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     Bangla or Bengali (as it is often called) is one of the most populous languages (ranks 6th in the world) with approximately 250 million speakers throughout the world. West Bengal in India houses 80,221,000 people (2001 Census) most of whom speak Bangla. According to 2001 figures, 140,400,000 people speak Bangla in Bangladesh.

     Bangla is one of the 22 national languages of India recognized by the Indian Constitution and is the national and official language of Bangladesh.

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     As you may know, the Indian sub-continent houses languages of many families, the prominent among them being Indo-Aryan or Indic languages – mostly spoken in the northern part and the Dravidian languages, generally available in the southern peninsula. So, in terms of origin, it is a member of the Indic group of the Indo-Iranian or Aryan languages.

     As some of you may know, Aryan languages themselves belong to the Indo-European family of languages.

     Since its origin from the Indo-Aryan through spoken Apabhramsa-Avahatta (5th - 10th Century A.D.), the Bengali language had passed through successive stages of development, often called Old & Medieval Bengali.

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     The formative period of the Bengali language was around the 9th century A.D., which also marked the beginning of literature. The literature then consisted of some mystic poems called Caryagiti or Carya songs, as is evident from the available records. In addition to the Caryas, the Old Bengali probably consisted of similar songs on Radha and Krishna and of some hymns and ballads, the last being the sources of the later texts such as Gopichanda, Dharmamangala, Lakhindar and Behula, Srimanta and Kal-ketu tales. But of these, no discernable traces belonging to the age remain.

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     The period between 1350 and 1800 was the medieval period of Bengali literature. Jayadeva, the renowned court poet of Lakshmanasena, emerged during the later period of the 12th Century. He composed Gitagovinda in Sanskrit language, which narrates the account of the love of Krishna and Radha. By the end of 15th century, the Bengali literature became fully established. The love lyrics of Padavali poets were composed during this period, and they became the classics of the language. Sri Krishna Kirtan composed by Badu Chandidas was the most important philosophical work of the period.

     The period from 1500 A. D. to 1800 A.D. was known as the Late Middle Bengali period. During this period, there was a marked influence of Lord Chaitanya and it was this influence that led to the development of Vaishnava literature. Chaitanya was an incarnation, who refused to be accepted as such and wanted to be considered as simply a human being. His life was the focus of the writings by Krishnadas Kabiraj, the author of Chaitanyacharitamrita.

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     The oldest known narrative poem of the period on a non-Puranic theme (Puranas are the ancient Indian heritage and are the sources of all mythological stories) during this period was Manasavijaya by Vipradas, who narrated the story of the goddess Manasa in great detail. Outside the Vaishnava poetry, the most significant work of the sixteenth century was Chandimangal by Mukunda Chakravarti. This was thought to have marked the beginning of a new era – the period of ‘mangal-kavyas’.

     It was only during this period that the other Sanskritic epics - Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavat Purana were adopted in Bangla. The Bengal Vaishnavism drew its inspiration from the Bhagavata Purana.

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     The medieval Bengali literature was also marked by several spiritual and religious dogmas of the Shaktas, the Shaivas and the Buddhists. Behind this was the influence of the stupendous Dravidian (or Southern Indian) culture. There was also a close cultural contact between Bengal and Arrakan, the neighboring province of lower Burma, which took place in the middle Bengali period, during the early fifteenth century. This contact led to the acceptance of Bengali language as the chief cultural language at the Arrakan court. Probably, the first Bengali poet to write under the aegis of the Arrakan court was Daulat Kazi who died before he could finish the work. Aalaaol, another Bengali poet from Arrakan, who translated from Persian poetry, completed it years later. His knowledge of Sanskrit, Bengali, Avadhi and Persian, made it possible to achieve a distinct style.

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     From 1801, began the Modern Bengali period. The period at its beginning, saw the emergence of prose styles. The vocabulary of Literary Bengali prose was highly sanskritised. As the poetry texts were not suitable for imparting a practical knowledge of the spoken tongue, William Carey’s first job as a professor of Bengali was to produce reading matter in elegant prose. The best prose writers of the time were Ram Ram Bose and Mrityunjay Vidyalankar.

     With social reformers as well as profound scholars and public men like Raja Rammohun Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, the journey of modern Bangla literature began, and later blossomed so much as to produce a literary giant like Rabindranath Tagore.

      For those who would like to know more, read on about Bangla language, literature and culture.

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