Regional Cultures: Bengal

Learning Goals:

As mentioned in the beginning of the chapter, we presume that people of a particular state, have spoken its regional language since time immemorial. Hence we assume that people in Bengal have always spoken Bengali. Though now Bengali is recognized as a language derived from Sanskrit, early Sanskrit texts of the mid-first millennium BCE suggest that the people of Bengal did not speak Sanskritic languages.

Emergence of Bengali

Commercial ties began to develop between Bengal and Magadha (south Bihar) from the fourth-third centuries BCE. This may have led to the growing influence of Sanskrit. The Gupta rulers, during the 4th century, established political control over north Bengal and began to settle Brahamanas in the area. Hence the linguistic and cultural influence from the mid-Ganga valley became stronger. The Chinese traveler Xuan Zang observed in the 7th century that languages related to Sanskrit were in use all over Bengal.

Developments in Bengal over centuries

The language of Bengal

By the 15th century, the Bengali group of dialects came to be united by a common literary language based on the spoken language of the western part of the region, now known as West Bengal. Though the base of Bengali is Sanskrit, it has passed through many stages of evolution. Many non-Sanskrit words are also a part of modern-day Bengali. The sources of these words are tribal languages, Persian and European languages.

Bengali literature

The early Bengali literature can be divided into two categories:

Bengali literature indebted to Sanskrit

It includes the translations of the Sanskrit epics, the Mangalakavyas and bhakti literature such as the biographies of Chaitanyadeva (the leader of the Vaishnava bhakti movement). These are easier to date because many manuscripts have been found indicating that they were composed between the late 15th and the middle of the 18th centuries.

Bengali literature independent of Sanskrit

It includes Nath literature such as the songs of Maynamati and Gopichandra, stories concerning the worship of Dharma Thakur, and fairy tales, folk tales and ballads. These were circulated orally and cannot be precisely dated and were particularly popular in eastern Bengal where the Brahmanical influence was relatively weak.

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