“Secular” Distortions of The Syncretic Bengali Calendar
In recent years, it has become a tradition of sorts for certain online media portals to recycle old articles during major Hindu festivals to try and “deconstruct” them (so to speak) by attempting to reveal ill-perceived discontinuities in them. However, most of such “deconstructions” often are quite misleading. Here specifically, I take the example of an article published by Scroll.in by Shoaib Daniyal in 2015 on how the Bengali calendar was “invented” by Akbar. Daniyal traces his sources to Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, which goes to unnecessary lengths to establish the multicultural and “secular” foundations of India, denying any central role for Hinduism. This strange observation by Daniyal – of the Bengali calendar being “invented” by Akbar – reading Sen merits a closer examination of the Bengali calendar and its history.
April 14 (or in some years, April 15) is traditionally celebrated as the first day of the year, according to the Bengali calendar. Its syncretism lies in the fact that while the calendar itself is based on pre-existing Hindu solar sidereal calculations, its “epoch” or year count was adjusted to the Islamic Hijri calendar when the Mughal emperor Akbar promulgated his Tārikh-e-Ilahi in 1584 CE appears to have been a tropical solar year with twelve months of 29/30 days each, with no intercalations, no weeks, and each day of the month had a different name. Sen admits this in passing in his book on page 351 that the calendar itself was solar like its Hindu contemporaries, a fact which appears to have been overlooked by Daniyal. While the calendar itself didn’t stick, its epoch stuck. This was not limited to Bengal, though; similar Fasli calendars and epochs were promulgated in other parts of India. For instance, the Vilāyati or Amli San in Orissa, the Fasli year of the Upper Provinces and the Fasli year of the Deccan.
Amartya Sen’s example of the Tārikh-e-Ilahi in The Argumentative India does not merely serve to tell us a bit of Mughal history; the eventual motive is to show – despite any obvious connection whatsoever – that it is the Bengali San (calendar and epoch) which carries this trace of “integrating tendency” (Sen 2005: 332) which forms the pillars of multiculturalism and secularism. However, this attempt not only falls short of its goal but in its zeal to downplay the Hindu origins and foundations of the calendar, it becomes a misleading observation. This is not unlike the “cosmopolitan intellectualism” that economist Partha Dasgupta characterizes of Sen in his review of the latter’s autobiography (“The Perils of Cosmopolitan Intellectualism”, Society 58: 5, October 2021), noting that “progressive” tendencies in the then-Calcutta academic scene necessarily involved putting down “even a whiff of national pride” and “any favourable mention of Hinduism as an attitude to personal or social life” would be anathema. It is noteworthy that this pattern has exhibited itself in Sen’s writing on the matter.
The primary impetus in adjusting the calendars during Mughal rule was to standardize the harvest calendar with the agricultural seasons for easier recovery of taxes. The Islamic Hijri calendar that was used in the Mughal Empire was a purely lunar calendar, and as a result, could not track the seasons which are of paramount importance in an agricultural country. While this is regularly cited and spoken of, we do not always grasp its implication. The Hijri epoch counts as its first year the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s journey to Medina in 622 CE. Now, say, we were to pose a question: how many years ago did that happen? It sounds simple, for we can just take the Hijri epoch (currently, 1443) and say that it happened 1443 years ago. But then, if we subtract 622 CE from the current 2022 CE, we get 1400 years. So, which is true? Did Muhammad travel to Medina 1443 years ago or 1400 years ago? It turns out that both answers are correct. Solar calendars use a 365/366-day year, while lunar calendars use 354/355-day years.
The epoch of a calendar (its “starting point”) and a calendar itself (how its months and years are calculated) is necessarily not the same thing, especially in a country like India with its diverse history. The same calendar may be re-used for different epochs, as is done for most of the lunisolar Hindu calendars. On the other hand, multiple calendars (most notably, the Julian and the Gregorian calendars) use the same epoch: the Anno Domini (AD), “in the year of our Lord.” Historically, many societies have used regnal years — the number of years in the reign of a monarch — to track the passage of time. To this day, summons to the Parliament of the United Kingdom are issued and dated with the regnal year of Queen Elizabeth II (since her ascension in 1952 CE). While the ancient Romans used the Founding of the City of Rome in 753 BCE (AUC: ab urbe condita), the later Roman Empire and subsequent European empires, kingdoms, and now nations (including the globalized world), use the regnal epoch of Christ, the King. (Of course, the most important year and calendar in the world is the financial year and the fiscal calendar that starts on the 1st of April in India. But interestingly, in the Julian calendar, the 1st of April is the 14th of April in the Gregorian calendar.)
