Professor Anwarul Karim, Ph.D :
My first understanding of Noboborsho or Bengali New Year dates back as far back as 1943. I was then aged 6 year studying at Jhenida High School, Jhenidah. It was then a sub-division under Jessore district. My father was a government officer who worked in Hoogly, West Bengal during the British, and later was transferred to East Bengal in the department of Agriculture. I was taken to a shop by my father on the occasion of Pahela Baishakh or the first day of Bengali New Year. I was served with various types of sweets. The shop was well decorated by banana trees and leaves or branches of other kind of trees. It was a Hindu shop. Music came out from 'koler gaan' named as gramophone. I remember I heard a record sung by Kanonbala, 'chhonde chhonde duli anonde ami bono phul go/Basontikar konthe ami ...' 'Bosontophul ganthlo amar joyer mala/ boilo prane dokhin hawa / agun jala Bosonto phul ganthlo.' It was a kind of experience that never happened to me before. We had gramophone at our house and my father liked music and as such me too developed a kind of love for music from then. There was a big account book and its cover was red in color and another book also had a cover with red in color. I found my father signed the new account book. At that time I did not know why had he signed the book. I also saw him paying money. Later as I asked my father, he told me he had an account in the shop as he used to borrow food and other things from the shop and a fresh account has been made on Pahela Baishakh, the first day of the Bengali year, after he paid his old debts of the last year. He further said that such kind of transaction was called Haal-Khata, and this day, the first of Baishakh, the account has been closed and the unpaid money was realized and a fresh account has been made. The shopkeepers also made gifts to me. I was very excited. All these had been done ceremonially to maintain a good relation with the customer. In fact, such kind of practice suggests that Bangladesh had a communal harmony in the past.
The Mughal emperor Akbar established a new calendar based on the old Bengali calendar in 1584 to ease taxation. The Mughals used a techniqte, called 'Halkhata Mahurat' to collect taxes and from such kind of practice, the tradition of Haal Khata came into being. Haal Khata is a folk tradition that is over 430 years old. 'Haal' means updating and 'Khata' means ledger.
Haal Khata is a kind of festival which was celebrated throughout Bangladesh in a festive mood and traditional manner during the old days by the shopkeepers and traders on the Pahela Baishakh by opening a new ledger.
In the afternoon I was taken by my father to a nearby village and I found various kind of things, handicrafts, wood, cane and bamboo crafts, necessary for home-use. It was my first experience. It is a kind of village fair organized by village people belonging to trading community for marketing their products. These fairs have connection with Hindu religious festivals. I enjoyed Arong during Hindu Rathajatra and Chaitra Sankranti followed by Pahela Baishakh. There were various types of dolls. I noticed a good number of people-old and young, men and women visiting the place. In fact, Arong, as a village fair has its root among the peasant society of the non- Aryan period. These non-Aryans have village gods and goddesses - Shiva and Parvati. Durga was considered as the mother goddess. In the absence of formal religion, there appeared animism in peasant society. Necessity is the mother of invention. It had thus a necessity for marketing village products. In those days, Panchayets or village leaders used to organize such kind of village fair or Arong in rural areas. Even such type of Arong had its roots in tribal society.
Bioscope : Traditional country based entertainment
I also noticed a kind of display through a big box called 'Bioscope'.a kind of travelling movie video camera used in old days. It was very enjoyable thrilling experience fot me. Various colorful pictures were shown by a person who used to display them through a kind of narration and music sung by him.
In fact, Bioscope was a kind of device, used by folk people in old days for entertainment and was orally transmitted through generation.. In old days Baishakhi fair at Arong was delighted by the Bioscope projectors, on which photos of stars were moving and seen through hole by children.
Bioscope was loved by children and it was the best entertainer of the children at fair in old days, when the video games, play zones and computers were not invented. Children were mad after enjoying displayed pictures through Bioscope and Bioscope - wala's were the favourite passion for them at fair. Bioscope was taken as a kind of honor of the fairs in villages of Bangladesh at old times. With urbanization the device has stopped functioning an early movie projector of old time.
