History Remembered

Bengali New Year: how Akbar invented the modern Bengali calendar

The Mughal Emperor fused Hindu and Islamic dating systems to create a new calendar that is still in use today.

Today is the Bengali New Year, known in Bangla as Pohela Boishakh. A number of Indian calendars, of course, have their new year around now: the Punjabi, Assamese and Tamil, to name a few. The modern Bengali calendar though is unique amongst these, given that it was introduced by the Mughal Empire.

More than two decades into his rule, Emperor Akbar, third in the Mughal line, had set up, what was at the time, the most powerful empire on Earth.  Secure in his power, the emperor’s attention shifted to the more intellectual side of things: religion, philosophy and the arts. Amartya Sen’s book, The Argumentative Indian, mentions how Akbar's interest in various religions led him to dabble in the calendars of various faiths as well. As a result, as Sen put it, he invented “a combined calendar which paralleled his interest in floating a combined religion, the Din-e-Ilahi”. This calendar, modestly titled the Tarikh-e-Ilahi, calendar of God, was introduced in the year 1584 AD.


Panta bhaat, a traditional Pohela Boishakh meal. Photo: Creative Commons


Taxman

Many historians believe, however, that Akbar chose the calendar not out of any interest in theology but in response to a much higher power: taxes. In their compendium, the Historical Dictionary of the Bengalis, Kunal Chakrabarti and Shubhra Chakrabarti write that earlier, the Mughal Empire was having trouble collecting land revenue since they followed the Islamic Hijri calendar. Given that the Islamic calendar is lunar, it did not coincide with the seasons, leading to much confusion.

Akbar therefore asked his royal astronomer to devise a new calendar which merged together the Islamic calendar, the historical Bengali calendar (based upon a Sanskrit astronomy text, the Surya Sidhant) and Akbar’s own date of coronation. The last point might sound a bit pompous but, as anyone who’s seen Mughal-e-Azam would attest to, Mr Akbar did have a bit of an ego problem.

The new calendar that was devised was a bit complex. Its first year, just like the Islamic calendar, was the date of the Hijra, Prophet Mohammed’s emigration from Mecca to Medina. From this year 1 to Akbar’s coronation (in 1556 AD), the calendar ticks off the years as a lunar calendar. Up till here, the Tarikh-e-Ilahi and the Islamic calendar are in step: for both, Akbar's coronation occurs in the year 963. From this annum onwards though, things change – after all, it’s a big year: the Emperor's coronation. From the coronation onwards, the years start to tick off as per the old traditional Bengali calendar, which was a solar one, and solves the problem of mismatched seasons.


A Hindu priest blesses a financial ledger on Pohela Baishakh. Photo: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters


Bengali year 1422

The “formula”, as it were, for calculating the Bengali year, therefore is: Islamic year at Akbar’s crowning (963) + current Gregorian solar year (2015) - Gregorian solar year at Akbar’s crowning (1556).

This gives us 1422, which, voila, is the Bengali year which starts today.

The Tarikh-e-Ilahi was introduced for the entire Mughal Empire and, like the Din-e-Ilahi, it really didn’t last much beyond Akbar’s lifetime. The one exception was in Bengal, where it became integral to both agriculture as well as the Hindu religion. As a result, it is interesting to note that when, say, Durga Pujo dates will be calculated for the Bengali year 1422, the two events referenced (unknown to most Bengalis themselves) will be the migration of Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina and Akbar’s coronation.

On that terribly syncretic note, here’s Scroll wishing its readers shubho noboborsho. Happy new year.


 A Pohela Baishakh procession in Dhaka. Photo: Andrew Biraj/Reuters



We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.