It's that time of the year again. Your saris and punjabis have been bought. The guest list readied, the menu set, décor changed. It's burning out there, but Pohela Boishakh comes once in a year, so you are ready to hit the streets to welcome it in style and grandeur.
Boishakh, contrary to popular belief, is not limited to Bengali speaking communities. Technically, it is not even a celebration unique to Bengalis. In fact, Mughal Emperor Akbar was the one to introduce the calendar, as the Islamic lunar calendar did not agree with the harvesting season for which farmers found it difficult to pay taxes out of season. Starting with a simple halkhata and exchange of sweets, Pohela Boishakh gradually became a day of celebration with fairs and festivities being organized in the countries where it was celebrated.
The King of Bhaktapur in Nepal wanted to find a husband for his daughter. However, each time he finalized an alliance, the groom would be found dead on the marital bed the day after the wedding. One day the father of the next prospective groom offered to take his son's place on the marital bed, and forcing himself to stay awake, the substitute groom saw two deadly serpents slithering out of the nostrils of the princess. He quickly killed the snakes and broke the spell, earning the respect and gratitude of the people of Bhaktapur. This legend is the basis of the Bisket Jatra celebrated in the cultural capital of Nepal, Bhaktapur, for a week from early April. Eventually this festival became a part of the New Year's celebrations in Nepal.
Sabina Thapa Magar a Nepalese says that Sambat, as New Year's is known in Nepal, is considered to be a day to purify the soul, and which is why Nepalese start the day by worshiping their deities and praying for longevity. “We usually have family gatherings at home where we invite relatives and celebrate by having a feast. Youngsters these days welcome the New Year's in a club, where they attend dance parties at night. And of course there is the Bisket Jatra, which is a festival on its own,” she says.
Bohag Bihu, the Assamese New Year, is celebrated over a span of seven days. On the first day, which is also the last day of the previous year, goru bihu is observed, where the cows are washed and worshipped. The New Year on April 15 begins with the observance of manuh bihu, where people don new clothes after taking a shower, and welcome the festival by visiting friends and relatives. Gosai, which means Gods, is celebrated on the third day when the statues of every deity is cleaned and worshipped, with offerings made to them. Bihu geets are sung and people dance to these songs but even this simple gesture has a significance to Assamese beliefs and culture. Interestingly, the festival of harvest is also celebrated as a festival of fertility, and women celebrate their fertility by moving to the energetic beats of the dhol. In the basest sense of the word, the bihu dance can thus be known as a mating ritual for young men and women.
A pot with a hole at the bottle is filled with a sweet drink called pana, mishri sweets and water is hung on a basil plant in Odisha. The water, representing rain, falls from the hole. Pana Sankranti, the New Year's in Odisha, is thus named after the sweet pana drink. The Danda Nata or the stick dance is the main attraction of Pana Sankranti, where male participants known as Bhoktas tell stories through their dance performances. Legend has it that Lord Shiva was teaching the Tandava dance to his son Lord Ganesha when he kicked the stage he was on, and it made a 'dan' sound. A piece of Shiva's anklet fell on a Mardal, a drum like musical instrument, resulting in a resounding 'da 'sound. These two sounds were combined to form the word 'Danda.' Bhoktas are not allowed to eat meat or fish during the 13-day long festival, and they are forbidden from carrying out any activity that might compromise with their devotion to god.
The people of Laos have a special way of welcoming the new year in April; they set small animals such as birds, fish, eels and tortoises free. Laotians also believe in cleansing themselves of the past year, and thus revellers are soaked in water during the Pii Mai celebrations. The tradition of using water comes from the tale of the selfless King Kabinlaphon who was decapitated after losing a bet with the Sage Thammaban. However, he warned everyone that if his head touched the earth, a great fire would swallow the world, if it touched the sea, all the oceans would dry up and if it touched the sky, there would be no rainfall. He thus instructed his seven daughters to place his decapitated head in a cave on the foot of Mount Sumeru, which was far away from the reach of both humans and gods, to save everyone from the wrath of nature that would be a result of his death. One of the daughters would visit their father's grave every year to wash the decapitated head, leading a procession around the base of the mountain to pay respect to the slain king. This is the reason why the annual beauty pageant to crown Miss Lao New Year is held during the Pii Mai with seven contestants who symbolise the seven daughters of Kabinlaphom.
Sri Lankans believe that the Lord of Peace, Indradev, descended upon earth on Aluth Avurudda to spread the message of peace and happiness to everyone. The sighting of the new moon is the first of the many Avurudda rites, followed by bathing to wash away the old year. This leads to the nonagathe period, where any form of work is considered inauspicious, as people indulge in worship and celebrations during this time. Sinhalese traditionally begin the New Year at a time determined by astrological calculations. The New Year is mostly welcomed by women who congregate to play the Raban, a kind of drum, to announce the change in the year. After the morning activities where the household chores are carried out according to the auspicious time, Sri Lankans welcome each other warmly before indulging in loud celebrations and delicious feasts.
No matter where and how Boishakh is celebrated, this festival symbolises the renewal of hope for the future, while reaffirming our bond with nature. Shubho Noboborsho, everyone!