Art & Culture

From Kolkata to Kerala: A Journey Through India’s New Year Festivities

April 14- the New Year that celebrates diversity and embraces multiculturalism

In Bengal, the New Year’s Day, Poila Boisakh, was originally set by the Surya Siddhanta during the reign of Raja Shashaka of Gour, 594 years after the Christian era. There were other calendars too and the credit for its popularisation goes to Akbar and his astronomer, Fatehullah Shirazi. The Islamic Hijri calendar was difficult for calculating agricultural harvests for Mughal taxation, as it was lunar and rather unpredictable. So, a new solar-lunar calendar was devised as the Fasli San.

This day is very important to traders and merchants in Bengal and they gather at temples — especially at Dakshineswar— from dawn, for divine blessings on their books of accounts. Most shops give a lot of sweets to customers and, as children, we used to hop from one to the other. In West Bengal, the date is on the 14th of April this year, but it could well be on the 15th as well, according to the astronomical system.

Bengalis of Bangladesh, however, usually adhere to the 14th of April and celebrate the day as a national festival. They bring out massive and colourful Mangal Shobha Jatras. Though started in Bangladesh in 1989 as a secular protest against President Ershad’s communal politics, these very secular carnivals are landmark festivals of the year and have been recognised by UNESCO. The huge processions carry gigantic masks and other huge decorative creatures like tigers and owls, on slow-moving trucks. Millions of enthusiasts join the processions — with music, poetry and gaiety. In Dhaka, Chittagong or Kolkata, gigantic and joyful crowds cheer this very secular parade — all along the path, despite threats from fundamentalists.

In neighbouring Assam, the new year is called Rongali or Bohag Bihu and lasts for almost a month, combining the best of three major traditions: the Sino-Burmese, Indo-Aryan and Austro-Asiatic. This Bishu or Bihu is a call to young men and women to be at their resplendent best: as they dance with soft sensuous movements of the limbs, swaying to lilting tunes of Bihu-geets.

Bengal’s other neighbour, Odisha also observes its new year on the first of Baisakh or Vishu as Maha Vishuva Sankranti. It is famous as the Pana Sankranti after the sweet drink made from bel, fruits, yoghurt, paneer and other substances that are offered to all. Odisha has several other unique Yatras to celebrate the occasion, like Jhamu, Patua, Hingula, Patua and Danda, with each contributing its own rites and colour.

In Kerala, this Vishu day is celebrated with fireworks and a million lights. People place money, jewellery, holy texts, lamps, rice, fruits, betel leaves, etc, the night before to ensure that the ‘Kani’ or the first auspicious sight of the new year is joyous. Sadhyas or feasts are compulsory as are Kanjis made of rice, coconut milk and spices, along with Vishu Katta rice cakes and sour mango drinks.

Tamil-speaking people in all parts of the world observe Puthandu on the 14th of April to mark the new year and the same Kani or first sight of auspicious objects is mandatory.

But it is Punjab that tops the list, celebrating Baisakhi a day before, with animated dances like the Bhangra and Gidda and all types of contests, from wrestling and sword fencing to mock duels. Millions take an early bath and line up at hundreds of gurudwaras: for prayers, sips of sweet Amrita and parsada as also devotional music sung by Ragis. The Baisakhi congregation at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on the 13th of April in 1919 will never be forgiven or forgotten — for it was when thousands were shot dead or wounded by British machine guns.

Jawhar Sircar

has been an IAS for 41 years, served as Secretary in Central Govt & CEO, Prasar Bharati. Now Rajya Sabha MP

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