Shubho Noboborsho, Happy New Year! Greetings to you ahead of Pahela Baishakh, the first day of the Bengali calendar year 1426, that is April 14.
My introduction to this day came at a young age, in the early 1950s, in the sleepy town of Gopalganj (Faridpur) in Bangladesh, where my father was posted as the Sub Divisional Officer. On that day, my siblings and I would be invited to different shops and business houses, and treated to an array of delectable sweets. My only regret was that my favourite sweet, jilebi, was never offered to us as it was not considered “high class”. We were told this ritual of offering sweets was a part of tradition, as halkhata (or new accounts books) were opened by tradesmen at the beginning of the new year, and customers were required to clear the past debts before the opening of the new book.
Curiously, the day was not a holiday — schools and offices would remain open. My mother explained that the Pakistani authorities refused to celebrate the day, ostensibly because it was not in line with “Islamic tradition”. Once we moved to Dhaka, I realised that there too, the celebrations on this day were rather low key. Pakistani authorities continued to suppress Bengali culture and traditions, but resilience is a part of the Bengali soul, so we kept on resisting.
Chhayanaut, a premier cultural body, set up in 1961, started popularising Bengali songs by organising various public events. There was enthusiastic public response, and they were inspired to organise a public musical event in Ramna Park on Pahela Baishakh of 1967, under the old Banyan tree or Botomul: That marked the beginning of the celebration of Bengali noboborsho in the capital city of Dhaka. The Pakistani authorities did not look at this development favourably, and various attempts were made to kill the initiative. The more they tried to suppress the indomitable Bengali spirit, the more fiercely we resisted and the crowd kept getting bigger every year.
Since there was so much controversy about our Bengali calendar during the Pakistani reign, I became interested and started digging through history books to find out the reasons. History tells us that during the Mughal rule of Bengal, land taxes were initially collected from the peasants according to the Islamic Hijri calendar, which was based on the lunar calendar and did not often coincide with the crop cycle or “Fasholi Shon”. Consequently, the peasants found it very difficult to pay taxes when it fell on the lean months. Emperor Akbar, being a pragmatic ruler, wanted a practical solution to the problem. Akbar’s objective was to collect taxes at a time when the peasants had crop at home and money in their pockets. He asked his royal astronomer, Fathullah Shirazi, one of the famous nine gems of his court, to create a new calendar by synchronising the lunar Islamic calendar with the solar Bengali calendar: The result was the creation of the Bengali calendar. Akbar introduced the new calendar 1584 AD, and named it Tarikh-e-Elahi, or the calendar of God.
Some historians believe that King Shashanka had introduced this calendar in the seventh century, and Shirazi had developed his Fasholi Shon or crop calendar on the basis of that calendar. Others opine that Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, Mughal governor of Bengal, was the first to use Akbar’s fiscal policy to start the Bengali calendar. Yet other historians, however, refuse to attribute the full credit to Akbar, underscoring the fact that there are evidences in various temples and scripts to suggest that the Bangabda or Bengali calendar, had existed long before Akbar. Whatever the origin, it is now established that the present Bengali calendar as introduced by Akbar remains, to this day, the basis for collection of land revenue in Bangladesh.
However, the Gregorian calendar, introduced by the British colonialists, still remains the sole official calendar of Bangladesh. The Bengali new year, based on the solar calendar, created a problem as Pahela Baishakh did not fall on the same day of the Gregorian calendar every year. The problem was resolved by a high powered committee headed by Muhammad Shahidullah in 1966, when they followed the Gregorian model by adding one extra day in the Bengali month of falgun every leap year. Since then, Bengali new year is celebrated every year on April 14 in Bangladesh. However, West Bengal and other Indian states, which have a significant Bengali population, do not follow this formula and they celebrate Bengali new year on 14 or on 15 April, depending on the solar cycle.
After the liberation of Bangladesh, the celebration of the Bengali new year received its due official recognition, and it is now a public holiday: People from all walks of life, irrespective of religion, celebrate with much fun and fanfare. Over the years, it has emerged as the biggest secular festival of Bangladesh where people can give expression to their cultural identity and heritage.
After independence, Bangladesh has seen a resurgence of Bengali cultural traditions and heritage. We are proud to have received international recognition (by Unesco) for some of them, too, like the observance of International Mother Language Day on February 21 and Mongol Shobhajatra on Pahela Baishakh. I may add here that Baisakhi celebration is not just a Bengali phenomenon: We see variations of Baisakhi in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. During my foreign service training days in Lahore in the late 1960s, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Baisakhi celebrations there — with Punjabis flying kites, men and women wearing colorful dresses, and ladies adorning their palms with henna to mark the onset of Basant or spring. Their celebration was not at all different in spirit to ours.
In Bangladesh, “Kal Baisakhi” or Nor’wester storms happen during this time, clearing all the dust and dirt that accumulates during the winter. Slightly paraphrasing Tagore’s words then, let us welcome Baisakhi — to clear our past sorrows, clean our world of heat and dust — and usher in a new year.
The writer is the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India