|c. ~10.3 million|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Bangladesh (Sylhet Division)|
India (Barak Valley, Hojai, North Tripura, Shillong)
Middle East (GCC countries)
Western world (United Kingdom, United States)
|Sylheti (native), Standard Bengali (mostly spoken as an L2)|
|Mostly Sunni Muslim, large minority Hindus|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Indo-Aryan peoples, Bengalis, Assamese|
The Sylhetis are an Indo-Aryan ethnocultural group that are associated with the Sylhet region in South Asia, specifically in northeast of Bengal presently divided between the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh, and the Karimganj district of Assam, India. There are sizeable Sylheti populations in Barak Valley and Hojai district of Assam, the Indian areas of Meghalaya, North Tripura and Manipur. They speak Sylheti, an Eastern Indo-Aryan language, which is also considered by some as a dialect of Bengali.
Sylheti identity is associated mainly with a cultural, linguistic and a strong regional identity, while accompanied with a national (of either Bangladeshi or Indian) and a Bengali identity. During the rule of Srichandra in the 10th century, the natives of Sylhet were referred to as Bangāl while the Brahmin immigrants that the Buddhist king invited to the area were referred to as Deshāntariā.
Lord Cornwallis introduced the Permanent Settlement Act of Bengal in 1793 and it altered the social, political and economic landscape of the Sylhet region; socioeconomic ramification for former landlords was severe as the land changed hands. On juxtapose, colonial administration opened new windows of opportunities for young men, who sought employment merchant ship companies. Young men from Sylhet boarded ships primarily at Kolkata, Mumbai and Singapore. Many Sylheti people believed that seafaring was a historical and cultural inheritance due to a large proportion of Sylheti Muslims being descended from foreign traders, lascars and businessman from the Middle East and Central Asia who migrated to the Sylhet region before and after the Conquest of Sylhet. Khala Miah, who was a Sylheti migrant, claimed this was a very encouraging factor for Sylhetis to travel to Calcutta aiming to eventually reach the United States and United Kingdom. By virtue of Magna Carta Libertatum, Sylhetis could enter and settle Britain freely (while a declaration of intent was required to enter the US). Diaspora patterns indicate a strong connection between Sylheti diaspora and the movement of Sylheti seamen.
The Sylheti diaspora population grew in response to a need for an economic sustenance during the British Raj, when many Sylheti men left the region in search of employment. During this period, young men from Sylhet often worked as lascars in the British merchant marine. Some abandoned their ships in London in search of economic opportunity, while others found alternative routes to enter the country. Chain migration led to the eventual settlement of large numbers of Sylhetis in working-class neighbourhoods in London's East End and other industrial towns and cities such as Luton, Birmingham, Sheffield, Blackburn, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, and Oldham.
Today, the Sylheti diaspora numbers around one million, mainly concentrated in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Germany, Italy, France, Australia, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Finland and the Middle East and other European countries. However, a 2008 study showed that 95% of Sylheti diaspora live in the UK. In the United States, most Sylhetis live in New York City, though sizeable populations also live in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and Detroit.
Some argue that remittances sent from Sylheti diaspora around the world back to Bangladesh have negatively affected development in Bangladesh, where a lack of government initiatives has caused economic inertia.
According to neo-classical theory, the poorest would move to the richest countries and those from densely populated areas would move to more sparsely populated regions. This has clearly not been the case. The brain drain was a movement from core to core, purely on economic maximisation, while it was young Sylheti pioneers with access to financial resources that migrated from a severely overpopulated Bangladesh to the overcrowded streets of Spitalfields, poorest from all parts of Bangladesh migrated to Sylhet for a better life, causing a severe overcrowding and scarcity of resources in Sylhet.
Islam is the largest religion practised by Sylhetis. Sunni Islam is the largest denomination with majority following the Hanafi school of law although some also follow the Shafi'i and Hanbali madhhabs. There are significant numbers of people who follow Sufi ideals similar to the Barelvis, the most influential is the teachings of Abdul Latif of Fultoli, Zakiganj – a descendant of Shah Kamal Quhafa, the son of Burhanuddin Quhafa, one of the disciples of Shah Jalal. The revivalist Deobandi movement is also popular amongst Sylhetis and many are part of the Tablighi Jamaat. Similarly, Haji Shariatullah's Faraizi movement was very popular in the Sylhet region during the British period and Wahhabism was adopted by some upper-class Sylheti families.
