The smell of a large, new ledger mingled with that of attor or incense, being served various mishtis when you visit shops, especially jewelry and Old Dhaka shops, Pohela Baishakh or the Bengali New Year is replete with traditions and nuances throughout the Bengal region as well as South East Asia. Yet, eventhough as we enter 1425, most people are unaware of the Bengali dates or even the month of the year! So as people back home in Bangladesh buy new saris and stock up their kitchens for the Pohela Baishakhi celebrations, let us take a look at the journey of this date around the region.
Shashanka of the Gour dynasty (around 590-625 CE) is thought to have started the tradition of celebrating the new year and also acknowledging the sun changing its course or the vernal equinox. Nowruz, Easter, Passover, Pohela Baishakh, the end of March and April is a time of festivals and pays homage to all old cultures that heavily relied on agriculture and all its resulting traditions. Once the new year was settled in 594 CE, it remained a Bengali specialty until Emperor Akbar decided that a more efficient system to collect taxes was required. Thus, in 1584 CE Fathullah Shirazi, the royal astronomer combined both the lunar and solar calendars to create the Tarikh-e-elahi or the fasli son/bangabdo. In other texts, the Hussain Shahi Sultanate ruler of Bengal, Alauddin Husain Shah (1494–1519 CE), is attributed to the creation of this calendar yet all agree to Akbar making ordaining an official status to it. Yet, today we are distinctly unaware of the many ways our country celebrates this important agricultural change of season. Many of us would be surprised to hear of the bull racing in Mushiganj or the traditional wrestling known as ‘bali’ in Chittagong.
Water, flowers, the new food of the season and lots of colors, everything sounds familiar whether you are celebrating Songkran in Thailand, Puthundu in Tamil Nadu, Bihu in Assam or Pohela Baishakh in Bangladesh. A time when sins are washed away and a new beginning is welcomed and what better way than through flowers and colors! The Boisuk of Tripura people, Sangrai of Marma people and Biju of Chakma people together form Boi-Sa-Bi, the Chittagong Hill Tracts version of Pohela Baishkah. A hearty game of water throwing by mostly young people is enjoyed, to wash off the woes and troubles of the previous year. The same concept has travelled to Thailand where Songkran is celebrated with gusto and lots traditional rituals. Songkran mainly means Passover (very similar to the concept of the Christian Easter and Passover where the sun passes onto its new path/vernal equinox) and like the Thais, their neighbors in Laos follow rituals that embody their culture well. They pay respect to their elders by washing their hands with scented water while the raucous young even throw shaving cream or powder at each other to smell nice! Animals are set free and sand, which has a symbolic significance in the culture of Laos, is used to build images of the Buddha. In Nepal, the day starts off in the ancient capital of Bhaktapur, with people pulling a two-storied chariot called the Bhairav Nath Rath and then holding a tug of war between the North and South parts of the Kathmandu valley that invariably ends in festivities.
Pohela Baishakh is also of special importance to the Buddhist community as boishakh is the month when Gautama Buddha was born and the month begins with prayers and preparations for Buddha Purnima. The Assamese celebrate three important times of the agricultural year in a festival called Bihu. Thus three kinds of Bihu are observed, the Rongali Bihu, Kongali Bihu and Bhogali Bihu in mid-April (Spring equinox), October (Autumn equinox) and Bhogali Bihu in January (winter solstice) respectively. The Rongali Bihu is naturally in sync with Pohela Baishakh and as it is also considered a fertility festival, some of the dances on this day are rather sensuous, while agricultural fields are prepared for the new crop and a general feeling of festivities is in the air. Dishes consumed include various types of pithas and a combination of foods called the Jolpan which is the equivalent to our cha nashta.
It is the month of Chitterai for the Tamils and people don new clothes, much like we do in Bangladesh, while the South Indians of Kerala place the items they consider most auspicious near their bed so they can be the first things they see in the New Year. Gold jewelry, rice, coconuts, statuettes of their gods and maybe pictures of their children are all placed near the bed to welcome prosperity. Known as Pana Sankranti in Orissa, the day starts off with the flour of gram or beson with yoghurt and banana offered to the traditional Tulsi plant before being consumed by the people while the Deccans of South India call it Yugadi. This festival in Karnataka also acknowledges the fact that life comes with its bitter-sweet and sour moments( known as bevu bella in Kannada), hence a platter that symbolizes these elements is served. It contains neem buds/flowers for its bitterness, signifying sadness, jaggery for sweetness and happiness, green chillis for anger, salt for fear, tamarind juice signifying disgust and unripe mango for its tang, signifying surprise! Popular Ugadi dishes are Holige, which is boot or gram boiled with jaggery and crushed then stuffed into a roti and eaten with milk or ghee.
So whether you call it Puthandu Vazthukal in Tamil or Pohela baishakh, mid April arrives once more as the kalboishakhis rip through our cities preparing us for the new year. We wish all our readers a Shubho Noboborsho!