What does ‘Bangladesh’ mean?

Published: September 6, 2011
The writer is a director at the South Asia Free Media Association, Lahore 

The writer is a director at the South Asia Free Media Association, Lahore [email protected]

The West Bengal assembly has passed a resolution saying the Indian state of West Bengal will, henceforth, be called Pachchim Banga. Will Bangladesh follow too? No one will tell you what ‘Bang’ in Bangladesh means, except some bold joiners of the dots in ancient history. Bangladesh is old Banga or Bangla with a history as old as 1,000 BC. Does it originate in the Tibetan word ‘bans’ which means wet or moist? Banga (Bengal) is a wet country, criss-crossed by a thousand rivers and washed by monsoons and floods from the Himalayas.

Some others believe that the name originated in the Bodo (original Asamese in North Eastern India) ‘Bang La’, which means wide plains. One of the tribes which emerged from the Indus Civilisation after its demise had entered the plains of Bengal, while others went elsewhere. They were called the Bong tribe and spoke Dravidian. We know from many ancient Aryan texts of a tribe called Banga.

Chaudhry Rehmat Ali, who did not include Bengal in the coined word Pakistan, did create an imaginary state among many in India in his dreaming book Now or Never (1931). He called Bengal ‘Bang-e-Islam’ (call to prayer of Islam) and included all of Bengal, West Bengal too. Bengal was a Muslim majority province. Although he had punned on the word, he had hardly explained it.

Two men of south Punjab whose service to Urdu will be remembered are Muhammad Khalid Akhtar and Muhammad Kazim, the latter still living. If you haven’t read much of Urdu literature, read their book reviews.

Kazim, in his book of reviews, Kal ki Baat (Readings Lahore, 2010), tells us that Aurangzeb’s minister Abul Fazl had opined that Bangla was actually Bangal and that ‘al’ in it meant enclosure. Today, ‘aal’ is taken to mean home, from a sense of ‘outer wall making an enclosure’.

Place names today usually end in ‘aal’ or ‘aala’, giving the meaning of home. The most beautiful among them is Chitral, literally meaning home of beautiful/colourful pictures. In pre-Partition Lahore, there was a film magazine in Urdu named Chitrali. Of course it did not mean a magazine devoted to the people of Chitral!

Anciently, Sri Lanka was Singhal, home of lions, which changed to Sihala (sic!) in 543 BC. (We have our Sihala near Islamabad.) The Portuguese called it Cilaon probably from Sanskrit Sri Lanka, which the Sri Lankans prefer today. The Portuguese are funny. They changed Arabic ‘mausim’ to ‘monsaon’, which has given us the word ‘monsoon’.

In Punjabi, the word ‘aal’ is found in two words: ‘aalna’ (diminutive) for nest and ‘aalay-dawalay’ for ‘that which surrounds’. The name Gujranwala was formed from Gujran-aala. ‘Him’ in Sanskrit means ‘frozen’, from where we have the word Himal or Himala. ‘Shivala’, used by Allama Iqbal in Urdu, means home of Shiva.

From the sense of ‘surrounding’ we get the Hindi word ‘aali’ which is the root of our Urdu word ‘sahaili’ meaning ‘friend of the bride’ because girlfriends sit ‘around’ the bride. ‘Sa’ is the prefix for ‘good’. This could be cognate with ‘saali’ (sister-in-law) and ‘saala’. The home of the father-in-law (sassur) is called ‘sassur-aal’. Lovers too are included, as in the bhajan ‘angana main ayay aali’. Here ‘aali’ is master (of home).

In Sanskrit there are dozens of words for home, many of them indirect like ‘aal’. In the Urdu word ‘ghonsala’ (nest) there is ‘ghun’ (concealed) and ‘shala’ (home). A whole lot of them come from the sense of being ‘cut off’. Of that next time.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 7th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (37)

  • Sep 6, 2011 - 9:35PM

    Why is there a lecture on etymology here? Are there not enough problems in Pakistan and the worls in general? People read your articles to get a perspective on the things happening around not to know history of some absurd words.Recommend

  • White Russian
    Sep 6, 2011 - 9:37PM

    Master is back. Master: one thing you should never stop writing is about words. Please! Your Oxford Press collection is my bed-side companion.


