Traditional 'Naba Barsho' Celebrations
It's only the 15th century by the Bengali calendar, and Bengalis are fast forgetting the traditional ways to celebrate the 'Naba Barsho' (Beng. naba = new, barsho = year). However, people still wear new clothes, exchange sweets and pleasantries among friends and acquaintances. Younger people touch the feet of elders and seek their blessings for the coming year. There's also a custom of wearing gem-studded rings to appease the stars and planets! Near and dear ones send gifts and greeting cards to each other. These are often handmade, and based on local theme, or they may be costly ones from international brands, like Hallmark or Archies Greetings. Free Bengali New Year greetings e-cards are also available online.
Panjika, the Bengali Almanac!
As the year draws to a close, Bengalis throng to the bookstall to book a copy of Panjika, the Bengali almanac. It's a rather fat yearlong handbook to help you find festival timings, favorable days, auspicious dates for anything from wedding to housewarming, from starting a journey to launching a business and more. Panjika publishing is a big business in Kolkata with Gupta Press, PM Bagchi, Benimadhab Seal and Rajendra Library vying with each other for their share of the Bangla Almanac pie. The Panjika comes in several sizes - directory, full, half and pocket. Panjikas have come of age with innovative content, like phone numbers of hospitals, doctors and police stations, religious festival timings for people abroad - in Bangladesh, US and UK - all in local time, making them veritable hot cakes for the Bengali diaspora. Although the English calendar has gained precedence over the Bengali Calendar over the years, almost all events in rural Bengal takes place according to the Bengali calendar. Baisakh also ushers in the beginning of the new agricultural season in Bengal.
Bengali Year-end Fairs
Hindus throughout Bengal celebrate the year-end or 'Chaitra Sankranti' with some exciting fairs and festivals like Gajan and Charak. Traditional Charak Mela, which includes some really savage spiritual acrobatics, is held across small and big towns in West Bengal, culminating in Latu Babu-Chhatu Babur Bazar in North Kolkata on the last day of the year, and the day after at Konnagar, venue of Bengal's only 'Basi Charaker Mela'.
Haal Khata for Traders in Bengal
For Bengali traders and shop owners, Poila Baisakh is Haal Khata time - an auspicious day to 'open' the ledger. Ganesh and Lakshmi Puja are solemnized in almost all shops and business centers, and regular customers are formally invited to attend the evening party. To consumers, it may not always be something to look forward to, for Haal Khata also means settling of all outstanding dues of the preceding year.
Bengali New Year Cuisine
The Bengali penchant for gormandizing good food comes through best on Poila Baisakh. Household kitchens exude the aroma of freshly prepared Bengali delicacies, especially sweet dishes, because it's thought to be a good omen to start the year with mishtanna or traditional sweets such as Rosogollas, Payesh, Sandesh, Kalakand and Ras Malai. The New Year cuisine for lunch, of course, contains various preparations of fish and rice. Those who prefer to go out to eateries get to have some pure pleasantries for the palate, and other mouthwatering culinary dalliances.
Poila Boishakh Celebrations in India & Bangladesh
There is a subtle difference between the way Bangladesh and West Bengal ring in the New Year. Although Poila Baisakh is very much a part of the Hindu calendar, 'Naba Barsho' is a national festival for the Islamic State of Bangladesh, and a distinctly greater exuberance marks the festivities in this part of Bengal. While it's Poila Boishakh in West Bengal, it's 'Pahela Baisakh' in Bangladesh. It's a public holiday in Kolkata, but in Dhaka, even newspaper offices remain closed for the Bengali New Year.
One thing that's common to both sides of the border is ushering in the New Year with Rabindra Sangeet or Tagore's musical invocation Esho Hey Baisakh Esho Esho (Come Baisakh, Come O Come!), or the relatively obscure composition Aaj Ranashaje Bajiye Bishan Esheche Esheche Baisakh.
Dhaka denizens start early at daybreak with public celebrations of Poila Baisakh at the Ramna Maidan. Most Kolkatans prefer to celebrate it under the cultural masquerade of music and dance. Kolkata's film town Tollygunge celebrates the New Year with the auspicious mahurat functions of Bengali movies, a traditional part of Poila Baisakh at Tollywood, Bengal's center of filmmaking. The city witnesses several special programs on the occasion, and the places that attract most people are Nandan, the Calcutta Town Hall, New Market and the Maidan.
Don't forget to wish your Bengali friends "Shubho Naba Barsho!" (Happy New Year!) on Poila Boishakh, mid-April every year.