In the spirit of Pohela Boishakh
The Bangla New Year is a relatively “new” celebration, but “Songkranti,” or in Thailand, “Songkran,” goes back into the millennia.
It comes from the Sanskrit, “Sankranta” and means “a move or change.” It is, I understand, related to the Zodiac cycle and, of course, any point in the circle is both a beginning and an end.
In northern India, for instance, April is the beginning of spring, when the trees start to bud and bloom and the hibernating animals come out to find food, so, a new beginning. So, for the ancient Indian people, April was a sign of new life and marked the beginning of a new year.
And so, about 10 years ago, I visited an Ecological Agricultural Centre at Pathrail, Delduar, Tangail, where they were observing “Songkranti.” In Bengal, certainly, Songkranti has cut across all religions, and indeed was there before any religion came to this part of the world.
Traditionally, the villages still follow certain customs. Early in the morning on the Songkranti day, the spiritual leaders drink a very nutritious drink to give them energy through the day on which they might fast. The drink is called Chatu, and is prepared from millet and sorghum. On arrival, I drank a glass of this, and also a glass of “bel” juice, known to have properties that protect one from sunstroke. We were also given two types of puffed reddish rice, combined with “tok doi” (yoghurt) and liquid “gur.”
At a fair, thousands of Naya Krishi Andolan farmers from many parts of the country had come to join a seminar and to participate in the cultural celebrations of Songkranti. Also, a number of local Tangail weavers had set up stalls to market their beautiful handloom cloth.
About 500 weaving families, I was told then, survive reasonably well by selling their products through Prabartana in Mohammadpur and other outlets. Sadly, however, hundreds of other weavers remain, like bonded labour, in the clutches of the mahajans.
I met a village midwife surrounded by more than 50 different medicinal plants in pots which she uses for different problems related to pre-natal, natal, and post-natal problems. Surely, I say to myself, there is a need to spread this indigenous knowledge further.
She emphasized that for full effect, the plants should be growing in their natural habitat and not in pots. The pots were just brought to the fair to educate people like us.
Naya Krishi Andolan has a community seed wealth centre, where it preserves and multiplies indigenous rice seed. At the time of my visit, they had identified that about 1,200 local varieties were doing well in different parts of the country, but about 500 were endangered varieties.
We keep hearing that because of climate change, new genetically modified hybrid varieties must be developed for drier places, hotter places, more flooded places. At this centre, varieties have already been classified in this way. The local varieties, I was told, already, going back centuries, have the qualities to face up to the problems expected with climate change.
I first visited this area nearly 30 years ago, and visited the villages and studied the agriculture and peoples’ livelihoods. Talking to the local people that day, especially farmers, was interesting and depressing. They say that since there are no more birds of prey, such as kites, hovering up in the sky, it is clear that the food chain has broken, and that we are heading for some sort of catastrophe.
In the old days, the fish and frogs in the paddy fields would eat the insects, and the kites would eat the mice and rats. There are no fish in the paddy fields now, and there are far, far fewer frogs.
Later on, I joined a Songkranti lunch. On this day, no meat, fish, or eggs should be eaten. To emphasize the strong link between man and nature, 14 different types of spinach are eaten, and all 14 varieties have to be uncultivated, and collected from here and there.
Pohela Boishakh and remembering April 14, 1971
I was first introduced to Pohela Boishakh by the Bengali community in Gaya, Bihar, India, where I lived and worked in the late 1960s. If Songkranti brings the year to a close, Pohela Boishakh on April 14 is a new beginning.
I found that people thoroughly cleaned their houses and went to visit their relations and friends usually wearing new clothes. The cleaning of houses reminded me of my childhood in London, when every March/April, my mother would embark on spring cleaning.
In 1971, while refugee camps were being hurriedly set up in the border areas of India and Bangladesh, Indians living near the border shared the special foods of that day with the families that had fled in fear from Bangladesh. The singing of Tagore songs about Pohela Boishakh gradually brought a few smiles to the faces of the refugee families.
Years later, after coming to Bangladesh and enjoying many Pohela Boishakh occasions, I have always looked forward to tasting the special foods of the day, especially panta bhat and fried illish, always accompanied by different types of bhorta.
It is such a very special day -- with the colours, the new clothes, the music, and the wonderful food, and everyone wishing each other Shubho Noboborsho.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the Friends of Liberation War Honour in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971, and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.