It is largely believed among historians and commoners alike that the calendar Bengalis follow began in the era of Akbar. However, this is at best a simplification of history. No scholar commissioned by the Mughal Emperor invented a calendar. What Akbar’s astrologer Fathullah Shirazi did qualifies at best as tinkering with the Hindu calendar. However, excited by the arrival of a Bengali occasion, the leftist media every year finds on this day an opportunity to link the culture of the province to an Islamic root ― based on an article Shoaib Daniyal, a ‘moderate’ Muslim who pushes Islamist theories from behind the veil of secularism, had written for Scroll in 2015. The piece cleverly recognises the Surya Siddhanta and yet attributes the Bengali calendar to Akbar in the headline. I have known Shoaib online since the Orkut years when he worked with a business process outsourcing firm in what is now Gurugram (then Gurgaon). A Muslim with roots in Uttar Pradesh, whose family lives in Kolkata, underwent a remarkable metamorphosis when he diversified to become a columnist. He is now taken for an intellectual if not a historian.
This section of the media is known also to float articles every Durga Puja, which claim that this festival was never a Bengali show until the forces of the East India Company returning victorious from the Battle of Plassey sponsored the event happening in the confines of some zamindar families. That’s another case of over-simplification of history, but we will deal with it during this year’s Durga Puja.
Akbar loved taxes, not Bengal
In the case of the Bengali calendar, it so happened that the Mughals were finding it tough to collect taxes in cycles of the Islamic Hijri calendar that Islamists had brought in to India during their initial invasions but which Mughal continued with. Purely for monetary concerns, Akbar ordered Shirazi to come up with dates of tax collection that would be in sync with India’s (or Bengals) crop cycles. For, it was the end of a crop cycle, which is the harvest and marketing season, when the farmers are in a position to pay taxes.
Shirazi named this convenient revision of the calendar, whose origin dated back to an era Before Christ, as Fasholi Shan (harvest calendar), says Historical Dictionary of the Bengalis, a book by Kunal Chakrabarti and Shubhra Chakrabarti.
It may be noted here that all Indian calendars are based on Surya Siddhanta, and the Bengali calendar is no different. The advancement in astronomy in ancient India can be understood from the fact that the siddhanta says every year comprises 365.2587558 days ― that is 365 days, 6 hours, 12 minutes and 36.5 seconds, pretty close to what we know today as the time taken by planet earth to revolve once around its star, the sun.
In AD 1555 or 56 (the difference owes to that in Mughal-era Persian texts), which was Hijri 963, Akbar was coronated. In AD 1584, his regime began the Bengali calendar. But it encountered a problem of calculation as the period between Hijr (Prophet Mohammed’s escape from Mecca to Medina) and Akbar’s coronation had gone on based on lunar positions whereas the Hindu Bengali calendar was sidereal.
To get over this mismatch, you add 963 of the Hijri year when the Mughal king was coronated to the current Gregorian year and subtract 1556, the Gregorian year of Akbar’s ascension to the throne, from the sum to know what the current Bengali year is. As of this year, therefore, it is (963 + 2020) – 1556 = 1427.
Calendar pre-dates Christ
That the Bengali celebration of Poila Boisakh or Noboborsho precedes the Mughals by centuries is registered in veritable works of historical studies such as
- The Bangladesh Reader: History, Culture, Politics by Meghna Guhathakurta and Willem van and Schendel, and
- Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from the Mahabharata to Mujib by Nitish K Sengupta.
These historians say Poila Boisakh was celebrated in Bengal even in the era of Gaur King Shashanka on one of the dates: 12 or 14 April.
The 14 April celebration of 594 CE is recorded in the registers of the Gauda Kingdom.
This means the Bengali festival is older than Islam, as Prophet Mohammed first claimed he had received messages from Allah in 610 CE. Mughal Emperor Akbar lived between 1542 CE and 1605 CE.
It is older than Christ In fact, the Bengali calendar is even older. Eleanor Nesbitt’s Sikhism: a Very Short Introduction says it was nothing but a variation of the Vikram samvat that is quite in vogue even now in northern India. It started in 57 BCE. While Vikramaditya is part legendary, even al Biruni agreed this “Vikram” must have been the first Vikramaditya while the one who defeated the Shakas was another who began the Shaka samvat. In any case, both the events in history predate Christ.
This reasoning would cement the claim. Indian festivals basically mark the arrival of harvest seasons. This being a land of agriculture, most celebrations coincide with the dates when farmers harvest their produce. This helped also because, with their new earnings, the farmers could begin a new financial year. Diwali, Onam, Lohri, Magh Bihu, Bhogi, Nuakhai, Thai Pongal, Mattu Pongal, etc coincide with harvests. Bengali Baisakhi or Poila Boisakh is no different from Punjabi Vaisakhi in this regard.
Desert-filled Arabia or rocky central Asia, from where Islam arrived in India, had no harvest-linked calendars or occasions.
This is an advanced version of the article by the columnist that was first published in MyNation on this day in 2019