POILA BAISAKH-The Cultural Significance

  • By Tapan Ganguli
  • April 19, 2022
  • Know about the Bengali calendar and link to Poila Baisakh, how the festival is celebrated in West Bengal and the lunch menu on Poila Baisakh.

The Bengali Calendar is divided into twelve months, and the last month of the Bengali year Chaitra starts off with a feeling of the year gone and a desire to start the year once again. With this, the spirit of Poila Baisakh/ Pohela Boisakh kicks in to the Bengali cultural calendar.  


To explore the roots of Poila Baisakh, we need to see the pillars of the cosmic timetable. The Islamic Hijri Calendar as we all know, is purely lunar based and an Islamic year comprises of 354 days. It depends on the phases of the moon and shifts back 11 days every year. The land taxes were originally calculated as per the lunar calendar, which lead to wide fluctuations in the collection of taxes every year. There was an administrative difficulty in setting the collection date.


There was a need to time the tax year to the harvest and the resultant calendar, a combination of the Solar Hindu Calendar and the Muslim Lunar Calendar, was called Bangabda. With the need to keep a fixed date for the Bengali New Year, the months stay much the same with minor changes for Pujas and other occasions. This avoids the vagaries of the lunar calendar yet keeps a time frame of 33 days for the adjustment as per the sun’s movement every three years. 


According to Shamsuzzaman Khan, the first king to start the Bengali New Year was Murshid Quli Khan (1660 - 1727), who used Punyaho as a day of collecting taxes, using Akbar’s fiscal year policy. While there is evidence of the word Bangabda from the 7th century (much before the onset of Islam in 13th century), it is not known when the Hindu kings collected taxes.


Some historians attribute the Bengali Calendar to the 7th Century King Shashanka. The term Bangabda is found in two Shiva temples much older than Akbar’s time, suggesting that the calendar existed much before the onset of Islam in Bengal. Various dynasties used the Vikrami calendar, which is shown by Pala Empire texts and scriptures. Months such as Ashwin find mention in Sanskrit texts too.  


In rural Bengali communities, the Bengali calendar is attributed to Bikramaditto, like other parts of India and Nepal. Unlike these regions where the calendar starts at 57 BCE, the Bengali calendar starts at 593 BCE. At some point, the reference year was adjusted. Thus, the Gregorian calendar is always 593 years ahead of the Bengali Calendar. The year 1993 (a very different time from the world of today in every respect) for example, was 1400 in Bengali Calendar.


Some contemporary changes in the Bengali Calendar happened in 1966 in Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan). A committee headed by Muhammad Shahidullah (1885-1969), noted scholar, linguist and author of East Bengal-the equivalent of Acharya Suniti Chattopadhyay in West Bengal-changed the calendar to 31 days for first 5 months and 30 days for the next 7 months. The month of Falgun (before Chaitra) was changed to 31 days every leap year. This was officially adopted by Bangladesh in 1987, post-independence. In 2018-19, the calendar was amended again and Falgun now lasted 29 days in normal years and 30 days in leap years. This was done to align itself to the Gregorian calendar.


The Bengali calendar in India remains tied to the Hindu calendar system, a combination of Solar and Lunar alignments. For Bengalis of West Bengal and other states in India, the festival falls either on 14th or 15th April every year. This is based on the Sanskrit Text Surya Siddhanta. The historic Sanskrit names of months are duly retained with the first month as Boisakh (Vaisakh in Hindi).


And so, the start of the Bengali New Year is either 14th or 15th April. This is the start of the Bengali calendar and heralds the beginning of the New Year for all- students, entrepreneurs, professionals, priests and home makers. 


We also go back a little, about a month, and see a traditional reluctance for any activities on Chaitra. Most small shops and establishments do not ask for any fresh stock and go for a sale of older stock at discount. This leads to Chaitra Maasher Sale. All markets in Gariahat, Bhawanipore, Hathibagan (the Bengali dominated parts of the city) are in sale mode for the whole of March-April and offer lucrative discounts on clothes, furnishings, decorative items, food and drinks.


The vociferous caller pitches of the salesman are highly innovative and can teach a lesson to aspiring MBAs on how to sell a product or a service. This has the effect of clearing out the stock totally so that fresh material is sourced from the respective manufacturer/ wholesaler. There is also an added incentive to have lesser working capital which increases the carrying cost of inventory.


The last day of Chaitra (ie 13th April) is titled Neel Shashti. It is the commemoration of the marriage of Lord Shiva with Goddess Parvati. Bengali women offer Puja to Lord Shiva. ‘Neel’ comes from the word Neelkanta (person with blue throat) which denotes the Blue Throat of Lord Shiva after swallowing the poison thrown up by the churning of the Ocean (Matsya Purana). 

This is a day when women fast without drinking water too, for the full day. The fasting is done for the long life and marital harmony to seek the blessings of their husband and children, who is the embodiment of Lord Shiva. It is extremely difficult to fast throughout the day but with sheer will power and strength, the day passes and in the evening, women visit the temple of Lord Shiva and pour milk over the Shiva Linga. Puja is offered by burning incense sticks, offering flower bunches and the fast is broken by partaking the Prasada which is given by the temple priest.


The next day (i.e April 14th) is the Bengali New Year and the start of the new Financial Year for businesses. All business establishments following the Bengali Calendar close their books of accounts and start a new book for capturing transactions, which is called Haal Khata (typically a red cardboard bound book with ruled pages). However, in an increasingly IT driven and e compliant commercial world, the value of ‘Haal Khata’ is now much less and more of a token gesture to acknowledge a cultural event. 


