The Origin of Bangla new year and celebrating Pahela Baishakh

by Syed Ashraf Ali

WE celebrate Pahela Baishakh or the Bangla New Year’s Day today. Everything under the sun looks gay and cheerful and colourful, one is suddenly struck by the beauty of the grass, the sky, the trees – each and everything around looks pretty and radiates joy and happiness. It seems that the tired and weary sun of 1405 that set last evening carried along with it all the gloom, all the sorrows, all the melancholy and misery. Nothing that is painful or dull or dreary is left for 1406, and the sun rising with a new spirit and vigour this morning, rises in its full glory, radiating nothing gloomy, nothing sad, nothing pensive but only hope and happiness for the days to come.

Pahela Baishakh is indeed a momentous occasion in the life of each and every Bengalee. It is the first day of Bangla calendar year. To every Bengalee, young and old, rich and poor, wise and ignorant, it is a time of gaiety to be celebrated with great merry-making, to be enjoyed in every possible manner, an occasion which enables us, in the words of Tennyson, to drink life to the lees.’ It is a cruel irony of fate that a few orthodox Muslims in our country, shrouded by sheer ignorance, look down upon this Nababarsha festival, simply because they inadvertently consider it to be a festival of non-Muslim origin. But there is no shadow of doubt that the Bangla calendar that we follow today was introduced by the Muslims in this sub-continent.

The Pahela Baishakh so warmly celebrated all over the country today originated not from Bangladesh, but from an entirely different part of this sub-continent more than thousand miles away. What is more, the Bangla Saal was introduced not by any Bangladeshi but by a non-Bengalee in whose grandfather’s vein flowed the blood of both Gengis Khan and Tamerlane.

Yes, what is popularly known as Bangla Saal today saw the light of day through an ordinance promulgated by Akbar the Great, the renowned grandson of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babar whose mother and father were descendants of Gengis Khan and Tamerlane respectively. It was to immortalise a momentous occasion, a crucial juncture of history that the great Moghul introduced this new system of calendar 415 years ago.

The calendar so introduced was originally known as Tarikh-e-Elahi and it was introduced on the 10th or the 11th March in the 29th year of Akbar’s reign i.e. in 1585 A. D. It , however, dates from the day of Akbar’s ascension to the throne of Delhi and commemorates his coronation as the Emperor of India in 1556. The Second Battle of Panipath and the Coronation of Akbar as the Emperor of India are indeed great events in the annals of history. The Moguls had nearly lost the throne of Delhi for good. Akbar was not even an adult when the life of Humayun was suddenly cut short on the stairs of his own library.

What is more, the mighty and competent Hindu general Himu, the Commander-in-Chief of Islam Shah, had conquered both Delhi and Agra and declared himself Raj Chakravarty. It seemed that the days of the Great Moghuls were numbered and they would be driven out from the sub-continent for ever. But the brave and indomitable Akbar rose to the occasion and faced the music with courage and conviction. With the able guidance and help of Bairam Khan, Akbar created history by defeating the invincible’ army of Himu at the Second Battle of Panipat on the 5th of November, 1556. This was indeed a momentous occasion in the annals of history. It not only re- established the Moghul dynasty on the Indian soil but also ensured its continuation for many a year to come. As a result, the Moghuls ruled over this sub-continent with glory and greatness for three hundred years more. It was the greatest achievement in Akbar’s chequered life and undoubtedly one of the greatest events in the Moghul history. It was to glorify and immortalise the historic event and also to facilitate the collection of revenue during harvest in a more systematic way that Akbar the Great introduced Tarikh-e-Elahi form the 10th of Rabiul Awal in 963 A.H.

It may be mentioned in this connection that from the very beginning of his reign, Akbar felt the need of introducing a uniform scientific, workable and acceptable system of calculating days and months through a reformed calendar. With this end in view, he commissioned Amir Fathullah Shirazi, a distinguished scientist and the most famous astronomer of the day, to make a recommendation for the reformed calendar. Abul Fazal, the renowned scholar and a minister of Akbar the Great, in his scholarly work Akbar Namah, gives details of the events leading to the new era under the Royal Forman of Akbar. Abul Fazal explains that the use of the Hijrah (Hegira) Era was unfair to the peasantry, because 31 lunar years were equal to 30 solar years and the revenue was collected on the basis of lunar years whereas the harvest depended on the solar ones. Abul Fazal was right because the lunar year consists of 354 days and the solar years has 365 or 366 days. Thus there is difference of II or 12 days between the lunar and the solar years.

