Shoobho Nobo Borsho! That’s how you would greet someone on Pohela Boishak. The festival marks the beginning of the harvest season for Bengalis, an ethnic community originating in Bangladesh and India. While the language they speak is what mainly distinguishes Bengalis, it is also their unique cultural traditions and cuisine which has a predilection for fish and sweetmeats which also brings them together. Pohela means first and Boishakh is the first month in the Bengali calendar. So it is also the Bengali New Year celebrations which fall on the 14th of April.
A colourful display of cultural pomp and revelry accompanies the celebrations in Bangladesh and in the Indian state of West Bengal. The festival is also celebrated in other parts of India where Bengali communities abound such as Assam, Tripura and Orissa. It is also celebrated by the Bengali diaspora in many parts of the world including the UK, Australia and the US. However, a visit to Calcutta in India or Dhaka in Bangladesh during the month of April provides one with a kaleidoscopic vision of the festivities which though it begins on the first day of Boishakh, the first month in the Bengali calendar, continues for almost a month.
Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh is bedecked not unlike a bride. Colourful processions with throngs of men and women dressed in their traditional attire mark the occasion. In Calcutta, a city in eastern India and the capital of the state of West Bengal, food, finery, flowers and fairs mark the festivities. The streets and public squares are festooned with colourful decorations that display traditional artistic handicrafts and creations.
How it all began
During the Mughal reign, agricultural taxes were collected annually according to the Hijri calendar, which follows the lunar cycle. Since it differed from harvest cycle, farmers were found it hard to pay taxes. To simplify the system, reigning Emperor Akbar had renowned scholar and astronomer introduce a new agricultural calendar, which was a combination of Hijri and Bangla solar calendar. Celebration of Pohela Boisakh thus began during this time. All dues and taxes had to be cleared up on the last day of the Bengali year. This is why celebrations are significant for business people and tradesmen as it signifies an auspicious time for new ventures.
A celebration that brings people together
Preparations begin much well in advance and include spring cleaning, buying new clothes for everyone and toys for children and even new account books by businesspeople. Buying new books to keep accounts is a longstanding tradition which is called Halkatha literally meaning beginning a new account. Most businesses endeavour to assiduously clear their accounts and settle all dues so that they can begin the New Year with a literally clean slate. Everything from houses to shops, vehicles and machinery is cleaned. Everyone dress up in their new clothes after a morning bath to partake in the celebrations.
The day begins with a ritualistic welcoming of the new year in the early hours of the morning where men, women and children of all ages gather and sing a popular song, Esho he Boishakh, Esho Esho (Welcome Boishakh, welcome) written by the Bengali Poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Public processions marked by colourful and loud displays of revelry and sound known as Probhat Pheri mark the mornings while the celebrations culminate in the evenings with folk music, dance and dramas enacted on stage. The Ramna Park in the heart of Dhaka in Bangladesh is the venue for the main fairs and festive celebrations of Pohela Boishakh. In India, the Nandan-Rabindra Sadan grounds, a public gathering place in Calcutta hosts the biggest melas or fairs.
Most Bengali men wear a white dhoti a garment tied around the waist and covering their legs and a white kurta, a loose-fitting long shirt or a body-hugging white vest in deference to the working clothes worn by farmers. Women are elegantly draped in the elaborate sari, with bright red and yellow colours printed on white. Red and white are apparently auspicious colours for Bengalis. Women also adorn their hair with white Jasmine flowers, their hands and feet are decorated with intricately drawn henna designs.
Food is a major part of the celebrations. Traditional Bengali cuisine is a visual as well as a tasty delight. Panta Bhaat, fermented rice served with Hilsa fish, eggplant and other spicy accompaniments is usually the traditional breakfast followed by or concluding with Pitha Payesh, a succulent sweet dish.
Decorative folk motifs adorn the entrance to houses and are also painted on the hands and faces of children and young women. These colourful floral motifs known as Alpona were traditionally drawn using rice flour mixed with water by the womenfolk on the floors and courtyards of residences and in public places. The Shostik or the auspicious Swastika symbol is evident in most parts of India where Pohela Boishakh is celebrated. Dance, music and colourful parades that feature large ornate, colourful artistic creations of birds, boats and other creatures are paraded to welcome the New Year. It is also an auspicious time for weddings and most Bengalis get married during the Boishakh month following Pohela Boishakh celebrations.