Location of West Bengal in India
Map of West Bengal
Stone age tools dating back 20,000 years have been excavated in the state. The region was a part of the Vanga Kingdom, one of ancient kingdoms of Epic India. The kingdom of Magadha was formed in 7th century BC, consisting of the Bihar and Bengal regions. It was one of the four main kingdoms of India at the time of Mahavira and the Buddha, and consisted of several Janapadas, or Vedic realms/kingdoms. Several Vedic realms were present in Bengal region, including Vanga, Rarh, Pundra and Suhma. During the rule of Maurya dynasty, the Magadha Empire extended over nearly all of South Asia, including Afghanistan and parts of Persia under Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BC.
One of the earliest foreign references to Bengal is a mention of a land named Gangaridai by the Ancient Greeks around 100 BC. The word is speculated to have come from Gangahrd (Land with the Ganges in its heart) in reference to an area in Bengal. Bengal had overseas trade relations with Suvarnabhumi (Burma, Lower Thailand, Lower Malay Peninsula, and the Sumatra). According to Mahavamsa, Vijaya Singha, a Vanga prince, conquered Lanka (modern day Sri Lanka) and gave the name "Sinhala" to the country.
After a period of anarchy, the Buddhist Pala dynasty ruled the region for four hundred years, followed by a shorter reign of the Hindu Sena dynasty. Some areas of Bengal were invaded by Rajendra Chola I of Chola Dynasty between 1021 and 1023. Islam made its first appearance in Bengal during the 12th century when Sufi missionaries arrived. Later, occasional Muslim raiders reinforced the process of conversion by building mosques, madrassas and Sufi Khanqah. Between 1202 and 1206, Bakhtiar Khilji, a military commander from the Delhi Sultanate, overran Bihar and Bengal as far east as Rangpur,Bogra and the Brahmaputra River. Although he failed to bring Bengal under his control, the expedition managed to defeatLakshman Sen and his two sons moved to a place then called Vikramapur (present-day Munshiganj District), where their diminished dominion lasted until the late 13th century.
During the 14th century, the former kingdom became known as the Sultanate of Bengal, ruled intermittently with the Sultanate of Delhi as well as powerful Hindu states and land-lords-Baro-Bhuyans. The Hindu Deva Kingdom ruled over eastern Bengal after the collapseSena Empire. The Sultanate of Bengal was interrupted by an uprising by the Hindus underRaja Ganesha. The Ganesha dynasty began in 1414, but his successors converted to Islam. Bengal came once more under the control of Delhi as the Mughals conquered it in 1576. There were several independent Hindu states established in Bengal during the Mughal period like those of Maharaja Pratap Aditya of Jessore and Raja Sitaram Ray of Burdwan. These kingdoms contributed greatly to the economic and cultural landscape of Bengal. Extensive land reclamations in forested and marshy areas were carried out and trade as well as commerce were highly encouraged. These kingdoms also helped introduce new music, painting, dancing and sculpture into Bengali art-forms as well as many temples were constructed during this period. Militarily, they served as bulwarks against Portuguese and Burmese attacks. Koch Bihar Kingdom in the northern Bengal, flourished during the period of 16th and the 17th centuries as well as weathered the Mughals and survived till the advent of the British.
European traders arrived late in the fifteenth century. Their influence grew until the British East India Company gained taxation rights in Bengal subah, or province, following the Battle of Plassey in 1757, when Siraj ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab, was defeated by the British. The Bengal Presidency was established by 1765, eventually including all British territories north of the Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh), from the mouths of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra to the Himalayas and the Punjab. The Bengal famine of 1770 claimed millions of lives.Calcutta was named the capital of British India in 1772. The Bengal Renaissance and Brahmo Samaj socio-cultural reform movements had great impact on the cultural and economic life of Bengal. The failed Indian rebellion of 1857 started near Calcutta and resulted in transfer of authority to the British Crown, administered by the Viceroy of India. Between 1905 and 1911, an abortive attempt was made to divide the province of Bengal into two zones. Bengal suffered from the Great Bengal famine in 1943 that claimed 3 million lives.
