Pohela Baishakh celebration in Dhaka, Bangladesh
|Official name||পহেলা বৈশাখ|
|Observed by||Bengali people|
|Type||Social and cultural in Bangladesh, a Hindu religious festival in India|
|Celebrations||Mangal Shobhajatra (processions), Baishakhi Mela (Fair), Gift-giving, Visiting relatives and friends, Songs, Dance|
|2017 date||Fri, 14th April (Bangladesh),|
Sat, 15th April (India)
|Related to||Vaisakhi, Vishu, Puthandu, Pana Sankranti, Sri Lankan New Year, Thai New Year, Cambodian New Year, Burmese New Year, Lao New Year|
Pahela Baishakh (Bengali: পহেলা বৈশাখ) or Bengali New Year (Bengali: বাংলা নববর্ষ, Bangla Nôbobôrsho), also called Pohela Boishakh, is the traditional new year day of the Bengali people. It is celebrated on 14 April as a national holiday in Bangladesh, and on 14 or 15 April in the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura and elsewhere by people of Bengali heritage, irrespective of their religious faith.
The festival date is set according to the lunisolar Bengali calendar as the first day of its first month Baishakh. It therefore almost always falls on or about 14 April every year on the Gregorian calendar. The same day is observed elsewhere as the traditional solar new year and a harvest festival by Hindus and Sikhs, and is known by other names such as Vaisakhi in central and north India, Vishu in Kerala and Puthandu in Tamil Nadu.
The festival is celebrated with processions, fairs and family time. The traditional greeting for Bengali New Year is শুভ নববর্ষ "Shubho Nabobarsho" which is literally "Happy New Year". The festive Mangal Shobhajatra is organized in Bangladesh. In 2016, the UNESCO declared this festivity organized by the Dhaka University as a cultural heritage of humanity.
In Bengali, Pahela (Bengali: পহেলা) stands for ‘first’ and Baishakh (Bengali: বৈশাখ) is the first month of the Bengali calendar (Bengali: পহেলা বৈশাখPôhela Baishakh). Bengali New Year is referred to in Bengali as Nababarsha (Bengali: নববর্ষ).
Mughal origins theory
During the Mughal rule, land taxes were collected from Bengali people according to the Islamic Hijri calendar. This calendar was a lunar calendar, and its new year did not coincide with the solar agricultural cycles. According to some sources, the festival was a tradition introduced in Bengal during the rule of Mughal Emperor Akbar to time the tax year to the harvest, and the Bangla year was therewith called Bangabda. Akbar asked the royal astronomer Fathullah Shirazi to create a new calendar by combining the lunar Islamic calendar and solar Hindu calendar already in use, and this was known as Fasholi shan (harvest calendar). According to some historians, this started the Bengali calendar. According to Shamsuzzaman Khan, it could be Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, a Mughal governor, who first used the tradition of Punyaho as "a day for ceremonial land tax collection", and used Akbar's fiscal policy to start the Bangla calendar.
According to Shamsuzzaman Khan, and Nitish Sengupta, the origin of the Bengali calendar is unclear. According to Shamsuzzaman, "it is called Bangla san or saal, which are Arabic and Parsee words respectively, suggests that it was introduced by a Muslim king or sultan." In contrast, according to Sengupta, its traditional name is Bangabda.
Some historians attribute the Bengali calendar to the 7th century king Shashanka. The term Bangabda (Bangla year) is found too in two Shiva temples many centuries older than Akbar era, suggesting that Bengali calendar existed before Akbar's time. It is also unclear, whether it was adopted by Hussain Shah or Akbar. The tradition to use the Bengali calendar may have been started by Hussain Shah before Akbar. Regardless of who adopted the Bengali calendar and the new year, states Sengupta, it helped collect land taxes after the spring harvest based on traditional Bengali calendar, because the Islamic Hijri calendar created administrative difficulties in setting the collection date.
Hindu origins theory
According to some historians, the Bengali festival of Pahela Baishakh is related to the traditional Hindu New Year festival called Vaisakhi, and other names, in the rest of India on or about the same dates. Vaishakhi is an ancient harvest festival of India, particularly the Punjab region. Vaisakhi, also spelled Baisakhi, is observed by both Hindus and Sikhs.
The new year festival in eastern and northern states of India is linked to Hindu Vikrami calendar. This calendar is named after king Vikramaditya and starts in 57 BCE. In rural Bengali communities of India, the Bengali calendar is credited to "Bikromaditto", like many other parts of India and Nepal. However, unlike these regions where it starts in 57 BCE, the Bengali calendar starts from 593 CE suggesting that the starting reference year was adjusted at some point.
According to Salil Tripathi, many Hindu traditions and customs continue among Bengali people regardless of their current faith. Many Muslim Bengali women, states Tripathi, wear saris, bindi (a mark on their forehead, religious to Hindu women), celebrate pujo (prayers) to Hindu goddess Durga, and usher in Poyla Baisakh to celebrate Bengali new year. This is a part of the tolerance and borrowing of mutual cultural traditions amongst Bengali, according to Tripathi.
