direct or indirect contact with such defiling substances as blood and human excreta or may be associated with death in some way, are considered to be the most ritually impure. The customs governing much of the individual's existence are those of his or her caste community; the wealth of one's family is also correlated with one's caste ranking; the probability that a person will receive a high degree of education is also related to caste status, and of course most people marry a member of their caste as well. Individual upward social mobility is highly restricted in this kind of social system, but it is possible for a whole caste to elevate its actual rank in its local hierarchy if its members become wealthy and attempt to emulate norms and customs of the higher castes.

Certain castes found elsewhere in India have not been historically present in Bengal, notably those associated in the past with royalty and the performance of traditional ruling functions, for example, the KSHATRIYA VARNA. Anywhere from six to a dozen caste groups might be found in a typical Bengali Hindu village, but villages in Bengal tend to be less highly stratified, in the sense that they tend to have a smaller number of castes than Hindu communities in other parts of India. In the most populous southern areas of the Bengal delta, Hindu village communities are often dominated numerically and politically by one of several low-ranked cultivating castes: the NAMASUDRAS, the MAHISYAS and/or the PODS. In part because Islam is an egalitarian religion and in principle forbids hereditary distinctions of social rank, one does not find among Bengali Muslims whole communities organized along the lines of caste, and the social system is more open and fluid from the point of view of social mobility.

The vestiges are still found of a traditional South Asian Muslim system of social rank which distinguished between "noble" (ASHRAF) and low-ranked (AJLAF or ATRAF) status groups, and some of the latter still exist and tend to be occupationally endogamous. Today, however, Muslim village communities, at least in Bangladesh, are most often populated by ordinary cultivators among whom well-marked caste-like distinctions are not found and who emphasize distinctions in wealth as the basis for social rank.


West Bengal is a federal state within the Republic of India, with its own elected governor and legislature; it also sends representatives to a bicameral national parliament. Bangladesh is an independent sovereign republic with an elected president and a unicameral, elected national assembly (the JATIYA SANGSAD). West Bengal is divided into 16 districts, and below the district level (as everywhere in India) there is a three-tiered council system known as PANCHAYATI RAJ, whose purpose is to administer village and multi-village affairs and to carry out development projects consistent with statewide plans and goals. Each village elects a village assembly (GRAM SABHA), whose executive body is the village council (GRAM PANCHAYAT). Usually these village councils are controlled by the numerically and/or economically dominant caste group in the villages electing them. Several village councils in turn elect an area council (ANCHAL PANCHAYAT), which has jurisdiction over the village councils. The heads of the various area councils, along with nominated members of the state legislative assembly, form the district council (ZILLA PARISHAD), which, linked to the state government, has control over the entire local government system. Parallel to the local councils at each level is a three-tiered judicial system as well.

In Bangladesh, which undertook administrative reforms in 1982, the 68,000 officially designated "villages" or MAUZAS are amalgamated into around 4,300 unions with governing councils known as union PARISHADS constituting the lowest levels of the national government and administration, to which the villagers elect members. Unions are further grouped into nearly 500 UPAZILLAS or "sub-districts," governed by UPAZILLA PARISHADS, whose memberships are composed by the chairmen of the union parishads (except that the chairman of an upazilla parishad is directly elected). Upazillas in turn are united into some 64 Districts, and these again into 4 Divisions. The key to this administrative scheme is supposed to be the upazilla parishad, which has many local decision-making powers, especially those relevant to community development. Social scientists who have studied the local government system in Bangladesh have found that it is usually dominated by the more wealthy sections of the peasantry and locally powerful village elites.


In both West Bengal and Bangladesh, formal social control mechanisms are provided by the units of local government described above, in conjunction with police and civil court administration. However, informal mechanisms have traditionally been important as well. Among Hindus, inter-village caste PANCHAYATS (councils), headed by the elders, regulate marriages and otherwise govern the affairs and mediate disputes of the members of the same caste in several adjacent villages. Among Muslims, similar traditional councils, called SAMAJ, of village elders perform similar functions, and sometimes these groups may encompass several contiguous villages. These traditional socio-political groupings may overlap with the official units of local government described above in that the leaders of these indigenous groups are sometimes elected to membership in the governmental bodies too.


Anthropologists have conducted many studies of conflict in South Asian villages, including those of Bengal. They have found that conflict not only often occurs between the various castes, but also between factions composed of members of various caste groups. Competition for scarce land is a major source of conflict, as well as rivalry between landowners for power and influence in local, regional, and even state and national affairs. Wealthy landowning families will often exercise control over their tenants and the landless people who work on their land, relying on the support of the latter in conflict situations. The outcomes of elections for both local and upper level councils are influenced by factional conflict, as are the polls in each constituency for state and national legislative bodies.



