12 Months, 13 Festivals!
Or so at the very least! In Bangladesh, there have been a number of vibrant cultural traditions transcending the contemporary nuances and celebrating the diverse backgrounds of its many inhabitants. The Bengali idiomatic phrase “baaro maash ey tero paarbon” literally translates into “12 months, 13 festivals” – because the traditions of Bengali culture are comprised of a number of big celebrations, all over the year.
This has mostly been associated with the syncretic culture that has been part and parcel of the people of the Bengal delta. The active delta, which has been nurtured by the extension of the Himalayas through the Ganges-Brahmaputra river basin, deposits its silts in the Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal.1 These geographic elements have somewhat dominated, if not mostly shaped, the pattern weaved through the cultural aspects of Bengal – the eastern part of which we dub as contemporary Bangladesh.
But how so?
The Ganges-Brahmaputra delta has significantly contributed in moulding the pattern of sedentary agriculture in the vast sea-level swaths of plainlands, and the Bay of Bengal has been integral for the flourishing of trade between different parts of the world. These have, as a consequence, dictated patterns of migration, weaved the different patterns of cloth and culture, formed syncretism in the spread of religious ideations and nourished the majority of contemporary Bangladesh in a similarity of bhaat-ey machh-ey Bangali (rice and fish maketh a Bengali).
And one aspect through which all of these components find their expressions through the rank and file of every Bengali is the festivals which are considered to be part and parcel of the traditional life.
In a country where six seasons prevail (summer, rainy season, autumn, late autumn, winter and spring) – itself a cause for viva la vida – it is quite normal that the people will find different reasons to celebrate the uniqueness of every moment. With the mortality rate being very high before the advent of and access to life-saving technologies of the modern era, the fleeting moments of an average Bengali person have to be enjoyed in the utmost.
In Bangladesh, the confluence of the geographic elements can be perceived at every step of life. The Bengali calendar, which was introduced by the Mughal Emperor Akbar for the collection of revenue in accordance with seasonal cycles and harvests of crops, bears testimony to the level of importance that geography plays. The seasons were neatly placed in every two months of the calendar – with the start of the year in summer. The first two months, Baishakh and Jaishtha – are therefore heady seasons bearing tropical fruits to enjoy, and the Bengalis start the Bengali New Year with panta (soaked and fermented rice) and ilish (hilsha fish) – with spicy red chilis.
This beginning of festivities takes a different route in monsoon, or the rainy season falling between Ashar and Srabon. With heavy rainfalls and the roads vanishing underwater during the floods, this season is welcomed as a blessing for the silts is bears and for the fertility of crops. Such essential is this water that any monsoon without a droplet of rain would be termed as a sign for future calamities. Children of all religion would invoke songs for the coming of rain – be it the songs in the rural areas like Allah megh de paani de chhaya de re tui (God, give us clouds, give us water, provide us with shade of relief from the scorching heat!), or be it the Tagore songs in the cityscape – paagla hawa’r baadol din ey, paagol amar mon jege othe (With the arrival of the crazy monsoon winds, my unhinged heart feels awakened).
The autumn is a time of relative calm after the scorching heat of summer and the windy, heavy rainfalls after the monsoon. Bhadra and Ashwin – the two Bengali months comprising of this season, are filled with palm fruits harvested for amazing cakes – and the youth celebrates this time of white clouds and gentle river murmurs in sheer playfulness – aaj dhaan er khet ey roudro chhayay lukochuri khela (‘Tis the time of hide-and-seek, of the sun with the paddy fields, and with us).
The season after autumn, Hemanta, or the late autumn, is a season of special treats! For it is the time when the paddies are harvested for rice, and everyone celebrates the season of nabanna (celebration of new rice harvest) with pitha-pulis (decadent cakes and confectioneries made from rice). The months Karthik and Agrahayan smell of freshly made rice delicacies, and youths enthusiastically distribute their neighbours the food made in their own homes.
The festivities take a cold turn – but continue nonetheless during winter when the date trees provide the date juice collected from the barks and further sweetens up the rice cakes of late autumn. In dreary Paush and Maagh, all the people in the countryside gather together in the countryside for big bonfires and warm themselves up.
All of them gives way to the end of the Bengali calendar on a happy note of spring – when the blooms of flowers, the buzzing of bees and the gentle breeze after the harsh Himalayan winds are subsided. Falgun and Chaitra are the final masterstrokes of nature on the Bengal clime that fosters a mildness of character in relation with the temperament of tolerance amongst the people, and to top it off, the youth celebrates the first day of this season with St. Valentine’s Day! All in all, the festivities of the Bengalis are stark reminders of the country’s acceptance to various cultures, and traditions.