Like many other colonized countries, Bangladesh has been through centuries of struggle before finally attaining independence. Its history is marked by Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim influences. Tribal and religious culture is very well preserved in many ancient towns and you’ll be surprised at the sheer number of archeological sites and attractions.
Mahasthangarh (Karatoa River) is the oldest archeological site in all of Bangladesh, and is said to have been inhabited since the 3rd century BC. It is home to a wide range of ruins, including the famous Govinda Bhita Temple, Parasuramer Bedi and Mankalir Kunda, all of which showcase the country’s Hindu roots. Excavations in the Mainamati-Lalmai range revealed various Buddhist remains dating back to the 8th through the 12th centuries. The Mainamati Ruins (Comilla District) stretch 11 miles in the hilly region and consist of more than 50 ancient Buddhist sites and monasteries with priceless stone and bronze sculptures depicting gods and goddesses.
Bangladesh’s early history can be characterized by conflicts, power struggles, shifts in authority, and bloody disasters. Political instability plagued the territory from the early days of Alexander the Great, which continued through the Muslim rule in the 13th century and to the arrival of European traders and settlers during the 15th century. Britain triumphed in gaining economic influence and political rule (by the mid 1700’s), reigning over West Bengal for almost 200 years.
After WWII, Britain was forced to downsize its empire, leaving the future of the Bangladesh territory in the hands of Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, working with Mahatma Gandhi to unite the two major religious factions in the area — the Hindus and the Muslims. Fearful of being a minority in a Hindu-dominated India, the Muslims made it impossible to bond the groups, which led to a partitioning of the subcontinent into Punjab (the Muslim state) and Bengal (the Hindu state). Dominion status was granted to two successors, Pakistan and India. After a bloody exchange following the separation, the Hindus deserted both wings of Pakistan and moved into India, while the Muslims took over what was then known as West and East Pakistan.
Soon after, the two areas discovered they had nothing in common (besides their Muslim faith). Not only was the territory separated by some 994 miles of Indian land – they also had very different cultural backgrounds and spoke very different languages. Western dwellers knew Urdu, while eastern residents spoke Bangla. Economic disparities, unfair administration, and the declaration of Urdu as the national language in all of Pakistan led the Bengal-speaking east Pakistanis to assert themselves and demand self-government.
Succeeding events like the president’s refusal to open the National Assembly and the formation of the independent state of Bangladesh (literally Bangla-land/country) led to one of the century’s shortest and bloodiest wars. Indian forces supported the freedom movement, leading to an all out war between Pakistan and India. After nine months and more than three million casualties, Bangladesh was declared the 139th country in the world.
Historic events leading up to the liberation of Bangladesh are remembered through monuments at the National Martyrs’ Memorial in Sava and the Shaheed Minar (Dhaka Medical College). The Liberation War Museum (5 Segun Bagicha, Dhaka) contains some of the rarest archival photographs of the period along with items used by the martyr freedom fighters.
While greatly influenced by neighboring regions, Bangladesh has its own distinct cultural identity amidst the Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. These differences can be seen in folklore, literature, music, tribal dances, festivities, and even in contemporary pop songs.
Bangladesh has produced popular poets like Dualat Kazi, Alaol and Chandi Das, who made notable contributions to Bengali literature. Drama is part of the old tradition, and there are many theater groups that regularly stage local performances and adaptations of European plays in the famous Natak Para theater in Dhaka, as well as in the university. Tribal dances are accompanied by popular folk music.
Clothing is another definitive aspect of the Bangladeshi culture. Women traditionally wear saris and salwar kameez, which are often made from finely woven, quilted or embroidered patchwork. Weaving fabric is one of the oldest art forms. The lungi or sarong is a special garment for men, though it is rarely used today.
Bangladesh is a Muslim country, and visitors are expected to be respectful and observe proper etiquette, especially when visiting religious sites. Some mosques may be off-limits to non-Muslims and some areas may be forbidden for women. Take off your shoes before entering and ask permission to take photographs before pointing and shooting. The same applies when photographing random people on the street, especially women. A very conservative country, women should wear long skirts or trousers and modest tops even when just walking around town.