I celebrated my first Pohela Boishakh, or the Bengali New Year, nearly five years ago. Marrying into a Bengali family means welcoming all sorts of festive holidays: Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja, Rabindra Jayanti, and of course, Pohela Boishakh.
While Durga Puja is my all-time favorite holiday, Pohela Boishakh can be just as fun and festive. Marking the first day of the Bengali calendar, it’s associated with the spring harvest.
If you’re living far from home, the holiday may feel just as distant. No worries! Even if you’re not in India or Bangladesh, it’s easier than you think to reconnect with this family-focused holiday.
Celebrating the Bengali New Year During COVID
When COVID hit in early 2020, many countries went under a strict lockdown. Public festivals like Pohela Boishakh were canceled in favor of home celebrations. And until the coronavirus pandemic is fully under control, we’re likely to see few mass gatherings.
It’s important to safeguard your health. If you decide to visit friends or participate in a local celebration, don’t forget to take the following precautions as per the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S.:
- Wear a mask and encourage others to wear one, too;
- Keep your distance. Preferably, you should be 6 feet away from other people;
- Sanitize your hands regularly; and
- Don’t go out if you are feeling sick.
Pohela Boishakh Essentials
Celebrated on either the 14th or 15th of April every year, Pohela Boishakh is celebrated in Bangladesh, West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam. Boishakh is the first month of the Bengali calendar and “pohela” (also spelled “poila’) means “first.”
While Hindus may perform an additional puja to Lakshmi or Ganesh, religion isn’t the main driver of this holiday. In fact, one commonly-cited origin of Pohela Boishakh says that it started when 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar wanted to standardize tax collection. Akbar’s Islamic hijri calendar didn’t coincide with the solar Hindu calendar, causing confusion. He devised a new calendar for the region, which continues in use.
Pohela Boishakh Traditions
Whether it’s called Pahela Baishakh, Poila Baisakh, Pahela Baisakh, or Nabo Barsho, this public holiday in Bangladesh is a big deal.
Traditionally, Pohela Boishakh is celebrated with massive festivals and parades, the largest of which is Mangal Shobhajatra, organized by Dhaka University.
Even if your gathering is small this year, the Bengali New Year is hardly just sitting and sending “Shubho Noboborsho” messages to relatives on WhatsApp. Here are a few things that will set off the festive spirit.
You may want to buy new clothes, set up a playlist of Bangla hits (or Rabindra Sangeet classics), watch the latest Hoichoi original, clean house, and decorate with alpona designs and flowers. And of course, you’ll want your new year celebration to involve Bengali delicacies.
Some popular recipes include:
- Panta bhat and fried ilish
- Begun bhaja
- Beef rezala
- Mutton kosha
- Muri ghonto
- Kanchkolar kofta
- Alur dum and puri
- Basanti polao
- Lobongo latika, bhapa doi, rasgulla, and many more sweets
How Pohela Boishakh Is Celebrated Around the World
You probably already know how Pohela Boishakh is celebrated in India and Bangladesh. But with millions of Bengalis living abroad, it’s easier than ever to celebrate the holiday no matter where you are.
Just because you are living far from home, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get what you need. Whether you come from Dhaka or Kolkata, you’re likely to find everything you need for a successful Bengali New Year.
The Bengali New Year in the United States
If you are in the States, you have a wealth of options. In addition to local Indian or Bangladeshi markets, you’re likely to find what you need at chain stores like Patel Brothers or on Amazon and Etsy. You can even get alpona paste or Rangoli stencils if you plan on making any designs.
And there are many organizations devoted to Bengali culture throughout the USA. These groups might plan Pohela Boishakh events. Even if there’s nothing going on in your area, these groups can be helpful for building community in your new country.
Some of these Bengali organizations include:
- Bay Area Prabasi
- Bengali Association of Greater Rochester, NY
- Bengali Cultural Association – Arizona
- Milonee – Colorado
- Bangladesh Unity Federation of Los Angeles
- Bangladesh Society, INC
- Federation of Bangladeshi Associations in North America
The Bengali New Year in Canada
As in the USA, Canada’s Amazon and Etsy can offer everything you need in terms of clothes and crafts. But local Bengali, general Indian, and Bangladeshi groceries can also make it easy to find food items. Bengal Foods, Bangla Bazaar Supermarket, and the Baraka Super Market are just three examples.
Of course, Pohela Boishakh is even more fun when you have more people to share the day with. It can help to join a Bengali or Bangladeshi association to meet others and learn about cultural events. Some larger communities in Canada include:
- Bangladeshi Canadian Community Services
- Bengali Community Service Center of Canada
- Toronto Bengali
- Bichitra Bengali Association
- Lower Mainland Bengali Cultural Society – Vancouver
- National Bangladeshi-Canadian Council (NBCC)
The Bengali New Year in the UK
Since 1997, Pohela Boishakh has been celebrated as Boishakh Mela in the UK. This festival takes place in the Bangladeshi-dominated area of Banglatown located in London’s Tower Hamlets.
It features a parade, a series of music and dance performances, and of course, authentic cuisine.
The UK is home to hundreds of thousands of Bengalis and Bangladeshis, making it easy to find food, clothes, gifts, and more. In addition to the dozens of Bengali supermarkets and shops in London alone, you can also purchase items online on Amazon, DesiCart, Indian Grocery Store, and other online outlets.
You might also want to network with local organizations. Some large Bengali and Bangladeshi associations in the UK include:
- North East Of England Bengali Puja Association
- Bengali Cultural Association
- St. Peter’s Bengali Association
- Swadhinata Trust
- Westminister Bangladeshi Association
The Bengali New Year in Australia
You can find dozens of Indian and Bangladeshi specialty shops across Australia, making it a cinch to prepare for Pohela Boishakh. Way of Bengal, Bangla Dokan, Bangladeshi Fish, and India at Home are just a few examples.
And you can always learn more about what events are going on in your area through Bengali and Bangladeshi organizations like:
- The Bengali Association of Victoria
- Melbourne Bengali Association
- The Bengali Association of New South Wales
- The Bengali Society of Melbourne
- Bangladesh Australia Association of West Australia
- Bangladesh Society of Sydney
- Bangladesh Australia Association Canberra Inc. (BAAC)
6 More Tips for a Festive Pohela Boishakh
Need a few more ideas for managing the perfect Pohela Boishakh? Here are a few more tips:
- The best way to search for local events is to go to Google, type in the name of your town or the largest nearby city, with the phrase “Pohela Boishakh Events” or “Bengali Association”.
- You can set glue down before applying alpona to make the design last longer.
- If you can’t find an alpona to buy, you can make your own! Soak low-quality rice in water overnight, and then grind it. Add just enough water so that the ground rice becomes a paste. That’s it!
- Pohela Boishakh is a great time for arts and crafts. You can make paper mâché masks, dabble in painting, make flower tiaras, rangoli, or come up with another fun way to display your creativity.
- Why not have a virtual get-together with friends and family? Choose a time to catch up and soak in the sounds and sights of home.
- Invite your friends to watch your favorite Bengali movies on Hoichoi. If you have friends who don’t speak Bangla, no worries! This platform has English subtitles.
- Send an e-card to your friends and family to let them know you are thinking about them.
- Use your NRI bank account to send money home and buy gifts through Amazon India or Flipkart.
Happy New Year! Shubho noboborsho!