New Year celebrations are an old tradition among various civilisations. Initially, the years were calculated according to the moon. As the nomadic people began settling down following the invention of agriculture, it was important to know the perfect time for sowing crops and harvesting. Marking the first day of a new year was inseparable in that agrarian society.
Life was in close connection with nature then and the rituals were connected to seasons. Most of the civilisations celebrate the New Year with rituals stirring hopes, messages of rebirth. There are few exceptions. The Islamic calendar starts with the sad and solemn observation of the Karbala tragedy of Muharram.
The rituals reflect the common dream, aspiration and goals of a society. However, with the change of the production of means, rituals too undergo changes. Rituals during the Bengali New Year have also undergone a sea change. The rural festival has turned an urban celebration now. The rituals associated with the closely knit rural communities have assumed a more formal tone.
In different areas of Bangladesh, there were different rituals that are no longer celebrated. People used to look at the sky and pray for rain on the first day of a New Year. Sometimes they would sing 'Allah Megh De, Pani De, Chhaya De Re Tui” (Allah, give us cloud and rain and shade).
In some areas, the priests would predict the floods, rain and the nature of harvest. It was crucial as people were dependent on rain for farming. A member from each of the families in the villages would attend a spot with a whole fruit. They would listen to the foretelling and honour the priest with the fruit. It was deemed auspicious to listen to such predictions.
Punyaho is another ritual no longer in existence. It was the ceremony of collecting tax. The subjects of the zeminders would put on their best clothes and visit the landowner's place to pay taxes. The word 'Punyaho' literally means the perfect hour marked by the priest to perform an auspicious task. There is no zeminder system or Punyaho anymore.
Researcher Muhammad Enamul Haque referred to another ritual of 'Amani' that was observed in some parts of Bengal. He quoted renowned filmmaker Khan Ataur Rahman who said during this ritual, the elder woman of the house would place rice into an earthen pot full of water. A mango twig was placed in the rice which was let to soak overnight. In the morning, all the members of the family would feast on the soaked rice and the woman would sprinkle the water of the mango stick on everyone. They believed, this would dispel the bad and welcome the auspicious in the New Year.
'Amani' was observed by the farmers in some parts of Chattogram too. Before going to the fields, farmers used to eat some rice with cold water. They believed doing this on Pahela Baishakh would keep their body cool while working. Besides, mashed green mangoes were often eaten in the rural areas.
Bull racing in Munshiganj and kite flying in Dhaka are two colourful festivals no longer in existence. In the 60s, 'aarong' or 'mela' (local name for fair) became a popular festival across Bangladesh. Often continuing for days, these were hubs for local potteries and handicraft goods. A big famous 'mela' was held at Nek-Mordan, Dinajpur.
New rituals have replaced the old ones as well as the old dates too. A committee led by Muhammad Shahidullah in 1963 proposed to modify the Bengali calendar to synchronise with the Gregorian one. The recommended calendar was adopted in 1988. Since then, Pahela Baishakh in Bangladesh is observed on 14 April each year.
The procession of Mangal Shobhajatra which has been recognised by the UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2016 was initiated by a Jashore art research institute, Charupith, around 1985. In 1989, the Charukala Institute (Fine Arts Institute) of Dhaka University held the Mangal Shobhajatra (auspicious procession) on the campus to inspire people to resist the then autocracy. The procession has since been held every year. Colourful masks and paper maché models of fish, birds, and animals are the centre of attraction in the mass procession.
1. Bangla Nababarsha Ba Pahela Baishkh by Muhammad Enamul Haque
2. Bangladesher Utsav, Muntassir Mamoon