I also enjoyed Bioscope but I do not remember what things were shown to me then. In fact village fair in Baishakh was most enjoyable in those days. All were in festive food. I bought a flute. I found a kind of footwear, called 'khorom'. It was made of wood. My father bought one. In fact there were various kind of products and people bought those.
Bengali calendar and the observance of Pahela Baishakh
The Bengali New Year calendar of today was in fact introduced by the Mughol emperor, Akbar.More than two decades into his rule, the emperor Akbar, third in the Mughal line, had set up the calendar for people's use. It was a date which was fixed by him as the date for realising agriculture tax or rent from the farmers or the peasants. This calendar was introduced in the year 1584 AD according to Tarikh-e-Ilahi during the Emperor Akbar.
In the Historical Dictionary of the Bengalis by Kunal Chakrabarti and Shubhra Chakrabarti write : "The Mughal Empire was having trouble collecting land revenue since they followed the Islamic Hijri calendar. Given that the Islamic calendar is lunar, it did not coincide with the seasons, leading to much confusion.Akbar therefore asked his royal astronomer to devise a new calendar which merged together the Islamic calendar, the historical Bengali calendar (based upon a Sanskrit Astronomy text, the Surya Siddhant) and Akbar's own date of coronation. The last point might sound a bit pompous, but, as anyone who's seen the Mughal-e-Azam would attest to it.
The new calendar that was devised was a bit complex. Its first year, just like the Islamic calendar, was the date of the Hijra, Prophet Mohammad (Sm)'s emigration from Makka to Madina. From this year 1 to Akbar's coronation (in 1556 AD), the calendar ticks off the years as a lunar calendar. Up till here, the Tarikh-e-Ilahi and the Islamic calendar are in step: for both, Akbar's coronation occurs in the year 963. From this annum onwards though, things change - after all, it's a big year: the Emperor's coronation. From the coronation onwards, the years start to tick off as per the old traditional Bengali calendar, which was a solar one, and solves the problem of mismatched seasons.
A formula was therefore adopted in the following way : Islamic year at Akbar's crowning (963) + current Gregorian solar year (2015) - Gregorian solar year at Akbar's crowning (1556). This gives us 1422, the Bengali year as it begins today."
It his held that the 'Tarikh-e-Ilahi was introduced for the entire Mughal empire and, like the Deen-e-Ilahi, The present Bengali calendar became integral to both agriculture and the Hindu religion. Baishakh forms a key position in Hindu religion. As a result, it is interesting to note that when, say, Durga Puja dates will be calculated for the Bengali year 1422, the two events referenced (unknown to most Bengalis themselves) will be the migration of Prophet Mohammad (Sm) from Makka to Madina and Akbar's coronation."
Collection date of agricultural taxes : Bongabdo
Under the Mughals, agricultural taxes were collected according to the Hijri calendar. However, as the Hijri calendar is a purely lunar calendar, it does not coincide with the harvest. As a result, farmers were hard-pressed to pay taxes out of season. In order to streamline tax collection, the Mughal emperor Akbar ordered a reform of the calendar. Accordingly, Fatehullah Shirazi, a renowned scholar and astronomer, formulated the Bengali year on the basis of the Hijri lunar and Hindu solar calendars. The new Fasli San (agricultural year) was introduced on 10/11 March 1584, but was dated from Akbar's ascension to the throne in 1556. The new year subsequently became known as Bongabdo or Bengali year.Celebrations of Pahela Baishakh started from Akbar's reign. It was customary to clear up all dues on the last day of the departing year. On the next day, or the first day of the new year, landlords would entertain their tenants with sweets. On this occasion there used to be fairs and other festivities. In due course the occasion became part of domestic and social life, and turned into a day of merriment. The main event of the day was to open a halkhata or new book of accounts.
Pahela Baishakh and Hindu calendar
The present Bengali calendar is closely tied up with Akbar's reign. Surprisingly, it appears that this calendar also follows the Hindu Vedic solar calendar, based on the Surya Siddhanto. The Bengali calendar commences in mid-April of the Gregorian year. The first day of the Bengali year therefore coincides with the mid-April new year. The Hindus in Mithila, Assam, Orissa, Kerala, Manipur, Tamil Nadu, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand follow Hindu calendar.
