From Paradise to Pretty Rotten
Bangladesh is a country in South Asia, bordered to the west, north and east by India, to the southeast by Myanmar, and to the south by the Bay of Bengal. With an area of 144,000 sq km, it is slightly bigger than Greece and slightly smaller than Wisconsin. Most of the country is a deltaic plain crisscrossed by canals and rivers, and farming is an important industry which gives 75% of the people an occupation.
The country is young and has a violent history. First gaining independence from India as East Pakistan in 1947 at enormous human cost, it went through the same thing when leaving Pakistan in 1971. At some point in medieval Europe, geographers located paradise at the mouth of the Ganges. Although the area is a green and fertile one, their calculations proved a bit off the mark. Bangladesh has suffered much from the devastation of war and weather, and is now among the least developed countries in the world.
The predominant language is Bengali and the major religion Islam. Several other religions are present in small numbers. There is a Hindu population of over 10% as well as some Buddhists and Christians. The groups live in relative harmony, which means that riots are rarer in Bangladesh than in India and Pakistan.
Land of Fertile Rivers
Bangladesh is where two important Indian rivers go: Ganga and Brahmaputra. The two meet and branch out again into the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Jamuna delta, allowing Bengalis to irrigate most of their land for cultivation. The tropical climate allows for jute, rice, tobacco, tea, sugarcane, vegetables, potato and pulses crops, as well as fruits like mango, banana, pineapple, jackfruit, watermelon, green coconut, guava -- you get the picture.
The country possesses the longest stretch of beach in the world, and 90% of the land lies less than 10 metres above sea level. Familiar with wreckage from tidal waves and the like, the Bengalis are rightly afraid of a possible rise in sea level. The national park of Sundarbans occupies the southwestern corner of the country. Here the Royal Bengal Tiger lazes majestically in safety among mangroves, monkeys and crocodiles, as well as a menagerie of other species.
New and Old
The capital Dhaka is located on the bank of the river Buriganga in the middle of the country. A former Moghul trading centre, is is clean and quiet as South Asian cities go. Chittagong is the second largest city and sits on the bank of another river, the Karnaphuli. This is also an old trading centre and the country's most important sea port.
The greatest archaelogical sites of Bangladesh are of Buddhist origin. The Mainimati Ruins are the remnants of a Buddhist centre important from the 7th to 12th centuries, while Somapuri Vihara is an 8th century Buddhist monastery, consisting of several great though decayed ruins. However, there are also several old mosques and hindu temples scattered about the country, reminiscent of its former glory.
The best-known Bengali poet is Rabindranath Tagore, followed by Nasrul Islam. Recently, the outspoken feminist author Taslima Nasrin became famous for facing death threats from Muslim fundamentalists.
Situated at a central position between South and South-East Asia, Bengal experienced several power struggles of Hinduism and Buddhism. This infighting stopped with the arrival of Islam to the area, which happened in 1199, when Mohammed Bakhtiar supposedly captured the country with only 20 men in a mysterious 'bold and clever strategy'.
The land was under Mughal dominion for over 500 years, until the declining power of the Empire gave rise to a dynasty of native Nawab rulers. However, another empire stood ready to take over control, and the British East India Company gradually assumed total power.
Independence and Language
When Pakistan split off from India, it was because separatists insisted Muslims could not live among a majority of other religion. With Bangladesh, the split came because of language.
The independence and partition in 1947 showed what problems the country would have to face. Bengal was split in two, with jute-growing Muslims on one side of the border and jute-trading Hindus in Kolkata on the other. The state now called East Pakistan was governed by the West, by people who had little in common with the Bengalis. Nationalism brewed slowly, culminating in riots when the government of Pakistan declared Urdu the only national language.
The fight for their language led to demands for self-government as well. In 1971 East Pakistan, led by the nationalist Awami League, declared itself independent. Unable to accept this, West Pakistan sent in their troops. The army occupied all the major towns, used napalm against villages, and slaughtered and raped the population. The war of Independence lasted for nine months until India joined the fray and together with gurrilla forces and upset civilians drove out the Pakistanis. Sheikh Mujib became the country's first prime minister in 1972.
The freedom is celebrated on several occasions: Mourning or National Martyrs Day. Independence Day, Revolution Day, and Victory Day. Today 95% of the population speaks Bengali, or Bangla. The minority languages are Bihari, Urdu and several smaller, tribal languages.
Poverty and Development
Life on its own began with famine in 1973-74 and was followed up with military rule and political unrest. The country was somewhat democratic from 1979 to 1981 under
General Zia, who was assassinated, and from 1991, when Begum Khaleda Zia became prime minister. Economy and political freedom have grown slowly, but steadily better. Despite this several problems, such as police brutality and few rights for women, remain to be solved.
The country has an overabundance of people who in turn lack food, education and safety. About half the population is below the national poverty line, and doesn't know how to read or write. It is estimated that nine in ten children are malnourished to some degree. Devastating floods appear with alarming frequency, sometimes interpersed with cyclones for variety's sake.
Standing so firmly at the bottom, however, Bangladesh has only one way to go. With help from external organizations it has sought to combat its many problems, and is slowly succeeding. The illiteracy among women has sunk from 75% in 1991 to 57% in 1998. Social programmes following up this education has led to both lower birth rates and fewer child deaths.