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Total population
c. ~11.8 million[1]
Regions with significant populations
Sylhet Division (Bangladesh)
Barak Valley and Hojai District in Assam (India)
Shillong (India)
Tripura (India)
Greater London (United Kingdom)
New York City (United States)
West Midlands (United Kingdom)
Greater Manchester (United Kingdom)
Yorkshire and the Humber
East Midlands
Bangladesh: Islam (81%), Hinduism (18%)[2][better source needed]
India: Hinduism (50.1%), Islam (48.1%) [3] Minorities:
Related ethnic groups
Indo-Aryan peoples

The Sylheti people or Sylhetis (Sylheti: ꠍꠤꠟꠐꠤ, Bengali: সিলেটি) are an Indo-Aryan ethnolinguistic group which originated from or are native of the Sylhet region of Bangladesh, the Barak Valley and in the Hojai district of the Indian state of Assam, speak the Sylheti language.[4][5] There are sizeable populations in the Indian states of Meghalaya, Tripura and Manipur. Established diaspora communities exist in the United Kingdom, the United States, the Middle East, Italy and other parts of the world. Sylhetis maintain a distinct identity separate from or in addition to having a Bengali identity, due to cultural, linguistic, geographical and historical reasons.[6][7]


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.[8] 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.[9] By virtue of Magna Carta Libertatum, Sylhetis could enter and settle Britain freely (while a declaration of intent was required to enter the USA). Diaspora patterns indicate a strong connection between Sylheti diaspora and the movement of Sylheti seamen.[10]

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, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, and Oldham.[11]

Today Sylheti diaspora numbers around one million, mainly concentrated in 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.[12] In the United States, most Sylhetis live in New York City, though sizable 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.[13]

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.[14]

Caste and class[edit]

Sylheti Hindus are socially stratified into four castes, called chaturvarna, and Muslims into three social classes. The caste system derived from Hindu system of varna (type, order, colour or class) and jati (clan, tribe, community or sub-community), which divides people into four colours: White, Red, Yellow and Black. White people are Brahmans, who are destined to be priests, teachers and preachers; Red people are Kshatriyas, who are destined to be kings, governors, warriors and soldiers; Yellow people are Vyasas, who are born to be cattle herders, ploughmen, artisans and merchants; and Black people are Shudras, who are born to be labourers and servants to the people of twice-born caste.[15][16] People from all caste denominations exist among Hindus in Sylhet.

Although Islam does not recognise any castes, Sylheti Muslims have applied a system of social stratification. 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), Shaikhs (Middle Easterns and those that spread Islam), Mughals and Pathans. Other castes include Mahimal.[17]


When it comes to marriage, Sylhetis tend to choose their spouses by observing social and religious backgrounds.[18] Marriages are practised in a traditional Muslim style, with henna ritual (mehendi), and prayers. Sylheti marriages often include contracts of marriage outlining the rights and obligations of both partners. Before the wedding, hosting an event known as fan-sini or sinifaan is a tradition, where the hosts give two betel leaves and areca nuts to the guests at any auspicious occasion. Thus the name was derived from the servings. 'Paan' (betel leaf) being served with silver foil signals festivity and during such propitious occasions it is also common to bring sweets.[19] The next event is the Gaye Holud, (lit. "yellowing the body"). For the bride's gaye holud, the groom's family - except the groom himself - travel in procession to the bride's home. They carry with them the bride's wedding dress/outfit, some wedding decorations including turmeric paste (that has lightly touched the groom's body), candy/sweetmeats and gifts.



  1. ^ Sylheti Ethnologue.
  2. ^ Sylhet Division Banglapedia
  3. ^
  4. ^ Sebastian M. Rasinger (2007). Bengali-English in East London: A Study in Urban Multilingualism. pp. 26-27. Retrieved on 2017-05-02.
  5. ^ Glanville Price (2000). Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe. pp. 91-92.
  6. ^ Tanweer Fazal (2012). Minority Nationalisms in South Asia: 'We are with culture but without geography': locating Sylheti identity in contemporary India, Nabanipa Bhattacharjee.' pp.59–67.
  7. ^ A community without aspirations Zia Haider Rahman. 2007-05-02. Retrieved on 2018-03-07.
  8. ^ Fidler, Ceri-Anne (2011). Lascars, c.1850 - 1950: The Lives and Identities of Indian Seafarers in Imperial Britain and India (Thesis). Cardiff University. p. 123.
  9. ^ Choudhury, Yousuf (1995). Sons of the Empire: Oral History from the Bangladeshi Seamen who Served on British Ships During the 1939-45 War.
  10. ^ Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers: Life Stories of Pioneer Sylheti Settlers in Britain, Caroline Adams, Tassaduq Ahmed and Dan Jones, THAP (1987), London, ISBN 978-0906698143
  11. ^ Claire Alexander, Joya Chaterji and Annu Jalais, The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration, p.2, Routledge (2015) London.
  12. ^ Benjamin Zeitlyn (September 2008). "Challenging Language in the Diaspora" (PDF). Bangla Journal. 6 (14): 126–140. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  13. ^ Yong, T.T.; Rahman, M.M. (2013). Diaspora Engagement and Development in South Asia. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 108. ISBN 9781137334459. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  14. ^ Anne J. Kershen (2005). Strangers, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields, 1660–2000. Routledge. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-7146-5525-3.
  15. ^ Mahabharata (12.181)
  16. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (2011). Dharma : its early history in law, religion, and narrative. Oxford University Press. pp. 529–531.ISBN 978-0-19-539423-8
  17. ^ Assam District Gazetteers - Supplement. 2. Shillong. 1915. p. 46.
  18. ^ "September 2006&hidType=HIG&hidRecord=0000000000000000126877 Bangladesh".
  19. ^ Khan, Maheen. "A Bangladeshi Wedding Journal". The Daily Star. Retrieved 21 November 2018.