Young people release a paper lantern during the traditional Shakrain festival in old Dhaka on Jan. 14, 2020. The festival is hailed for its secular character. (Photo by Piyas Biswas)
As the feeble winter sun starts setting, thousands of residents of the old part of Dhaka, on the banks of the Buriganga, clamber to their rooftops — to sing and dance, and to fly kites of various colors and shapes.
As dusk descends, the boisterous crowd start releasing hundreds of paper lanterns and firework. Some flamboyant groups arrange for daylong programs including music concerts, parties and fire-breathing by brave young men.
Men, women and children from all faiths—Muslims, Hindus and Christians — greet each other and offer sweets and traditional pithas (homemade cakes).
The narrow streets of Old Dhaka get overcrowded as residents and visitors rush to celebrate the feast in whatever way they can.
This unique feast is Shakrain, which marks the start of the sun’s northward journey at the end of Poush, the ninth month of the local calendar. It also marks the end of the winter solstice and the start of longer days..
This year, Shakrain fell on Jan. 14-15.
A festival of tradition and harmony
Rintu Gomes, 39, a Catholic father of three, eagerly awaits Shakrain every year.
Gomes, an English teacher at the Church-run St. Francis Xavier Girls’ High School in Old Dhaka, this unique feast brings people of all faiths and classes together.
During the festival Gomes and his Muslim landowner climb up to the roof their apartment complex “together and fly kites and watch hundreds of paper lanterns being released into the sky together.”
“I also get invites from Hindu and Muslim colleagues and friends to celebrate the feast with them,” Gomes told UCA News.
The festival promotes harmony among various groups, and also helps continue old, rural traditions like kite-flying.
“Kite-flying was a popular pastime in rural areas, now it has been almost lost. Thanks to the feast, this tradition has survived,” he added.
The feast helps sustain a “pluralistic and multicultural” society in Bangladesh, said Taimur Islam, chief executive of the Urban Study Group, an organization working to save the cultural and natural heritage of Old Dhaka.
“The festival may have originated in Hinduism, but it is now a unique and universal festival,” Islam told UCA News, adding that probably kite flying was added to during the rule Muslim Mughal era.
“Kite-flying is a Central Asian tradition” popularized during Mughal area of South Asia. “That is why kite-flying is still popular in Muslim-majority areas of India of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh,” Islam said.
This unique festival requires government attention, so it can get global recognition, he says. “This universal feast in close to the hearts of people and it has a unique character. If the government is attentive and takes proper initiatives, I believe, one day it can get recognition as a world heritage from UNESCO,” he added.
“No more show-up”
The feast important for its message of peace and religious harmony, “but nowadays it has become more a “show-up,” says Holy Cross Father James S. Gomes, parish priest of the Holy Cross Church in Luxmi Bazar of the old city.
“Kite flying and meeting people used to be the most common features of the feast, but these days young people are more interested in loud music, DJ parties and fireworks. There was a spiritual and cultural vibe, but now it has become an event of sound pollution,” Father Gomes told UCA News.
The priest also wanted government involvement to make the feast more organized and not to cause of nuisance to people.
Bangladesh’s pluralism has been under threat due to the recent rise of religious extremism, so feasts such as Shakrain have significant value, said advocate Rana Dasgupta, secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council.
“Most feasts and festivals in our country are related to our language, culture and ancient rural traditions, which have nothing to do with religion. People celebrate them spontaneously as they are close to the hearts of people,” said Dasgupta.
During the days of the Raj and Pakistan rule, people were discouraged from celebrating their culture and traditions, but the people continued to celebrate. Even today, religious extremists try to misled people by branding such feasts as Hindu-centric and un-Islamic, he pointed out, but most people are tolerant and don’t pay heed to them.
“Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971, because most people believed it didn’t matter what religion they followed, language and culture are their identity and main reservoirs of life and hope,” he added.
“Shakrain is a very positive thing, and the more people get the inner meaning and go through a renewal the better it is for society and the nation,” Dasgupta said.