An ethnic indigenous troupe performs a traditional dance on the eve of Bangla New Year celebrations in Chittagong Hill Tracts on April 11. (ucanews.com photo)
Sumon Howlader gets nostalgic as mid-April draws near and people in Bangladesh’s bustling capital city Dhaka gear up to celebrate Bangla New Year, the country’s largest annual non-sectarian cultural festival.
Popularly known as Pohela Boishakh (First of Boishakh), the first day of the Bangla calendar, the festival falls on April 14, a designated public holiday across Bangladesh.
“The day used to start with eating panta (water-soaked leftover rice) and fried ilish (hilsa fish). Together with friends we used to organize a picnic, sports, cultural functions and prize-giving programs with our own money,” Howlader, 25, a Baptist Christian from Khulna district, told ucanews.com.
“Children and young people participated and enjoyed it so much, and the parents and elderly encouraged us.”
A traditional village fair attracted people of all ages including boisterous groups of children. “We bought various kinds of tasty food and sweets as well as toys at the fair, and we returned home tired but overjoyed,” he added.
Those days are distant but sweet memories for the young man who later moved to Khulna city for secondary education and to Dhaka four years ago to pursue higher education.
He is studying for a marketing degree at renowned Jagannath University and has no chance to return to his southern home to celebrate the festival like he did years ago. Instead, he celebrates the day with his friends in the capital city.
“Pohela Boishakh is a very significant festival for everyone in the nation. It celebrates our roots, traditions and culture, and it teaches us to keep aside our religious and ethnic differences for harmony, peace and prosperity,” Howlader said.
“The festival is a huge cultural extravaganza and merriment for people in urban areas like Dhaka. The question is whether many people just celebrate it or get the real message the New Year brings for us.”
Ethnic indigenous girls perform a traditional dance on the eve of New Year celebrations in Chittagong Hill Tracts on April 11. (ucanews.com photo)
Bangla New Year celebrates the simple rural cultural heritage and traditions of Bangalee (Bengali-speaking) people in ancient Bengal, which today comprises Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.
The festival is seen as a cornerstone of language, culture and nationalism for Bangalees in Bangladesh, India and diaspora communities across the globe.
Musical concerts, cultural programs, singing, dancing and a colorful mongol shovajatra (welfare procession) with masks and figurines of birds, animals and dolls are common features of the festivities.
On the streets, crowds enjoy fairs and popular folk traditions such as puppet shows, circuses, snake charming, cock fighting and street plays. Panta-ilish and various sweets are common foods at the feast.
Traditional attire is a red-edged white saree for women and a red or white panjabi and pajama for men.
On the day, businessmen open haalkhata (new account books) and serve customers with sweets, a traditional system introduced by Mughal Emperor Akbar as part of his taxation reform policy in Bengal in 1584.
Basically a rural tradition, Pohela Boishakh has gained more popularity in urban areas in modern times as rural people migrate to cities for education, employment and a better life.
A student paints face masks ahead of the Bangla New Year festival on April 11, 2016. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Apart from the majority Bengali people, there are some three million ethnic indigenous people in Muslim-majority Bangladesh’s population of more than 160 million.
One of them is Akhi Marma, 25, an ethnic Marma Buddhist from Rangamati district of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in the southeast.
She moved to Dhaka five years ago after completing secondary education, found a job in a beauty parlor and fell in love and married an ethnic Garo Catholic two years ago.
Every year, Akhi visits her village home to celebrate an indigenous New Year festival, which helps her to revisit roots and to embolden her cultural identity.
“Only once in the past five years have I missed the festival due to workload and I was so sad. Apart from external festivities, the Bangla and indigenous New Year festivals are the same in the spirit — bidding farewell to the old, and welcoming the new, for harmony, peace and prosperity,” Akhi told ucanews.com.
The CHT, the country’s only mountainous region and bordered by India and Myanmar, is home to about 25 ethnic indigenous groups with their own languages, culture and traditions.
The groups follow the Bengali calendar but have their unique and distinct New Year celebrations. Boishuk, Sangrai and Biju are the most popular New Year festivals of three major ethnic groups — Tripura, Marma and Chakma. The three festivals are collectively called Boisabi and celebrated from April 12-14.
People float flowers on rivers and bathe in order to cleanse evil and to seek divine blessings for peace and prosperity. They dress up in their unique traditional attire, visit temples, cook delicacies and take part in traditional activities.
The event ends with a water festival, mostly celebrated by young men and women.
People take part in a Bangla New Year procession in Dhaka on April 14, 2018. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Observers say New Year celebrations in cities like Dhaka are often extravagant and exhibitory.
“The spirit of Bangla New Year is the same, but there is a difference in celebrations and expressions. Nowadays, people focus more on what they should wear or eat and where they should go to enjoy their time,” Cornelius Milon D’Cruze, a Catholic teacher and activist, told ucanews.com.
“External expressions get priority and internalization of the spirit often goes missing. If we save our culture and tradition to celebrate once a year, the festival and celebrations bear no fruit. We should behold our culture, tradition and New Year spirit in our everyday life.”
The message of commonality and non-communalism should sum up the festival, according to Saiful Islam, a Muslim and secretary of Dhaka-based cultural group Prachyanat.
“People celebrate the feast from different social, religious and economic perspectives, but there is one common thing — welcoming the new and leaving behind the old. It cuts across faiths and ethnicities to usher a sense of togetherness. We are called upon to behold and to act upon this spirit not just for one day but all the year round,” Islam told ucanews.com.