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Você fala Bangla?

  • Published at 06:47 pm January 24th, 2014
Você fala Bangla?

Can you imagine Bangali cuisine without roshmolai or chillies?  Or the Bangla language without pao-ruti or janala?

These words were not originally in the Bangla vocabulary. They are the centuries-old remnants of our complicated history with the Portuguese, which seeped into our language and food, and whose flavour still lingers on the tips of our tongues.

Most Bangladeshis associate Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo, and I don’t blame them – he is a fine footballer. But how his Portuguese ancestors influenced Bengal’s history is equally fascinating as his footwork.

The Portuguese traded the riches of Bengal with the rest of the world for over a hundred years: fine silks and muslin, timber, and of course our much sought-after spices.

But it was what the Portuguese brought into these ports that changed Bengal.

Mishti and morich

According to some accounts, it was the Portuguese who introduced the process of making ricotta cheese (chhana), which lead to a variety of mouth-watering Bangali sweets such as roshmolai and shondesh. Moreover, the Portuguese were already renowned confectioners and bakers. It is through them we have our pao-ruti (the Portuguese word for bread is pão) and steamed egg tarts.

It was also the Portuguese who brought essential ingredients such as potatoes, tomatoes and chillies to the region from their colonies in the Americas and Africa, along with cashews, papaya and guavas.

Lingua português

Household words such as janala, almari, verandah are also of Portuguese origin.

Peculiarly, the Portuguese meddled with the most intimate of Bangali attire: the sari. Chittagonian women still refer to them as saya and kamis, Portuguese words meaning skirt and shirt respectively.

They also introduced non-Portuguese words from their other colonies, for example kerani (clerk) from Malay, and ananás (pineapple) from Guarani, an indigenous Brazilian language.

Idioma Bengalla

The Portuguese helped to formalise the local Bangla. In the 18th century, missionary Manuel da Assumpção took on the monumental task of documenting Bangla grammar and vocabulary, a volume of work published as Vocabolario em idioma Bengalla e Portuguez, dividido em duas partes (Vocabulary and Idioms of Bangla and Portuguese, divided into two parts).

Prior to this, Bangla was an umbrella term for a variety of disparate dialects in the Bengal region.

This structured compilation of grammar and vocabulary was the first step to standardising and printing in the Bangla language, which slowly helped break the hegemony of the Persian language. 

Faith and fables

The Portuguese first landed in southern India in 1499, and by the mid-16th century, missionaries and merchants had established a maritime presence all along the Indian Ocean.

They came with two things in mind: spices and Christ. Their Christian faith promised heaven to those that spread the word of Christ, but equally enticing as paradise were the fabled lands of cinnamon and cardamom in the Indies. Finding a way to bypass the Muslim Arabs traders became almost a religious duty. 

Bengal was a prized possession of the Mughals, and the Portuguese were eager to tap into its riches. With permission from the Muslim rulers of Bengal, the Portuguese established themselves in Chittagong, which they called Porto Grande, or the Great Port.

Soon after, a smaller port called Porto Piqueno was founded in Hooghly. To safeguard Bengalla, they built forts and other military establishments in Chittagong, emphasizing the importance of this region.

The Portuguese and their descendants in Bengal became known as Firingis, the term coming to us via Arabic and Persian farangi, meaning foreigners, echoing the Franks of the bygone Crusades. The Firingi Bazars of both Dhaka and Chittagong owe their nomenclature to the Portuguese.

To this day, it is not uncommon to run into a Fernandes or a D’Costa along the localities’ narrow lanes and medieval churches.

The seafaring lashkars of Bengal and their pidgin Portuguese can also trace their history back to these forgotten Firingis.

With the World Cup this year in Brazil, a nation that was once a Portuguese colony and still has strong cultural ties with Portugal, will be hosting the global sporting spectacle.

Far away, millions of Bangladeshis will watch the matches from their living room cadeira or teahouse mes, and keen eyes will pick up on some passes while dipping paoruti in their tea.

These three countries – Brazil, Bangladesh, and Portugal – are as distinct as they get, but at one point in history, Cristiano could have easily called Chittagong home! 

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