All business establishments nowadays close their books on 31st March and thereafter keep their previous year books open for some time for provisioning, overhead allocation, depreciation and deferred tax computation and then start with year-end audit and signing of accounts (I know this as my son is a senior CA). However, few transactions are held on 14th as a token of acknowledgement of the new year. Sweets and soft drinks are served to all guests, customers and service providers at business establishments. Many larger organizations keep a budget for corporate gifting to their customers and suppliers. A casual holiday like atmosphere prevails for most of the day (at least for sales personnel who are having lesser year end pressures, the accounts and finance personnel are usually in the midst of high work pressure). Bosses usually take time to sit and get into team building activities with their managers and associates. It is now considered appropriate to have a team bonding session, either in the form of a training or lunch session.


A holiday in the middle of a sweltering summer is always welcome and Bengali New Year is no exception. The day is usually marked by a sumptuous Bengali lunch, served course by course in much the same manner as Haute French cuisine (a comment given by an Ambassador from France in the 1960s).


A typical Bengali lunch would be the following items: Shukto (a melange of Indian summer vegetables cooked in milk and five spices with a bitter taste, to cleanse the palate), Bhaja Mooger Dal (Roasted Moong Dal usually served with Gourd or Peas). It may be noted that Dal is a gentler and subtler accompaniment to rice in Bengal than the humongous place it has in North India. Selection of Fritters (Potato fries, Brinjal fries, lentil fries, gourd fries) and the favourite Postor Bora (deep friend cutlets made with khus khus paste, onions and green chillies). Rice is usually a selection of white steamed rice or the typically Bengali Basanti Pulao (yellow rice with slightly sweet taste and served with deep fried onions and cashews)


Next come the vegetable curries which consist of Aloo Dum (curried flavourful potatoes served with pooris or parathas), Dhokar Dalna (diamond shaped squares of dal deep fried and cooked in tomato, onions and garlic gravy) and other lighter curries depending on the weather.


Now moving to the main non vegetarian curries, fish dominates as a matter of course and some famous fish preparations are the following: Rui or Katla curry (these are fish of daily consumption and a hearty affair cooked in tomato, onions and garlic), Ilish or Bhetki Paturi (these are premium fishes and steamed in a banana leaf with a marinated paste of mustard, coconut and green chillies), Chingri Malai curry (this the king of seafood which are tiger prawns cooked in coconut milk, tomatoes and simmered gently for a rich flavourful curry), Chital Macher Muitha (this is a dish made with eel like fish which have a meaty flavour and made into hand rolled roundels, which are fried and curried). Another time honoured option is to cook a light macher jhol (watery yet flavourful gruel with any of the fish with paanchphoron) for the simplest yet delicious lunch on a hot summer day!


Other options include: Chicken Malai Curry or simple chicken curry (curried chicken either with tomato, onions and garlic or a more elaborate feast with cashew and coconut paste), Mutton Curry (the same base of tomato, onions and garlic but with water as needed for a thick or watery gravy). As Navratri is over, there is no restriction on Non-Veg consumption.  The meal is finished off with chutney (Bengali cuisine does not have much of pickles), fried papadums and a plethora of sweets, followed by a digestive pan (betel leaf packages with areca nut fillings and organic mouth fresheners).  


After such a heavy lunch, an afternoon siesta is called for, with the submarine like bolster held tight for the right quality of sleep and the air conditioner purring like a cat licking cream. The evening calls now and after a cup of tea and biscuits to dispel the last traces of sleep, it is usually time to go for a movie, for a play or meeting friends to discuss matters of burning interest over Adda’. The therapeutic power of Adda is unrivalled and the conviviality quotient amongst like minded friends add to the atmosphere. 


Cultural programs are usually held in the evening which may be literary readings, poetry sessions, musical events and film viewings. The Bengali prides himself on being a cultural maven and uses Poila Boisakh to show his vast cultural metier from Kanika Bandyopadhyay to the modern rock bands like Chandrabindoo and Bhoomi. Cine Clubs (a dying breed but kept alive by die hard fans of Ray and Truffaut) organize special evenings with a select audience.  


Fairs are held in rural areas which are attended by the local population. Post the event, dinner is usually held in a posh restaurant or club.


The day is marked by red and white attire which is the traditional colours for Bengali New Year. And so the day ends, as the hot summer night replete with stars take over the velvety blue sky, the next year in the Bengal pantheon starts off and Poila Boisakh ends once more.     


What is the impact within the greater Bengali Diaspora, from Houston to New York and from Dublin to Kiev? The Bengali diaspora now extends to Dubai, to Lagos, to Singapore and Melbourne and Bengali New Year is celebrated here too, though there is no official holiday and no day off for the extended family earning their livelihood in foreign countries. In each of these places, Bengali New Year is a reaffirmation of the bond shared with their motherland – though they may be far away and having to adapt to the ways and culture of their adopted country. 


In Bengal itself, the onset of New Year is usually a holiday to cherish before the onset of summer when there are no holidays. There is thus a huge importance of Bengali New Year as a last holiday before the main festival season starts in early August. And so, the cycle of seasons roll on and the calendar nudges towards yet another year ending and beginning.


Author Shri Tapan Ganguli (age 81) is an Economics Graduate who joined IAS in 1964. Post a strong government career in various ministries, he took pre-mature retirement and worked in the Corporate Sector, leadership roles till 2000. He is based in Kolkata and interests include Culture, Current Affairs, International History, Personal Finance, Architecture and Photography.


To read all articles by author


Also read

1. April 14 is celebrated as New Year across India–know where and how celebrated

2. April 13-14 is Indigenous New Year across Asia

3. Why is Baisakhi celebrated and on what date

4. Significance of Gudi Padwa-New Year in Maharashtra

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