A gala day for Bengalees

Kazi Liakat Hossain
EVERYTHING under the sun looks gay and cheerful and colourful. As we celebrate Pahela Baishakh we remember that the Babylonians were in fact the first observers of New Year about 4,000 years ago. Celebration of the new year is the oldest of all holidays.

There is little doubt that the Bangla calendar that we follow today was introduced by the Muslims in this subcontinent. What is popularly known as Bangla Saal today saw the light of day through an ordinance promulgated by Akbar the Great, the renowned grandson of Zahiruddin Mohammad Babar, whose mother and father were descendents of Chengis Khan, a great Mongolian warrior, and Taimurlong respectively.

Since the month of Moharram coincided with the Bangalee month of Baishakh in 963 A.H., the month of Baishakh in Bengal was made the first month of the Bangalee Era instead of the month of Chaitra, which was the first month of the Shaka Era in the then Bengal.

It is an irony of fate that a few orthodox Muslims in our country, shrouded in ignorance, look down upon this Pahela Baishakh festival simply because they mistakenly consider it to be a festival of non-Muslim origin. The months of the new Bengalee Era (or Tarikhe-Elahi) were initially called Karwadin, Ardi, Vihisa, Khordad, Teer, Amardad, Shariar, Aban, Azar, Dai, Baham and Iskander.

Nobody knows for sure how and when we started calling the months Baishakh, Jaishtha, etc. It is presumed that those months, based on the names of stars, were derived from the Shakabda, which was introduced in 78 AD to commemorate the reign of the Shaka dynasty in this sub-continent. The star based names of the months were called Baishakh from the star known as Baishakha, Jaistha from Jaisthaya, Ashar from Shar, Sraban from Srabani, Bhadra from Bhadrapada, Ashwin from Ashwani, Kartik from Kartika, Agrahyan from Agraihan, Poush from Poushya, Magh from Magha, Falgun from Falguni and Chaitra from Chitra.

The celebration of Nabarsha, or Pahela Baishakh (first day of Baishakh), was introduced by Emperor Akbar the Great. The whole process started sometime in the 6th century but drew special attention when the Mughal Emperor Akbar started the Bengalee calendar year on March 10, 1585 on the advice of some of his courtiers. However, Baishakh as the first month of the Benglee calendar came into effect from March 16, 1586 — the day Akbar ascended the throne.

Later, this concept of the Bengalee year quickly spread throughout the Mughal Empire, particularly in the rural areas of Bengal. Bengalee peasants also used Baishakh as the month to start cultivation, and fields were generally ploughed during the period mid-April to mid-May.

It is a period of the year which heralds the arrival of summer, with severe dust-storms, dark skies in the northwest and violent “nor-westers.” I have always taken this period as a symbol of reawakening. It is as if nature takes her broom and cleans all the dirt and filth from the environment. One feels the change in the air. There is heat, humidity, fierce storms, rain and then freshness all around us. Pahela Baishakh has now evolved its own cultural connotations. On that day businessmen, particularly in the villages and mostly within the Hindu community, open special ledger books (haal khata). In Munshigonj, Bikrampur, it is called “Gadi Shaeed,” which is bound in red cloth and used for maintaining accounts. The whole process is called initiating the haal khata.

On that day, customers are offered sweets, rich food is cooked in every house. Pahela Baishakh is also associated with melas in some rural areas, particularly in Bikrampur. It is called goloya (fair), filled with local agricultural products, potteries, handicrafts, masks, kites, balloons, toys, flutes and whistles of all kinds for the children. Nearly two hundred and fifty fairs are organised throughout Bangladesh. Either on the first day of Baishakh or in its first week many urban centres, including Dhaka, the holding of book fairs and exchange of books as gifts, particularly books of poetry, mark the day.

This reflects the sentimental aspect of the Bangalee psyche. In the last few years younger people, particularly students, initiated the vogue of exchanging greeting cards, gifts, flowers and sweets. What a lovely way to start the year. In recent times, there has also been the revival of fun-parades, more on the lines of what is normally done in carnivals abroad. This parade is normally organised by students of the (IFA) Institute of Fine Arts of Dhaka University. It is led by mask-wearing participants and thousands of people, some carrying small children on their shoulders, join in this gala festival. Most women put on red and white saris, which have become a kind of new year symbol, and wear garlands of flowers. Many have their faces painted. Men wear pajamas and kurtas, which has also become a universal new year dress for men.

Despite the stormy aspect of the season, we Bengalees cheerfully look forward to welcoming the first day of Baishakh this year, as in earlier years. Pahela Baishakh happens to be unique in that it is participated in by all.

In Bangladesh, the Bangla new year is celebrated on April 14. In Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, people celebrate their new year around the same time. It is interesting that their new year festivities too coincide with April.

Kazi Liakat Hossain is Advisory Editor, The Economy.


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