There is a very small minority of Shia Muslims who gather every year during Ashura for the Mourning of Muharram processions. Places of procession include the Prithimpasha Nawab Bari in Kulaura, home to a Shia family, as well as Balaganj, Osmani Nagar and Rajtila.
Hinduism is the second largest religion amongst Sylhetis. Other minority religions include Christianity and there was a presence of Sikhism after Guru Nanak's visit to Sylhet in 1508 to spread the religion and build a gurdwara there. This Gurdwara was visited twice by Tegh Bahadur and many hukamnamas were issued to this temple in Sylhet by Guru Gobind Singh. In 1897, the gurdwara fell down after the earthquake.
Caste and class
Sylheti Hindus are socially stratified into four castes, called soturbonno. The caste system derived from Hindu system of bonno (type, order, colour or class) and zat (clan, tribe, community or sub-community), which divides people into four colours: White, Red, Yellow and Black. White people are Brahmon, who are destined to be priests, teachers and preachers; Red people are Khotriyo, who are destined to be kings, governors, warriors and soldiers; Yellow people are Besho, who are born to be cattle herders, ploughmen, artisans and merchants; and Black people are Shudro, who are born to be labourers and servants to the people of twice-born caste. People from all caste denominations exist among Sylheti Hindus.
Although Islam does not recognise any castes, Sylheti Muslims have applied a system of social stratification known as "bongsho". Class system among Muslims evolved during the halcyon days of the Mughal Empire. The upper caste are divided into four groups claiming descent from; Syeds (Prophet Muhammad), Mughals, Pathans and Shaikhs (Middle Easterns and those that spread Islam). Other castes include Mahimal. The latter two formed the majority of Sylheti Muslims in the early 20th century.
Sylheti cuisine is similar to other regional Bangladeshi cuisines. However, it also has dishes unique to Sylhetis. A Sylheti meal consists of many things such as bhat (rice) with mas (fish curry), gus/gusto (meat curry), dail, anaz (greens and herbs), and shobzi (vegetables).
Sylhetis boast a variation of the famous pilaf dish – Akhni – in which the rice is cooked after and the chicken pieces are cut. Commonly consumed varieties of meat include beef, chicken, Mutton and duck/goose in dishes such as duck bamboo curry. They also proudly hold the heritage of Beef Hatkora, a rice dish consisting of a wild citrus fruit native to the Sylhet region and not found in other parts of Bengal. The cuisine of Sylhetis is famed for hutki, meaning dried fish which can be used in turn to make dishes such as hutki shira. There are two variations of hutki; one kind is sun-dried while the other is buried under wet soil. Hatkora (wild citruses) are used at times to flavour curries. Popular fish curries include gual, rou, ilish, or fabia. A main characteristic of a Sylheti meal is tenga (Preparations bearing a characteristically rich and tangy flavour). The food is often served in plates which have a distinct flowery pattern often in blue or pink. Common beverages include shorbot, falooda, Rooh Afza, traditional fruit juices as well as basil seed or tukma-based drinks.
During the British period, biscuits and loaves were introduced in the region and received popularity within the Muslim community. The middle-class Hindus of Cachar and Sylhet were very suspicious of biscuits and breads as they believed they were baked by Muslims. In one occasion, a few Hindus in Cachar caught some Englishman eating biscuits with tea which caused an uproar. The information reached the Hindus of Sylhet and a little rebellion occurred. In response to this, companies started to advertise their bread as "machine-made" and "untouched by (Muslim) hand" to tell Hindus that the breads were "safe for consumption". This incident is mentioned in Bipin Chandra Pal's autobiography and he mentions how gradually culinary habits of Hindus eventually changed.
