Festivals are common to all societies and cultures. With the change of social and economic structures, the natures of festivals also change. But some festivals are so deeply rooted in the social organism that they continue to entertain from generation to generation. Some of the festivals bear the mark of the community and nationality, some have the stamp of religion, and again some bear the impression of politics. The festivals, which got started in the primitive society centering on the prayer for food, have now been filled with various colours and varieties.
The main foundation of festivals is ritual and most of the ancient rituals were collective activities. Many of the rituals were related to agriculture and were determined by lunar months. The ancient rituals were magical processes to tame supernatural power; in the subsequent cultures, this characteristic feature was retained. The spontaneous agro-based ancient festivals lost their spontaneity with the passing of time and became more formal.
Although most of the festivals were related to religions, these did not evolve on account of religions - they originated spontaneously in the society. Later on, they assumed more formal character. As for example, not very long ago, singing and music was a part of the Eid festival of the Muslims of Bengal, which was an expression of spontaneity. But now it is not there. Now a day these festivals are more formal than before, but new social dimensions have been added to them; they have become occasions of mutual exchange of pleasantries among friends and relatives.
Many of the religious festivals that are prevalent in Bangladesh are of ancient folk origin. Later on, religions have turned them formal. In this respect, special mention should be made of Eid and muharram of the Muslims. From time to time 'folk culture' has influenced these festivals, as a result of which the original religious practices have changed. Thus the religious practices and pattern of life of the Muslims of Bangladesh and those of the Middle East and Indonesia are not the same.
The two main religious festivals of the Muslims of Bangladesh are eid-ul fitr and eid-ul azha. Eid-ul Fitr is observed after the end of Ramadan. The social meaning of Eid is joyful festival, while its etymological meaning denotes returning time and again. Like all other social festivals, Eid returns every year. So is the case with Eid-ul Azha. The same can be said of hajj.
In the celebration of these two festivals in the early period, there was an influence of the folk belief of the peasants. Later on, a few religious manners and customs were added. In the colonial period these two festivals were not celebrated with the same importance as it is being done now. The reason was the absence of government patronage, poverty of the people and their ignorance about religion.
The joy and pomp with which Eid was celebrated during the Mughal period was confined to the immigrant highly placed and rich Muslims. The general body of people remained aloof from it. However, the ruins of Shahi Eidgahs in different parts of Bangladesh bear testimony to fact that the Mughals accorded importance to Eid.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a new ingredient, viz., folk-fair, was added as an accompanying source of pleasure during Eid. This trend still continues and now at least twelve fairs are held on the occasion of Eid in different regions of Bangladesh. An account of the Eid celebration by the Bengal Muslims during the last hundred years reveals that one of the main features of the Eid festival was the arrangement of special food and drink. In the mofussil and rural areas, the food would include korma, polao, and various types of homemade pitha, semai, and jarda. Unmarried girls would draw butterflies, which has long been recognised by the Bengalis as a symbol of marriage, on the pitha. But in the urban areas, this type of indigenous practice was absent. In the Eid menu, homemade sweet items would get prominence. One of the main characteristic features of the nineteenth century Eid in Dhaka was the Eid procession. Probably the naib nazims of Dhaka introduced this practice of procession after taking the cue from the famous janmastami procession of Dhaka. After being stopped for some time in between, such processions have again been started a few years ago.
In the subsequent period, various folk-usage, such as salutation after sighting the new moon heralding Eid, touching the feet of the elderly people as a mark of respect, holding of fair and other related customs came to be in vogue in the Muslim society.
In many cases, local or urban culture has also made an impact on this festival. During the 1930s and 1940s, on the Eid day in Dhaka, Khathak dance was performed in Ramna, Armanitola and other grounds. Besides, boat race, kite flying, horse race, hijra dance (dance performed by hermaphrodites) etc were held. Horse race and hijra dance were features of Baboo culture, which was adapted in the Eid festival. At the start of the last century, when the political movement for a separate Muslim identity began, Eid festival assumed new importance. After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, both the Eids became the national religious festivals in the state of which present-day Bangladesh was a part, and enjoyed patronisation from the government.
As far as Eid-ul Azha is concerned it should be mentioned at the outset that during the last century, sacrifice of animals, especially cow, on the occasion of the festival were objected to by other communities. But when the Muslims emerged as a strong community, such objections did not work. During the 1950s or 1960s, many of the middle class families could afford to sacrifice at least one goat because it could be purchased for fifty to one hundred rupees. Many people on the villages would sacrifice domestically raised cows or goats. But after the independence of Bangladesh, when the gap between the rich and the poor widened extensively, sacrifice of the animal has now become a symbol of social status. In the villages, sacrifice is now limited within the rich and middle class cultivators. The majority of the professionals in towns sacrifice cows on shares. Still many cannot afford even that. The rich sacrifice cow or goat or both animals on their own.
