West Bengal is a state in eastern India. With Bangladesh, which lies on its eastern border, the state forms the ethno-linguistic region of Bengal. To its northeast lie the states of Assam and Sikkim and the country Bhutan, and to its southwest, the state of Orissa. To the west it borders the state of Jharkhand and Bihar, and to the northwest, Nepal.
The region that is now West Bengal was a part of a number of empires and kingdoms during the past two millennia. The British East India Company cemented their hold on the region following the Battle of Plassey in 1757 CE, and the city of Kolkata, then Calcutta, served for many years as the capital of British India. A hotbed of the Indian independence movement through the early 20th century, Bengal was divided in 1947 into two separate entities, West Bengal – a state of India, and East Pakistan belonging to the new nation of Pakistan.
Following India’s independence in 1947, West Bengal’s economic and political theatres were dominated for many decades by intellectual Marxism, Naxalite movements and trade unionism. From late 1990s, economic rejuvenation led to a spurt in the state’s economic and industrial growth. An agriculture-dependent state, West Bengal occupies only 2.7% of the India’s land area, though it supports over 7.8% of Indian population, and is the most densely populated state in India. West Bengal has been ruled by the CPI(M)-led Left Front for three decades, making it the world’s longest-running democratically-elected communist government. Many notable poets, writers, artists and performers are native to West Bengal.
Remnants of civilisation in the greater Bengal region date back 4,000 years, when the region was settled by Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic peoples. The exact origin of the word Bangla or Bengal is unknown, though it is believed to be derived from the Dravidian-speaking tribe Bang that settled in the area around the year 1000 BCE. After the arrival of Indo-Aryans, the kingdom of Magadha was formed in 7th century BCE, consisting of the Bihar and Bengal regions. It was one of the four main kingdoms of India at the time of Buddha and consisted of several Janapadas. Under the Maurya dynasty founded by Chandragupta Maurya, the Magadha Empire extended over nearly all of South Asia, including parts of Persia and Afghanistan under Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BCE. One of the earliest foreign references to Bengal is the mention of a land named Gangaridai by the Greeks around 100 BCE. The word is speculated to have come from Gangahrd (Land with the Ganges in its heart) in reference to an area in Bengal.
Robert Clive, of British East India Company, after winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757.From the 3rd to the 6th centuries CE, the kingdom of Magadha served as the seat of the Gupta Empire. The first recorded independent king of Bengal was Shashanka, reigning around early 7th century. 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. Islam was introduced to Bengal in the twelfth century by Sufi missionaries. Subsequent Muslim conquests helped spread Islam throughout the region.Bakhtiar Khilji, a Turkic general of the Slave dynasty of Delhi Sultanate, defeated Lakshman Sen of the Sena dynasty and conquered large parts of Bengal. Consequently, the region was ruled by dynasties of sultans and feudal lords under the Delhi Sultanate for the next few hundred years. In the sixteenth century, Mughal general Islam Khan conquered Bengal. However, administration by governors appointed by the court of the Mughal Empire gave way to semi-independence of the area under the Nawabs of Murshidabad, who nominally respected the sovereignty of the Mughals in Delhi.
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 the British Raj from Bengal reached a climax when Subhash Chandra Bose led the Indian National Army 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 Bangladesh in 1971). 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.
During the 1960s and 1970s, severe power shortages, strikes and a violent Marxist-Naxalite movement 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. 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 CPI(M) has governed for the last three decades.
The state’s economic recovery gathered momentum after economic reforms in India were introduced in the mid-1990s by the central government, aided by election of a new reformist Chief Minister in 2000. As of 2007, armed Maoist activists have been organising minor terrorist attacks in some parts of the state, while clashes with the administration are taking place at several sensitive places on the issue of industrial land acquisition.
Geography and climate
National Highway 31A winds along the banks of the Teesta River near Kalimpong, in the Darjeeling Himalayan hill region.
Many areas remain flooded during the heavy rains brought by monsoon West Bengal is on the eastern bottleneck of India, stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south. The state has a total area of 88,752 square kilometres (34,267 mi²). The Darjeeling Himalayan hill region in the northern extreme of the state belongs to the eastern Himalaya. This region contains Sandakfu (3,636 metres (11,929 ft))—the highest peak of the state.The narrow Terai region separates this region from the plains, which in turn transitions into the Ganges delta towards the south. The Rarh region intervenes between the Ganges delta in the east and the western plateau and high lands. A small coastal region is on the extreme south, while the Sundarbans mangrove forests form a remarkable geographical landmark at the Ganges delta.
The Ganges is the main river, which divides in West Bengal. One branch enters Bangladesh as the Padma or Pôdda, while the other flows through West Bengal as the Bhagirathi River and Hooghly River. The Teesta, Torsa, Jaldhaka and Mahananda rivers are in the northern hilly region. The western plateau region has rivers such as the Damodar, Ajay and Kangsabati. The Ganges delta and the Sundarbans area have numerous rivers and creeks. Pollution of the Ganges from indiscriminate waste dumped into the river is a major problem. At least nine districts in the state suffer from arsenic contamination of groundwater, and an estimated 8.7 million people drink water containing arsenic above the World Health Organisation recommended limit of 10 µg/L.
