Pohela Boishakh, or Bengali New Year, is the most significant cultural festival celebrated with great enthusiasm and vibrant mood across the country. The festival is called 'Noboborsho' or 'Borsho Boron Utshab'. It marks the first day of the Bengali first month, 'Boishakh' of the Bengali Solar Calendar. In Bangladesh, this festival is celebrated on 14 April, a national holiday. It is celebrated grandly in Bangladesh and West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, and worldwide by the Bengali community, irrespective of religious and regional differences.
Though the celebration of Pohela Boishakh is now a regular phenomenon, its history is not beyond debate. As per the folklore, the festival started during the reign of the great Mughal Ruler, Emperor Akbar (1556-1609). At that time, the economy of the country highly depended on agriculture. Moreover, the agricultural taxes were collected based on Arabic or Hijri year. Since the Hijri calendar was then lunar-based, it naturally did not match the agrarian solar year. It would certainly create a serious problem then. Because when it was time to collect taxes, the peasants would face extreme difficulties in paying the taxes out of season. Realizing this, Emperor Akbar changed the traditional tax collection system and formulated a new calendar so that taxpayers could pay their taxes smoothly in time. Indeed, it was a great initiative that Emperor Akbar took for the taxpayers then. Thus, Emperor Akbar introduced a new form of celebrating the Bengali New Year. However, this is the story in brief, so far behind the celebration of the Bengali New Year and how the Bengali calendar came into existence. Nevertheless, there are other stories regarding the history of the celebration of Pohela Boishakh (According to some historians).
In Bangladesh, the celebrations begin in the early morning when thousands gather under the banyan tree at Ramna Park (The Ramna Batamul) for the cultural show organized by 'Chhayanaut' (an institution devoted to Bengali culture) every year. The program starts with a rendition of Rabindranath Tagore's famous Pohela Boishakh welcoming song, "Esho hei Boishakh, esho, esho" followed by various cultural programs. A traditional colorful procession, Mangal Shobhajatra, is organized by the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka (Charukala) students. It is, in fact, such a unique festival where people from all walks of life take part in this glorious event. This festival's unique and artistic feature earned the recognition of a "Cultural heritage of humanity" by UNESCO in 2016.
To celebrate Pohela Boishakh with complete joy, people from every sphere meet at the colorful procession (Mangal Shobhajatra), traditionally greeting each other by saying 'Shuvo Noboborsho' which implies "Happy New Year". Besides, people also clean their houses and decorate their homes, yards, streets, and walls with traditional designs called 'Alpana' (as it's an old custom). On this particular day, people wear colorfully designed traditional attire, visit their friends and families to spend time together, and enjoy traditional and popular dishes such as; Panta Bhat (Watered rice), Ilish Bhaji (Fried Hilsa Fish), Dried fish, and many types of bhartas (Pastes) along with some other delicious items as well. These traditional festive food items are an integral part of this festival, without which the celebration's essence remains incomplete.
Along with the beginning of the Bengali New Year, Pohela Boishakh indicates the beginning of the new Bengali fiscal year. On the 1st day of the Bengali New Year, business owners start a new ledger (popularly known as "Halkhata"), clearing out the old one. Following the age-old customs, business people or traders offer sweets to their clients and warmly welcome their new and old customers to start businesses and transactions.
However, the main attraction of this centuries-old festivity is 'Boishakhi Mela' (Boishakhi Fair). It is held at different places throughout the country and continues for at least a week. Previously, the Mela (fair) was arranged on Chaitra Sankranti, the last day of the Bengali calendar. Then it used to be a month-long fair, but its pattern has changed. Now, Boishakhi Mela has become part and parcel of welcoming Pohela Boishakh in splendour. Different types of traditional products, agricultural goods, handicrafts, pottery, wooden furniture, toys, cosmetics, and various foods and sweets are sold at this fair.
Along with this, some other traditional events, including Circus, Puppet show, Jatra, Palagaan, Kabigan, Magic show, and so on, take place in different places in the country. Furthermore, some traditional rural sports are also held to celebrate this vivid occasion, including Nouka Baich (Boat race), Bull race, Kite flying, Cockfights, and many more. Furthermore, social media, Television channels, and cultural organizations arrange special programs enclosing Pohela Boishakh, and Newspapers also bring out special supplements on this occasion.
On the whole, the write-up attempts to unveil some vital aspects of Pohela Boishakh and how the festival deeply reflects our rural Bengali culture and traditions. Although things have changed over time, Pohela Boishakh still bears the testimony of our cultural heritage. Undoubtedly, Pohela Boishakh is one of those significant festivals that brings us a new dimension of joy and passion. At the same time, it unites everyone regardless of caste, creed, and community.
The contributor did her M.S. in Educational Psychology from the University of Dhaka, Dhaka.