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New Year spirit endures despite Bangladesh lockdown

Tradition and culture take a back seat to the coronavirus as people pray for an end to the pandemic

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New Year spirit endures despite Bangladesh lockdown

A traditional Bangla New Year procession winds its way through Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in 2018. (Photo: UCA News) 

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For Joseph Komol Rodrigues, Pohela Boishakh, the first day of the Bangla calendar, is a time for celebrating tradition and culture in the midst of nature and people.

Rodrigues, 67, a Catholic and prominent musician, usually spends the whole day of Bangla New Year, which falls on April 14, performing in cultural programs in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka and the countryside.

Bangla New Year is the largest non-sectarian and cultural festival in Bangladesh. It not only celebrates traditional rural culture and roots but is also considered a beacon of pluralism and harmony in the Muslim-majority country.

The scenario is completely different this year due to the deadly coronavirus pandemic, which has forced Bangladesh to enforce a long shutdown and ban all kinds of public gatherings.

The shutdown has also forced major social and cultural organizations to call off all New Year programs and festivities.

“Due to a global crisis, we are locked at home and cannot celebrate the festival with nature and people. Yet the spirit of Bangla New Year is with us. It will help us to overcome the crisis and inspire us to be committed to harmony and pluralism,” Rodrigues, a father of two, told UCA News.

New Year spirit also calls on people to change heart and refrain from hurting nature, he said.

“Coronavirus is the revenge of nature because we have failed to perform our duties as children of nature and hurt nature in many ways. We must ask for forgiveness from nature and promise not to attack nature anymore,” Rodrigues added.

Joyanta Roy, 33, a Hindu, celebrates Bangla New Year with family, friends and relatives every year. But this year he is confined to his residence in Dhaka and there is no chance of any celebrations.

This morning, all 12 residents of his apartment building gathered for a common prayer on the occasion of New Year and shared paes (sweetened rice) together. For lunch, they planned to enjoy panta (leftover rice soaked in water) and ilish (Hilsha fish), a popular New Year dish.

“We feel sad that due to coronavirus we are unable to go out and celebrate this great festival. But we are keeping our spirit highs and hope and pray that this crisis will be over soon,” Roy told UCA News.

A Dhaka University student paints a face mask ahead of Bangla New Year celebrations in 2018. (Photo: UCA News)

Tradition, culture and harmony

The Bangla calendar respects the lunisolar system of 12-month, six-season schedule. It is followed in the Bengali-speaking region of the Indian sub-continent, including Bangladesh cutting across religious or ethnic differences.

The new year starts on the first day of the Bangla month of Boishakh, thus the festival is popularly known as Pohela Boishakh (First of Boishakh).

Bangla New Year days also coincide with Asian calendars, such as those used in Assam, Tripura, Manipur, Odisha, Jharkhand, Kerala and Tamil Nadu states of India as well as in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.   

Ethnic Bangalees (Bengali speakers) in Bangladesh, India and beyond celebrate the festival with much enthusiasm and fanfare, paying homage to the simple rural cultural heritage of ancient Bengal.

The festival is also considered a cornerstone of Bangla language, culture and nationalism for native Bangalees, the largest ethno-linguistic group in South Asia.

Bangla New Year begins at sunrise with the popular song of Nobel laurate Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, Esho He Boishakh (Come, O Boishakh).

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.

Traditionally, women wear red-edged white saree and men wear white or red pajama and panjbai during the festival.

On the day, businessmen open haalkhata (new account books) and serve customers with sweets.

This year, all such festivities have been suspended due to Covid-19.

Chhayanaut, a leading cultural organization, announced about two weeks ago that the traditional New Year welcoming ceremony under a Banyan tree at Dhaka’s Ramna Park would not take place this year

The Fine Arts Institute of Dhaka University also announced the cancellation of the popular welfare procession.

Similarly, all street programs, concerts and fairs, both in urban and rural areas, have been called off.

Prayer for humanity

In Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in southeast Bangladesh, ethnic indigenous people celebrate their New Year festivals in unique and traditional ways.

The Boishuk of Tripura, Sangrai of Marma and Biju of Chakma communities — collectively called BOISABI — usually put on a spectacular and colorful show of ethnic culture and traditions.

People on the hills are praying for humanity, said Francis Tripura, an ethnic Tripura Catholic from Bandarban district of CHT.

“The New Year festival cuts across faiths and ethnicities and invigorates people on the hills. However, this year, due to coronavirus, people are anxious and confined at home. But they are praying like us so that God can save us from this crisis,” Tripura, 46, told UCA News.

“Maybe the end of the year has been bad, but we hope the new year will bring us blessings.”


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