Language and literature
Sylhetis speak Sylheti, which is generally considered as a dialect of Bengali, while others consider it a separate language. Many native speakers consider Sylheti as the diglossic vernacular, with standard Bengali forming the codified lect. Sylheti poets were writing in the Bengali language by the 16th century. The 18th-century Hattanather Panchali (Hattanath chronicles) originally written by Ganesh Ram Shiromani are Bengali ballads which detail the early history of Sylhet though its authenticity is questionable. When Sylhet was under the rule of the Twipra Kingdom, medieval Sylheti writers using the Bengali script included the likes of Dwija Pashupati, the author of Chandravali – considered one of the earliest Sylheti works. Nasir ad-Din Haydar of Sylhet town wrote the Tawarikh-e-Jalali, the first Bengali biography of Shah Jalal. Nur Ali Khan of Syedpur wrote Marifoti Geet and Kobi Muzaffar Khan of Ita was a poet. Muslim literature was based upon historical affairs and biographies of prominent Islamic figures. Like the rest of Muslim Bengal, Bengali Muslim poetry was written in a colloquial dialect of Bengali which came to be known as Dobhashi, and has had a major influence on Sylheti. Dobhashi featured the use of Perso-Arabic vocabulary in Bengali texts. A separate script was developed in Sylhet for this popular linguistic register. Known as the Sylheti Nagri script, its most renowned writer was Sadeq Ali whose Halatunnabi was famed as household item amongst rural Muslim communities. Manuscripts have been found of works such as Rag Namah by Fazil Nasim Muhammad, Shonabhaner Puthi by Abdul Karim, and the earliest known work Talib Huson (1549) by Gholam Huson. Late Nagri writers include Muhammad Haidar Chaudhuri who wrote Ahwal-i-Zamana in 1907 and Muhammad Abdul Latif who wrote Pohela Kitab o Doikhurar Rag in 1930.
Sylhet, in particular the Taraf, was also an esteemed centre for the study of Persian, an official language up until the British period, due to the high population of foreign missionaries from Central Asia and Persia following the Conquest of Sylhet. Ma'dan al-Fawaid was written in 1534 by Syed Shah Israil who is considered to be Sylhet's first author. Other prominent writers include Muhammad Arshad, Syed Rayhan ad-Din and Syed Pir Badshah. Reyazuddin of Taraf wrote a Persian book on "Dream Fruit". Ala Bakhsh Mazumdar Hamed was known to have written Tuhfatul Muhsineen and Diwan-i-Hamed. Collectively, the works of these two people belonging to the Mazumdar family of Sylhet, are regarded amongst the most creative literary works in the Sylhet region. Majid Bakht Mazumdar wrote an English book on the family history.
In the 19th century, Urdu had a somewhat aristocratic background in Sylhet and notable families that spoke it included the Nawabs of Longla and the Mazumdars of Sylhet. Moulvi Hamid Bakht Mazumdar, who was also fluent in Persian, wrote the Urdu prose Ain-i-Hind, a history of the Indian subcontinent. Literature written in this period included Nazir Muhammad Abdullah Ashufta's Tanbeeh al-Ghafileen, written in 1894, and the poems of Moulvi Farzam Ali Bekhud of Baniachong. Hakim Ashraf Ali Mast and Fida Sylheti were prominent Urdu poets of Sylhet in the 19th century, the latter being a disciple of Agha Ahmad Ali Isfahani. In 1946, the Anjuman-i Taraqqi-i Urdu performed a mushaira in Sylhet attracting the likes of Hafeez Jalandhari, the lyricist of the National Anthem of Pakistan.
Popular modern writers and poets from the region include Abdur Rouf Choudhury, Dilwar Khan and Chowdhury Gulam Akbar. Muhammad Mojlum Khan is a non-fiction writer best known for writing the English biographical dictionary, The Muslim 100. Prominent Bengali language non-fiction writers include Syed Murtaza Ali, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Dewan Mohammad Azraf, Abed Chaudhury, Achyut Charan Choudhury, Arun Kumar Chanda, Asaddor Ali, Ashraf Hussain and Dwijen Sharma.
Fashion and attire
Sylheti attire is shares similarities with Bengali and North Indian attire. In rural areas, older women wear the shari while the younger generation wear the selwar kamiz, both with simple designs. In urban areas, the selwar kamiz is more popular, and has distinct fashionable designs. Men also wear traditional costumes such as the fanjabi with selwar or pyjama. The popularity of the fotua, a shorter upper garment, is also replacing the fanjabi in casual environments reducing the latter to be worn in more formal occasions. The longi and gamsa, is a common combination for men living in rural areas. Islamic clothing is also very common in the region. During special occasions, women commonly wear either modest sharis, selwar kamizes or abayas, covering their hair with hijab or unna; and men wear a fanjabi, also covering their hair with a tupi, toqi, pagri or rumal.
