Bengali New Year Noboborsho or Poyela Boishakh is the first day of the Bengali calendar, celebrated in both Bangladesh and West Bengal, and in Bengali communities in Assam and Tripura. It coincides with the New Year’s Days of numerous Southern Asian calendars.
Poila Boishakh connects all ethnic Bengalis irrespective of religious and regional differences. In India, in West Bengal and Assam it is a public (state) holiday and is publicly celebrated in mid April. In Bangladesh, it is a national holiday celebrated around 14 April according to the official amended calendar designed by the Bangla Academy.
The Bengali calendar is closely tied with the Hindu Vedic solar calendar, based on the Surya Siddhanta. As with many other variants of the Hindu solar calendar, 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 in Mithila, Assam, Burma, Cambodia, Kerala, Manipur, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab, Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Thailand.
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 Bonggabdo or Bengali year.
Celebrations of Pohela Boishakh started from Akbar’s reign. It was customary to clear up all dues on the last day of Choitro. 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.
In Kolkata, Pohela Boishakh (and indeed the entire month of Boishakh) is considered to be an auspicious time for marriages. These day’s people wear new clothes and go about socializing. Choitro, the last month of the previous year, is the month of hectic activities and frantic purchases. Garment traders organize a Choitro sale and sell the garments with heavy discounts.
Pohela Boishakh is the day for cultural programmes. Prayers are offered for the well-being and prosperity of the family. Young ladies clad in white saris with red borders and men clad in dhuti and kurta take part in the Probhat Pheri processions early in the morning to welcome the first day of the year.
This day being auspicious, new businesses and new ventures are started. The Mahurat is performed, marking the beginning of new ventures.
Pohela Boishakh is the beginning of all business activities in Bengal. The Bengali Hindu traders purchase new accounting book. The accounting in the halkhata begins only after offering puja. Mantras are chanted and shostik (“Hindu swastika”) are drawn on the accounting book by the priests. Long queues of devotees are seen in front of the Kalighat temple from late night. Devotees offer puja to receive the blessings of the almighty.
On Pohela Boishakh various fairs are held in West Bengal. The most famous of these is Bangla Sangit Mela, held at Nandan-Rabindra Sadan ground. This fair is conducted by the Government of West Bengal.
New Year’s festivities are closely linked with rural life in Bengal. Usually on Pohela Boishakh, the home is thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned; people bathe early in the morning and dress in fine clothes. They spend much of the day visiting relatives, friends and neighbors. Special foods are prepared to entertain guests. This is one rural festival that has become enormously big in the cities, especially in Dhaka.
Boishakhi fairs are arranged in many parts of the country. Various agricultural products, traditional handicrafts, toys, cosmetics, as well as various kinds of food and sweets are sold at these fairs. The fairs also provide entertainment, with singers and dancers staging jatra (traditional plays), pala gan, kobigan, jarigan, gambhira gan, gazir gan and alkap gan. They present folk songs as well as baul, marfati, murshidi and bhatiali songs. Narrative plays like Laila-Majnu, Yusuf-Zulekha and Radha-Krishna are staged. Among other attractions of these fairs are puppet shows and merry-go-rounds.
Many old festivals connected with New Year’s Day have disappeared, while new festivals have been added. With the abolition of the zamindari system, the punya connected with the closing of land revenue accounts has disappeared. Kite flying in Dhaka and bull racing in Munshiganj used to be very colorful events. Other popular village games and sports were horse races, bullfights, cockfights, flying pigeons, and boat racing. Some festivals, however, continue to be observed; for example, bali (wrestling) in Chittagong and gambhira in Rajshahi are still popular events.
Observance of Pohela Boishakh has become popular in the cities. Early in the morning, people gather under a big tree or on the bank of a lake to witness the sunrise. Artists present songs to usher in the new year. People from all walks of life wear traditional Bengali attire: young women wear white saris with red borders, and adorn themselves with churi bangles, ful flowers, and tip (bindis). Men wear white paejama (pants) or lungi(dhoti/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.
The most colorful New Year’s Day festival takes place in Dhaka. Large numbers of people gather early in the morning under the banyan tree at Ramna Park where Chhayanat artists open the day with Rabindranath Tagore’s famous song, Esho, he Boishakh, Esho Esho (Come, O Boishakh, Come, Come). A similar ceremony welcoming the New Year is also held at the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. Students and teachers of the institute take out a colorful procession and parade round the campus. Social and cultural organizations celebrate the day with cultural programmers’. Newspapers bring out special supplements. There are also special programmers’ on radio and television.
The historical importance of Pohela Boishakh in the Bangladeshi context may be dated from the observance of the day by Chhayanat in 1965. In an attempt to suppress Bengali culture, the Pakistani Government had banned poems written by Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous poet and writer in Bengali literature. Protesting this move, Chhayanat opened their Pohela Boishakh celebrations at Ramna Park with Tagore’s song welcoming the month. The day continued to be celebrated in East Pakistan as a symbol of Bengali culture. After 1972 it became a national festival, a symbol of the Bangladesh nationalist movement and an integral part of the people’s cultural heritage. Later, in the mid- 1980s the Institute of Fine Arts added color to the day by initiating the Boishakhi parade, which is much like a carnival parade.
Today, Pohela Boishakh celebrations also mark a day of cultural unity without distinction between class or religious affiliations. Of the major holidays celebrated in Bangladesh, only Pohela Boishakh comes without any preexisting expectations (specific religious identity, culture of gift-giving, etc.). Unlike holidays like Eid ul-Fitr, where dressing up in lavish clothes has become a norm, or Christmas where exchanging gifts has become an integral part of the holiday, Pohela Boishakh is really about celebrating the simpler, rural roots of the Bengal. As a result, more people can participate in the festivities together without the burden of having to reveal one’s class, religion, or financial capacity.