Origin of the Bengali Calendar

Published on Saturday, May 2, 2015

Only a couple of weeks ago, Bangladesh celebrated the Bengali New Year's day (Bangla Nobo borsho) with unprecedented razzmatazz – colourful festoons donned the apartments in high rise buildings, in rickshaws and even in lamp posts; women wearing bright yellow saris chanted Noboborsho welcoming songs; girls with garlands in their hands walked the streets, as if to offer garlands to the exalted souls of the New Year. An unprecedented air of jubilation and a feeling of festivity overtook the minds of the populace, who only a few days earlier emerged from long three months of suffering from political 'blockades' and 'strikes'.

Was that jubilation and conviviality an outburst of feelings after the political turmoil and religious excesses in the country? It might well be the case. When this occasion arose, people embraced this cultural thread to the full and expressed their cultural feelings. Celebrations all over the country, particularly in the capital city of Dhaka, went on throughout the whole day and well into the evening. But then things started to fall apart.

As darkness fell – but there were bright lights around – the vicious sex predators in gangs of twenty or thirty started to round up the singing and celebrating women in public places in and around the Dhaka University campus. These gangs surrounded groups of women and started tearing up their clothes violently in the full public view. There were, of course, pussycat police officers around, but they were too scared to intervene and rescue the women. These police officers on duty gave the impression that they were there to celebrate the party, not to maintain law and order, which may require intervening in public disturbances!

Even the Bangladeshi general public, who were normally viewed as always helpful to weak and distressed people, looked on as simple bystanders as the goons kept on assaulting the women. Only a very few brave souls went on to rescue those women under attack and in the process suffered physical injuries but they managed to rescue the distraught women. The traumatised women dashed into nearby buildings to escape from these hyenas. Police had little or no help at all.

The soul searching and deep introspection by the conscientious people had started, querying how and why such thuggery did take place in a peaceful celebratory atmosphere in public places and who were these thugs? What transpired within the last two weeks is that the block-headed religious people, quite likely to be the Jamaati people and people with fundamentalist ideas (as well as pure sex maniacs), viewed such Nabobarsho celebration as nothing but an incursion and erosion of Islamic culture in the country by the Hindu culture. Their view is that the Bengali New Year is un-Islamic and should have no place in Muslim Bangladesh.

Such a view that Bangla Noboborsho and Bangla calendar is an incursion from the Hindu culture to Muslim Bangladesh is not only blatantly communal and racist but also grossly misconceived. These madrassah educated, totally imbecile and moronic, cadre claim something without any foundation and basic knowledge. Their claim could not be furthest from the truth. Let me give the brief background of the history of Bengali Calendar and how the 14th of April this year is used to usher in 1422 BS (Bangla Sôn).

The third Mughal Emperor, Muhammad Akbar (also known as Akbar the Great), was instrumental in promulgating a new Bengali Calendar after modifying the then existing calendar in order to facilitate the administrative procedure and to fix a firm tax collection date in Bengal. At that time the calendar that used to be utilised was known as Tarikh-e-Elahi, which followed the Islamic lunar calendar. The lunar year consists of twelve months, but has 354 or 355 days (following 12 lunar rotations round the earth). Thus there is a drift of about 10 or 11 days every year between the lunar and solar (Gregorian) calendars.

This created a major practical problem. A firm date (for that matter any date) fixed for the collection of taxes, normally designated at the end of harvest period, gradually came forward by about 11 days every year and fell out of season. This meant that whereas a tax collection date might have been originally fixed after the harvest period gradually drifted forward and became a date prior to the harvest after a few years. This created immense misery to the farmers to pay taxes before the harvest!

Realising that practical problem, the Moghul Emperor, Akbar along with the royal astronomer, Fathullah Shirazi, developed the Bengali calendar. It was a synthesis of Islamic lunar calendar and the modern solar calendar of 365 days (366 leap year days).

The year Akbar took over the reign of the Mughal Empire was 1556 AD (Anno Domini)(the Gregorian Calendar). That year in Islamic calendar was 963 AH (Anno Hegirae)). He promulgated that a new calendar would be started on the 1st of Muharram (which is the first month in the Islamic Calendar) in that year of 963 AH. Following that system, the Calendar would follow the solar year (365 days) and so no mismatch between the new calendar and the seasons would arise from that time. That calendar was used over the centuries as the Bangla Calendar with Bangla names for the months (Boishakh, Jyoishto etc.).

However, that calendar was slightly revised during the Pakistan days by a committee headed by Dr. Mohammad Shahidullah under the auspices of the Bangla Academy in 1966. That revised version (when 14th April was fixed as the beginning of the year) was adopted officially in Bangladesh in 1987. That is the calendar that ushers in the Bengali New Year.

Now the question is how did we get the year 1422 BS on the 14th of April 2015 AD? The following consideration would show how it is done. As the start of this calendar was 1556 AD (Akbar's accession to the throne), which was also the beginning of the Islamic year 963 AH, 459 years (2015 AD – 1556 AD) had passed since then until now. Now adding 459 years to the Islamic year of 963 AH (when the system started), we get the 1422. This is how we got the New Year of 1422 BS this year.

Also one can analyse the difference between the Bengali Calendar and the Islamic Calendar. The Islamic year now is 1436 AH, whereas the Bengali year is 1422 BS. The time when divergence took place was in 1556 AD and during these intervening 459 years (2015-1556) the Islamic calendar fell short by 459 x 11 = 5049 days with regard to solar calendar, which then produced just over 14 years (5049/355) in Islamic calendar. In other words, extra 14 years were produced in Islamic calendar since the Bengali calendar started and that explains why it is 1436 AH, but 1422 BS.

The adoption and modification of calendars are done by many countries - Islamic or non-Islamic - to suit their needs. Iran uses the Solar Hijri Calendar, called the Sham Hijri (SH), which begins with the vernal equinox (the start of Spring in the northern hemisphere). The length of time between vernal equinox and autumnal equinox is about 186 days and 10 hours and the other cycle is 178 days. Afghanistan uses a slight variation of Iranian calendar. West Bengal uses a Bengali calendar where the New Year's day is 15th April.

Thus we can categorically say that any claim that the Bengali Calendar belongs to Hindu religion and Hindu culture and to follow this calendar is un-Islamic is utter rubbish (even we disregard blatantly communal stance). The attack on women when they were celebrating the New Year (Noboborsho) was totally barbaric and pure thuggery. Those religious bigots who came out with naked religious flag in support of such thuggery should hang their heads in shame, because there was no religious basis whatsoever or moral justification for such behaviour.

(Contributions of Mr Abdul Quddus, a veteran socio-cultural guru in Leeds, England is gratefully acknowledged.)

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