Origins of the Bengali Calendar

A. Rahman
Published : 4 May 2015, 01:29 PM
Updated : 4 May 2015, 01:29 PM

Only a few weeks ago, Bangladesh celebrated Bengali New Year's day (Bangla Noboborsho) with unprecedented razzmatazz – colourful festoons donned the apartments in high-rise buildings, rickshaws, and even 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 a long three months of suffering from the political 'blockades' and 'strikes'.

Was that jubilation an outburst of conviviality 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 – though there were bright lights all 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 their clothes violently in full public view.

There were, of course, pussycat police officers around 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 the weak and distressed, looked on as simple bystanders like the goons kept on assaulting the women. Only a few brave souls rescued the women under attack, and in the process suffered physical injury. They managed to rescue the distraught women. Traumatised women dashed into nearby buildings to escape from these hyenas. Police had little or no help at all.

Soul searching and deep introspection by conscientious people commenced, querying how and why such thuggery took place in a peaceful atmosphere in public, and who these thugs were.

What transpired within the last two weeks is that block-headed religious persons, perhaps Jamaati people, and people with fundamentalist ideas (as well as pure sex maniacs), viewed such Noboborsho celebration as nothing but an incursion to, and erosion of Islamic culture in the country by the Hindu culture. Their view is that the Bengali New Year is non-Islamic and should have no place in Muslim Bangladesh.

Such a view that Bangla Noboborsho and the 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 moronic cadre come and claim something without any foundation in basic knowledge. Their claim could not be farther from the truth.

Let me give a 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. He did so in order to facilitate administrative procedures 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, Mughal 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 (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 year 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 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 1422. This is how we have 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 shortby 459 x 11 = 5049 days with regard to solar calendar.

This then produced just over 14 years (5049/355) in Islamic calendar. In other words, an extra 14 years were produced in the Islamic calendar since the commencement of the Bengali calendar, 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 the Iranian calendar. West Bengal uses a Bengali calendar where the New Year's day is 15th April.

Thus we can categorically deny any claim that the Bengali Calendar belongs to a Hindu religion or culture and that following this calendar is un-Islamic. Such assertions are utter rubbish.

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 flags in support of such thuggery should hang their heads in shame, because there was no religious basis whatsoever nor moral justification for such behaviour.

Dr. A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

(Acknowledgement: I gratefully acknowledge the assistance given by Mr Abdul Quddus, a veteran socio-cultural guru in Leeds, England.)

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher