Hilsa, our national fish, has become an inseparable part of Pahela Baishakh (Bangla New Year) celebrations, but experts say the practice has no roots in a thousand years of Bengali tradition.
Welcoming the New Year is a national festival in Bangladesh and is celebrated with much ado. A dish of panta-ilish (a combination of rice soaked in water overnight and Hilsa fried, steamed or in curry) is usually featured on the day’s menu.
This practice of eating Hilsa on the first day of Baishakh is of recent origin, Bangla Academy Director General Prof Shamsuzzaman Khan told BBC Bangla.
“Baishakh, the first month of Bangla calendar, is a hot and mostly dry season interspersed with sporadic nor’westers. Farmers usually have no extra money to have Hilsa to celebrate the New Year. It is not true that farmers eat Hilsa during the celebration. So, the ritual of having Hilsa has nothing to do with ancient Bangla New Year,” said Prof Khan.
It is the brainchild of some shopkeepers who put up stalls during the New Year celebrations at Ramna in Dhaka.
For the first time in Bangladesh, the government and some social media platforms started campaigns to spread awareness among people to not have Ilish on the day as it is their breeding season. To ensure Hilsa can mature till the spawning season, the ministry has taken initiatives to protect netting of Hilsa, said Barisal District Fishery Officer Wahiduzzaman.
In 2005, the government imposed a ban from September 25 to October 9 on catching, selling and transporting Hilsa in the coastal areas to ensure the safe spawning of this popular fish during its peak breeding period.
In the campaign, it says there is no tradition of having Hilsa during the Pahela Baishakh celebration in the history. So, for better production of this fish, the ministry urges people not to add Hilsa in the menu on the first day of Bengali year.
Consumption of Hilsa on Pahela Baishakh is not only harmful for the fish stock but can even destroy this precious resource, it says.
Popular band musician Maksudul Haque said, “There is no relation of having Ilish with the celebration of Bengali New Year. You will see in the villages, there is no Ilish now. Moreover, we are having not only the fish but also the eggs and destroying it.”
Hilsa live in the shallow coastal waters of the Bay of Bengal and in the local estuaries and rivers. The marine fish move inland into rivers to spawn during July to September, and during March and April. The freshwater population do not appear to move about much.
According to the international fish research organization World Fish, Hilsa is available along the coasts of India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Iran and also some other countries of the world. However, the fish selects the Ganges basin of Bangladesh for breeding.
Mother Hilsas gather in the rivers of the country to lay their eggs in monsoon. Hilsas are available from 1200 to 1300 kilometers upstream of the river and up to 250 kilometers away from the coast. They usually get even tastier when they swim into the fresh water, washing away the salinity.