By Tessa Sari
Northwest Asian Weekly
Unlike the Gregorian calendars that start the year on Jan. 1, most South Asian countries use lunisolar calendars that start the year at the beginning of spring. Some of the countries that use this system include Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Cambodia.
How did the traditions come about?
In Nepal, the New Year is known as Navavarsha. Nepal has its own official calendar that begins on the first day of the first month — Baisakh. The first day of Baisakh usually falls in the second week of April, but this will change in the future as stars move further away. The word Baisakh is derived from the astronomical position of the sun near the star Bishakha. The month of Baisakh is a time when many seasonal fruits, especially mangos and jackfruits, become available.
In Bangladesh, the Bengali New Year, or Pohela Boishakh, falls on April 14. Pohela Boishakh is celebrated in both Bangladesh and West Bengal, and in Bengali communities in Assam and Tripura in India.
The calendar started 455 years ago, when Bengali was under the Mughal Emperor Akbar.
Under the Mughals, agricultural taxes were collected corresponding to the Hijri or Islamic calendar. However, the Hijri calendar is based on the lunar calendar. It does not match with the harvest season, so farmers were hard-pressed to pay taxes out of season. In order to streamline tax collection, the Mughal Emperor Akbar ordered a calendar reform.
In Sri Lanka, people celebrate the Sinhala New Year, or Aluth Avurudu. It marks the end of the harvest season and also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The traditional Sinhalese’s New Year begins at a time determined by astrological calculations. The ending of the old year and the beginning of the New Year occur several hours apart from each another. This span of time is usually 12 hours and 48 minutes. This period is referred to as the Nonagathe, or the “neutral period.” During this time, Sri Lankans are encouraged to refrain from material pursuits and engage solely in either religious activities or traditional games.
People in Thailand celebrate their traditional New Year, called Songkran, which takes place from April 13 to April 15. Songkran falls during the hottest time of the year in Thailand. The temperatures can rise above 100°F. Derived from the Sanskrit language, the word songkran means “to pass or move into.”
Cambodia recognizes the Khmer New Year, or Chaul Chnam Thmey, which literally means “to enter a new year.” The holiday lasts for three days, usually starting on April 13 or April 14, at the end of the harvest season. This is when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor before the rainy season begins.
The majority of Khmers are farmers. Farmers reap and harvest their crops from the rice fields all year long, except during April. This is because there is no rain and it is very hot. Therefore, the farmers rest from working in the rice fields and celebrate the New Year.
Unique ways of celebrating
To celebrate Navavarsha, people in Nepal go on picnics and have get-togethers with family and friends. In the morning, people will typically make their way to the temple to perform Puja, a ritual offering presented to their gods. Then, the Nepali walk around the temple in a clockwise direction while ringing the bells that are attached to the temple.
Nepal’s New Year is accompanied by Bisket Jatra, or the Festival of Bisket in Bhaktapur. It’s a commemoration of the renowned battle of Mahabharata. The palanquins of Hindu deities are worshiped with offerings of coins, flowers, and blood. A tug-of-war takes place with residents from the lower part of Bhaktapur competing against those from upper Bhaktapur. The group that wins is believed to be blessed with a wonderful year ahead.
The celebration of Pohela Boishakh connects all the ethnic religious and regional differences of Bengalis. The day of Pohela Boishakh is also the beginning of all business activities in Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal. The traders each purchase a new accounting book, called the Halkhata — or the new book of accounts. The shops offer sweets and other gifts to customers.
In Sri Lanka, celebration of the Sinhala New Year begins with people cleaning their house and lighting an oil lamp. Families mingle in the streets. Homes are thrown open. The children are let out to play. The celebration is also celebrated by lighting up loud firecrackers. In some communities, women play the Raban (a type of a drum) together to announce the coming change in the year. A feast commonly includes Kiribath (milk rice), Kavum (small oil cake), and Kokis (a crisp and light sweetmeat).
Songkran was traditionally a time to visit and pay respects to elders, including family members, friends, neighbors, and monks. But the most common practice of Songkran is the throwing of water. Thai people roam the streets with containers of water, water-guns, or garden hoses to drench each other. The water is a symbol of washing away all the bad omens.
The water is sometimes scented in the traditional manner with fragrant herbs. In Thailand, people also wash their Buddha shrines in households and monasteries by gently pouring water, which is infused with a Thai fragrance. It is believed that doing this will bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year.
In Cambodia, the first day of the New Year is called Moha Sangkran, meaning “welcoming new angels.” Khmer people clean and decorate their homes and prepare fruits and drinks to welcome their new angels. Elderly people like to meditate or pray because they believe that any angel who comes into their home will stay with them and take care of their family for the whole year.
Throughout the Khmer New Year, street corners are crowded with friends and families, who are enjoying a break from their routine schedules. They fill their free time with dancing and games. One of the special dishes for the celebration is Kralan, a cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, and then served with grated coconut and coconut milk.
Did you know?
Unlike the Gregorian calendar months, which are a fixed number of days, the Nepali months are not predetermined in length; they change from year to year, varying from 29 days to 32 days.
The month of Boishakh in Bangladesh is notorious for the afternoon-storms called Kalboishakhis. These storms usually start with strong gusts from the northwest, occur at the end of a hot day, and cause widespread destruction.
The Asian Koel, a type of cuckoo bird, has a strong association with the New Year celebrations in Sri Lanka. The melodious “koo-ooo” call of the male bird is regarded as a heralding sign of the traditional New Year. This bird is known as the Koha in the Sinhala language of Sri Lanka.
Songkran in Thailand is also celebrated in many places with a pageant. Young women demonstrate their beauty and unique talents, and are then judged by the audience.
At the temple, the Khmer people create a sand hillock on the grounds. They mound up a big pointed hill of sand or dome in the center, which represents Sakyamuni Satya. This is the stupa at Tavatimsa where Buddha’s hair and diadem are buried. ♦
Tessa Sari can be reached at email@example.com.