Before the commencement of Eid-ul Azha, particular cattle markets are held in various parts of the country. Paper garlands are hung in the neck of buxom and expensive cows. Urbanisation, the expansion of the middle class etc have brought about changes in the mood of the festival. Diversification is noticeable in the type of animals that are sacrificed. Alongside goats and cows, camels and fat sheep are also sacrificed in a limited number at present. Eid for the common people means meeting with family members, buying new clothes and arranging rich food as far as possible on the Eid day.
Muharram was observed with pomp and grandeur till the 1960s, and its faint resonance still lingers. Many of the Mughal rulers, though they adhered to the Sunni view, patronised Muharram. All the rulers from murshid quli khan to Mubarakuddaula were the supporters of the Shiite (xia) sect. sirajuddaula built an imambara for them. Not only that, the nawabs also participated in the Muharram procession and spent money for Muharram from the government treasury. This practice was stopped during the colonial rule. The naib-nazims of Dhaka belonged to the Shiite community. Therefore, it was only natural that the Shiite influence became very strong in Dhaka during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dhaka was the main centre for the observance of Muharram in Bengal. It became popular in the rural areas in the nineteenth century. During the Muharram punthis were read in modulated voice to create the effect of tune. A new dimension was added to the grief of Muharram with the publication (in 1885-91) of Mir Mosharraf Hussain's bisad-sindhu.
Sometimes local Hindu and folk rites and practices got inserted in the observance of Muharram. While in the Muharram procession in Iran one bier (tazia) is carried, in Bengal and for that matter in India the number of biers carried is two. It is because the Bengali Muslims, alongside their Indian counterparts, believe that in the battle of Karbala, both the sons of Hazrat Ali (Ra.) embraced martyrdom. Hence on the day of Axura, mourning is expressed by chanting 'Hai Hasan!' 'Hai Husain! And fasting is observed. But the fact is that Hasan was poisoned to death in Madina in 670 AD and Husain embraced martyrdom at Karbala in 680 AD. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Tazia procession was brought out in every Muslim-dominated village of Bangladesh with pomp and grandeur.
At present, the main centre of the observance of Muharram in Dhaka is the husaini dalan. However, the oldest imambara of Dhaka is located in the Bibika Rawja Mahalla of Farashganj. A certain Amir Khan built it in 1600 AD. In the 1869 map of Dhaka, there is a mention of another old Husaini Dalan. This Husaini Dalan of Mir Yakub was located near Phulbaria. Two other old Husaini Dalans were at chhota katra and Muqim Katra.
The duration of the Muharram festival is more or less ten days. The most important function takes place on the tenth day, i.e., on the day of Ashura. On that day a big fair used to be held at Azimpur in Dhaka and the tradition still continues. All the Tazia processions from different Imambaras assemble at Husnabad of Azimpur. There the Tazias are covered with black clothes and silently taken to the Husaini Dalan.
The main component of Muharram is its procession in which feature a horse named Duldul (the name of the horse on which Imam Husain actually rode during the Karbala war), and thousands of flags in different colours. From the procession, persistent chanting of 'Hai Hasan, Hai Husain' is heard and thousands of Jalali pigeons fly above the Tazia. At the front of the Muharram processions were mourners revolving sticks and showing entertaining tricks with swords, and at the rear were people carrying burning bricks. Although the number of Shia Muslims was not large, they would bring out the processions with a great show of grandeur. Perhaps their intention was to compete with the janmastami procession.
The Muharram processions maintained its pomp and grandeur up to 1960s and then gradually declined. The principal procession begins in the morning from the Husaini Dalan, passes through Bakshibazar, Azimpur, Purana Paltan etc and in the afternoon disperses at the Dhanmondi lake where the Tazia is solemnly immersed. In the past, the Tazia was immersed in a pond at Azimpur. The main attractions of the Muharram celebration are the fairs, which are arranged at Husaini Dalan, Bakshibazar, Farashganj and Azimpur. Of all the fairs, the one that is held at Azimpur is the largest. Wherever Muharram is celebrated in Bangladesh, fair is an integral part.
