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The Bangla calendar and history of Bengal

by M Inamul Haque

New year procession at Charukala, Dhaka UniversityNew year procession at Charukala, Dhaka University

THE Bangla calendar is a solar year of 12 months, starts on the April 14 of the Gregorian calendar, is now 1,420 years old. There is, however, controversy over its origin. Many scholars maintain that it is an offshoot of the Hegira or Hijri calendar. Amir Fathullah Shirazi, an astronomer in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar in India, introduced the Bangla calendar, modifying the Hegira lunar calendar into a solar one, they say.
The Bangla calendar is also a crop calendar, because it corresponds with the three cropping seasons of the Bengal basin — aus, aman and rabi. They are equally divided into four months from the start to the end of the calendar. Both the end and the beginning of the Bangla calendar mark with great festivity in our culture. In the commercial market, the last day marks the closure of all transactions and the opening of new accounts (halkhata) on Naba Barsha (New Year).
It is observed that not only in Bangladesh or in West Bengal of India, the Naba Barsha is celebrated throughout South and Southeast Asia, e.g. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, some parts of China, Malaysia and Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and in Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Kerala, Orissa, Bihar, Assam, Punjab, Kashmir, Himachal, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Manipur of India on the same day (April 13-14).
It appears that a tradition, either by older influences of Indian culture, or a tradition corresponding to the cropping seasons on seasonal variations in the climate, had firm roots in people’s life through ages in this region.

Historical records
MANY scholars in Bangladesh and India have written many books on the origin of the Bangla calendar. The Bangla Academy has published a well-written book by Muhammad Abu Talib [Bangla Saner Janmakatha (Origin of Bangla Calendar), 1993], which gives a detailed analysis of the different opinions on the subject. The writer, however, quotes Ain-i-Akbari for confirmation that the Bangla calendar is a creation of the Mughal emperor.
Ain-i-Akbari stands as the only record available, or can be referred to, to find the origin of the Bangla calendar. This has reference to the revenue collection system in Bengal, which had problems following the Hijri calendar. Later, under a farman or order [ibid, p 14] issued by Akbar on March 10, 1585, reforms were made in the system by Amir Fathullah Shirazi, to make it compatible with the existing crop calendar. So, as the Bangla calendar does not bear anybody’s name or event, it does not necessarily point to a time of that origin.
In 1576 Bengal was conquered by the Mughal army and was brought under Akbar’s empire. The Mughals used the Hijri calendar in their court and to collect taxes from the subjects. Hijri is a lunar calendar which ends up about 10 days in advance of the solar calendars every year. The cropping pattern in Bengal follows fixed cropping seasons depending on the climate and the advent of monsoon in the Bengal basin. So, the collectors in Akbar’s regime were facing difficulty to fix a certain date in the Hijri calendar, for tax collection.
Reading Ain-i-Akbari [ibid, p 13] one can know that some influential members in Akbar’s court were pressing for the introduction of a solar calendar for the said purpose. Aware of this weakness, Akbar ordered, ‘As the existing calendars in India are solar but their months are lunar, my desire is, the proposed calendar should be a solar in all respect.’
Akbar’s order took effect from March 10, 1556, the year he was enthroned [ibid, p 14]. The new solar calendar so introduced was named Elahi and had its first day of the year on March 11. Amir Fathullah Shirazi, the architect of this calendar, also introduced at the same time some other solar calendars in different parts of the empire, known as crop calendars. These were Bangla (592 AD), Amali, Bilaeti (592 AD), Fasali (590, 591 and 592 AD) and Sursani (599 AD) [ibid p 45).
Now the questions are: 1) Was it the birth of the Bangla calendar, or was it not the adoption of the existing crop calendar in Bengal for tax collection? And 2) how much credit should be given to Shirazi for the birth/revival/enforcement of the Bangla calendar for tax collection in Bengal?

The Bangla and Hijri calendar
TODAY’S Bangla calendar has completed its 1419th year, the Hijri year is continuing its 1434th year. The Bangla being a solar year and the Hijri a lunar, we can trail back to a point in history when both the calendars had the same year in record. A solar year is about 10 days longer than a lunar year. So, in 1556 AD the year 963 was both for Bangla and Hijri year.
But scholars write that the starting dates of the years as formulated by Amir Fathullah Shirazi were different, Elahi March 11 and Bangla April 11 of 1556 [ibid, p 56], though the date of Akbar’s enthronement was February 14, 1556 (ibid, p 14). Why all these differences emerged when the same architect worked on the same farman of a single master? The answer may be simple: Shirazi upheld the year of Akbar’s enthronement while introducing the Elahi calendar, keeping its staring date the same as that of the Hijri calendar [ibid p 32]. It did not matter for the real date of the emperor’s enthronement.
Historical records reveal that the proclamation for the introduction of the Hijri calendar was issued by Khalifa Umar (R) in 638 AD, though effective from the year of Hijrat. Here again, its starting day was not the same day of Hijrat in 622 AD but on Muharram 1, the first day of the then existing Arabic calendar. So it is clear, that though Shirazi introduced the Bangla calendar by the farman, its starting date remained uninfluenced by the Hijri calendar; rather it took the starting day of the existing solar calendar in Bengal.

