All but three of the country's 57 major rivers flow in from neighboring Nepal, China and India as they travel down to the Bay of Bengal. When they flood, they swamp thousands of kilometers along their banks, and displace millions of people.
Bengal was probably the wealthiest part of the subcontinent up until the 16th century. The area's early history featured a succession of Indian empires, internal squabbling, and a tussle between Hinduism and Buddhism for dominance. All of this was just a prelude to the unstoppable tide of Islam which washed over northern India at the end of the 12th century. Mohammed Bakhtiar, from Turkistan, captured Bengal in 1199 with only 20 men thanks to an unexplained 'bold and clever strategy'.
Under the Moghul viceroys, art and literature flourished, overland trade expanded and Bengal was opened to world maritime trade - the latter marking the death knell of Moghul power as Europeans began to establish themselves in the region. The Portuguese arrived as early as the 15th century but were ousted in 1633 by local opposition. The East India Company negotiated terms to establish a fortified trading post in Kolkata in 1690. The decline of Moghul power led to greater provincial autonomy, heralding the rise of the independent dynasty of the nawabs of Bengal. Humble East India Company clerk Robert Clive ended up effectively ruling Bengal when one of the impetuous nawabs attacked the thriving British enclave in Kolkata and stuffed those unlucky enough not to escape in an underground cellar. Clive retook Kolkata a year later and the British Government replaced the East India Company following the Indian Mutiny in 1857.
The Brits established an organisational and social structure unparalleled in Bengal, and Kolkata became one of the most important centres for commerce, education and culture in the subcontinent. However, many Bangladeshi historians blame the Brits' dictatorial agricultural policies and promotion of the semi-feudal zamindar system for draining the region of its wealth and damaging its social fabric. The British presence was a relief to the minority Hindus but a catastrophe for the Muslims. The Hindus cooperated with the Brits, entering British educational institutions and studying the English language, but the Muslims refused to cooperate, and rioted whenever crops failed or another local product was rendered unprofitable by government policy.
At the close of WWII it was clear that Indian independence was inevitable. It was attained in 1947 but the struggle was bitter and divisive, especially in Bengal where the fight for self-government was complicated by internal religious conflict. The British, realising any agreement between the Muslims and Hindus was impossible, decided to partition the subcontinent, but Bengal and Punjab, the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions, lay on opposite sides of India. The situation was complicated in Bengal where the major cash crop, jute, was produced in the Muslim-dominated east, but processed and shipped from the Hindu-dominated city of Kolkata in the west.
East Bengal became the runt state of East Pakistan. It was administered unfavourably from West Pakistan, with which it shared few similarities apart from the Muslim faith. Inequalities between the two regions soon stirred up a sense of Bengali nationalism that had not been reckoned with during the push for Muslim independence. When the Pakistan government declared that 'Urdu and only Urdu' would be the national language, the Bangla-speaking Bengalis decided it was time to assert themselves. The language issue quickly became a self-government issue. When the Awami League, a nationalist party, won a majority in the 1971 national elections, the president of Pakistan, faced with this unacceptable result, postponed opening the National Assembly. Riots and strikes broke out in East Pakistan, the independent state of Bangladesh was unilaterally announced, and Pakistan sent troops to quell the rebellion.
The ensuing war was one of the shortest and bloodiest of modern times, with the Pakistan army occupying all major towns, using napalm against villages, and slaughtering and raping villagers. Bangladeshis refer to Pakistan's brutal tactics as attempted genocide. Border clashes between Pakistan and India increased as Indian-trained Bangladeshi guerrillas crossed the border. When the Pakistani air force made a pre-emptive attack on Indian forces, open warfare ensued. Indian troops crossed the border and the Pakistani army found itself being attacked from the east by the Indian army, the north and east by guerrillas and from all quarters by the civilian population. In 11 days it was all over and Bangladesh, the world's 139th country, officially came into existence. Sheikh Mujib, one of the founders of the Awami League, became the country's first prime minister in January 1972; he was assassinated in 1975 during a period of crisis.
The ruined and decimated new country experienced famine in 1973-74, followed by martial law, successive military coups and political assassinations. In 1979 Bangladesh began a short-lived experiment with democracy led by the overwhelmingly popular President Zia, who established good relationships with the West and the oil-rich Islamic countries. His assassination in 1981 ultimately returned the country to a military government that periodically made vague announcements that elections would be held 'soon'. While these announcements were rapturously greeted by the local press as proof that Bangladesh was indeed a democracy, nothing came of them until 1991. That year the military dictator General Ershad was forced to resign by an unprecedented popular movement led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League.
In 1991 democracy was re-established and Begum Khaleda Zia became prime minister. The economy ticked along at a healthy growth rate, and ties with the West were strengthened. By 1994, however, many Bangladeshis had become disenchanted with the Zia government. Some promised reforms hadn't materialised, police violence was on the rise, lawlessness was still a problem and corruption remained endemic. The opposition called for mass general strikes.
Two Bangladeshi children look through steel nets at a shelter in the capital Dhaka, July 31, 2004.
About half of Bangladesh has been inundated this year, at least 500 people have died, and hunger and disease will threaten hundreds more among the population of 130 million when the floodwaters begin to recede.
A 1996 general election was widely boycotted and the legitimacy of the return of the Zia government was suspect. On 30 March Zia stood down under pressure and elections, generally seen as free and fair, were won by Sheikh Hasina Wazed of the Awami League.
The wheel turned in October 2001, when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party won the parliamentary elections and Zia was sworn in as prime minister. The government in the last few years has pushed through some social reforms aimed at improving the lives of women, such as making acid attacks punishable by death.
A series of bombings of political and religious gatherings continues to puzzle authorities. Although the major parties blame each other, extremist Islamic groups may also be a factor.