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Akbar only tinkered with Bengali calendar for taxes, Poila Boisakh comes from Shashanka and Vikramaditya

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 has once again found an opportunity to link the culture of the province to an Islamic root. 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.

Love for 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. Purely for the sake of money, therefore, Akbar ordered Shirazi to come up with dates of tax collection that would be in sync with Bharat’s (or Bengal’s) 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.

Calendar pre-dates Akbar

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: April 12 or 14.

The April 14 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 Bharat. 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.

An important reasoning would cement the claim. Bharatiya 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 Boisakhi or Poila Boisakh is no different from Punjabi Vaisakhi in this regard.

The desert-filled Arabia or rocky Central Asia from where Islam arrived in Bharat had no harvest-linked calendars or occasions.

-By Surajit Dasgupta

(This article was published on on April 15, 2020)

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