Tracing back the celebration
Dr. Muntasir Mamun.
THE first day of the Bengali calender-year is celebrated as the New Year in Bangladesh. As Enamul Huq has written: "The first day of the festivities performed to mark the commencement of the New Year is actually a specific festival day."
One such day is the Bengali New Year. Its main characteristic is that it is not a festival of the Hindus or the Buddhists alone. It is universal in nature. In fact, festivals not related to faith but secular in character are rare in the world. Enamul Huq visualizes this universality in the collected prayer for rain when men and women long for the clouds during the hot Bengali calender-year (corrsponding to Mid-April to Mid-May). He writes-"Praying to the clouds for water is another popular ritual of he Bengali New Year."
Another aspect needs special mention. The majority of the Bangladesh population is Muslims. But their new year does not commence from the Ashura and nor is it sorrowful. In this respect, too, the celebration of the New Year in Bangladesh is quite unique.
The history of the Bengali New Year is not very old.
Most probably the celebration of the Bengali New Year is connected with the Bengali year. In Bengal, Emperor Akbar started the Bengali calender-year on 10 March, 1585, but it became effective from 16 March, 1586 the day of his ascension to the throne. The basis of the Bengali year is the Hejiri lunar year (Muslim era counted from the year of Muhammad's (SM) going to Medina in 622 AD and the Bengali solar year. The Bengali year was accepted even at the grassroot level. A possible reason for this may be that the basis of the Bengali year is agriculture and the beginning of the Bengali year is a time of collection of taxes from the farmers. For instance, the farmer does not plough the field even if it rains in Chaitra (the last month of the Bengali year and corresponding to mid-march to Mid-April. The fields are generally ploughed in the month of Baisakh (April-May) and the prayer for the rains is also because of this.
However, the common man still refers to the Bengali calender of his day to day activiites and the city-dwellers to the Juliun calender. In this context, Shamsuzzaman Khan hasrightly remarked that Akbar had once started the pan-Indian Islamic year as well as the Bengali year. "The introduction of Bengali year had not only survived but at one time had also given the unique power of nationalistic feelings and pride to the separated and divided mainly joint Bengali socity."
The New Year begins in different seasons in different countries of the world. The Bengali New Year is in summer. Summer is not a pleasant time in Bangladesh. Festivals and merriments are not as much possible in summer as during the beginning of winter or spring.
Many people believe that the Bengali New Year should have begun in the month of Agrahayan (the eighth month of the Bengali year and corresponds to Mid-November to Mid-December) even considering from the point of agriculture as Agrahayan is, for instance, the month of reaping. Yet New Year is celebrated in Baisakh. Pallab Sengupta writes: "The New Year is calculated either from Hemanta or late autumn (between autumn and winter) or spring, that is from the time when new crops, flowers and fruits start growing. This, at least, was the custom initially. Later, with the passage of time, it shifted to other seasons due to practical necessities. The custom of beginning the year from January 1 or Baisakh 1 is thus quite foolish."
But that mystery has not been unravelled. As our country is located in the Tropics the importance of summer in this region is natural. Moreover, the drying up of the canals, rivers and streams at that time and the acute crisis for water makes the tremendous changes in season easily felt. And then comes the Nor'westers like wild buffaloes throwing everything in complete disorder. The rains start immediately lowering the temperature and making the conditions favourable for ploughing.
In any country the principal festival has been organised with respect to the particular season which has gained importance there. Moreover, the minor seasonal festivals are also regularly held. Bengal has a unique position in this regard. It is clear that its main seasonal festival was in summer. Just as elsewhere in the world, the main seasonal festival have been considered as the New Year festival, the main summer festival of our country is likewise considered as the New Year festival. One feels that the devastating form of nature and the consequent creativity of nature and the consequent creativity of nature that one witnesses in Bangladesh, must have made summer and the summer festivals so important in our ancient culture. Otherwise the New Year celebration and festival of Bangladesh would have been greatly influenced by religion. Our country is largely inhabited by the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians but "no particular influence of these religions are observed in our New Year celebrations and festival."
During the last four hundred years, that is after the introduction of the Bengali year by Akbar, many festivals connected probably with agriculture and seasons have become associated with it. And the first of Baisakh gradully changed in this way to become the New Year. To the special features of the Bengali New Year that Enamul Huq has mentioned, we can add here that the Bengali New Year saw the addition of a new political dimension from the 60's of the present century. No season in any other country has such a political aspect.
In Bangladesh many secondary matters are linked with the New Year. Some of those have become obsolete while some still exist in certain special regions only.
However, the practice of opening fresh account-book is still in practice specially among the business class, On the New Year's day the businessmen complete the accounts of the past year. For this purpose many use a special type of ledger book bound in red-cloth called the Khero Khata. The customers are greeted with sweets on that day. Moreover many middle-class people of Dhaka buy sweets and have good food on the occasion of the New Year.
The most important function of Baisakh and the first day of Baisakh is the fair. The New Year fairs of our country are also nothing but the changed forms of the oldest 'seasonal festivals' and 'agricultural festivals' of Bangladesh. This is because local agricultural products and handicrafts are sold in these fairs even today. According to a survey, about two hundred fairs are organised throughout Bangladesh on the first day and the first week of Baisakh.
It has already been mentioned before that in Bangladesh celebration of the first day of Baisakh began as a part of the cultural movement and it added a new dimension to the political movements. During the regime of Ayub Khan in the late sixties, when attack was made against Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore Song) and the Bengali culture, the Chhayanat group organised a programme of Rabindrasangeet on the first of Baisakh under the banyan tree at Ramna to celebrate the New Year. It was a protest against religious fundamentalism. This endeavour by Chhayanat gradually became popular and in the perspective of the freedom movement the Bengali New Year was celebrated in a grand way as a protest against the ideology of the ruling class. After the independence of Bangladesh, the Bengali New Year was declared as public holiday. Thus with the celebration of the New Year at the grass-root level was added the endeavour of the urban people.
We may conclude that the only secular festival of Bangladesh, in every sense of the term, is the Bengali New Year. Its speciality lies in the fact that in spite of being the festival of a country where the majority are Muslims, it is not melancholic. Although the state has been successful in the other areas it has failed to incorporate the religious factor in this case. Moreover, the New Year still adds a new dimension to the movements against tyranny. Considering all these aspects we can refer to the Bengali New Year as a festival of the world which has rare characteristic.
Excerpts from the book, The Festivals of Bangladesh, by Muntasir Mamun.