Bengal played a major role in the Indian independence movement, in which revolutionary groups such as Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar were dominant. Armed attempts against theBritish Raj from Bengal reached a climax when Subhas Chandra Bose led the Indian National Army from Southeast Asia against the British. When India gained independence in 1947, Bengal was partitioned along religious lines. The western part went to India (and was named West Bengal) while the eastern part joined Pakistan as a province called East Bengal (later renamed East Pakistan, giving rise to independent Bangladesh in 1971). In 1950, the Princely State of Cooch Behar merged with West Bengal. In 1955, the former French enclave of Chandannagar, which had passed into Indian control after 1950, was integrated into West Bengal; portions of Bihar were subsequently merged with West Bengal. Both West and East Bengal suffered from large refugee influx during and after the partition in 1947. Refugee settlement and related issues continued to play significant role in the politics and socio-economic condition of the state.
During the 1970s and 1980s, severe power shortages, strikes and a violent Marxist-Naxalitemovement damaged much of the state's infrastructure, leading to a period of economic stagnation. The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 resulted in the influx of millions of refugees to West Bengal, causing significant strains on its infrastructure. The 1974 smallpox epidemic killed thousands. West Bengal politics underwent a major change when the Left Front won the 1977 assembly election, defeating the incumbent Indian National Congress. The Left Front, led by Communist Party of India (Marxist), governed for the state for the subsequent three decades.
The state's economic recovery gathered momentum after economic reforms were introduced in the mid-1990s by the central government, aided by the advent of information technology and IT-enabled services. Since mid-2000s, armed activists conducted minor terrorist attacks in some parts of the state, while clashes with the administration took place at several sensitive places over the issue of industrial land acquisition, which became a crucial reason behind the defeat of ruling Left Front government in 2011 assembly election. Although the state's GDP has risen significantly since the 1990s, West Bengal has remained affected by political instability and bad governance. The state continues to suffer from regularbandhs (strikes), a low Human Development Index level, substandard healthcare services, a lack of socio-economic development, poor infrastructure, political corruption and civil violence.
Rice and fish are traditional favourite foods, leading to a saying in Bengali, machhe bhate bangali, that translates as "fish and rice make a Bengali". Bengal's vast repertoire of fish-based dishes includes hilsa preparations, a favourite among Bengalis. There are numerous ways of cooking fish depending on the texture, size, fat content and the bones. Sweets occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social ceremonies. It is an ancient custom among both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis to distribute sweets during festivities. The confectionery industry has flourished because of its close association with social and religious ceremonies. Competition and changing tastes have helped to create many new sweets. Bengalis make distinctive sweetmeats from milk products, including Rôshogolla, Chômchôm,Kalojam and several kinds of sondesh. Pitha, a kind of sweet cake, bread or dimsum are specialties of winter season. Sweets like coconut-naru, til-naru, moa, payesh, etc. are prepared during the festival of Lakshmi puja. Popular street foodincludes Aloor Chop, Beguni, Kati roll, and phuchka.
The variety of fruits and vegetables that Bengal has to offer is incredible. A host of gourds, roots and tubers, leafy greens, succulent stalks, lemons and limes, green and purple eggplants, red onions, plantain, broad beans, okra, banana tree stems and flowers, green jackfruit and red pumpkins are to be found in the markets or anaj bazaar as popularly called.Panta bhat (rice soaked overnight in water)with onion & green chili is a traditional dish consumed in rural areas. Common spices found in a Bengali kitchen are cumin, ajmoda(radhuni), bay leaf, mustard, ginger, green chillies, turmeric, etc. People of erstwhile East Bengal use a lot of ajmoda, coriander leaves, tamarind, coconut and mustard in their cooking; while those aboriginally from West Bengal use a lot of sugar, garam masala and red chilli powder. Vegetarian dishes are mostly without onion and garlic.
Bengali women commonly wear the shaŗi, often distinctly designed according to local cultural customs. In urban areas, many women and men wear Western attire. Among men, western dressing has greater acceptance. Men also wear traditional costumes such as the panjabiwith dhuti, often on cultural occasions.
Durga Puja in October is the most popular festival in the West Bengal. Poila Baishakh(the Bengali New Year), Rathayatra, Dolyatra or Basanta-Utsab, Nobanno, Poush Parbon (festival of Poush), Kali Puja,SaraswatiPuja, LaxmiPuja, Christmas, Eid ul-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha and Muharram are other major festivals. Buddha Purnima, which marks the birth of Gautama Buddha, is one of the most important Hindu/Buddhist festivals while Christmas, calledBôŗodin (Great day) in Bengali is celebrated by the minority Christian population. Poush mela is a popular festival ofShantiniketan in winter.