The secular spirit of Pahela Baishakh

The Daily Star  April 14, 2021

A look into the history of the Bangla New Year can tell us how Pahela Baishakh is rooted in all the different traditions and faiths of this diverse land

Let us think about the origin of the Bangla Noboborsho—how it evolved through the years and what the current status of this Noboborsho is. The way we celebrate our new year is quite different from the way other nations of the world celebrate it, which is only natural, given that different nations live in different geographical locations and environments.

The phrase “Bangla Noboborsho” (Bangla New Year) is synonymous with “Pahela Baishakh” (the first day of Baishakh) now. It took thousands of years for these two terms/phrases to become synonymous with each other. Noboborsho used to be celebrated as a seasonal festival in ancient societies, whereas Pahela Baishakh used to be celebrated as an agricultural festival by the non-nomadic people. In ancient times when people followed a nomadic lifestyle, they used to celebrate seasonal festivals according to the change of seasons. When people invented agricultural science, they settled down. They started to live in one place permanently as they had to sow seeds and harvest at the right time of the year. They then learned that 12 moons made one year. Basically, Baishakh, Jaishtha, etc, are lunar months.

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What is notable here is that in different parts of the world, the new year used to be celebrated in different seasons. In some places, the new year would be celebrated in winter, while in other places it would be celebrated in spring or autumn, based on the importance of the season to that particular place. Moreover, small seasonal festivals would be held on a regular basis. It is easily understandable that the main seasonal festival of the Bengal region used to be celebrated in summer. And all over the world, the main seasonal festivals of the year have turned into the new year festival. The same may have happened here. What I think is, in Bangladesh the havoc wreaked by the Kalboishakhi (nor’wester), followed by the new creation of life in nature, compelled us to accept the dominance of summer in our life. If not, there would be religious influences on our new year celebrations as our country is inhabited by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and many Indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, we don’t see any such influence on our new year festivals.

Some may say that the occasion of halkhata is influenced by religion. It has been observed that a religious shostibachon is usually written on top of the halkhata. While a Muslim businessman writes “Elahi Bharosha”, a Hindu person writes “Nomo Goneshay Nomo”. Similarly, a Buddhist writes “Budhdhong Shoronong Gochchhami…..” while a Christian draws a crucifix. But that does not mean this occasion is influenced by any religion. This shostibachon is only an expression of one’s personal religious belief.

Although at present, halkhata has become a business-related occasion, it was originally related to agriculture. In ancient times, business was done based on a reciprocal relationship. A household head would keep some of his agricultural produce for his family’s consumption and trade the rest with others. He would keep count by tying a knot in the rope, or by accumulating rocks. Halkhata is a derivative of this.

There was also an occasion called Punnah, which is not in practice nowadays. It was a lively event in which taxes would be collected and the Zamindar and his subjects would meet and exchange pleasantries. This occasion was entirely based on agriculture as there was no other way for the farmers to pay tax if the harvest was not good. Needless to say, at the beginning the farmers would pay taxes with their produce, and later it was done through the use of coins. No religious rituals were related to this occasion. Here, I want to mention the Sanskrit word bohubreehi [the person who harvested bohu (much) breehi (paddy)]. The phrase dhaner jamidar can be mentioned here as well.

Another agriculture-based occasion was gorur dour (cow race), which is now extinct. On Pahela Baishakh or Bangla Noboborsho, this race would be arranged in Munshiganj of Dhaka. There was no religious element in this event either. In southern India, such an event still takes place.

The seasonal and agricultural festivals of the country have evolved into fairs of the new year. Agricultural products and handicrafts are sold in these fairs. It should be noted here that although most of the fairs of the world are influenced by religions, religions have not yet had any influence on our fairs.

The Gomveera, held both in India’s Maldaha and Pakistan’s Rajshahi, is an exclusive occasion of the new year. Speaking about the origin and evolution of Gomveera, Pundit Haridash Palit said that it is an evolved form of Gajon of Shiva. Because in these songs by addressing bhola (Bholanath is equal to Shiva), the singer depicts the stories of happiness and woes of the people. But one thing Haridash Palit didn’t notice is that Shiber Gajon is held on the day of Chaitra Shangkranti, the last day of the Bangla month Chaitra, not in Baishakh. Neither did he say anything about why the occasion of Gomveera takes place throughout the month of Baishakh.

The Muslims believe that bhola is not Shiva or Bholanath. According to them, bhola is the person who has forgotten and ignored all his responsibilities and thus brought misfortune to people. The Muslims say that Gomveera is Saltamamir Gan, which depicts the distresses of the bygone year and wishes of preventing such sad events in the future.

Bangla Noboborsho is an ancient tradition of this country. Through the festivals of Pahela Baishakh, the people of this country have kept their traditions alive. Singing, dancing, feasting, etc, are the common features of any festival, be it ancient or new. Although in this modern age, some features of this festival have changed, the basics of this festival remained the same. So the Bangla Noboborsho is a seasonal as well as an agricultural festival. But this festival is, in no way, related to any religion.

 

This is an excerpt of Dr Muhammad Enamul Haque’s article titled “Bangla Naboborsho ba Pahela Baishakh”, translated by Naznin Tithi (Source: Bangladesher Utsab: Nababarsha, edited by Mobarak Hossain and Kutub Azad, published by Bangla Academy). This article was originally published on April 13, 2015 in The Daily Star’s Noboborsho Special Supplement.

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