At present, Muharram is observed in the remote areas of the districts of Dhaka, Manikganj and Tangail in a somewhat different fashion. In some houses of different locations, Muharram is observed according to the folk functions of saints and fakirs, which have continued on the basis of regular line of descent. In those houses, on the very first day of the month of Muharram, a square platform having three tiered shelves is built with soft earth at a place located in the courtyard or near the house. At the front of the platform a small pond is dug. On the four corners of the platform four flags of four colours are interred and in between the flags moon, star, eye etc, made of bronze or silver are planted on soft soil, and after filling the front pond with milk as far as possible or, in its absence, with water, a sharp knife or arrow is pierced on one side of the platform. The complete platform is called Barkat Mar Thal. Its boundary is determined by inserting on the ground small flags tugging fringe made of colored paper on the four sides of the platform. Late on, centering it, the function gets started. People assemble there and take vow to offer something if their desires are fulfilled. The person who conducts the Thal keeps fast for ten days eating only vegetarian food items during night times. Marsia, Jari, lathi khela etc are performed round the 'Thal' and on the 10th day of Muharram, the earthen platform is solemnly immersed.
In the past Hindus also participated in Muharram. It is known from an article written in 1831 that of the 14 thousand Tazias, which were built and exhibited in Bengal, the Hindus built 600. In fact, till the middle of the nineteenth century, the religious festivals were a kind of ceremony for the general mass.
The biggest religious festival of the Hindu community in Bengal was and still is the durga puja. Hindus participate in it with great enthusiasm. Durga Puja is an old festival but it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty how old it is. The most antiquated embodiment of goddess Durga who slew the Mahisasura belonged to the fifteenth century. The nature and mode of the Durga Puja, which would be performed in the past, were different. It is the folk form of the past, which has turned now into an autumnal festival. It is also known as untimely awakening of goddess Durga as Ramachandra invoked her, because in the past Durga Puja was performed in the spring and that was the propitious time for offering Puja to the goddess. But in the ramayana compiled by Kirttivasa, it is mentioned that Rama offered the goddess untimely Puja from which the practice of performing the Puja in the autumn was introduced.
A series of festivals centering Durga Puja is held in Bangladesh. Usually on the sixth lunar day of the bright fortnight in the Bengali month of Axwin, the ceremonial awakening of goddess Durga takes place. Thereafter, Puja is performed for three days on the seventh, eighth and ninth, and the immersion of the image of the goddess Durga with her companions is held on the tenth day. People exchange greetings for fifteen days after the immersion of the image of the deity. On the following full-moon day, laksmi puja takes place. On the last day of the Bengali month of Kartik, Kartik Puja (worship of god Kartik who is the commander-in-chief of heavenly forces) is performed. On the fifth lunar day of the bright fortnight in the Bengali month of Magh, saraswati puja is held. Before that, on the new moon day usually in the month of Kartik, kali puja is performed. The series of Pujas, which starts in Axwin with Durga, comes to an end with Sarasvati. Thus Although there is provision for offering Puja separately for all the gods and goddesses, there is no distinct system for offering Puja to ganesh. However, before starting Puja to any other god or goddess, it is the usual practice to offer Puja to Ganesa because without pronouncing 'O Ganeshaya Namah' no Puja to the other deities becomes efficacious.
Durga Puja was introduced in Bengal by Raja Kangsanarayana (diwan of Bengal and ruler of Tahirpur) in the sixteenth century who was a mace-bearer of Emperor akbar. After introduction, it took almost three hundred years for Durga Puja to become the universal and biggest religious festival of the Hindus of Bengal. Durga Puja was observed for the first time as a festival full of pomp and grandeur in Kolkata in the nineteenth century. Thereafter Durga Puja gradually spread to various regions of Bengal. The zamindars played the main role in making this as the most popular festival.
An excellent account of Durga Puja at Kotalipara in Faridpur at that time is obtained from the autobiography of Krishna Kumar Mitra. He describes that the Puja festival would begin with the sound of drums and moulding of the images. In the autumn, vast expanse of water would inundate the field and in these circumstances, Durga festival would be observed in almost every household. In the Puja, numerous he-goats would be immolated. In the well-to-do families, its number would be not less than sixty.
The inundated area would remain full of noise for five-six days because of the sound created by the beating of drums and tom-toms. All the people, male or female, young or old, would become besotted with songs, music, eating, pleasure-trips and other amusements. As accompaniments of Durga Puja were performances of theatre, Kirtan, Dhap (a kind of song attended with slow dance), Jatra etc.
The zamindars of Muktagachha and Gauripur of Mymensingh also performed Durga Puja in great splendour till 1940-41. On the occasion of the Puja, a weeklong programme of Jatra, kabigan (a kind of song competition), Dhap-Kirtan, etc, would be arranged. On the day of immersion, a procession of elephants would be held in Muktagachha. The tenants would be invited to a feast in the Zamindar's house. Apart from the zamindar mansion, Puja would also be held in the houses of common people. Those who stayed outside their village throughout the year on business or service would all join the delightful festival in their own villages. Durga Puja has no caste distinction. The Hindus belonging to any caste could attend and participate in the Puja. However, the influence of the caste system did persist.