  • Hafiz Abdur Rahman
    Sep 6, 2011 - 9:47PM

    Thanks for your interest about the name Bangladesh. An early muslim historian from Bengal Mr. Ghulam Husain Salim Zaidpuri written a text named Riyaz-us-Salatin which is the first complete history of the Muslim rule in Bengal wriitten in Persian language. In this book he mentioned that the name Bang came from the name of one of the grandsons of prophet Noa, who setteled in this region. You may get some information from the following link:



    Hafiz Abdur Rahman, PhD, PEng


  • yousaf
    Sep 6, 2011 - 10:04PM

    quite informative,through words changing shape overtime we could write the history of Indo-Pak.


  • White Russian
    Sep 6, 2011 - 10:28PM

    Please do not deprive us of this delight. I totally agree that there are other serious problems, but these are not going away even if Khaled stops writing about etymology.


  • Hedgefunder
    Sep 6, 2011 - 10:46PM

    Whatever the meaning !! Just look at the development since the spliting from its larger sibling!!!!!
    No doubt, that those sitting in Pakistan, under age of 40 yrs, simply lack the knowledge and the reasons for this split !!!!!
    The message should be to change your ways as the everyone in the region is doing far better and developing faster than Pakistan !!


  • Balma
    Sep 6, 2011 - 10:53PM

    Great article.
    Thank you. Seems like not all writers here are of burger biradari who speak and write horrible English on the streets of Karachi and pretent not to understand Urdu or their native tongues.

    We should all learn Sanskirit, the root of our language Urdu and of other local Indo-Pak languages.
    Even if we do not become an expert, little bit shudh-budh of Sanskirit is still fine. So, what is the root of shudh-budh? :-)Recommend

  • woohoo
    Sep 6, 2011 - 11:39PM

    @Khaled Ahmed:

    Historians believe that Bengal, the
    area comprising present-day Bangladesh
    and the Indian state of West Bengal,
    was settled in about 1000 B.C. by
    Dravidian-speaking peoples who were
    later known as the Bang. Their
    homeland bore various titles that
    reflected earlier tribal names, such
    as Vanga, Banga, Bangala, Bangal, and

    Also earliest mention of Bengal was in the form of Vangala

    @Hafiz Abdur Rahman, PhD, PEng:

    Bang came from the name of one of the
    grandsons of prophet Noa, who setteled
    in this region

    Thanks for the laughs, Sir Dr. Hafiz Abdur Rahman


  • Mohseen L.
    Sep 7, 2011 - 12:18AM

    This is top-notch pseudo sophistry!
    The best there is anywhere.
    This is the kind of speculative history,
    that has muddled our own sense of identity.
    Stick to the facts … without manufacturing more fiction.


  • Einstein
    Sep 7, 2011 - 12:35AM

    >What is Bangladesh

    Remnants of civilisation in the greater Bengal region date back four thousand years, when the region was settled by Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, and Austro – Asiatic peoples. The exact origin of the word “Bangla” or “Bengal” is not known, though it is believed to be derived from Bang, the Dravidian-speaking tribe that settled in the area around the year 1000 BCE.Recommend

  • Domlurian
    Sep 7, 2011 - 1:29AM

    “ancient Aryan texts”? There were/are no Aryans, they are just a myth created by Europeans – unless you are a follower of Adolf Hitler.


  • ANon
    Sep 7, 2011 - 4:27AM

    Vanga is a word still used commonly in Sanskrit. There it means brinjal (eggplant) and tin (the metal).


  • Drkkdebnath
    Sep 7, 2011 - 9:21AM

    We remember an old saying “History is not written in History”.

    Look at nature, observe it feel it, to get the meaning of anything.

    When people were not aware of writing or any script, how the names
    were formed ? It is a natural phenomenon. and Science only find the reason to certain extent, as nature is always one step ahead.

    The same is applies to the naming of Bangala desh or Bangadesh.
    There are various logic presented by various people of various disciplines.

