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



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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.