The history and culture of Bengal have been shaped by its geography, and most importantly by its rivers. The region is home to one of the largest deltas (the land that is created at a mouth of the river where it flows into the sea) in the world. In Bengal, two of the world's longest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, meet the Indian Ocean. These rivers and their many tributaries – the Damodar, the Bhagirathi, the Ajoy, the Meghna, the Padma, the Teesta, the Jamuna, the Ichhamati and the Surma – have for centuries deposited rich soil onto the plains of Bengal, and made Bengal one of the most naturally fruitful regions of the world. The rivers literally fed the people of Bengal – their waters enabled the people of the region to cultivate rice, a staple of the Bengali diet, and the many varieties of fish provided them with proteins and other vital vitamins and minerals.
But Bengal's mighty rivers have always been changeable. Every so often, the heavy rains of the monsoon season block the normal channel of a river with soil and the rivers burst their banks, flooding large areas. Over many centuries, this has led to a gradual shifting of the Ganges delta from west to east. As new channels in the east carried most of the water, older channels of the rivers gradually decayed into marshland – a breeding ground for mosquitoes and malaria. In turn, the people in these areas suffered terrible epidemics of fever. As the land also became less productive, many people migrated eastwards to where the rivers had moved. Indeed, there are many peasant communities in Bengal, variously known as chapais or bhatias, that specialise in cultivating new tracts made fertile by the changing course of rivers. A great deal of migration within the region has been driven by its particular natural environment.
In 1947, when India was divided and Bengal was split in two parts, the Ganges and the Ichhamati formed part of the border between India and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). This has led to problems when suddenly, as these rivers changed course, the border between these two countries had to be marked out again! Now, however, much of the border between India and Bangladesh is marked by high barbed wire fence.
The monsoon season
Every summer, southern Asia and especially India and Bangladesh are drenched by rain that comes from currents of moist air that move in from the Indian Ocean to the south. These rains are known as monsoons.
The Arabic word for season, mawsin, is the origin of the word monsoon, because they happen every year in the summer. The annual monsoon winds bring rains which are very important for agriculture in the Bengal delta, where the people, who are mainly farmers, depend upon the monsoon rains. Exceptionally heavy rains and high winds, however, sometimes cause floods and cyclones, natural disasters that force people to leave their homes. Natural environmental disasters are one of the causes of migration in Bengal, and in many other parts of the world.
Britain's Bangladeshi communities are overwhelmingly concentrated in London. Of the total Bangladeshi population in the UK, 54% lived in the Greater London area and 46% in the rest of the UK.
Bangladeshis made up 2.1% of the total London population in 2001. Within London, Bangladeshis were concentrated in the East End with most of them living in a single borough, Tower Hamlets. The borough has been termed the 'centre' of the UK Bangladeshi population where 65,553 individuals or 22.8% of the Bangladeshi population live. Bangladeshis account for 33% of the total population of Tower Hamlets.
Other London boroughs with high percentages of Bangladeshis are Newham (9%) and Camden (6%). In addition, large numbers also live in Westminster, Islington, and Southwark.
Outside of London, there is a large population of Bangladeshis in Birmingham. In 2001, there were 20,836 Bangladeshis living across Birmingham, comprising 2% of the city's population. At the same time there were 9,817 Bangladeshis living in Oldham, Greater Manchester which accounted for 4.5% of that city's population. In addition there were 7,642 Bangladeshis in Luton and 4,967 in Bradford. There were also a small number of Bangladeshis in Scotland and Wales.