Hinduism and Islam are the two major religions of Bengal, and religious identification was the basis for the political division experienced by the Bengalis with the departure of British rule in 1947. In West Bengal, Hindus constituted 77 percent of the population in 1981, and Muslims 22 percent. Some 85 percent of Bangladeshis are Muslim, about 14 percent Hindu. Less than 1 percent of Bengalis are Christians; one can also find a few isolated Bengali Buddhist villages in southern Bangladesh. Bengali Hinduism by and large conforms to the orthodox Vedantic variety of that faith, although in response to the cultural impact of the British in the last century there emerged certain modernistic variants to which some Westernized high-caste elites were drawn, e.g., the BRAHMO SAMAJ. The Shaivite cult, focusing on worship of the god Shiva and his female counterparts, is widespread among the upper castes, while Vaishnavism, involving devotion to the Lord Krishna, is popular among the lower castes.

Bengali Muslims belong overwhelmingly to the Sunni division of Islam and generally conform to the Hanafi school of Islamic law. Popular religion in Bengal often displays syncretism, a mixing of both Hindu and Muslim folk beliefs, deities, and practices. Bengal is famous for its wandering religious mendicant folk musicians, e.g., the BAULS, who disdain caste and conventional Hindu/Muslim religious distinctions in their worship and way of life. In addition to formal worship at Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, popular worship involving religious folk music is widespread, especially at Vaishnavite gatherings (KIRTAN) and among Muslim followers of several Sufi orders (TARIKA) present in Bengal. Bengali Muslims are also known for their practice of "pirism," the cultic following of Muslim saints or holy men (called PIRS).


The Hindu clergy is drawn from the highest (Brahmin) castes and is thus a matter of birthright, although not all Brahmins actually practice as priests (PUNDIT, PURAHIT). Practitioners within the Hindu system also include persons who withdraw from conventional society to become religious mendicants in search of personal salvation (SADHUS).

By contrast, in Bengali Islam, recruitment to the clergy is voluntary; any man who has the desire and opportunity to study the Qu'ran (for which he must learn to read the classical Arabic language) can eventually become the worship leader (MULLA or IMAM) of a local mosque if so chosen by the congregation. Further study of the Qu'ran and of Muslim law (SHARI'A) may qualify a man to be a religious leader with a wider following, greater stature and sometimes significant political influence.


The Bengali Hindu religious calendar is replete with worship ceremonies (PUJA) devoted to the deities of both the Great and Little Traditions. Especially important is the annual festival (or GAJAN) of the Lord Shiva, as are those of his counterpart goddesses, Kali and Durga. The goddesses Lakshmi (of wealth and good fortune) and Saraswati (of learning and culture) also have annual ceremonies. Important folk deities propitiated by Hindus and Muslims alike include the "goddesses of the calamities," Sitala, goddess of smallpox, Olabibi, goddess of cholera, as well as Manasa, goddess of snakes, all of whom have their annual festivals.

Bengali Muslims celebrate the major festivals of Islam: the Id al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim month of fasting (Ramadan), the Id al-Adha, or "feast of the sacrifice," coterminous with the annual pilgrimage (haj) to Mecca and commemorating the story of the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command. Even though Bengali Muslims are Sunnis, they also observe the festival of Muharram, usually associated more prominently with the Shi'a division of Islam, in which the death of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammed and martyr of the faith, is mourned. Bengalis also celebrate the well-known Hindu rite of spring called Holi; for members of all religious faiths, the annual new year ceremony on the first day of the Hindu (and Bengali) month of Baisakh, coming between April and May and marking the onset of spring, is a joyous occasion.


Urban Bengali elite culture has produced one of South Asia's finest literary traditions, including not only the novel, short story, and poetry, but drama and film as well. Some of India's best classical musicians and greatest exponents of the dance have been Bengalis. Bengalis have also made major contributions to Indian and world cinema. Rural Bengal has a well-developed folk literature, including narrative poetry (PUTHI), drawn from history, myth and legend, as well as a very popular itinerant theater (called JATRA). There is also a strong tradition of religious folk music, particularly associated with the more devotional and mystical practices of popular Hinduism, e.g., worship of the goddess Kali and the Lord Krishna, and of popular Islam, e.g., the devotional gatherings of the various Sufi orders. Terracotta temple and mosque architecture throughout Bengal is much admired, and there is a folk tradition of painting, seen in Hindu religious scrolls and in the flowery, and often obscure, religious symbols (ALIPANA) commonly daubed in white rice paste on the walls and floors of homesteads by Hindu village women.

