Bangladesh, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary

Origin of Bengali Calendar and the celebration of ‘Noboborsho’

cc614c7fe3b876a539e58a314e7a94c5[1]Only three more days to go before another Bengali New Year (also known as Noboborsho), year 1425 on the 14th of April 2018, ushers in sweeping away the misery and pain of the past year. Welcoming the Noboborsho (also known as Pohela Baishakh i.e. the first of the Bengali month called Baishakh) is a very joyous occasion in Bengali culture and it is very much steeped in tradition. That tradition overrides any religious divide, narrow sectarianism and tribalism.

The day normally starts with boys and girls, men and women, all waking up early in the morning before the sun-rise. They are all dressed in bright colourful outfits and women are donned in bright yellow saris and garlands in their hair. The women carry garlands in their hands as they walk the streets, as if to offer garlands to the exalted souls of the New Year and they chant Noboborsho-welcoming songs. As the sun rises, they would welcome the new day ushering in the new year and pray in songs and kirtons that the new year will bring peace, prosperity and happiness. The procession of men and women in convivial mood continues throughout the day and in the evening, there are theatre stages where songs (mainly Tagore songs), plays, dramas etc. are presented.

The Noboborsho (New Year) is not just the beginning of a year in Bengali tradition, it is the beginning of a new chapter, a new undertaking in life. In olden days (before the creation of Pakistan), the Noboborsho would also see the beginning of a new book – a business ledger – for the traders, small businesses or even professionals such as teachers, doctors, engineers etc. For them the new book was like a diary where past experiences, present accomplishments and future aspirations are all depicted. And, as usual, no big occasion in Bengal would go without distribution of sweets!

There used to be a Ponjika – a short printed book giving major events of the next one year and guiding people through thick and thin of their lives. Altogether, Noboborsho is the culmination of the past year and the beginning of a new year, both of them are of equal significance.

This tradition stretching back centuries was temporarily interrupted by the new state, Pakistan, which was created in 1947 on the basis of religious doctrines. Since the Bengali language and culture evolved over the centuries in the land where Hindus and Muslims (as well as Buddhists, Jains and so forth) lived side by side, Islamic fundamentalists of Pakistan felt threatened by this long-held tradition. They insisted that Bengali language, Bengali tradition are all Hindu tradition and Muslims of Bangladesh should avoid, indeed boycott, these things and become ‘true Muslims’ by adopting Pakistan’s Urdu language. For the Bengali Muslims, it was like tearing up the age-old tradition and identity for the sake of imported religion. This conflict eventually led to the breakup of Pakistan and thence Bengali Muslims reclaimed their tradition and identity now.

Even now, nearly fifty years after the creation of Bangladesh on the basis of language and culture, there are strident calls by the over-jealous Islamists within the country to stop celebrating Bangla Noboborsho on the plea that it is anti-Islamic and blatantly Hinduism. Even the Bengali Calendar is viewed as anti-Islamic practice. These religious bigots preach things without any shred of knowledge and understanding.

The view that Bangla Noboborsho and Bangla calendar are imports from Hindu culture to Muslim Bangladesh is not only blatantly communal and racist, but also grossly misconceived. This assertion on the basis of religious bigotry could not be farthest from the truth.

Let me give a brief background of the history of Bengali Calendar and how the 14th of April came to be used to usher in the Noboborsho, 1425 BS (Bangla Sôn).

The third Mughal Emperor, Muhammad Akbar (also reverentially addressed as Akbar the Great), was a great reformer and instrumental in promulgating a new Bengali Calendar after modifying the then existing calendar. He did so in order to facilitate the administrative procedures and to fix a firm tax collection date in Bengal.

At that time, the calendar that used to be utilised was known as Tarikh-e-Elahi, which followed the Islamic lunar calendar. The lunar year consists of twelve months, but has 354 or 355 days (following 12 lunar rotations round the earth). Thus, there is a drift of about 10 or 11 days every year between the lunar and solar (Gregorian) calendars. That created a major practical problem. A fixed date for the collection of taxes from the farmers and peasants, normally set at the end of a harvest period, gradually came forward by about 11 days every year and fell out of season.

