If you ever wanted to experience the living reality of the idiom ‘when it rains, it pours’, Bangladesh is the place to be. During the yearly south Asian monsoon, almost all the water collected by the Himalayas in Nepal, north/northeast India and Bhutan transits through Bangladesh on its journey to the Bay of Bengal, depositing life-giving minerals to the soil all along the Ganges Delta, the largest river delta in the world.
If you come from a temperate climate you might be surprised to discover that despite the fact peak temperature varies between 20°C and 40°C, Bangladeshis recognise no fewer than six seasons over their landscape. Mostly these can be grouped into three smaller seasons.
To see the Bangladesh of today against its glorious history, it is both enlightening and depressing to imagine that Bengal used to occupy such a place of glory and power in the subcontinent. During the 16th century, its wealth supported the Mughal Empire, and at its zenith in the mid-18th century, Bengal’s cotton and silk textiles were in demand worldwide with Dutch, Portuguese, British and French traders landing on its shores. However, the late colonial period marked a substantial change as the British proved themselves successful at draining Bengal of its wealth and destroying its cotton industry.
By the 17th century, the British East India Company had gained the upper hand in this conflict and had established a growing trading port in Calcutta. Despite the disintegration of the Mughal Empire through the early part of the 18th century, strong leadership in Bengal kept it economically powerful, further strengthened by its European trading connections.
After the Liberation War broke out, a new government was formed in exile on the Indian border, and the freedom fighters, taking the title Mukti Bahini, began a guerrilla war. Although the fighters were never a cohesive force that could actually stop the Pakistani rampage, they instead served to harass them at every turn.
After so much blood was shed in the creation of Bangladesh, it is now promising to see that after almost four decades, the young political system has advanced and evolved, as its latest leaders have at least managed to finish their political terms without being assassinated. Indeed, the governance system of the country still has a long way to go.
Since the inception of Bangladesh, the country has received approximately US$40 billion in foreign aid. Today it’s pleasing to acknowledge that economic progress is being made and things are heading in a good direction, despite some unfathomable hindrances and political mismanagement.
Development and the evolution of its concepts have long been tied to the fate and history of modern Bangladesh. Any discussion of its effects will be laced with opinions on whether the aid enterprise – and the billions of dollars associated with it – have been effective in improving the conditions of Bangladesh’s millions.
Today, estimates range between 151 million and 155 million people, resulting in a population density of over 1,050 souls per km². This makes Bangladesh the most densely populated nation in the world (excluding several city-states like Hong Kong, Singapore or Monaco), and it feels like that when dozens of people crowd to have a gander at the strange foreigner visiting their village. Current projections estimate that by 2080, the population of Bangladesh could be 250 million.
With almost 200 million speakers, Bangla is the sixth most widely spoken language worldwide. Although it is a derivative of Sanskrit and therefore has its closest ties to Hindi, today’s modern Bangla also incorporates a mishmash of influences that represent the region’s history. The script is written from left to right and top to bottom, and thus reads the same as English. Linguists note three major periods in the evolution of the language, with the majority of its modern forms being derived during the 15th–18th centuries. Until the 18th century, there were simply no attempts to document the grammar of Bangla.
While the constitution of Bangladesh mandates religious freedom, you may discover yourself bound to a religion you don’t necessarily follow in practice, as a common question that Bangladeshis have is about your religion.
Viewed through the lens of the education Millennium Development Goals (MDG), Bangladesh is doing very well compared with some other countries. As government literature is quick to point out, Bangladesh is on track in promoting gender equality and empowering women, the third MDG. As it stands there are now equal ratios of girls to boys in primary and secondary education, and this will hopefully produce a newer generation of better-educated women.
What Bangladeshis admittedly lack in terms of material wealth, they certainly make up for in artistic tradition. There are plenty of opportunities for the visitor to engage with both the historic art of Bangladesh and its more modern practitioners.
For a country this size, Bangladesh has been endowed with an extraordinary amount of natural wealth and abundance. While its floods do cause serious calamities to its people, the waters are also the source of rich Himalayan mineral deposits and without the yearly flooding, soil that already bears a heavy agricultural load would never replenish itself.