    The Bangadesh is a land of the two mighty rivers of India, one flows from east and other one from west. The area covered jointly by these two rivers were probably known as “Ganga Lohit Desha”, which gradually became Gangalo Desh and gangal Desh and then to Bangal Desh or Bangla desh or Bangadesha.

    The same way Sindhu desh or Shindh is named.

    Bangalo in place of Gangal is probably used to differentiate from the land of Ganga, ie, from Hardwar onwards along the route of Ganga.

    Historians and other scholars may look in to this issue.
    Interested people may write to “[email protected]

    (Dr. KK Debnath)


  • Drkkdebnath
    Sep 7, 2011 - 9:23AM

    Dr.KK Debnath,

    Originally from Cooch Behar of West bengal now settled at Bangalore.


  • Pravin
    Sep 7, 2011 - 10:26AM


    The break up of ‘sahaili’ could be saha+aali. The meaning of ‘saha’ in Sanskrit is ‘together’ or ‘along with’. That seems to be more appropriate for ‘sahaili’.

    I am not the expert though.



  • anil
    Sep 7, 2011 - 12:09PM

    I can’t agree with author any more. “Banga” is a sanskrit word .”al” also comes from sanskrit.”Utkal” which was the previous name of modern orissa also comes from Sanskrit.Sanskrit is the mother language of all Indo-European langugae .Tibeatian language was not so developed to compete with sanskrit.yes,”Banga” means a place located near to river in Sanskrit,which fits with both the parts of Bengal.Request you to brush up ur history knowledge.



  • Pundit
    Sep 7, 2011 - 1:26PM

    Behind each word is a story of human and cultural development. Pls continue to illuminate us.Thanks


  • RS
    Sep 7, 2011 - 1:37PM

    A direct word “alaya” (As in Himalaya) in Sanskrit means “house”


  • John
    Sep 7, 2011 - 2:37PM

    The author uses the word “Aryan text”… United India (which includes pakistan as well) was never divided as aryans and dravidians before the foreigners arrived… The foreigners divided the people with their skin colour and nothing else..

    If you study the recent articles about the genetic code of indians (read pakistan), we are nowhere close to the europeans or the arabs.. We are what we are…


  • Einstein
    Sep 7, 2011 - 2:40PM
  • neeraj
    Sep 7, 2011 - 4:32PM

    nice article, see how sindhu is converted to Indus, Loh converted to lahor..


  • roomi
    Sep 7, 2011 - 4:42PM

    @tight chuddi- . Its delightful what is shared here by the author. Recommend

  • wasif m khan
    Sep 7, 2011 - 5:36PM

    Something different amid the daily blood and mayhem. I too am reminded, and my textile industry friends may find it interesting that their ‘Khurianwala’, home of dyeing and finishing industry, also sprang from Khoo Rariyan aala…or the well by the barren plot (rara maidan) . There used to be a well in an open plain or plot that gave its name to what is Khurianwala today. And for those who only want to hear about blood and tears, it doesn’t hurt to learn a bit about the history of yor region, specially in times when it wasn’t so murderous.


  • Ali tanoli
    Sep 7, 2011 - 6:00PM

    Bangla dash mean bangali ul mulk, simple and easy.


  • Ali tanoli
    Sep 7, 2011 - 6:39PM

    How america got name???????? next time this too pleaseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.


  • Suresh
    Sep 7, 2011 - 7:02PM

    Bangla is also known as Vanga. The movement against break up of Bagladesh by British was famously known as “Vang Bhang” movement. Bhang in HIndi means -to break.

    You are right about “aal” as home. Actually, “aalay” means home itself. “Devalay” home of Gods, that is Temple, Mrigalay is home of animals (mrig), that is Zoe.


  • Cynical
    Sep 7, 2011 - 7:31PM

    Dear Khaled Saab

    Continue to illuminate us. Ignore a few discordant voices that cherish ignorance.


  • Sep 7, 2011 - 7:35PM

    @Ali: America is named after Amerigo Vesupicci.An Italian explorer who discovered North America.


  • deb
    Sep 7, 2011 - 7:36PM

    Being a bengali I am plesantly surprised with the author’s interest and the depth of his knowledge on the subject he chooses to write about.
    Keep the good work going.


