Nusaira A. Hassan
Celebrating New Year is an intrinsic and distinct part of every culture. As Bangladeshis, we celebrate Pohela Boishakh or the first day of the Bengali month of the New Year. The indigenous people of Bangladesh, specifically the ones in Chittagong Hill Tracts, have their own festivities that coincide with Pohela Boishakh. However, the intriguing part is that there is no single way of celebrating the New Year. In fact, of the thirteen tribal groups located there, each has its own way of welcoming the upcoming year.
Tribal Groups and their Celebrations:
The largest tribal group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Chakmas, along with the Marmas and Tripuras celebrate Boishabhi. As a matter of fact, the name itself, Boishabi, is derived from the names of the three major festivals celebrated by the aforementioned tribal groups: Boishu from the Tripura community, Shangrai from the Marma one and Bi from Bijhu celebrated by the Chakmas. Every year, from the 12th to the 14th of April, Boishabi is celebrated with pomp and grandeur by the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, namely the regions of Bandarban, Khagrachori and Rangamati. However, Boishabi is more than just an act of celebration for the ethnic community. It is a quest for spirituality as the tribal people bid farewell to the miseries of the previous year and usher in the New Year amidst joy and anticipation. Each indigenous group has its own distinct way of enjoying the festivities with a few overlapping rituals or traditions.
Beginning on the last day of the Bengali month of Chaitra, Bijhu is a holy festival of the Chakmas, and is celebrated over the span of three days.
On the first day, young girls clean out their houses, and collect flowers, leaves and roots of different plants from the forest as part of a ritual known as “FulBijhu”. The second day is known as “MulBijhu”, when the domesticated animals are released from captivity and fed. The Chakmas then gather around a temple and chant the name of Buddha, before entering the holy place (known as Kyangs) to hand over their offerings and light candles. Finally on the third day of the festival, “Goijja-Poijja”, fowls and pigs are slaughtered for a massive feast, where the whole family takes part. Soon afterwards, the Chakmas observe a period of rest, after days of taking part in meticulous celebrations.
Bijhu has its own form of entertainment, where dance and musical performances regale the audience, and instruments like Hengrong and Dhudhuk (varieties of flute) are played.
The festival also has its own special dish, Pazon, which is prepared using thirty different vegetables, and offered to the guests. The significance of this food item is that it is believed to ward off diseases in the upcoming year.
The Tripuras wake up from slumber at the crack of dawn to decorate their houses with floral arrangements. The animals, including livestock like cows and goats, are adorned with flowers as well. Rice grains are scattered all over the ground as food to the birds. On the first day of the New Year, known as “Harboishu”, the Tripuras carry out ceremonies to pay respects to flora and fauna, as well as animals including insects and birds to appease their deity, “Goriaya”.
In the next ceremony, the elderly people are bathed and gifted with clothes. This ritual is believed to bring luck for the next year. The youngsters on the other hand rejoice by holding traditional dance performances and travel from village to village, entrancing people with their perfectly synchronized moves.
The Marmas begin their celebrations with prayers by offering “Jolpuja”, which roughly translates into “worship of water” as water is considered to be a holy symbol synonymous with respect, future prosperity and blessings from the deity. This is followed by the popular water game, “Shangraine”, where young girls and boys splash each other with water. This is performed to wash away the miseries of the past year, and cleanse oneself in anticipation of the New Year. Apart from that, this ceremony is also used as a platform for young boys and girls to express their love interest.
In the culinary aspect, Marmas spare no expenses as they prepare a feast fit for royalty, in a menu ranging from savory to sweet dishes, including cookies.
The different ethnic groups also arrange for wrestling matches, known as Bolikhela, which is a form of martial art traditionally played in Chittagong. “Boli” is a Bengali word that refers to a powerful person and “khela” simply translates to game. Apart from that, other types of games known as “GhilaKhela” are also organized by different communities, where people from all age groups and communities take part.
The tribal groups also look forward to the alcoholic drinks on offer this time of the year, which includes beverages such as “dochoani”, “jogorah” and “kanji” specially made for the Boishabi festival.
Certain communities also bring out processions before the ceremonies begin, where people of all ages and from all walks of life take part.
Though each community has its own distinct rituals, the shared joy is evident everywhere. The Boishabi festival is highly inclusive and encourages people from every creed, race and social standing to join in the celebrations, and take part in the enjoyment.