That meant that whereas a tax collection date might have been originally fixed after the harvest period gradually drifted forward and became a date prior to the harvest after just a few years. That created immense misery to the farmers to pay taxes before the harvest! Realising this serious practical problem, Mughal Emperor, Akbar along with the royal astronomer, Fathullah Shirazi developed the Bengali calendar. It was a synthesis of Islamic lunar calendar and the modern solar calendar.

The year Akbar took over the reign of the Mughal Empire was 1556 AD (Gregorian Calendar). That year in Islamic calendar was 963 AH (Anno Hegirae). He promulgated that a new calendar would be started on the 1st of Muharram (which is the first month of the Islamic Calendar) in that year of 963 AH. Following that system, the year would follow the solar year (365 days) and so no mismatch between the new calendar and the seasons would arise from that time. That calendar came eventually to be known as the Bangla Calendar with Bangla months such as Boishakh, Jyoishto etc. assigned to it.

However, that calendar was slightly revised during the Pakistan days by a committee headed by Dr Mohammad Shahidullah under the auspices of the Bangla Academy in 1966. That revised version (when 14th April was fixed as the beginning of the year) was adopted officially in Bangladesh in 1987. That is the calendar that ushers in the Bengali Noboborsho.

Now the question is how do we get to the year 1425 BS on the 14th of April 2018 AD? The following consideration would show how it is done.

As the start of this calendar was 1556 AD (Akbar’s accession to the throne), which was also the beginning of the Islamic year 963 AH, 462 years (2018 AD – 1556 AD) had passed since then until now. Now adding 462 years to the Islamic year of 963 AH (when the system started), we get 1425. This is how we have the incoming New Year of 1425 BS this year.

Also, one can analyse the difference between the Bengali Calendar and the Islamic Calendar. The Islamic year now is 1439 AH, whereas the Bengali year is 1425 BS. The time when divergence took place was in 1556 AD and during these intervening 462 years (2018-1556) the Islamic calendar fell short by 462 x 11 = 5082 days with regard to solar calendar. This then produced over 14 years (5082/355) in Islamic calendar. In other words, an extra 14 years were produced in the Islamic calendar since the commencement of the Bengali calendar, and that explains why it is 1439 AH, but in Bangla calendar it is 1425 BS.

The adoption and modification of calendars are done by many countries – Islamic or non-Islamic – to suit their needs.

Islamic Republic of Iran uses the Solar Hijri Calendar, called the Sham Hijri (SH), which begins with the vernal equinox (the start of spring in the northern hemisphere). The length of time between vernal equinox and autumnal equinox is about 186 days and 10 hours and the other cycle is 178 days. Afghanistan uses a slight variation of the Iranian calendar. West Bengal uses a Bengali calendar where the Noboborsho is on 15th of April.

Thus, any claim that the Bengali Calendar belongs to a Hindu religion or culture and that adoption of this calendar is un-Islamic can be categorically rejected. Such assertions are utter rubbish and pure bigotry.
A. Rahman is an author and columnist.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, International, Literary, Political

Tagore and Bengali Identity

If there is one person who embodies Bengal, Bengali language and culture that must be Tagore.

Tagore , ca, 1930
Rabindranath Tagore, ca. 1930

Bangladesh was liberated from the yoke of Pakistan in 1971 as the land of Bangla (বাংলা) speaking people; not as an outpost of alien culture of Pakistan or Middle East. What started as the language movement, following the brutal killing of university students in 1952 demanding Bengali as a national language, eventually turned into ‘linguistic nationalism’ that culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh.