Sports and games
Cricket and football are the most popular sports amongst Sylhetis. Many Sylheti cricketers have played for the Bangladesh national cricket team such as Alok Kapali, Enamul Haque Jr, Nazmul Hossain, Rajin Saleh and Tapash Baisya. The football club Beanibazar SC has played in the Bangladesh League and Alfaz Ahmed was a Sylheti who played for the Bangladesh national football team. Hamza Choudhury is the first Bangladeshi to play in the Premier League and is predicted to be the first British Asian to play for the England national football team.
Bulbul Hussain was the first Sylheti professional wheelchair rugby player. Sylhetis are very competitive when it comes to board and home games such as Fochishi and its modern counterpart Ludo, as well as Carrom Board, Sur-Fulish, Khanamasi and Chess. Rani Hamid is one of the most successful chess players in the world, winning championships in Asia and Europe multiple times. Ramnath Biswas was a revolutionary soldier who embarked on three world tours on a bicycle in the 19th century. Nowka Bais is a common traditional rowing competition during the monsoon season when rivers are filled up, and much of the land is under water. Fighting sports include Kabaddi, Latim and Lathi khela.
Sylheti folklore is influenced by Hindu, Sufi, Turco-Persian and native ideas. It has some unique elements, differentiating it from mainstream Bengali folklore. Common folkloric beings include bhoots, foris, jinns, mermaids and personified animals. Stories may also include the presence of pirs and fakirs. Folk stories are traditionally common in villages during an eshi mojlis (idle sitting). Chandra Kumar De of Mymensingh is known to be the first researcher of Sylheti folklore. Archives of old works are kept in Kendriya Muslim Sahitya Sangsad in Sylhet (also known as the Sylhet Central Muslim Literary Society) – the oldest literary organisation in Bengal and one of the oldest in the subcontinent.
Sylheti weddings are celebrated with a combination of general Muslim and Hindu traditions with unique Sylheti features as well. They play a large part in developing and maintaining social ties between families and villages. Marriages are mostly between either the British Bangladeshi diaspora (known as Londoni) or the native-born Sylhetis. The first event in Muslim marriage is known as paan-chini (paan-sugar), or chini-paan, hosted by the bride's family. Gifts are received from the groom's family and the marriage date is fixed in this event. An adda takes place between the families as they consume a traditional Bangladeshi banquet of food, paan, tea and mishti. The next event is the mehndi (henna) ceremony also known as the gaye holud (turmeric on the body). This is normally followed by the main event, the biya-shadi or walima hosting thousands of guests. An nikah/akht takes place, where an Islamic contract of marriage is signed. A qadi or imam is usually present here and would also recite the Quran and make dua for the couple. Post-marriage ceremonies include the phirajatra or phirakhaowa (return of the bride to her house), serving payesh and milk, as well as the bou-bhat and fish-cutting ceremony which takes place in the groom's home. Dhamail is a part of Sylheti marriage.
Islamic holidays are celebrated by the community each year, which includes Eid al-Adha and Eid ul-Fitr. People are dressed in their new traditional clothing. Children are given money and eidi (gift) by elders, and Eid prayers are attended in an open eidgah by men in the morning in large numbers. They will then visit their relatives later in the day. Traditional food will be cooked for relatives, such as samosa and handesh. The celebration of Eid reunites relatives and improves relations. The Eid al-Adha is celebrated after Hajj, to commemorate the prophet Ibrahim's compliance to sacrifice his son Isma'il. An animal has to be sacrificed, and then distributed between families and neighbours as zakat.
Significant cultural events or celebrations are also celebrated by the community annually. Foyla Boishakh is a celebration of the new year and arrival of summer in the Bengali calendar and is celebrated in April. It features a funfair, music and dance displays on stages, with people dressed in colourful traditional clothes, parading through the streets.
The Nouka Bais is a traditional boat racing competition which takes place during and after the rainy season when much of the land goes under water. The long canoes were referred to as khel naos (meaning playing boats) and the use of cymbals to accompany the singing was common. Different types of boats are used in different parts of Bengal and Sylhetis are known for their use of sarangi boats.
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The linguistic classification of Sylheti is problematic and heavily debated... Sylheti is generally defined as a dialect of Bengali
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