Poila Baisakh holds a special place in the hearts of every Bengali. Falling on or around 14th April every year, it marks the first day of the month of Baisakh and hence is celebrated as Bengali New Year. On this day, the entire state decks up in festive colours and becomes suffused with a sense of warmth and bonhomie.
April & New Year
The month of April coincides with the time of New Year throughout the country. Aligned with the astronomical movement of the sun and moon, our calendars thus herald the season of harvest with the arrival of April. This is when the harshness of winter gives way to the mild mirth of spring and is the perfect time for the harvest of crops. The various states of the country celebrate the festival of harvest during this time in various names. So while it is Vaisakhi in Punjab, it is Pana Sankranti in Odisha, while it is Rongila Bihu in Assam, it is Vishu in Kerala, while it is Puthandu in Tamil Nadu, it is Poila Baisakh in West Bengal.
Poila Baisakh – The Story Behind The Name
Poila (first) Baisakh also marks the birth of the Bengali calendar. Historically, it is presumed that Akbar invented the Bengali calendar by combining solar and lunar calendars to affix the time of tax collection. The Fasholi Shan (harvest calendar) as it was known during the Mughal rule was believed to be the present Bengali calendar. However, there are many disputes to this theory. While some believe that it was Nawab Murshid Quli Khan who initiated the Bengali calendar with the tradition of Punyaho or tax collection day, some others believe hold 7th-century king Shashanka for its inception. The presence of the word Bangabda, or Bengali year, in several Shiva temples, however, negates all of these theories and points to an earlier time as the birth of the Bengali calendar.
Mangal Shobhajatra – Bangladesh
Irrespective of the ambiguity, Poila Baisakh is nonetheless celebrated with great furore among Bengalis in Dhaka, Tripura, Bangladesh and other countries around the world. Of these, the celebrations in Dhaka are worth mentioning.
The Mangal Shobhajatra, started in 1985, is one of the most iconic aspects of Poila Baisakh celebrations when a gigantic procession hits the streets at dawn and the streets transform into a melange of colours, culture and festivity.
The procession has been declared by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage”.
Bengali New Year or Poila Baisakh in Kolkata
In West Bengal, Poila Baisakh celebrations take a manifold form. There is a sense of joy in the air as the fresh morning breeze carry traces of Rabindrasangeet tunes. Everyone changes into new clothes for the day as it is considered auspicious. Young ones touch the feet of elders to take blessings for the year ahead. Friends and relatives visit each other’s houses with a box of sweets and greet with Subho Nababarsha.
During this time, the shops are also filled with the Bengali Panjika, or almanac, an indispensable aid for the coming year. The almanac lists all auspicious dates of the year for planning events like marriages, housewarming ceremonies, business launches etc. Traders and shop owners pray to Ganesha and Lakshmi and offer Haal Khata pujas in Kalighat and Dakshineshwar temples. For them, this is the day to open fresh ledgers for the year and balance all debts from their customers. They also invite customers to their puja in the evening.
Mangal Shobhajatra – Kolkata
In 2017, Kolkata made history by organising its own Mangal Shobhajatra, inspired by Bangladesh, to commemorate Poila Baisakh. The 3 km procession commenced from Ganguly Bagan in South Kolkata to Jadavpur University. It was attended by a host of people from kids to school children to youngsters to adults.
The usually empty weekend street got transformed with a huge gathering of people ready to be a part of the historic procession. Little children, decked in colourful attires, held thermocol cut-outs of Bengali alphabets while men and women in their traditional dresses held colourful masks and parasols. Huge balloon toys floated in the air. An added attraction was men on stilts joining the procession along with the crowd. Neighbours peeped from their homes to discern what was happening.
The procession began with lots of cheer and the beats of dhaks (drums). The dhakis (drum players) led the way announcing the start of the walk and filled the air with a festive feeling. The organisers addressed the crowd and boosted their morale by thanking everyone for being a part of this historic walk and declaring how this was a wonderful reflection of the rich heritage and diverse culture of Bengal.
The rhythms of the dhaks infused the people with exhilaration as they danced to it in unison. Some of the people even took over the drums and played them, dancing along with it. Amidst the crowd bobbed the heads of masks, parasols and the men on stilts.
It was a well organised and coordinated event. Being early morning, the traffic was less and the traffic policeman accompanying the procession efficiently guided the traffic along the other side of the road. Soon the streets got filled with passers-by and onlookers who gazed at the merrymaking crowd and some started taking pictures too. The crowd soared in spirit and danced in a frenzy ignoring the sweltering heat.
The procession broke for refreshments near to the destination. Glasses of Glucon-D were served to all. Recharged with the drink, the crowd resumed their walk with even more gusto.
As the crowd reached the crossing at Jadavpur University, they gathered to admire the huge alpana (colourful motif made of a paste of rice and flour drawn by hand) that decorated the street. The organiser enquired of all if they were tired as they were just a few steps away from the final point. The crowd replied to this with a roar and started dancing with even more enthusiasm as the dhaks kept playing. A group of girls danced to the tunes of Banglar mati, Banglar jal (the soil of Bengal, the water of Bengal) composed by Rabindranath Tagore.
The Mangal Shobhajatra culminated at Jadavpur University where the second set of celebrations awaited. Several artists and dancers gathered to perform at a cultural event that saw the confluence of a passionate crowd united to celebrate Poila Baisakh.
With this, Poila Baisakh celebrations in Kolkata ended on a historic and happy note.
Subho Nababarsha to all!
How do you like to celebrate Poila Baisakh?