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West Bengal

Population:    68 million
Languages:   Bengali
Capitol:           Calcutta

West Bengal is known for its thinkers, writers and artists, most famously Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray and Raja Ram Mohan Roy.  Tagore (1861-1941) was a Nobel Prize winning poet and writer, as well as a fervent nationalist.  Knighted in 1915 by the British, he relinquished his knighthood in 1919 in protest against the Amritsar Massacre.  He established a school at Shantiniketan, near Bolpur, whose more famous graduates include Indira Gandhi and Satyajit Ray.  This school later became Visvabharati University, focusing on the humanities and fine arts and teaching Tagore's own musical style which integrates folk and classical influences and is known as Rabindra Sangeet.

Through history this area has supported many centres of learning and the arts and they are still flourishing today, particularly in Calcutta.  This city's sophisticated artistic and intellectual life is manifested in its vibrant tradition of Bengali language theatre and alternative cinema, its numerous art galleries, its festivals of classical music and a book fare which draws hundreds of thousands of people every year.

West Bengal stretches 600 kilometres from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, with a narrow central area cut through by the Ganges River.  A dam across this mighty river diverts water to the Hooghly which supplies Calcutta.  In the north is the famous hill station of Darjeeling, two kilometres up and surrounded on all sides by tea plantations.  Both the town and the plantations were established and developed by the British in the early/mid 1800s, and much of the town's rapidly expanding population consisted of people drawn to the area to work on the tea estates.  Still an important tea growing area, Darjeeling has also become a tourist destination.  Agitation for a separate Gurkha homeland in the area in recent years has resulted in an agreement between the Marxist led West Bengal government and the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front to create a Nepali language administrative area within West Bengal.

The legendary and ferocious man eating Bengal tigers make their home in the Sunderbans, the heavily forested delta land at the mouth of the Hooghly River on the East Coast.  A wildlife reserve has been set aside for them amongst the mangrove covered islands of this huge delta area.

Apart from the extreme north most of the state is low-lying, with large areas devoted to rice and other crops.  At various places in the state evidence can be found of its varied political, colonial and intellectual history.  Gaur, in Central Bengal, was at one point in its history a city of one million.  Established by Hindu kings in the 7th century, sacked by the Muslims in 1537, its last inhabitants were carried off by plague less than fifty years later and the city now stands deserted.  Nabadib, on the banks of the Hooghly, is an ancient centre of Sanskrit culture.  This was the 11th century capitol of Bengal under the cultured and intellectual Senas, who were the last Hindu kings in this region before the advent of Muslim control.  Mushidibad was the capitol of Bengal's last independent Muslim dynasty before the British.  It was established in the 1700s by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, and was, in the middle of that century, compared favourably to London.  The Nawab's Italian style palace, completed in 1837 and now a museum, was designed by General Duncan Mcleod of the Bengal Engineers.  Malda, in the narrow central area of the state, was the location in the 17th and 18th centuries of Dutch, French and English factories.  Hooghly was an important East India Company trading post.  The Dutch established themselves at Chinsura, near Hooghly, and the church that they built there still stands.  (They later traded Chinsura to the British in exchange for Sumatra.) Bandel, north of Hooghly, is the site of a Portuguese church and monastery, rebuilt after its destruction by Shah Jehan in 1640.   Chandenagore was a French territory until 1952 and still bears the stamp of its colonial past, and at Serempore, in 1819, William Carey established Asia's first modern university.


This area was under the dominion of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, and later of the Guptas.  Heavily engaged in trade with the Roman Empire, its fall constituted a blow to the West Bengal area's fortunes from which it took several centuries to recuperate.  Prosperity began to return under the 8th century Pala dynasty.

By the end of the 1100s the Muslims had defeated the Hindu Senas under whom the arts had flourished.  Under the Afghani leader Sher Shah Suri, who gained power in the region in the mid 1500s, much development took place including the completion of the Grand Trunk Road as far as Afghanistan.  The Moghuls regained power again in the late 16th century only to be confronted with the arrival of the Portuguese, who were soon followed by the British, the French and the Dutch.  The Moghuls allowed them to conduct trade in the region, with the British eventually pushing the others out.  Siraj-ud-Daulah of Mushidibad objected to the British presence, however, and launched an attack on Calcutta that involved the famous (and possibly fictitious) Black Hole of Calcutta, when a number of the British prisoners who had been confined to a small airless room suffocated to death.  A year later the revenge of the British under Robert Clive took the form of the Battle of Plessey, where Siraj-ud-Daulah was roundly defeated.  Bengal became the cornerstone of the commercial activities of the British East India Company and remained so until India became an official colony of England in the 1850s.

Lord Curzon's decision in 1905 to split Bengal (which at that time comprised East Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Orissa) creating East and West Bengal, was unquestionably an error of judgment.  Deep resentments between Muslims and Hindus arose, " setting the Stage " for the tragic events of Partition four decades later.  In 1911, the shifting of the capitol from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 resulted in a further decline in the areas fortunes.  

The post Independence decades also have been troubled.  The jute mills of Calcutta suffered severely from Partition which left the source of its raw material on the other side of the new international boundary.  The war with Pakistan in the early 1970s that resulted in East Pakistan becoming a separate Bangladesh, sent some ten million refugees into West Bengal (most of whom have now returned).  Already over stretched, Calcutta was unable to absorb the newcomers and the city's infrastructure all but collapsed under the strain creating the lasting impression of a desperate city sinking into a morass of poverty and decay.  Even Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi declared Calcutta a lost cause in the 1970s.

He was wrong.  Calcutta was down, but not out.   Since the mid 1980s this fascinating city has again embarked on an upward course.  Today, even cynical and long suffering residents of Calcutta admit that things are improving, though there is a long, long way to go.  True, there is still desperation on the streets, but the charm of the city and its gracious people is evident still and it is well worth a visit.

West Bengal has one of the longest ruling Communist governments.  In the 60s and 70s, the Naxalites, a revolutionary Marxist Leninist group, conducted its unsuccessful but bloody attempt to overthrow the state's government.  Finally the Communist Party of India (Marxist) won power in West Bengal's parliament, and since 1977, led by Jyoti Basu, this party has led the government with a judicious mix of conviction and tolerance and a firm rural support base.  However, recent elections have indicated a slackening of support for the Left and there are suggestions that the long Communist rule in West Bengal may be drawing to a close.


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