West Bengal’s climate varies from tropical savannah in the southern portions to humid subtropical in the north. The main seasons are summer, rainy season, a short autumn, and winter. While the summer in the delta region is noted for excessive humidity, the western highlands experience a dry summer like northern India, with the highest day temperature ranging from 38 °C (100 °F) to 45 °C (113 °F).At nights, a cool southerly breeze carries moisture from the Bay of Bengal. In early summer brief squalls and thunderstorms known as Kalbaisakhi, or Nor’westers, often occur. Monsoons bring rain to the whole state from June to September. West Bengal receives the Bay of Bengal branch of the Indian ocean monsoon that moves in a northwest direction. Winter (December–January) is mild over the plains with average minimum temperatures of 15 °C (59 °F). A cold and dry northern wind blows in the winter, substantially lowering the humidity level. However, the Darjeeling Himalayan Hill region experiences a harsh winter, with occasional snowfall at places.
The Bangla language boasts a rich literary heritage, shared with neighboring Bangladesh. West Bengal has a long tradition in folk literature, evidenced by the Charyapada, Mangalkavya, Shreekrishna Kirtana, Thakurmar Jhuli, and stories related to Gopal Bhar. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, Bengali literature was modernized in the works of authors such as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay.
The Baul tradition is a unique heritage of Bangla folk music, which has also been influenced by regional music traditions. Other folk music forms include Gombhira and Bhawaiya. Folk music in West Bengal is often accompanied by the ektara, a one-stringed instrument. West Bengal also has an heritage in North Indian classical music. From the early 1990s, there has been an emergence and popularisation of new genres of music, including fusions of Baul and Jazz by several Bangla bands, as well as the emergence of what has been called Jeebonmukhi Gaan (a modern genre based on realism) by artists like Kabir Suman and bands like Chandrabindu. Bengali dance forms draw from folk traditions, especially those of the tribal groups, as well as the broader Indian dance traditions. Chau dance of Purulia is a rare form of mask dance.
Mainstream Hindi films are popular, as are films from the Bengali cinema industry, dubbed “Tollywood”. Tollygunj in Kolkata is the location of Bengali movie studios and the name “Tollywood” (similar as Hollywood, USA)is derived from that name. The Bengali film industry is also known for art films. Its long tradition of filmmaking has produced acclaimed directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. Contemporary directors include Buddhadev Dasgupta, Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh.
Rice and fish are traditional favorite foods, leading to a saying that in Bengali, machhe bhate bangali, that translates as “fish and rice make a Bengali”. Meat production has increased significantly in recent years. Bengalis make distinctive sweetmeats from milk products, including Rôshogolla, Chômchôm, Kalojam and several kinds of Pithe. Bengal’s vast repertoire of fish-based dishes includes hilsa preparations, a favorite among Bengalis. Popular street food includes Beguni, Kati roll, and phuchka. Panta bhat (rice soaked overnight in water) is a traditional dish consumed in rural areas.
Bengali women commonly wear the shari and the salwar kameez, often distinctly designed according to local cultural customs. In urban areas, many women and men wear Western attire. Among men, European dressing has greater acceptance. Men also wear traditional costumes such as the panjabi with dhuti or pyjama, often on religious occasions. Durga Puja in October is the most popular festival in the West Bengal. Pohela Baishakh (the Bengali New Year), Rathayatra, Dolyatra or Basanta-Utsab, Nobanno, Poush parbon (festival of Poush), kalipuja, saraswatipuja, laxmipuja, Christmas, Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha are other major festivals. Buddha Purnima, which marks the birth of Gautama Buddha, is one of the most important Buddhist festivals while Christmas, called Bôrodin (Great day) in Bangla is celebrated by the minority Christian population. West Bengal has been home to several famous religious teachers, including Sri Ramakrishna, and Swami Vivekananda and Sri Chaitanya.
Cricket and football are popular sports in the state. Kolkata is one of the major centers for football in India and houses top national clubs such as East Bengal, Mohan Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting Club. Cricket is also popular and is played throughout the state. Indian sports such as Kho Kho and Kabaddi are also played.Besides, Polo and Golf are the two games being played in Kolkata from the city’s long past.In fact, The Calcutta Polo Club is now considered as the oldest polo club of the world, and the Royal Calcutta Golf Club is the oldest of its kind outside Great Britain.
West Bengal has several large stadiums —The Eden Gardens is one of only two 100,000-seat cricket amphitheaters in the world. Salt Lake Stadium — a multi-use stadium — is the world’s third highest-capacity football stadium. Calcutta Cricket and Football Club is the second-oldest cricket club in the world. National and international sports events are also held in Durgapur, Siliguri and Kharagpur. Notable sports persons from West Bengal include former Indian national cricket captain Sourav Ganguly, Olympic tennis bronze medallist Leander Paes and chess grand master Dibyendu Barua.