An account of the observance of Durga Puja in Dhaka in the 1830s is found in the autobiography of renowned economist Bhabatosh Datta. The image of Durga in red colour would be moulded in a house in Maishundi. In, Sutrapur, in the house of 'Nandalal, the Baboo of Dhaka', the image would be as high as a two-storeyed building. However, the Puja held at the Ramakrishna Mission was more famous. At that time a kind of awakening took place among people below the Brahmin caste in various places of Bengal. They challenged the supremacy of the Brahmins and some of them performed the Puja on their own without the priest. A few of such events occurred in Chandapara of Netrokona.
Because of the communal riot of 1946, many well to do Hindu families from what is now Bangladesh migrated to India. As a result, it became difficult in the rural areas for a family to make arrangement for the Puja alone. Hence in these areas, forgetting whether one was a Brahmin or non-Brahmin, all the people started the practice of holding Puja function together by collecting subscriptions, which is now known as sarvajanin (public) Puja. Since the Pakistan days, almost every Durga Puja, which has been going on in the urban areas of Bangladesh, is public in nature. However, Puja is also being held under individual or family initiative. After the independence of Bangladesh, dhakeswari temple of Dhaka has become the main centre for the observance of Durga Puja. Here under the supervision of an elected central Puja committee, Durga Puja, along with other Pujas also, is held every year.
People from all communities would join the Durga festival at one time in Bengal. They also do so even now but not in the same vein as earlier. To the Bengali Hindus, Durga is considered a daughter. Every year, she comes on naiyor to the paternal house with children for three days. Hence, on this occasion, many Agamani-Vijaya songs are composed and sung.
There was a time when the people of this region, especially those of Dhaka, would eagerly wait for the Janmastami procession. The celebration of the Janmastami is an old festival of this region, particularly of Dhaka town. At that time, both the Hindus and the Muslims would take part in it. The procession, which would be brought out in Dhaka town, was renowned throughout the whole of Bengal. It is said that Shrikrsna was born on the eighth lunar day of the dark fortnight in the Bengali month of Bhadra. So this day is very sacred to the Hindus. In almost all the regions of the subcontinent, this day is observed in some way or the other as a religious festival. However, because of the fact that many people specifically mention about the Janmastami procession of Dhaka, it seems that while in different places it might have been observed in a general way like other religious festivals, in Dhaka it might have been done with special pomp and grandeur.
The main item in the observance of Janmastami was the procession. But it is not exactly known how and when it had started. In this regard few information can be gathered from a booklet published by Bhubanmohan Basak from Dhaka in 1917. According to it, in 1555 AD (Bhadra, 962 BS), on the occasion of Sri Sri Radhastami, a procession of the boys and devotees clothed in yellow dress was brought out under the leadership of a certain saint. After ten years from then, under their leadership the first Janmastami procession on the occasion of the birth of Sri Krisna was brought out in 1565 AD. Afterwards, the sole responsibility for it was bestowed on the rich business family of Krishnadas Basak of Nawabpur.
In course of time, the procession assumed the character of an organisation, and every year it became the regular feature of Janmastami festival. The Muslims named it the 'procession of Bal Gopal'. Thereafter, many other rich persons of Nawabpur started bringing out processions on their own initiative. About one hundred years later, a certain Vaisnava Brahmin named Gangaram Thakur of Urdu Bazar also started bringing out procession like the Basaks of Nawabpur. His procession would pass from Urdu Road up to Nawabpur. Other processions would also usually start from Nawabpur and after traversing across Bangla Bazar would return to the same place, ie Nawabpur. However, the procession introduced by Gangaram Thakur did not continue for long. Possibly at one particular time the various processions of Nawabpur were combined together and came to be known as the Nawabpur procession.
By 1725, another Janmastami procession began to be brought out from Islampur, also under the leadership of Gadadhar and Balaichand Basak. Once the Islampur procession clashed with the Nawabpur procession, and Sir Cecil beadon, the then Lieutenant Governor promulgated an order that each procession should be brought out on separate days. Thereafter, the Janmastami processions of Dhaka in the nineteenth century became spectacular and its fame spread throughout the whole of Bengal. Then people from far-flung places would come to witness the Janmastami procession in Dhaka. The whole of Dhaka at that time would wear a festive look. In the description, which is available on the Janmastami procession, it is evident that at the beginning it had an overwhelmingly religious overtone. Later on, this religious fervour became worn-out to a great extent, and with the participation of the Hindus and the Muslims alike, it assumed a cosmopolitan and universal appearance.
