Bengalis before the Bengalis

Tahmidal Zami | Published: 00:20, Feb 21,2018 | Updated: 20:20, Feb 20,2018


‘A ROSE by any other name would smell as sweet’ — thus speaks the nominalist, positing that as long as the substratum of reality or the thing in question remains the same, it does not matter by whatever name it may be called. Dinesh Chandra Sen would begin his historical treatments of the odyssey of Bengali identity from Buddhist or pre-Buddhist era. The realists on the other hand would say Bengalihood was shrouded in nothingness until the auspicious moment when someone named it, and voila! it came into existence. Ghulam Murshid — among the lesser realists of our times — tries to unhinge Bengali nationalism from its locus by trying to show that Bengali identity to any degree of definiteness dates from the times of Bharatchandra Roy. Truth does not always lie somewhere in between two extremities, but in our case it probably does. Ahmed Sofa weighed the stakes of such a question in one of his articles:

Historians maintain that in the era of King Sasanka, the groundwork of a sovereign state was laid in the true sense in the territories that now comprise Bengal. Yet no one could offer definite, conclusive evidence that Sasanka was a Bengali. The Pala Empire extended its grip over far-flung territories. Again, there is no solid evidence of the emergence of a national formation in the Bengal region during the more than four centuries of rule by the Buddhist Pala emperors. There was a time when Buddhism had grown into a pan-Indian phenomenon. It would be hard to gauge to what extent all-Indian religious ideas held sway over the political conception of the Pala dynasty. Recently, a few people with a bent for history have come up referring to the Pala period in their bid to trace back the roots of a nation-state of the Bengali nation. There is no way to definitively corroborate in this conjecture how much truth is mixed up with how much garbled fancy — as it straddles the present national formation with the historical past marked by the tensions of instant political events and the historical course of the making and unmaking of royal domains.

— Ahmed Sofa, ‘Bangladesh: Challenge and Destiny of the Republic’, The Daily Ittefaq, December 18, 1998. (Authors translation from Bengali)

When we speak of Bengali nationalism today, the emphasis is on language. It was not so apparent in pre-modern times. Linguistic nationalism stands on simultaneous superimposition of language, ethnicity and territorial identity. Like most languages — and religions are no different in this regard — Bengali language began its journey avant la lettre: it came into being long before it got its own proper name. It is one of those languages that do not have a cosmogony of its own, where the creator teaches the names of things to the first humans in that particular language. The name ‘Bengali language’ it most probably received as an exonym, a gift from strangers.  

Name of a language often comes from the name of a territory: thus when Gaur was the common name of the realm, the language would also be called that way. The 11th century polymath Al Beruni learnt that there was a language named Gauri spoken in Purba Desh, referring probably to proto-Bengali. As the territorial name became Bengal, the language name changed as well: for example, in a 1579 botanical book, Garcia ab Horta refers to some plants by their names in the language used in Bengala.

The first definite usage of the name ‘Bengali language’ that I could find is in the year 1600, when the Jesuit missionary Francis Fernandez in his letter spoke of the lingua Bengala or Bengalois — essentially a glossonym derived from a toponym. Similarly, in 1620s, Father Manrique — in his Spanish narrative — speaks of lengua Bengala. It is well known that the name did not obtain any degree of fixity or popularity till the modern times. The Fort William College publications would routinely identify the language as Bangala or Bangali, yet early 19th century Bengalis often referred to their mother tongue as Bhasha or Gauriya Bhasha.

While the name of the language has gained wide currency only recently, the name of the ethnicity goes far back in the past. Here again, toponym precedes ethnonym. For example, Pierre de Jarric spoke of the natives of the country as naturels Bengalois in 1619. The attributive term Bengali or Bengalois does not take much to transform into the substantive Bengali.

