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Pohela Boishakh: A Cultural Fiesta

Sohana Manzoor shares the Bengali New Year celebrations in Bangladesh on April 14th, pausing on the commonality and differences with Poila Baisakh, the Indian version of Pohela Boishakh celebrated in the Eastern part of India

Happy & Prosperous New Year or ‘Shubho Nabobarsho’ in Bengali script

“Shubho Nabobarsho” (happy and prosperous new year) is the traditional greeting for the Bengali new year. The upcoming April 14 will herald the beginning of the Bengali year 1428 in Bangladesh, but in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Odisha and parts of Assam it will be the 15th of April. In Bangladesh, Pohela Boishakh is one of the biggest occasions of celebration, next to perhaps the two Eids.

Whereas the celebrations of Pohela Boishakh is now a regular thing, its history is somewhat unclear. According to most historians, the Bengali year or Bangabda was introduced by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. In those days, agricultural taxes were collected according to the Hijri Calendar. But then the Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar and naturally, it did not coincide with the agricultural year. The tax collecting time was not a time when the peasants and farmers could pay the taxes. It only added to the confusion of the people who tilled the land in various capacities. To streamline the tax collection, Akbar ordered a reformation of the calendar. As a result, in 1584 Bangabda was born. But the year started from 963, the Hijri year it was modeled on. According to some historians, however, it was adopted by another Muslim ruler called Hussain Shah of Bengal. There is yet another group that alludes to Shashanka, a seventh-century King of Bengal, for inventing Bangabda. It is quite possible that it existed before Akbar’s time and the Mughal Emperor reinvented it with the help of his royal astronomer and other pundits of his court.

An interesting aspect of Bangabda is that the names of the months were different in those times. The story of how the months of Farwardin, Urdibahish and Khordad became Baishakh, Jyoshthyha and Ashar is lost to us. But we do know that just as he had helped in modernizing the Bengali language, Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah helped in modernizing the Bengali year. Partially accepting his reformative suggestions, the Bangla Academy saw that the first six months had thirty-one days each and the last six, thirty. Hence there is no further confusion about which day of the Gregorian calendar Pohela Boishakh coincides with. In Bangladesh, it is always 14 April. But in West Bengal and other parts of India, it can be either 14 or 15 of April.

When the Bengali new year was first introduced, the most important activities on the first day of the year involved halkhata, opening of a new book for zamindars who would treat their tenants with sweets. On the last day of the old year, there would be Chaitra Sankranti, a day celebrating the end of the year. Actually, in rural areas, this day was more colourful than Pohela Baishakh. Charak Puja, a Hindu festival honouring the god Shiva is central to this celebration. The actual puja used to take place on the midnight of Chaitra Sankranti, and it was a very special kind of ritual and not too many people even know about it anymore. The preparation would start a month ahead of the actual puja and a total of twelve devotees would take part in it. There would be different kinds of festivities through the day, and snacks like puffed rice, ground gram called chhatu,  dry sugary sweets like khoi, murki, batasha, kodma, and many varieties of leafy vegetables would be available. In today’s Bangladeshi scenario, Chaitra Sankranti has almost disappeared except in some distant villages. Only lately, some initiatives are being taken in Dhaka to reintroduce the fair, even though it looks like any other fair and very different from the original Chaitra Sankranti.

With urbanization, the more secular Pohela Boishakh became popular. However, some elements from Chaitra Sankranti have been integrated in Baishakhi celebration. For example, there are fairs that still showcase puffed rice, khoi, murki, batasha and kodma. There are products made by rural artisans. Performances on musical instruments like ektara, dotara and dhol by rural artists are show cased. Riding the nagardola (a mini and wooden version of the Ferris wheel, reminiscence of the charak) is a central attraction of the fair.

It is impossible to conceive of any Bengali festival without food. The first food item that comes to mind regarding Pohela Baishakh, is hilsa fish. Different preparations of mouth-watering taste are prepared with hilsa. Then there are panta bhat (fermented rice) with green chili, all kinds of bhartas (mashes) starting with potatoes to tomatoes, sweet pumpkins, lentils, beans, shrimps and different types of fish, chutneys, shutki (bitters), authentic Bengali sweets, savoury snacks like fuchka, chotpoti and even traditional ice-creams, kulfi. Bigger cities find fairs and programmes in almost every locality.

Chhayanaut, an institution devoted to the propagation of Bengali culture, started celebrating the Bengali Nababarsha under the Ramna Botomul (a historic banyan tree) in 1967. Since the Liberation War of 1971, Pohela Boishakh has grown into a national festival for all Bangladeshis irrespective of religions. In Dhaka, the Pohela Boishakh procession begins from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. The students start taking preparation for the procession from days ahead. They make masks and banners and wear elaborate costumes. This is known as the festive Mangal Shobhajatra, translated procession showcasing good fortune. In 2016, this festivity organized by the Faculty of Fine Arts was listed as UNESCO cultural heritage. Specific roads around Dhaka city are decorated with white and red alpanas, elaborate designs made with rice flour mixed with water.

At the break of dawn on Pohela Boishakh, people gather at the Ramna batamul festival ground. The day starts with singing the famous Tagore song, “Esho he Boishakh*” along with many others. The whole day is spent in celebration. Radios and TV channels air special programs on the day too. People dressed in white and red and other colourful attire flock around the city. It is also observed as a national holiday and a fun-day for everybody.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

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3 replies on “Pohela Boishakh: A Cultural Fiesta”

Fairs in Eastern India are the true representation of the spectacular cultural heritage. In the mesmerising natural beauty of eastern India, the great fun and frolic that the fairs generate attracts tourists from different parts of the world to visit them. Myths, legends or events from the past are associated with the origin of each fair. Various activities in the fairs exhibit the rich heritage of the country.
https://www.indianetzone.com/67/fairs_eastern_india.htm

Liked by 1 person

Thanks for pointing out how borderless commonality of cultures weaves into all lores. What had been a composite whole till MacMahon and Radcliffe drew a line, were violenced into two separate zones. A piece like this would remind us not to call ourselves by names which were taken on after borders were drawn by colonials who never assimilated with the ‘natives’. The pity is we have not learnt our lessons from history and continue to separate ourselves from those who are just like us.

This piece is about the celebrations in Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh are two separate entities since 1947, though the cultures of the East remain the same as that of Bangladesh.

Liked by 1 person

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