For long 24 years, from 1947 to 1971, Pakistan tried to impose Urdu as the national language of Pakistan and obliterate Bengali language and Bengali culture from the indigenous population of the then East Pakistan. The leaders of Pakistan implanted and patronised Islamism in East Pakistan and that helped to evolve Razakar, al-Badr and many other factions of Islamist organisations during the liberation war not only to defeat the nationalist movement but also to wipe out Bengali-ness among the people. But they failed. These Razakars changed their guise, but maintained their ‘Muslim-ness’ as an opposition force against the dominant cultural identity of the people in post-independent Bangladesh.

The ‘Muslim’ identity people might have retreated temporarily following the defeat of their patron, Pakistan, but they were not beaten. They kept reappearing, as and when opportunity arose, to undermine Bengali language and culture. The other arm of their strategy is to propagate Islamic culture as a replacement of Bengali culture. The proliferation of ‘hijab’, ‘niqab’ and ‘burqa’ among Bangladeshi women, the trend of inserting adjuncts like ‘bin’ or ‘bint’ (for men and women respectively) in names, increasing use of Arabic words replacing common Bengali words, all testify cultural invasion under the guise of religion.

This twin strategy of undermining Bengali language and culture, and the import of alien culture had become apparent during the period of military rules in Bangladesh from 1975 to 1992 and then whenever Islamic-oriented political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), often supported by the more overtly Islamist organisations like Jamaat-e-Islam, came to power. Of late, in anticipation of the BNP coming to power in the forthcoming national election at the end of this year, these ‘Muslim’ identity people at the behest of BNP are gearing up and attacking Bengali language and culture.

Although, Willem van Schendel in his book ‘A History of Bangladesh’ identified two competing identity groups distinguishing them as (i) “Bengali-ness” that upholds Bangladesh as the homeland for Bengalis and embraces linguistic community of Tagore, Nazrul, Bankim, Madhushudan, Jasimuddin, Jibanananda Das, Sarat Chandra, Golam Mostafa and so forth and (ii) “Bangladeshi-ness” which takes the view that Bangladesh is, in effect, a logical outcome of Pakistan and the homeland of Muslim Bengal. As, the argument goes, without Pakistan, Bangladesh would not have come into existence and hence Bangladesh remains Muslim and it is ‘overwhelmingly and essentially Muslim’. (They conveniently forget or ignore the fact that during the liberation struggle they did everything to stop Bangladesh coming into existence and now they are claiming it to be Muslim Bangladesh!)

This second group, despite Schendel’s branding it as “Bangladeshi-ness”, is a misnomer and gross misrepresentation. It should rightly be put under “Muslim-ness”, as they put Muslim as their prime identity and their country affiliation comes far below. They accept disgruntledly Bengali as the national language, but many of them would happily accept Urdu as the national language, which conforms to their Muslim identity. They are, in effect, the remnants of the Pakistani period.

Bengali is one of the richest languages in the world. It is the direct descendant of Sanskrit, which is a Proto Indo-European language that has evolved over four millennia. That is why one can find similarities and resemblances between many Bengali words and Italian, English and Cyrillic words.

Of all the Bengali litterateurs, the person that stands out head and shoulder above the rest is Rabindranath Tagore, who was the poet, essayist, novelist, song writer and composer, playwright, philosopher and educationist. He was simply a literary giant not only in India but also in the whole world. He was the only person from Indian subcontinent who was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature (1913) and his songs are sung as national anthems in two sovereign States – India and Bangladesh.

If there is one person who embodies Bengal and Bengali language and culture that must be Tagore. Although he was born in Kolkata, his ancestors were from Jessore in Bangladesh. Tagore married Mrinalini Devi who hailed from Khulna. Tagore spent more than two decades looking after the zamindari in the then East Bengal and spent extended periods in Shelaidah, Kushtia and Shahjadpur, Pabna and Petishar, Rajshahi. His poetic genius, his philosophy, his perception of life were all moulded by everyday lives of people in this part of East Bengal. He wrote many famous poems, songs, short stories while he was in the houseboat (called Padma) in Shelaidah and Shahjadpur. The most famous book of poems ‘Sonar Tari’ ( সোনার তরী) (The Golden Boat) was written in those days. He gave poetic expressions to occasions such as Bengali New Year (বাংলা নববর্ষ), welcoming rainy season (বর্ষাবরণ), spring festival (বসন্ত উৎসব) and so on that ripple through the hearts and minds of Bengali people the world over.