King Shoshanko of ancient Bengal, who ruled approximately between 590 CE and 625 CE, is credited with starting the Bengali era. His kingdom encompassed West Bengal, Bangladesh and parts of Bihar, Orissa and Assam. The Bengali era is derived from the Hindu solar calendar, and it is based on the Surya Siddhanto and thus the beginning of the year falls on 14 April 594. It also takes into consideration the Gregorian calendar.
Hinduism is often described as a religion of fasts, feasts, and festivals.Each of the 12 months of the Bengali year have Puja and celebrations. In Bengal, Vaisakhi Puja is observed honoring the Durga, the mother goddess at the beginning of the New Year. To mark this day, the Hindus make Mongol shobhajatra and the womenfolk in rural areas use Mongol shonkho invoking the goddess Vaishakhi (Baishakhi) or the Mother Goddess on the entrance of their homes. The lower caste among the Hindus, however, invoke Shiva, instead of Durga for prosperity.
In the West Bengal, Bengali New Year celebration has ties to religious values as well. The entire month of Baishakh is considered auspicious. Therefore, the first day by itself is reason enough for festivity. For the Hindus, the day begins with Puja (religious ritual) followed by cultural shows. Because of its being considered auspicious, Baishakh is the month when most Hindu weddings take place in West Bengal and Bangladesh.
This year the celebration of the Bengali New year has special significance and importance. The world recognised Bangladesh as a country that celebrates the Bengali New Year with 'Mongol shobhajatra,' a unique event, quite unseen in the world. And UNESCO recognized it as a world heritage. Dhaka makes such kind of festive procession or Mongol shobhajatra as a symbol of prayer for peace and wellbeing for the people. The word, 'Mongol' refers to Mongol Kabyo of Bengali literature of Middle ages which is religious in nature. In Bangladesh it is secular in nature.
Of late, observance of Pahela Baishakh or Bengali New Year has become popular in the cities. Early in the morning, people come out of their houses to enjoy the first sunrise of the Bengali New year. Cultural organisations arrange colorful programme in different parts of the cities beside lakes or under trees. Chhayanot makes a big show at Ramna garden organizing musical soiree invoking and welcoming Bengali New Year, with the famous song, 'Esho, he Boishakh, Esho Esho' (Come, O Boishakh, Come, Come). People from all walks of life wear traditional Bengali attire: young women wear white saris with red borders, and adorn themselves with churi bangles, flowers, and tip (bindis). Men wear white payjama (pants) or 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. This is common man's food in villages. But this has become a part of modern dish on the occasion of New Year.
Panta Ilish - a traditional food, is generally eaten by rural people, particularly when they work in the field under the sun. It avoids sun-stroke.They eat green chilli, onion and raw pulse along with it.
Rice cooked and cooled and then is mixed with water overnight with water almost absorbed and then presented in the following morning as 'Panta-Bhat' in Bangla. In the peasant society, it is the morning meal, taken with pepper, green chilies, onion, and salt. Hilsha Ilish, also cooked overnight with or without vegetable. 'Panta -Bhat' may be taken with other kind of fish. Hilsha fish is very costly and expensive in Bangladesh and it is now beyond purchasing capacity of the poor farmers. It is, however, a very popular dish during the Pahela Baishakh festival in the cities or the first day of Bengali New Year. Such 'Panta Ilish' is freezed and served in the morning. There are various kind of cooking Hilsha and these are known as Ilishi maachhla, curry with ginger mustard garlic paste in tomato. Shorshe Ilish is a dish of smoked Ilish with mustard or corn oil. It is very popular in Bengali society.
Today, Pahela Baishakh celebrations also mark a day of cultural unity without distinction between class or religious affiliations. But some things which are included are Hindu religious-based. The Muslims become hesitant as these are offered to gods and goddesses. Muslims never worship nature. Nature serves human beings. Man is superior to nature. Nature brings fortune or plays havoc by the order of Allah. Baishakh is not powerful. Allah, Who has created Baishakh, is the Most Powerful.
The message is : Let the New Year bring better life, better moments, better future.
(Professor Dr. Anwarul Karim is a former Visiting Scholar, Divinity School, Harvard University (1985), presently, Pro Vice Chancellor, Northern University Bangladesh, Dhaka. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)