The current Bengali calendar in use in the Indian states is based on the Sanskrit text Surya Siddhanta. It retains the historic Sanskrit names of the months, with the first month as Baishakh. Their calendar remains tied to the Hindu calendar system and is used to set the various Bengali Hindu festivals. For Bengalis of West Bengal and other Indian states, the festival falls either on 14 or 15 April every year.
In Bangladesh, however, the old Bengali calendar was modified in 1966 by a committee headed by Muhammad Shahidullah, making the first five months 31 days long, rest 30 days each, with the month of Falgun adjusted to 31 days in every leap year. This was officially adopted by Bangladesh in 1987. Since then, the national calendar starts with and the new year festival always falls on 14 April in Bangladesh.
The Bengali New Year is observed as a public holiday in Bangladesh. It is celebrated across religious boundaries by its Muslim majority and Hindu minority. According to Willem van Schendel\n" and Henk Schulte Nordholt, the festival became a popular means of expressing cultural pride and heritage among the Bangladeshi as they resisted Pakistani rule in the 1950s and 1960s.
The day is marked with singing, processions, and fairs. Traditionally, businesses start this day with a new ledger, clearing out the old. Singers perform traditional songs welcoming the new year. People enjoy classical jatra plays. People wear festive dress with women desking their hair with flowers. White-red color combinations are particularly popular.
Bangladeshi eat festive foods on Pohela Boishakh. These include panta bhat (watered rice), ilish vaja (fried hilsa fish), and various special bharta (pastes).
The celebrations start in Dhaka at dawn with a rendition of Rabindranath Tagore's song "Esho he Baishakh" by Chhayanat under the banyan tree at Ramna (the Ramna Batamul). An integral part of the festivities is the Mangal Shobhajatra, a traditional colourful procession organised by the students of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka (Charukala). According to the history, the rudimentary step of Mangal Shobhjatra was started in Jessore by Charupith, a community organization, in 1985. Later in 1989 the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka arranged this Mangal Shobhajatra with different motives and themes. Now, the Mangal Shobhajatra is celebrated by different organization in all over the country.
The Dhaka University Mangal Shobhajatra tradition started in 1989 when students used the procession to overcome their frustration with the military rule. They organized the festival to create masks and floats with at least three theme, one highlighting evil, another courage, and a third about peace. It also highlighted the pride of Bangladeshi people for their folk heritage irrespective of religion, creed, caste, gender or age.
In recent years, the procession has a different theme relevant to the country's culture and politics every year. Different cultural organizations and bands also perform on this occasion and fairs celebrating Bengali culture are organized throughout the country. Other traditional events held to celebrate Poila Boishakh include bull racing in Munshiganj, wrestling in Chittagong, boat racing, cockfights, pigeon racing.
Pahela Baishakh celebrations in Chittagong involves similar traditions of that in Dhaka. The students of the fine arts institute of Chittagong University brings the Mangal Shobhajatra procession in the city, followed by daylong cultural activities.
At DC hill, a range of cultural programmes are held by different socio-cultural and educational organisations of the city. The Sammilito Pohela Boishakh Udjapon Parishad holds a two-day function at the hill premises to observe the festival, starting with Rabindra Sangeet recitations in the morning. In the late afternoon, through evening, Chaitra Sangkranti programme is held to bid a farewell to the previous year.
At the Chittagong Shilpakala Academy, different folk cultures, music, dances, puppet shows are displayed.
Bengali people of India have historically celebrated Pohela Baishakh, and it is an official regional holiday in its states of West Bengal and Tripura. The day is also called Naba Barsha.
Like the new year day in the rest of India, Bengali families clean their house and decorate them with alpana (rangoli). In the center of the alpana color pattern, they place an earthen pot, filled with water, capped with mango leaves and marked with auspicious Hindu red and white swastika sign. Ganesha – the god of auspicious beginnings, and Lakshmi – the goddess of prosperity and wealth are remembered. Many people visit the nearby river to say their prayers and take a ritual bath.
Notable events of West Bengal include the early morning cultural processions called Prabhat Pheri. These processions see dance troupes and children dressed up with floats, displaying their performance arts to songs of Rabindra Nath Tagore.
Tripura and northeast India
Pahela Baishakh is a state holiday in Tripura. People wear new clothes and start the day by visiting Hindu temples. The day marks the traditional accounting new year for merchants. The Hindu Bengalis perform Kumari puja and Ganesha puja, youngsters visit elders to seek their blessings, and women put red sindoor (vermilion) on each other's head as a mark of good wishes. Festive foods such as confectionery and sweets are purchased and distributed as gifts to friends and family members.
The festival is also observed by the Bengali communities in other eastern states such as Assam.
Pahela Baishakh has been the traditional Hindu New Year festival in the West Bengal state, with the new year referred to as the Naba Barsha. The festival falls on April 14 or 15, as West Bengal follows its traditional historic Bengali Hindu calendar, which adjusts for solar cycle differently than the one used in Bangladesh where the festival falls on April 14.
