Punya was a pre-British system associated with revenue settlement and revenue collection. Under this system the government invited all zamindars, taluqdars, ijaradars and all other revenue-paying people to a function at which revenue demands of the previous year were cleared and settlement of the new made. On this occasion, the nawab held darbars and conferred khilats or robes of honour on the people who could please him. Similarly, the zamindars and other landholders also used to hold punya with his raiyats or tenantry. The raiyats cleared the preceding year's arrears and took the settlement for the new year. The raiyats assembled at the zamindari kachari and took pan or betel leaf from the zamindars or their naibs. Music, dance, jatra, mela, cattle race, cock-fight, boat race, and various other entertaining competitions marked the occasion.
There was no fixed date of the punya during the Mughal period. Since the festival was connected with revenue settlement and revenue collection, the date of punya was generally fixed according to the harvest time of the staple crop. murshid quli khan's innovation in this regard was to hold the punya after the collection had been completed in the month of Chaitra (the last month of the Bangla year corresponding to March-April). He would then despatch the imperial revenues to Delhi. The cases of loss of produce due to natural calamities and remission of payment arising out of these were decided at the punya function. It should be noted that punya did not mean the collection of the whole assessment. The unrealised assessment could have been condoned and deferred for the future. In case of natural calamities raiyats used to get remissions of arrears. Furthermore they were granted taqavi or micro-credit for cultivation in the new year. Such credit transactions were also carried out at the punya.
The first punya after the acquisition of the diwani by the English was held in 1766 at Matijheel, the home of the English Political Resident at the court of Murshidabad. robert clive himself presided over the function. He attached great importance to this institution and was in favour of holding it every year. But the court of directors prohibited the Fort William government to hold the punya in the oriental manner.
There were two types of punya: sadr and mofussil. The sadr or central punya was an affair in which zamindars and other landholders participated at the residence of the diwan of Bengal. The mofussil punya was held at the zamindari kachari. Tenants participated in this event. After the permanent settlement the institution of sadr punya became redundant. Nevertheless, the system continued because all lands had not been permanently settled. Khas lands were settled with ijaradars for certain terms. Punyas were held for settlement of khas lands with the farmers and leaseholders. Such a punya was held at the collectorate office rather than at the centre as before.
The zamindars continued to hold punya, only they did so rather more elaborately. Holding punya extravagantly became a mark of distinction among zamindars and tenants. By mid-nineteenth century punya became synonymous with the Bengali New Year and began to be observed regularly on the first day of Baisakh every year. The institution of punya disappeared with the abolition of the permanent settlement in 1950. But some of its auxiliary institutions like boat-race, mela, puppetry, and celebrating the New Year still persist. The emergence of Bangladesh has added new significance to the Bengali New Year and now it is celebrated with great festivity. In somewhat a different form punya ceremony still prevails in Chittagong hill tracts. [Bilkis Rahman]