Finally, despite industrialization and the spread of commercially manufactured products throughout the region, the Bengali rural economy still depends on the services of traditional craftspeople, weavers, potters, carpenters, blacksmiths, metal workers, and the like, whose wares often represent a high quality of both technique and aesthetic design.


Although modern Western medicine has long been known and accepted in Bengal, the homeopathic, allopathic, and the Hindu Ayurvedic and Muslim Unani medical traditions continue to exist as alternatives. There also remains a host of folk beliefs and curing practices among both the urban immigrant poor and the peasantry as a whole. Folk healers (OJHA or FAKIR) are commonly called upon to treat everything from temporary illnesses and chronic diseases to bone fractures and snake bite, as well as to counteract ethnopsychiatric afflictions resulting from sorcery and ghost possession. Folk curing practices stress the use of magical verses (MANTRA), often combined with indigenous medicinal concoctions. Traditional healers also provide amulets for protection against deviltry and sorcery, the wearing of which is ubiquitous not only among the peasantry and the urban poor, but among the Bengali middle classes as well.


Bengali Hindus, of course, accept the doctrine of SAMSARA, or the transmigration of souls from one earthly life to another. Funerary cremations, practiced by nearly all Hindu castes, are thought to release the individual's spiritual essence or soul from its transitory physical body. Bearing the influence (KARMA) of all the actions of its just terminated earthly embodiment, the soul then is reincarnated into a new worldly form and way of life shaped by those past actions. Normally a man's eldest son carries out the funerary rites, lighting the funeral pyre after first placing a burning stick in the mouth of the deceased.

Muslim beliefs require that at death the person be ritually bathed, shrouded, and buried in a coffin with the head facing the holy city of Mecca, after which there follows a funerary prayer ceremony ideally led by either a relative or a recognized leader of the local Muslim community. The dead are thought to enter an indefinite transitional state, during which the wicked begin to experience punishment and the virtuous to receive their reward, between time of death and an eventual Day of Destruction, upon which the world will come to an end. There is then to follow a Day of Judgement, whereupon all beings will be restored to life, and humans will be brought before God (Allah) to have their lifetime deeds, which have been recorded by Allah's angels in a Great Book, reviewed and counted. Should one's good deeds outbalance the evil one has done, resurrection day will lead to everlasting life in Heaven; if vice versa, the outcome is a purifying, remedial period in Hell, whereupon, purged of its past iniquities, the soul may qualify for entry into paradise.


Documents referred to in this section are included in the eHRAF collection and are referenced by author, date of publication, and eHRAF document number.

- Organization and analysis of results of research (128)

There are 30 documents in the Bengali file. Most of the research is based on village studies carried out in the 1960s and 1970s. The major foci are social structure (including lineage, caste, and class), gender, religion, and land tenure. Studies of community organization and social structure include Davis (1983, no. 1; 1976, no. 20), Klass (1978, no. 7), and Bertocci (1980, no. 9; 1992, no. 16). There are two urban studies; one examines middle- and upper-class Hindu women in Calcutta (Roy 1975, document no. 6) and the other looks at women's view of gender relations in urban Krishnagar (Bhattacharyya 1976, no. 14). Other gender studies examine women's economic activities and roles (Wallace 1987, no. 11), as they vary by caste and class (Fruzzetti 1975, no. 17), and as they have changed over time (Roy 1992, no. 29). Other gender studies include examinations of domestic relationships (Rohner 1988, no. 19) and marriage from women's point of view (Fruzzetti 1982, no. 23). Relationships between marriage, kinship, and caste are discussed in Inden (1977, no. 2; 1976, no. 3), Fruzzetti et al. (1982, no. 12), and Klass (1966, no. 21).

Harris has written three studies of land tenure (1991, no. 24; 1989, no. 25; 1989, no. 26). Studies of political behavior are found in Islam (1974, no. 10) and Khan (1976, no. 13). Mashreque (1997, no. 27) looks at the political economy of rural development, Wilce (1997, no. 30) at folk medicine, Bhattacharyya (1981, no. 18) at ethnopsychiatry, and Mashreque (1995, no. 28) at rural courts. Studies of religion examine festivals (Ostor 1980, no. 4) and eschatology (Bhattacharyya 1976, no. 15. Oster (1984, no. 5) and Fruzzetti (1982, no. 23) provide two sophisticated studies that use indigenous categories to examine social structure and relations. Document no. 22 is a bibliography.

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in the file, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

This culture summary is based on the article "Bengali" by Peter J. Bertocci, in the Encyclopedia Of World Cultures, Vol. 3. 1992. Paul Hockings, ed. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co. The section on demography was revised by Ian Skoggard in January 2002.