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Colourful pottery is an attraction in home décor for the Bengali new year, Pahela Baishakh. Vendors at Dhaka’s Doyel Chattar prepare wares on Tuesday for sale. (Photo: Nayan Kumar/ bdnews24.com)
Colourful pottery is an attraction in home décor for the Bengali new year, Pahela Baishakh. Vendors at Dhaka’s Doyel Chattar prepare wares on Tuesday for sale. (Photo: Nayan Kumar/ bdnews24.com)

Bengali or Bangla New Year is a relatively ‘new’ celebration, but ‘Songkranti’, or in Thailand, ‘Songkran’, goes back into the millennia. It comes from the Sanskrit, ‘Sankranta’ and means “a move or change.” It is, I understand, related to the Zodiac cycle and, of course, any point in the circle is both a beginning and an end.

In northern India, for instance, April is the beginning of spring when the trees start to bud and bloom and the hibernating animals come out to find food, so, a new beginning. So, for the ancient Indian people, April was a sign of new life and marked the beginning of a new year. That is why they observed (some still do) their New Year’s Day on April 13.

And so, a few years ago, I visited an Ecological Agricultural Centre at Pathrail, Delduar, Tangail where they were observing ‘Songkranti’. In Bengal, certainly, Songranti has cut across all religions and indeed was there before any religion came to this part of the world. Traditionally, the villages still follow certain customs. Early in the morning on the Songkranti day, the spiritual leaders drink a very nutritious drink to give them energy through the day on which they might fast. The drink is called Chatu and is prepared from millet and sorghum. On arrival I drank a glass of this and also a glass of ‘bel’ juice, known to have properties that protect one from sunstroke. We were also given two types of puffed reddish rice, combined with ‘tok doi’ (yoghurt) and liquid ‘gur’.

For the previous 3 days a ‘mela’ at which many of Naya Krishi Andolan thousands of farmers from many parts of the country had come to join a seminar and to participate in the cultural celebrations of Songkranti. Also, a number of local Tangail weavers had set up stalls to market their beautiful handloom cloth.

About 500 weaving families survive reasonably well by selling their products through ‘Prabartana’ in Mohammadpur and other outlets. Sadly, however, hundreds of other weavers remain, like bonded labour, in the clutches of the ‘Mahajans’.

Near to the handloom weavers’ stalls, I met a village midwife surrounded by more than 50 different medicinal plants in pots which she uses for different problems related to pre-natal, natal, and post natal problems. Surely, I say to myself, there is a need to spread this indigenous knowledge further.

She emphasised that for full effect the plants should be growing in their natural habitat and not in pots. The pots were just brought to the mela to educate people like us.

Naya Krishi Andolan has its Community Seed Wealth Centre at the centre where it preserves and multiplies indigenous rice seed through its Naya Krishi Andolan farmers. At the time of my visit, they had identified that about 1,200 local varieties are doing well in different parts of the country, but about 500 were endangered varieties.

We keep hearing that because of ‘Climate Change’, new genetically modified hybrid varieties must be developed for drier places, hotter places, more flooded places etc. At this centre varieties have already been classified in this way. The local varieties, I was told, already, going back centuries, have the characteristics to face up to the problems expected with climate change.

I first visited this area, nearly 30 years ago and visited the villages and studied the agriculture and peoples’ livelihoods. Talking to the local people that day, some 6 years ago, especially farmers, was interesting and depressing. They say that as, no more, are there ‘birds of prey’ such as kites hovering up in the sky, it is clear that the ‘food chain’ has broken and that we are heading for some sort of catastrophe. In the old days the fishes and frogs in the paddy fields would eat the insects and the kites would eat them, mice and rats. There are no fishes in the paddy fields now and there are far, far less frogs. This is all to do, they say, with poisoning the land with fertiliser and insecticide.

Later on I joined a ‘Songkranti’ lunch. On this day no meat, fish or eggs should be eaten. To emphasise the strong link between man and nature 14 different types of ‘shak’ (spinach) are eaten and all 14 varieties have to be ‘uncultivated’, so had been collected from here and there. So we had some red rice, the 14 types of shak, 5 types of dal cooked together as well as a special ‘kichhri’

Pohela Boishakh and Remembering April 14th, 1971

I was first introduced to Pohela Boishakh by the Bengali community in Gaya, Bihar, India, where I lived and worked in the late 1960s. If Songkranti brings the year to a close, Pohela Boishakh on April 14th is a new beginning. I found that people thoroughly cleaned their houses and went to visit their relations and friends usually wearing new clothes. The cleaning of houses reminded of my childhood in London when, every March/April, my mother would embark on ‘Spring Cleaning’ of the house.

In 1971, while refugee camps were being hurriedly set up in the border areas of India and Bangladesh, Indians living near the border shared the special foods of that day with the families that had fled in fear from Bangladesh. The singing of Tagore songs about Pohela Boishakh gradually brought a few smiles to the faces of the refugee families.

Years later, after coming to Bangladesh and enjoying many Pohela Boishakh occasions, I have always looked forward to tasting the special foods of the day especially Panta Bhat and Fried Illish, always accompanied by different types of Bhorta.

It is such a very special day with the colours, the new clothes, the music and the wonderful food and everyone wishing each other ‘Shubho Noboborsho’.

Julian Francishas been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh Citizenship. In 2019, Julian has also been honoured with the award of the OBE for services to development in Bangladesh.

3 Responses to “Songkranti and Pohela Boishakh”

  1. Iftekhar Syed

    Very informative and insightful article! Thank you, Julian!

  2. Sumit Mazumdar

    Wonderful article. Seeing the words – Songkranti and Pohela Baisakh – together for the first time made me understand something that should have been obvious to me all the time but wasn’t! Songkranti of course is derived from “San’ meaning “year” in Bangla. And “kranti” which popularly means “revolution” can also mean “transition” or “transit” (see Bengali to English dictionaries)!

    So now we see what colloquially is Songkranti means literally transition to a different year!

    On a different note, Bengali Hindu women even in the immediate past fasted on the last day of the year (Chaitra Songkranti) and prayed to Lord Shiva at the end of the day, asking for the welfare of their families.

  3. Akteruzzaman Chowdhury

    A nice blog from a real friend of Bangladesh. Songkran and Boishakh are both from the original “Sanskrit Calendar”. Wikipedia calls it “Hindu Calendar”. People in India don’t celebrate the Boishakh day as in Bangladesh, except in Punjab. People in many parts of India do open their business accounts or “HalKhata” on this day. Buddhists of South and southeast Asia are more connected with this calendar. The Sanskrit names of months and zodiac are used right upto Vietnam. So it is more-or-less a Sanskrit Buddhist calendar. Emperor Akbar gave some importance to this calendar, so it has also become a calendar for muslim Bengal.

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