Poyla Boishakh (Pohela Boishakh) is the first first day of the Bengali calendar, celebrated in Bangladesh and West Bengal, and in Bengali communities in Assam, Tripura and Orissa and all over India as well where there is the Bengali community.
In Bengali, Pohela stands for 'first' and Boisakh is the first month of Bengali calendar
Poyla Boishakh connects all ethnic Bengalis irrespective of religious and regional differences. In Bangladesh, it is a national holiday celebrated around 14th April according to the official amended calendar designed by the BangIa Academy.
In India, in West Bengal and Assam, it is a public (state) holiday and is celebrated in mid-April.
Bengali New Year is referred to in Bengali 'Noboborsho', from Sanskrit Novo (new) vara (year)) or 'First of Boishakh' (Bengali: Poyla Boishakh). 'Nobo' means 'new' and 'Borsho' means 'year'.
Boishakh is the first of the Bengali months. The term 'Pohela Boishakh' therefore, stands for the first day of the Bengali year and naturally refers to the festivity attached to this day as well. The celebration itself is called 'Borsho Boron Utsob' or 'Boishakhi Utsob' (the gala of Boishakh) which is held to welcome the Nobo Borsho (New Year).
It is one celebration that goes beyond geographical borders as the Bengali New Year is celebrated in Bangladesh and in the West Bengal of India making it the biggest cultural festival that has survived the last few centuries where Bengali of all walks of life come together to make it colourful, bright and joyous.
The story of the origin has a few versions. However, they all go back to one particular Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great and the tax colleting process under his reign (1556-1609). Several hundred years ago, the economy almost entirely depended on agricultural products. In Bengal, the agriculture necessarily revolved around its six seasons. Under the Mughals, tax was collected on the basis of Arabic or Hijri year that did not exactly go hand in hand with the seasonal cycle of this region. For instance, when it was time for the landowners to collect taxes, the peasants would still be waiting to reap their products from the fields.
This way, following a lunar calendar that Hijri year was based upon, proved inconvenient for all the parties involved. Realising the urgency of reformation in the existing year system, the emperor gave one of the many renowned scholars of his court, Fatehullah Shiraji the responsibility to make the necessary amendments. The new calendar was designed keeping the nature of all six seasons, their duration and contribution to the agriculture in mind. Some scholars argue that Pohela Boishakh was anything but a reason for festivity for the peasants who comprised the majority of the population when they had to payoff their taxes on the last day of Choitro, the month before Boishakh.
Besides, the landlords, to collect the taxes, often subjected the grassroot people to physical force. Such circumstances were most unlikely to leave people in a mood for festivity by the time the Pohela Boishakh was knocking at their doors. Despite having enough reasons for it to be the contrary, Pohela Boishakh was a time for celebration. To avoid any serious rebellion, Akbar introduced the masterfully crafted custom of the New Year celebration that took place right after the taxpaying day. The amusements and feasts that used to be arranged helped to smoothen the harshness of the tax paying and sow the hopes for a better year among all.
Pohela Boishakh celebration in Bangladesh did not receive a collective form until 1965. During the growing movement for independence from Pakistan that continued until the independence in 1971, the Pakistani government implemented many policies that were somewhat modified versions of the British 'Divide and Rule' policy. In other words, those policies were meant to differentiate the Bengali Muslims from others and avoid a strong, joint movement for independence. As a continuation to such steps, the government imposed restrictions on songs of the Nobel Laureate Poet Rabindranath Tagore. Then, Chhayanat, the only major Fine Arts institution of the time designed their cultural show for Pohela Boishakh to be a means of protest. The Pohela Boishakh that takes place under the Banyan tree of Ramna Park in Dhaka ever since was to open with Boishakhi songs by Tagore.
This way, Pohela Boishakh became one with the nationalist notions of the Bengali people who resided in the East Pakistan, known as Bangladesh today. Charukola Institute of Dhaka University enhanced the attraction of the day in the late 1980s by adding Boishakhi parade (Shobhajatra) so that a growing participation and acceptance is ensured. Soon, an attempt by a few hundred people to uphold the Bengali traditions and unify Bengalis while doing it, transformed into a national event.
In Bangladesh, the day begins before the break of dawn when crowd gathers in Ramna Park for the cultural show held by Chhayanat every year. Women mainly wear white shari with red border. Women adorn their hair with flowers and wear colourful churi (bangles) that symbolise the many colours and renewed life in nature. On the other hand, men mainly wear traditional panjabi with payjama, lungi or dhuti.