For a substantive ethnonym, in Charya Pada, Bhusuku Pada identifies himself as turning into a Bengali. The 14th century Sultan Ilyas Shah called people of his domain Bangali. In the late 15th century work Padmapurana or Manasa-Mangala by Vijay Gupta, there is mention of Bisham Bangali Lok or troublesome Bengali folks (1342 BN, p. 130) and a few other similar references can be found in medieval Bengali literature. The fact that the ancient poets did not use the term Bengali to mark ethnic supremacy or pride should not appear jarring. Patriotism precedes the emergence of nationalism, but the concept of ethnic identity as a political title was foreign to our Bengali authors.

Outsiders followed suit in using the ethnic name, fashioning it to their respective tongues and suffixes. The name took all conceivable shapes and sizes. Alfonso de Albuquerque, the notorious Duke of Goa, called people of Bengal as Bemgalas (1513), the Dutch traveler and leaker John Huygen van Linschoten called them Bengalers (1598), and Lullier spoke of Bengalists (1726). The Mughal commander Mirza Nathan in early 17th century noted how Mughal violence led to flow of blood of the Bengalis like a river.

The use of Bengali as a nisba also has an interesting history. In the 17th century, a slave trade rapidly grew connecting Bengal, Southeast Asia and Africa. As enslaved and converted Bengalis were used to man plantations and services, their names often contained a Christian forename and the surname Bengali, as attested by de l’Estra (1672). Nevertheless, ‘Bengali’ was not recognised as a national identity in the modern sense. In an 18th century sales deed in Pandicheri, for example, the slave to be sold is referred to as belonging to ‘Bengali caste’! 

The name of the territory is slightly more complicated. Languages and ethnicities usually do not have too many names. Territory, however, is an outcome of political processes. The names Vanga and Gaur continued from pre-Christian times to well into the Sultanic period. However, the early Muslim rulers of Bengal following Bakhtiyar Khalji did not ascribe much importance to the particular territory they were ruling. In their epigraphy, their self-stylisation was king of Muslims, or Kings of Turks and Persians, etc. Their geographic identification was with the East. It was during the last true Sultan of Bengal Ghiyas al-Din Mahmud Shah that the first Sultanic inscription in Bengali script is found, though in Sanskrit language (1533 AD). A cannon dating back to the times of Masnad-i-Ala Isa Khan bears a genuinely Bengali inscription. In coinage, on the other hand, Bakhtiar Khalji himself used Nagari characters, followed by many including Ghiyas-ud-Din Bahadur Shah, Sultans of Sher Shahi dynasty, or Daud Shah Karrani. Danujamardana Deva’s coins contained Bengali legends.

Figure 1: Sanskrit Inscription from Dharail, Nawgaon of 1455 Saka era

Bengalis before the Bengalis

Source: Abdul Karim, Corpus of the Arabic and Persian Inscriptions of Bengal, 1992

A land always has too many names of its parts competing for metonymic supremacy. The city and the realm can share the name, and often one gives its name to the other through synecdochic process. Foreigners were often confused whether the name Bengal referred to a city or a realm. The French geographer M Robbe wrote in 1685 that:

Interested people differ in their opinion whether there is a city with the name Bengal. Some say, yes, while others say: no, it’s only the realm that has this name and it has given the same name to the adjacent gulf. However, in our maps, the place where Bengal is marked, there is a city called Chatigan. … Those who have been to India have never seen a city called Bengal. (author’s translation from French)

That said, the toponym Bengal is more common than the names of the language and people. In 13th century, Marco Polo mentioned Bengala as opposed to the common politico-territorial appellations Lakhnauti or Bang used by Minhaj-i-Siraj Juzjani. In 14th century, the Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta, the Persian lyricist Shamsuddin Hafiz, and the Bengal Sultan Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah all referred to the territory as Bengala. In mid-15th century, Abd ar-Razzak as-Samarkandi used the name Bengal. In 16th century Portuguese correspondence, we found around 25 instances of references to Bengal as a realm and thousands more are to be expected. Since 17th century, the name of the realm was more or less fixed as Bengal or Bengala as far as political and international communication was concerned, notwithstanding the continued usage of Vanga or Gaur in some literary-cultural registers.