The Forman (Royal Proclamation) ran as follows: “In this dominion adorning time and auspicious epoch, when a Qarn (cycle) of the victorious session on throne of sovereignty has elapsed, and good day of fortune has begun to smile, a world- obeyed’ Forman was issued to the effect that the governors of the Imperial dominions, and the other offices of state and finance, who in accordance with their degrees and positions, are recipients of the royal favours, should know as follows:

‘Whereas the great officers of the court have represented to us as follows:” It is not hidden from the Inspired Kind that the object of establishing an era is that the seasons of affairs and events may be known with ease, and no one has any occasion for alteration.

Suppose, for example, someone makes a contract, or takes a favour or a loan, and the period of execution be 4 years, 4 months: unless the exact date of the beginning be known, it will be difficult, or rather impossible, to determine the date of completion. It is event too that whenever an era has prevailed for a long time, the establishment of a new one opens the gates of ease and prosperity for all mankind.

The repeated representation of this body of men, and regard for their positions, prevailed and were accepted, and an order was issued that the new year, which followed close on the year of ascension, should be made the foundation of the Divine Era, and that the gates of joy and comfort should be opened.

Also that in the almanacs of India they (the almanac writers) should enter this new era instead of their discordant eras….. and that they do away with their various eras. And whereas in the almanacs current in India the years were solar, and the months lunar, we ordered that the months of the new era should be solar.’

Abul Fazal eulogises the Forman of 992 A.H. (1584 A.D.) in the following way: The pillar of the founders of the Sacred Era was the learned of the age, the Plato of cycles (Alwani) Amir Fathullah Shirazi whose title was Azad-ud-Daula. It was he who in a happy hour laid the foundation of this heavenward soaring edifice. Although the foundation (i.e. the Forman) took place in 992 A.H. yet the position of events dates from the beginning of the sacred accession of Akbar.

He further adds: The Forman ordered that the new year which followed close on the year of accession should be made the foundation of the Divine Era and accordingly the first of Muharram (the first month of the Hegira calendar) of 963 A.H. being close to the historic occasion was also made the starting point of the Tarikh-e-Elahi.” Since the month of Muharram coincided with the Bengali month of Baishakh in 963 A.H., the month of Baishakh in Bengal was made the first month of the Bengali Era instead of the month of Chaitra which was the first month of the Shaka Era being practised in the then Bengal.

The months of the new Bengali Era (or Tarikh-e-Elahi) were initially known as Karwadin, Ardi, ‘Vihisu, Khordad, Teer, Amardad, Shahriar, Aban, Azur, Dai, Baham and Iskander Miz. Nobody knows for sure how and when we started naming the months as Baishakh, Jaishtha, etc. It is presumed that these months, based on the names of the stars, were derived from the Shakabda which was introduced in 78 A.D. to commemorate the reign of the Shaka dynasty in this subcontinent.

The star-based names of the months were derived as follows:

  1. Baishakh from the star known as Bishakha
  2. Jiashthya from Jaishtha
  3. Ashara from Shar
  4. Sraban from Srabani
  5. Bhadra from Bhadrapada
  6. Ashwin from Aswaini
  7. Kartik from Kartika
  8. Agrahayon from Agraihon
  9. Poush from Poushya
  10. Magh from Magha
  11. Falgun from Falguni, and
  12. Chaitra from Chitra stars.

Some claim inadvertently that the Bangla calendar was introduced by Shashanka, king of Bengal, to commemorate his conquest of Assam. But records testify to the fact the Shashanka, son of Maha Sengupta, conquered Benaras and moved towards Chilka lake and never towards Assam.

The system of celebrating Nababarsha or Pahela Baishakh (Ist of Baishak) was also introduced by Akbar the Great. After introducing Tarikh-e-Elahi, he abolished the hitherto practised Muslim festivals and replaced them by 14 new festivals, one of which was Nawroze or the celebration of the New Year’s Day. It was the celebration of Nawroze which enabled Prince Selim (later emperor Jehangir) to meet and fall in love with Meherunnisa (known as Nurjahan in history). It was again in one such Nawroze festival that the Prince Khurram (known as the Emperor Shahjahan in history) first came across Mumtaz Mahal, whom he immortalised through the great “poetry in marble” known the world over as Taj Mahal. Had there been no Nababarsha (or Nawroze) festival, there perhaps would be no Nurjahan, and no Taj Mahal.