As an old saying goes, ‘Bengalis have thirteen festivals in twelve months.’ This experience-based adage gives an impression of a society which was affluent, cohesive and joyful. It further reveals that the olden society of Bengal had been characterised by an intense cultural atmosphere and the resulting social euphoria.
The above saying actually holds true about Hindu Bengalis. So far as culture is concerned, Bengali Muslim life in Bengal had differed substantially from that of their Hindu neighbours. Bengali Muslims, had, in fact, no ethnic, indigenous or locally originated (except for a few legend, or cult-based quasi-religious events) national, regional or group-centred secular cultural festivals. All their broad-based, community-oriented and family-centred festivals were religious or semi-religious in nature.
A walk through history
The language movement of 1952 had, in fact, played a decisive role in shaping and sharpening the Bengali identity of the emerging generations of forward-looking Bengali Muslims. Besides, the shared tradition of Bengali language and literature had always been a perennial source of strength for the Bengali identity.
This new generation of Bengali nationalist Muslims was searching for some lively and solid component of their newly found secular nationalism. Bengali Era and the age-old tradition of Poila Baisakh (first day of the first month in the Bengali almanac) celebrations in rural Bengal provided them with a strong basis for their new pursuit of cultural synthesis based on tolerance, pluralistic attitude and humanism. Bengali Era and its primordial celebrations helped them remodel and augment their new cultural aptitude.
A celestial conjecture
Bangla San, recently used as Bangabda by the elites, is essentially a hybrid era. For this reason it is a common heritage of almost all sections of the people of Bengal. The highly acclaimed scientist and Indian almanac reformer, Dr Meghnad Saha, while identifying the genesis of the Bengali Era, said: "After the introduction of Tarik-i-Ilahi (1556 AD) in the year of his accession to the throne by Emperor Akbar, the people of Bengal began to use the Surya Siddhanta reckoning and the solar year. For Bangla San, we take the Hijri year, elapsed in 1556, i.e., 963 AD, and add to it the number of solar years." If we follow this rule, the reckoning of the Bengali new year today, would be (963+2014)-1556=1421 Bangla San.
Amalgamation of Islamic and Hindu years
Dr Saha believed that the Bangla San derived from Tarik-i-Ilahi (1556 AD) of Emperor Akbar. And, it is an amalgam of the Hijri lunar year and the Indian solar year. Akbar's court astronomer, Fatehullah Shirajee created this hybrid reckoning system. Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen's comment in this regard is amusing. He wrote, "When a Bengali Hindu does his religious ceremonies according to the local calendar, he may not be fully aware that the dates invoked in his Hindu practice is attuned to commemorating Mohammad's flight from Mecca to Madina, albeit in a mixed lunar-solar representation.” (‘An Assessment of the Millennium’ – address on August 20, 1998 in New Delhi).
The fact that, it is called Bangla San or Sal, which are Arabic and Persian words, respectively, suggests that it was introduced by Muslim Kings or Sultans. Some historians suggest Mughal Emperor Akbar, as he had reformed the Indian calendar -- with the help of his astronomer Fatehullah Shirajee -- in line with the Iranian Nowroj or ‘new day’. Others suggest it was the seventh century king, Sasanka.
However, Bangla San is a manifestation of engaging cultural integration. In fact, the Bengali culture is a mixed culture and it encompasses the elements of many civilizations, races and religions.
Dr Meghnad Saha
The deltaic civilization of Bengal is based on agricultural economy. An agrarian milieu produces many rituals and indigenous practices; rituals -- even the primordial ones, are abundantly found in rural Bengal. Some of the surviving rituals and local cults have been nicely integrated with the later modern construction, namely the present day Bangla Nababarsha Utsab (Bengali New Year's festival).
Excerpted from Shamsuzzaman Khan’s article for The Daily Star