Mongol Shobhajatra is one of the biggest attractions of the day. Very early in the morning, the rally starts from the Charukola Institute of Dhaka University.
Boishakhi fair (mela) is arranged all over the country and continues for at least a week. There are a wide range of products and activities that make the fairs attraction to all age groups. From home accessories to anything and everything that speaks Bengali authenticity, find their way to here. One of the fun aspects of the Boishakhi Mela is the joy ride like the Merry-Go-Round and Ferris Wheel. The ones seen in this fair are different in that these are much smaller with a simpler structure made out of wood and bamboo and lacking engines to run them. In stead, two or more men stand beside these rides to push.
In the front yard and staircases, miniature alponas or rangolies, traditional designs, are drawn using bright colours like red, green, blue and yellow as well as powdered rice. Drawing gigantic alponas in the main streets and walls all nightlong is one fun activity where both male and female participate.
Halkhata is the ritual of closing the old ledger and opening a new one with new entries on Pohela Boishakh. Traders involved in gold, clothing or food business send out invitations to old customers and entertain them with sweets.
Rural sports such as nouka baich (boat race), kite flying, bull racing, and flying pigeons are among the more popular sports on the occasion.
Folk songs such as Palagan, Kobigan, Jarigan, Gombhira gan, Gazirgan, Baul, Marfati, Murshidi and Bhatiali songs are staged. So are Jatra (one kind of plays) and other form of Bengali performing arts. New Year's festivities are closely linked with rural life in Bengal. Usually on Pohela Boishakh, the home is thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned; people bathe early in the morning and dress in fine clothes. They spend much of the day visiting relatives, friends and neighbours. Special foods are prepared to entertain guests. This is one rural festival that has become enormously big in the cities, especially in Dhaka.
Many old festivals connected with New Year's Day have disappeared, while new festivals have been added. With the abolition of the zamindari system, the punya connected with the closing of land revenue accounts has disappeared. Kite flying in Dhaka and bun racing in Munshiganj used to be very colourful events. Other popular village games and sports were horse races, bullfights, cockfights, flying pigeons, and boat racing. Some festivals, however, continue to be observed; for example, boli (wrestling) in Chittagong and gombhira in Rajshahi are still popular events.
Observance of Pohela Boishakh has become popular in the cities. Early in the morning, people gather under a big tree or on the bank of a lake to witness the sunrise. Artists present songs to usher in the new year. People from all walks of life wear traditional Bengali attire ; young women wear white saris with red borders, and adorn themselves with churi bangles, ful flowers, and tip (bindis). Men wear white payjama, lungi, dhuti, long skirt, and kurta (tunic). Many townspeople start the day with the traditional breakfast of panta bhat (rice soaked in water), green chillies, onion, and fried hilsa fish.
Panta llish - a traditional platter of leftover rice soaked in water with fried hilsa, supplemented with dried fish (shutki), pickles (achar), lentils (dal), green chillies and onion - a popular dish for the New Year festival.
The most colourful New Year's Day festival takes place in Dhaka. Large number of people gather early in the morning under the banyan tree at Ramna Park where Chhayanat artists open the day with Rabindranath Tagore's famous song, 'Esho, he Boishakh, esho esho' (Come,O Boishakh, come, come). A similar ceremony welcoming the new year is also held at the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. Students and teachers of the institute take out a colourful procession and parade round the campus. Social and cultural organisations celebrate the day with cultural programmes. Newspapers bring out special supplements. There are also special programmes on Radio and Television.
Today, Boishakh celebrations also mark a day of cultural unity without distinction between class or religious affiliations.
Pohela Boishakh is really about celebrating the simpler, rural roots of Bengal. As a result, more people can participate in the festivities together without the context of class, religion, or financial capacity.
In Australia, the Bangla new year is celebrated in various cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra through Boishakhi melas (fairs) where people gather to celebrate the culture of the Bengalis through dances, fashion shows, stalls of art, music, clothing, food etc. However the largest celebration for the Bangla New Year in Australia is the Sydney Boishakhi Mela which was traditionally held at the Burwood Girls High School but from 2006 has been held at the Sydney Olympic Park. It attracts large crowds and is a very anticipated event on the Australian Bengali community calendar.
The festival is also celebrated in Sweden with great enthusiasm.
The Bengali community in the United Kingdom celebrate the Bengali New Year with a street festival in London. It is the largest Asian festival in Europe and the largest Bengali' festival outside Bangladesh.