Bengalis mark the day by taking a dip in rivers, then praying to Lakshmi and Ganesha. Traders start a new accounting year. Opening the accounting books is called Hal Khata. Some open the first page by drawing the Hindu symbol of auspiciousness called swastika. Some shopkeepers print goddess calendars with their address, and distribute them to their clients. In some regions, festivities begin a few days before, with music and dance performances.
Celebration in other countries
Main article: Baishakhi Mela
Bangladesh Heritage and Ethnic Society of Alberta in Canada celebrates its Heritage Festival (Bengali New Year) in a colorful manner along with other organizations. Bengali people in Calgary celebrate the day with traditional food, dress, and with Bengali culture.
The Pohela Baishakh new year day is celebrated elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent but called by other names. For example, it is called Vaisakhi by Hindus and Sikhs in north and central India, which too marks the solar new year. The same day every year is also the new year for many Buddhist communities in parts of southeast Asia such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, likely an influence of their shared culture in the 1st millennium CE. Some examples include:
- Rongali Bihu in Assam
- Juir Sheetal in Mithila
- Bikram Samwat / Naya Barsh in Nepal
- Puthandu in Tamil Nadu
- Vaisakhi in central and north India
- Vishu in Kerala
- Vishuva Sankranti in Odisha
- Aluth Avuruthu in Sri Lanka.
- Songkran in Thailand
- Chol Chnam Thmey in Cambodia
- Songkan / Pi Mai Lao in Laos
- Thingyan in Burma
However, this is not the universal new year for all Hindus. For some, such as those in and near Gujarat, the new year festivities coincide with the five day Diwali festival. For others, the new year falls on Ugadi and Gudi Padwa, which falls a few weeks before Puthandu.
"Swagatam", (English: Welcome) a Bengali word.
Bangladeshi children with Pahela Baishakh placard
Bangladeshi girls wearing traditional sari with flower crown on Pahela Baishakh celebration in Chittagong, 2016.
Bangladeshi girl with flower crown at Pahela Baishakh celebration in Chittagong. 2016.
Art competition at Pahela Baishakh celebration in Chittagong, 2016.
"Shubha Nababarsha", in Bengali; English meaning Happy New Year.
Pahela Baishakh Celebration by the Women Association, Abudhabi, UAE
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“Esho, he Boishakh, Esho Esho. Come, O Boishakh, Come, Come”
– Rabindranath Tagore
Growing up in a home filled with the rich culture of my Muslim and Bengali heritage, I was fortunate enough to take part in multiple New Year celebrations. Every year, April 14 celebrates the arrival of the Bengali New Year or Pohela Boishakh, part of a unique calendar system determined by the seasons. It’s one of my favorite holidays, filled with a blend of colorful traditions and communal reflection. My relatives back home in Bangladesh celebrated the holiday with elaborate festivities that include going around town visiting family and friends, dressing up in traditional garb, and attending parades showcasing talented Bengali artists and performers. Here in America, the celebrations are not quite as elaborate but the traditions are kept alive within the Bengali community. Here are three things that are always a must in my home:
- Punjabis and Red and White Saris
During the holidays, we typically show off the snazziest fashion trends from South Asia. On Pohela Boishakh, however, it’s customary for women to wear simple traditional white saris rimmed with red and for men to don the Punjabi. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, my friends and I exchange saris as gifts so they’re extra special!
2. Panta Bhat and Illish Maas
There’s no end to the delicious savory and sweet treats on this day but a simple dish of Panta Bhat (rice soaked in water and salt) and Illish Maas (fried Hilsa fish) are staple meals to share with the family. It goes really well with pickled Mango Achar! This type of food is a reminder of our agricultural roots and the sustenance provided by the natural world around us.
- Reading Rabindranath Tagore
My love of literature stems from a heritage that places significant value on the arts. Bengalis boast an array of writers, poets, artists, and performers, most notably poet Rabindranath Tagore, the first non- western author to be awarded the Nobel Prize. On this day the Daiyan family revisits his timeless song, “Esho, he Boishakh”, by doing a reading as a family and reflecting on the words that pay tribute to the earth.
Pohela Boishak is a celebration of Bengali roots and culture, unblemished by modernity. It asks that no matter where we are, we should seek to gather, reflect, and marvel at the coming of a promising New Year. Today I encourage you to celebrate Bengali culture with me by reading Yasmin’s Hammer, a beautiful moving story set in Bangladesh with illustrations that capture the sights and smells that engulf you as you walk the streets of my country.
As we say in Bengali, Shubho Noboborsho (Happy New Year)!
Mitul Daiyan is a former LEE & LOW intern who recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School.
Further Reading: Check out these great children’s books about Bangladesh!
by Ann Malaspina, illus. by Doug Chayka
Yasmin works at a brickyard in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but dreams of going to school. One night she has an idea–a secret plan that will bring her one step closer to making her dream a reality.
Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank
by Paula Yoo, illus. by Jamel Akib
A picture book biography of Muhammad Yunus, who created the innovative concept of microlending to help eradicate extreme poverty in his country of Bangladesh. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work.