Tagore felt very strongly for the plight of his poor Muslim tenants (প্রজা). One such occasion that had been narrated by Krisna Dutta like this: When he called a meeting of his tenants one afternoon, he noticed that Hindu tenants were sitting on mattresses and poor Muslim tenants were sitting on grass farther apart. He was cross at this segregation and asked his tenants that everyone must sit together on mattresses; if there were not enough space in the mattresses, everyone must sit on the grass. Quite often he would relieve his poor Muslim tenants of taxes and that did not endear him to his father, Debendranath Tagore.

There is a concerted move by the ‘Muslim’ identity people – the Islamists and Islamist sympathisers – to denigrate Tagore by egregious falsification and trumped up stories. They branded Tagore as a plagiarist, a second-rate poet who attained fame only by British patronising. Needless to say, any attempt to counter such grossly egregious allegations is like going into the dirty gutters with them.

Also, it had been said by those bigots that Tagore was anti-Muslim as, they assert, he wrote a number of poems praising Hindu culture and Hindu religion; he wrote none for Islam. That is quite frankly utterly ridiculous. As a Hindu (in fact he was a follower of Brahmo sect), it was quite natural that he would write about these religions; that does not imply that he was against Islam or Jain or Buddhism. Did he write anything against Islam? No. No. So, how on earth, could he be called an anti-Muslim or racist?

Only one point that merits addressing here is that he had been accused of opposing the foundation of Dhaka University. He might have opposed it initially on economic grounds. It is also possible that he was not enthusiastic about it as he was in the process of setting up his own university at that time, which came into existence the same year that Dhaka university did. But, later on, he supported the Dhaka University when adequate financial provisions were made. He could not have opposed it strongly, as brazen Islamists claim, on grounds of race or religion, because in East Bengal in those days overwhelmingly large fraction (between 70 to 75%) of educated people primed to go to the university were Hindus. So, Tagore’s opposition to Dhaka University would have affected predominantly Hindus. The problem with semi-literate Islamists is that they think that he opposed Dhaka University because it was in Muslim-Bangladesh! How ridiculous!

Syed Abul Maksud in his book ‘Purabange Rabindranath’ (পূর্ববঙ্গে রবীন্দ্রনাথ ) (Rabindranath in East Bengal) stated that Tagore had cordial relations with Muslims in East Bengal. The Muslim aristocrat of Dhaka, Nawab Sir Salimullah “paid rich tributes to the greatest poetical genius of modern India” in a meeting organized in the city on 26 November 1912 to celebrate his Nobel Prize award. Maksud also pointed out that Tagore was given a very enthusiastic reception by the Salimullah Muslim Hall Students’ Union of the University of Dhaka on the 10th of February, 1926 during his second and last visit to Dhaka. It may be pointed out that Dhaka University was founded only five years previously. (If Tagore had opposed it, then SM Hall students’ Union was probably unaware of it and now nearly 100 years later the brazen Islamists had found it out!) It should also be pointed out that the University of Dhaka awarded Tagore an honorary doctorate in 1936.

To say that Tagore had opposed Dhaka university is totally disingenuous and dishonest. Also, the accusation that he was against Muslims has racist connotation. The ‘Muslim’ identity people are hell-bent on carrying out character assassination of Tagore and thereby undermine the very essence of ‘Bengali’ identity of the Bangladeshi people. The sooner these clandestine agents doing Pakistan’s bidding for ‘Muslim-ness’ are exposed, the better it is for the country.

A. Rahman is an author and a columnist