The main attraction of the Janmastami procession was the dancing and singing of the clown. The clowns would sing and dance in different manners. With the passage of time, changes occurred in their songs, and from it changed the nature of Janmastami at certain period of time. From the descriptions of 1864 and 1872, it is seen that from each side of the two processions, the participants made taunting remarks against the leading personalities of the other side. Those also included the descriptions of certain events and this practice continued till the first half of the twentieth century. Together with it was added the ingredients of Baboo culture such as obnoxious songs, dances and khemta.
In the third decade of the twentieth century, communal relations deteriorated and with it the pomp and grandeur of the procession diminished to a considerable extent. During the Pakistan period, it was stopped by a government order. Following the independence of Bangladesh, Janmastami procession began to be brought out again, but old grandeur is no longer there.
Apart from the Hindus, there are also two more minority communities in Bangladesh, viz., the Christians and the Buddhists, who also observe different religious festivals of their own. But these festivals never formed part of the mainstream and still today the case is the same. The main festival of the Buddhists is buddha purnima or Baixakhi Purnima. The birth of Buddha, his adoption of asceticism, attainment of supreme enlightenment, nirvana - all these occurred on the full-moon lunar day in the month of Baishakh, and hence this is the most important and solemn festival of the Buddhists. It is assumed that the Baisakhi Purnima is being celebrated in Bangladesh with great splendour for more than one thousand years.
During the colonial rule, Christmas day or the birth anniversary of Jesus Christ was observed ostentatiously, especially in Calcutta. On this occasion, the local converts also arranged various functions. The Christmas festival lasts for a single day. The main components of this festival are special prayers offered in churches, arrangements of feasts and offering of gifts among friends and relatives. Now a day the number of Buddhists or Christians in Bangladesh is not very significant, and hence their festivals are also observed somewhat without much fanfare.
In today's Bangladesh, another festival is gaining prominence, which is not related to religion - it is Bangla New Year's day. It is observed with great enthusiasm on the first day of Baisakh of the Bangla calendar. Its main characteristic feature is that it is a social festival and its appeal is universal. Such a festival, which is not based on religion but still universal, is rare in the world. During the last 400 years, many functions related to agriculture and the six seasons have been amalgamated in it and by way of revolving in this way, the first day of Baisakh has turned into the New Year's Day. Since the 1960s, Bengali New Year's Day assumed a new dimension. During Ayub rule, when an attack was launched on Tagore songs and Bengali culture, chhayanat arranged a function of Tagore songs under the famous banyan tree of Ramna on the occasion of observing the New Year's Day on the first day of Baisakh. This endeavor of Chhayanat gradually became popular. After the independence of Bangladesh, the Bangla New Year's Day was declared as an official holiday. Pahela Baishakhpahela baishakh is now a major social festival in Bangladesh.
As time passed by, many related matters have been added to this New Year's Day. Some of these are now extinct, some are on the verge of extinction and a few are still in vogue in certain areas. A function that is on the verge of extinction is punya. Its origin is not exactly known. However, it was in vogue till the abolition of the permanent settlement. On this day, the tenants would wear their available good clothes and go to the kachhari of the zamindar to pay rents and also some extra amounts as a mark of respect to the landlord.
However, the Halkhata function, observed mainly by the business community, is still in vogue. The businessmen complete their accounts of the previous year on the eve of the New Year's Day. For this, many of them use a special kind of ledger having the cover made up of red cloth, which is known as khero khata. On this day, the customers pay some advance and the businessmen treat them with sweetmeats. There are some who prepare better quality food, including sweetmeat, on the occasion of the New Year's Day. Of the regional functions arranged on this occasion, mention may be made of the Bali Khela or wrestling held in Chittagong in the name of a certain Jabbar. The Gambhira of Rajshahi is also a similar kind of function. Once bull race was held in Munshiganj.
However, the biggest function on the first day of Baisakh is the holding of fair. In some places, such a fair continues for a week, even a fortnight. These fairs are the changed forms of the ancient seasonal, agricultural and other festivals of the country. Baisakhi fair has no religious fervour. On the first day as well as first week of Baisakh, about 200 fairs are held throughout Bangladesh. In the fairs arranged in Dhaka and also in other towns and urban areas, along with the earthen and handicraft items, book fairs are also held. Many publishing houses present books to the clients as tokens of New Year's good wishes. [Muntassir Mamoon]