The Bangla and Indian calendars
SOME scholars are of the opinion that Shirazi took the names of the months of Bangla calendar from Shakabda, an Indian calendar from Maharashtra [ibid, p 21]. This cannot be true, as the names of the months of Bangla and Shakabda calendars are not similar, e.g. Bangla Agrahayan is Shakabda Kunwar. Moreover, historical records reveal that several other calendars existed in Bengal at the time of Shirazi (Guptabda, Palabda, Lakhmanabda, etc). Apart from Bangla, the other traditional calendars that existed at different places of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia were Budhabda (since 543 BC), Harshabda (458 BC), Ashokabda (273 BC), Nepali (56 BC), Bikramabda (58 BC), Shakabda (78 AD), Guptabda (318 AD), Tripurabda (590AD), Bishnupuri Mallabda (696 AD), Maghi (638 AD), Palabda (750 AD), Lakshmanabda(1118 AD), Chaitanabda (1533 AD), etc.
The reality is that, since historical times people at different regions of the world were accustomed with calendars based on lunar months and solar year, these traditional calendars could be different in the number of months and seasons in a year. The Arabs had intercalary months every third year to adjust their lunar months to the solar year [Al Beruni, M Akbar Ali, Islamic Foundation, Dhaka, 1980, p 80-81]. The Indians had a similar luni-solar calendar for rituals and crop seasons. It appears that when Shirazi adopted the existing traditional calendar in Bengal for revenue collection. The start of the year was simply taken as that of the Hijri calendar. So, this arrangement alone cannot be accepted as the birth of the Bangla calendar.
The importance of history
THE introduction of Bangla calendar either for administrative purposes or for the revenue collection in Bengal in the Mughal times has great importance in our national life. This calendar is different from the Hijri in nature, from the Shakabda in tradition, and from the Christian calendar in seasonal variations. Moreover, the starting year of the Bangla calendar in solar form trails back to a certain period (593 AD), when developments of great importance occurred in our history.
To write a history of Bengal, we do not find anything definite beyond the ages of Alexander, who conquered Western India in 326 BC. The army of this great Macedonian King did turn back by its master’s order fearing an even greater power reigning in the East, the Gangaridis. But our historians could not confirm whether this power was of the Banga’s or of the Magadha’s.
According to Dineshchandra Sen [Brihat Banga (Great Bengal), Calcutta University, 1341, p 15], the Ancient Bengal comprised a large area of the vast plain land between the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal and Chotonagpur to the forests of Arakan. By the end of the 6th century AD, several kings and dynasties ruled over this land but their races could not be identified clearly. Only those who had their capitals at Pataliputra or at any place inside the territory of ancient Bengal can be thought of indigenous in character.
In the last decade of the 6th century, a powerful king named Sashanka emerged in this territory, who for the first time in history, is mentioned (in the ancient scripts) as the sovereign king of Gauda. This king was originally from Banga. He became the ruler of Gauda after the death of Mahasen Gupta (595 AD) and took the title of Pancha-Gaureshawr. Later, he became very powerful and in 606 AD he defeated the king of Thaneswar [Bharater Itihash (History of India, Dr Kiranchandra Choudhury, Modern Book Agency, Calcutta, 1979. pp 290-291].
‘Sashanka was the first known great king of Bengal, who had such a big territory in his possession,’ writes Dr Rameshchandra Majumder [Quoted in Bangladesh Itihash Parikrama (A study of Bangladesh history), KM Raisuddin Khan, Dhaka, 1986]. It is thought that in the year 593 AD, he established his capital of Banga at Karnasubrna, about 10 kilometres west of the present day Murshidabad [Pitribhumi O Swarup Anneswan [Ancestral land and introspection), Faruk Hassan, Dhaka, 1982, p 25]. If it is true (or may not be true exactly), the present-day Bangla calendar in solar form trails back to the starting year of Shashanka’s enthronement.

Today’s Bangla and Indian calendar
ACCORDING to Sudhir Kumar Chattopadhay [the weekly Desh, Calcutta, November 16, 1996], the solar and luni-solar calendars in India are more than 1,600 years old). These calendars were sidereal and had 1st Baishakh (April 14) as the first day of the year. But these calendars had different lengths of months in them. Even a same calendar had different lengths of months at different places.
After independence, the Indian government in November 1952 appointed Dr Meghnad Saha to head a committee to find a uniform calendar for the whole of the country. The Saha Commitee recommended that a tropical calendar in place of the traditional sidereal calendar be introduced; the starting month of the year be Chaitra, instead of Baishakh; the starting day of Chaitra be delayed for 6/7 days (tropical year); and Shakabda be named the national calendar.
In East Pakistan, a committee headed by Dr M Shahidullah met in February 1966, to reform the dates of the Bangla calendar. The Shahidullah committee recommended that Bangla be the national calendar since adopted by the Mughals; years be counted since its origin with Hijri, present year 1373 Bangla, the months Baishakh to Vadra be of 31 days, others of 30 days; and one extra day for Chaitra in leap years.
The Saha Committee recommendations, though officially accepted by the government of India, did not get popularity as it went against their tradition. Following this, the Indian government, under a committee set up in 1986, reviewed the status of the Saha Committee report and recommended its necessary modifications to attain the objectives of a national calendar [ibid]. According to Chattopaddhay, there exists a strong opinion in India among astrologers and panchang pundits to fix the starting date of the national calendar on April 14, the date when sun reaches the first point of sidereal Aries.
In Bangladesh, the government upheld (1996) the lengths of months recommended by the Shahidullah committee but fixed the starting day of the Bangla year on April 14. It has also decided on an extra day in Phalgun, if it falls on a Christian leap year.
M Inamul Haque is chairman of the Institute of Water and Environment. minamul@gmail.com.

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The Bangla calendar and history of Bengal

New year procession at Charukala, Dhaka University
THE Bangla calendar is a solar year of 12 months, starts on the April 14 of the Gregorian calendar, is now 1,420 years old. There is, however, controversy over its origin. Many scholars maintain that it is an offshoot of the Hegira or Hijri calendar. Amir Fathullah Shirazi, an astronomer in the court of the... Full story
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