Historically, languages and religions have often been closely intertwined, and piggy-backed on one another. The entire pre-modern Bengali literature contains mostly religious and quasi-religious poetry. The Sufi saints were the first among immigrant Muslims who paid serious attention to the native culture and cults of Bengal. Similarly, the Christian missionaries were the first Europeans to pay serious attention to the native language, because the nature of their business required meaningful communication with the populace. The Jesuits were the first among the missionary sects to learn local languages of India. Father Dominique Sosa was the first known Jesuit who composed a tract in Bengali language in around 1600 AD for preaching Christianity in Bengal. He preached in Bengali language in Jessore. When the Jesuits lost their foothold in Bengal, the Augustinians took up the mantle. The Augustinian convent of Hooghly established in 1599 trained six or seven brothers in Bengali for priestly and missionary activities.

The Catholic priests however did not translate the Bible in Bengali, and it was till 1800 that we had to wait for Protestant missionaries to translate the Bible in this Asiatic language. Ironically, for receiving translation of the Quran, Bengali language had to wait till another eighty-something years. Romesh Chunder Datt, a non-Brahmin, faced stiff opposition when he translated Rig Veda into Bengali in 1885.

The first extant specimen of printed Bengali alphabet is in a 1692 Jesuit book on the geography of India, China, and Siam. The book does not identify the language as Bengali, but calls it the language of the peoples of Bengala. As early as 1713, the Dan Brown collection of Oratio Dominica lists Bengalica in its alphabetic list of names. Two years after, Chamberlayne provided a sample of Bengalica script. In 1725, Kehr published the alphabet of the Bengalica language, excluding vowels. The first extant Bengali prose book Brahmin-Roman Catholic Sambad was written by Dom Antonio, the Bengali prince of Bhusna who had been trafficked to Arakan and undergone conversion. Manoel da Assumpcao, another Augustinian missionary, published the first grammar of Bengali language Vocabulario em idioma bengalla e portugueza.

Figure 2: Alphabet and numerical characters of the peoples of Bengal – along with those of Burma

Bengalis before the Bengalis
Source : Peres Jesuites, Observations Physiques et Mathematiques, pour server a l’histoire naturelle & a la perfection de l’Astronomie & de la Geographie: envoyees des Indes et de la Chine, Paris : Academie Royale des Sciences, 1692

The final element in Bengali identity is script. The relationship between language and script is close, but not immediate. Bengali script is used to write Assamese language, the Sino-Tibetan Meithei language, and so on. Bengali language or its variants have also been written in other scripts: a section of xenophobic Muslims wrote Bengali in Perso-Arabic script in the medieval era, who found their most recent proponent in Fazlur Rahman, the born-again reactionary education minister of Pakistan, who called for adoption of Urdu-Arabic script for writing Bengali language. In modern times, the Sylheti dialect of Bengali is written in Nagari script. The complex interconnection of language, script, and geography can be captured by the great linguist GA Grierson:

The alphabets used by the Eastern Group of languages follow geographical rather than linguistic lines. Thus, while the so-called Bengali alphabet is that usually adopted for writing Bengali and Assamese, a corrupt form of the Khmer alphabet is used for writing Bengali on the borders of Burma and the Kaithi for writing the same language on the borders of Bihar. For Bihari, the usual alphabets are the Deva-nagari and the Kaithi, but the Oriya alphabet is used for the forms of Bihari spoken in Orissa. For Oriya the usual  alphabet is the Oriya one, but in north Orissa, it is the Bengali, and on the borders of  the Marathi and Eastern-Hindi-speaking countries it is the Deva-nagari, ... Suffice it to say here  that they are all related to and based on the same system as the well-known Deva-nagari form of script. The only prominent irregularity is shown in the Chakma alphabet used for Bengali on the Burmese frontier, in which the inherent vowel in each consonant is not a but ā.

Yet, all the elements of Bengali identity we have treated above are pre-political. These furnished the foundations on which the emergence of the political principle of nationality and nationalism could emerge in latter-day Bengal.


Tahmidal Zami is a researcher and writer.

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