  • Hafiz Abdur Rahman
    Sep 8, 2011 - 12:02AM

    Fortunately an English translation of Riyaz-us-Salatin available online. Please see the following link:


    For an overview of Islamic rule in Bengal, please see the book:

    The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760
    Richard M. Eaton


    Dr. Rahman


  • Ahmed
    Sep 8, 2011 - 9:51AM

    The oldest IndoEuropean language attested in literature is Sanskrit. Rig Veda was written between 2000 bc and 1500 bc in Punjab – older than Greek, Latin, or Persian. Given this, it is not surprising that our vocabulary eventually traces back to Sanskrit. Place names are particularly interesting.

    The suffix -stan is from the sanskrit word sthanam for place.

    The suffix -pur is first attested in the Vedas though it might be borrowed from the Dravidian -ur which means town in Dravidian languages even today. Many believe Dravidian speakers created the Indus valley civilization.

    Sindu means river and ab means water (especially overflowing water). The later resulting in Punjab (panch is five)

    Multan is moolastan which means the place of origin (moolam is source or origin).

    Peshawar is purushapura which is land of men (purusha means man)

    Lahore is the ur (city) of loh (son of ram)

    Kasur is ur of kush (the other son of ram)

    The list of course very long and endless. I wish we knew our history more and not pretend that everything started with some barbaric invaders from a desert.

    Your linguist in residence



  • woohoo
    Sep 8, 2011 - 3:32PM


    Lahore is the ur (city) of loh (son of

    Kasur is ur of kush (the other son of

    The Dravidian, word ur(u)/oor(u) generally means a city/town/village. It is still used in Telugu, Kannada and Tamil.eg: Chittoor, Nellore, Bengaluru(Bangalore), Coiambatore etc.
    I wonder if “ur” in Lahore is related to this.

    BTW, Dravidian is one of the oldest known languages(older than Sanskrit). South Indian languages of Telugu, Kannada , Malayalam and Tamil have originated from Dravidian roots.


  • Sanjeev
    Sep 8, 2011 - 7:33PM

    One more thought BANGA – BA stands for river Bhramaputra and NGA for Ganga, as both the river meets here.

    @ Hafiz Rahman – The word BANGA was termed before the Prophet birth.
    ( so ur explanation dont make a impact)

    Sanskrit had few words to describe a place – PUR, STHAN, AALAY.

    so Singapore – SINGH+PORE (SINGH = LION, PORE/PUR = City)

    even Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan,Pakistan have derived the name from Sanskrit. (STAN = STHAN)

    places which use AALAY – Himalay or Meghalay.


  • Sep 8, 2011 - 11:06PM

    So are you saying Pakistan is also Sanskrit in origin?Recommend

  • Jawad
    Sep 9, 2011 - 5:02PM

    in the meanwhile we learn a little bit history of words, u better find out what is happening around and write ur perspective..enjoy the day….


  • aisha khan
    Sep 11, 2011 - 11:00AM

    Fascinating ! Do you think Mianwali could be interpreted in the same light? I am going to watch out for words that end with al/ali. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of words with us.


  • xyz
    Sep 19, 2011 - 5:56PM

    persian has descended from old persian, which is a cousin of sankrit. the suffix ‘stan’ is derived from the sanskrit word ‘sthana’ this is not me or any other person saying it, these are the words of world’s linguists and etymologists

    Persia spread the use of persian words and all countries ending in -stan borrowed it from persians.

    Afgani-stan is peculiar in the sense that the word afgan is ultimately derived from the sanskrit word ‘ashva’ meaning horse.the latin equivalent is ‘equus’ and lituanian word for horse is also ‘ashva’

    many place-names in the indian subcontinent are sanskrit in origin.
    nepal: naya-pal Kingdom of Naya
    Bengal: vaang desh
    kashmir: kashyap mir
    kandahar: gandhar
    lahore: lavpur
    Caspian sea: after Caspian tribe: kashyapi tribe

    this is hardly surprising because sanskrit based languages were/are predominant here


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