In ancient India, Sylhet was a frontier region of dense jungles in the north-east, with small areas of settlement along the major rivers. These were grouped into minor kingdoms owing nominal allegiance to powerful kings in Assam or Bengal. Buddhism was dominant until the 10th century, followed by a period of Hindu rule until the conquest of Sylhet in 1303 AD by Muslims under the Yemeni soldier-saint Shah Jalal. Muslim rule lasted until the British took control in 1774, and Sylhet remained part of British India for 173 years until independence in 1947. Whilst many Muslims were content to remain in the newly formed Republic of India, some were not, and, amidst tragic bloodshed, Pakistan was formed as a Muslim homeland in the western and eastern wings of the subcontinent.
As was the case with Punjab and Kashmir in the west, the status of Sylhet was not immediately clear. Sylhet had roughly equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims and a final decision was delayed till 1948. The outcome was a compromise: the 4 western districts joined East Pakistan, and the 3 eastern ones (collectively known as Cachar or the Barak Valley) remained in the Indian State of Assam.
The government, armed forces and economy of Pakistan were dominated by the Punjabis of West Pakistan, which led to increasing resentment in mainly Bengali-speaking East Pakistan, especially over the attempt to impose Urdu as the national language. This culminated in the liberation war of 1971 as a result of which East Pakistan became the new nation of Bangladesh.
Religion and culture
Sylhet Division in Bangladesh is 81% Muslim, 18% Hindu, 1% other.
Southern Assam in India is 53% Hindu, 44% Muslim, 3% other.
Nearly all Sylheti Muslims are Sunni, but most are influenced by Sufism of the Chistiya Order. To be a Sufi one must follow a spiritual guide or Pir, living or dead. These Pirs are reputed to have miraculous powers. There are tombs (mazars) of these Pirs everywhere, the larger ones being places of pilgrimage throughout the year but especially Thursday nights (regarded as especially holy) and at the time of the death anniversary or urs of the Pir. The huge mazar in Sylhet City of Shah Jalal who brought Islam to the region in 1303 is the most prominent and attracts millions of pilgrims each year, followed by the mazar of Shah Poran a few miles to the east especially popular with women in search of healing. Sufism in Sylhet can vary from being firmly part of orthodox Islam to esoteric cults that practice ecstatic singing, dancing, drugs, magic and a degree of syncretism with Hinduism. The more esoteric groups are labeled Baula and their mystic songs are popular among the general public, and not just with those linked with the cult.
As elsewhere in the Muslim world, there is a growing influence of the austere Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia that labels all Sufi practices as non-Islamic and seeks to ban music and to convert other Muslims to their views.
Sylheti Hindus in Bangladesh are predominantly Vaisnava who worship Sri Krishna. Bengal’s famous Vaishnava reformer Sri Chaitanya (1486-1534) was a Sylheti. The movement he founded has evolved into ISKON (the “Hari Krishna” movement) which has many adherents in Europe and America today. Many of the elite in South Assam, however, follow Shaivism, worshipping the Hindu deities Shiva and Kali.
Sylhetis have their own language, called Sylheti or Srihattya, related to Assamese and Bengali but distinct. Bengali is used in education and government and most official media. There is a traditional local alphabet and writing system called Sylheti Nagri, which was widely used in past generations especially in Sufi poetic literature. Only a minority know it today, though it is experiencing a revival.
Disciples of Jesus in Sylhet
The teachings of Jesus were first introduced by Welsh Presbyterians who worked in Sylhet from the 1850s until 1955 but response was almost exclusively from the non-Sylheti tribal peoples. There were tragic lost opportunities; on one occasion an entire Sylheti Hindu clan was ready to follow Jesus but the foreigners insisted they publicly break certain cultural taboos which they felt impossible to comply with; and as for the Muslims, the Welsh ladies who regularly visited their homes kept reporting to the mission leaders that a different language (Sylheti) was used at home, not Bengali, but the leaders refused to believe them and thus an opportunity for real friendship with the community was lost.
A few Muslim Sylhetis in Bangladesh became followers of Jesus from 1980 onwards. This sped up from 1996 when a prayer team visited from Scandinavia, and again when the Sylheti Jesus film was launched in 2000. Another major landmark was the publication of the Sylheti New Testament in 2014; Old Testament translation is ongoing.
Geography and economics
The Sylhetis live mainly in the low-lying rice growing areas, intersected by many rivers. There are large gasfields and some oil. The low hills are by contrast more thinly populated and have large tea estates and some remnants of jungle; these areas are mainly inhabited by the descendants of people imported by the British over a century ago from Orissa and Bihar and other poor areas of India to work in the tea estates, and by tribal groups such as the Khasis, Bishnupriyas and Metei Manipuris who have their own distinct languages.
The northern belt along the Indian border is poorer. Smuggling and banditry is rife. The major industry is the harvesting and crushing of stones washed down from the Indian hills to provide material for road building and construction in the rest of Bangladesh. The workforce are mostly migrants from poorer parts of Bangladesh. Sunamganj District in the western part of Sylhet Division consists largely of vast wetlands whose people depend mainly on fishing; this area is an internationally important site for migrating birds.
The main city, Sylhet, is rapidly growing and has attracted migrants and temporary residents from many parts of Bangladesh in search of jobs, though most of the property and wealth is owned by native Sylhetis. The city’s population is now about 2 million and has an international airport serving the many Sylhetis who work or have settled overseas.
Sylhet is a relatively prosperous part of Bangladesh. The Muslim Sylhetis are predominately rice farmers and rural and urban landowners. Sylhet has been made wealthy by the remittances of family members who work in the UK, USA and Middle East and elsewhere mainly in catering and the garments industry or as security guards, drivers and shopkeepers.
The other main Sylheti-speaking area, the Barak Valley of southern Assam in India, is economically depressed due to being cut off geographically from the rest of India and to a measure of discrimination from the Assamese-speaking State government in northern Assam.
Worldwide there are about 15 million Sylhetis, with about 10 million in Sylhet Division of NE Bangladesh, 4 million in the Barak Valley of Assam in India, and a diaspora of at least 1 million located mainly in the UK, USA and the Middle East.