The Bengali year that starts on April 14 is 1429 (Bangla San). At first glance, that might seem as if we can subtract 1429 years from the current Gregorian year 2022 CE and conclude that the Bengali epoch started in 593/594 CE; but it isn’t so simple because of a peculiar modification that Akbar made. But what exactly did Akbar, or rather the Tārikh-e-Ilahi, do?
In the year of Akbar’s coronation (1556 CE = 963 Hijri), the first day of Muharram (the month, not the event) in the Hijri calendar (the Islamic New Year) happened to coincide with the New Year (first day of Vaishākha) in the pre-existing sidereal solar calendar. That particular Bengali year was re-designated as 963 of the Bengali epoch by fiat. However, it did not remain synchronized with the Islamic New Year — since one is a pure lunar calendar and the other is a pure solar calendar. In other words, in 1556 CE, the Tārikh-e-Ilahi (and the Bengali epoch) was set at 963 to match the Islamic Hijri year 963, but from then onward, the two calendars went their own way. In 2022 CE therefore (466 years later), it is 1429 in the Bengali epoch, but 1443 in the Hijri epoch.
Unfortunately, that also means that we cannot ever know when the original Bengali epoch (if one ever existed independently) began. By forcibly setting the epoch to 963 as in 1556 CE, a part of history was erased, and without archaeological evidence of inscriptions, we cannot say definitively what the original Bengali epoch was. We cannot subtract 1429 solar years (1429 x 365 days) from 2022 CE and expect to see an event or a king’s reign in or around 593/594 CE. Some scholars have attempted this approach; for instance, it is widely speculated (and an oft-repeated claim) that the Bengali epoch started with King Śaśānka, the first ruler of unified Bengal. However, upon scrutiny, it is a theory that does not make sense for two reasons. Firstly, that is because we would have to count lunar years (of 354 days each) before 1556 CE and solar years (of 365 days each) after 1556 CE, and that would lead us to the prophet Muhammad’s journey to Medina. Secondly, kings of the time used their regnal eras. Copper-plate inscriptions of Śaśānka, the Pāla kings as well as the Sena kings all used their regnal years (the sole exception being the Malla kings of Bishnupur who dated their era since the first Malla king); only the subsequent Deva dynasty, the last Hindu kingdom before the Islamic period, used both their regnal years as well as the Śaka era on their inscriptions. It is therefore much more plausible that Bengal, like other regions of India, used the Śaka era at the time. Indeed, it is not too far-fetched a claim to say that the Bengali San is simply nothing but the Śaka era but counted from a different epoch (possibly adjusted from a Chaitra-beginning to a Vaishākha-beginning). Otherwise, it defies common sense as to why the people of Bengal would choose an era that started with Śaśānka, instead of the more recent and culturally relatable Sena or Deva kings. This is especially significant because medieval Bengali poets (like Kaviratna Ghanaram Chakraborty of the Śrīdharmamaṅgalkāvya) writing in the 17th and 18th centuries dated their works in the Śaka era, inscribing both the luni-solar tithi as well as the solar dates.
But the numbering of years aside, did the structure of the Bengali calendar change? The Bengali calendar is a sidereal solar calendar (unlike the reformulated one followed in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh which is a tropical solar calendar like the Gregorian). That means the solar year is defined by the sun’s actual movement across the twelve houses of the Jyotiṣa sidereal zodiac (not the same as the Western tropical zodiac). Thus, in 2022 CE, while Bangladesh celebrates the Bengali New Year on April 14 (fixed every year), West Bengal celebrates it on April 15 this year. The sun entered the Meṣa rāṣi (Aries) April 14, 2022 exiting the Mīna rāśi (Pisces), ending the month of Chaitra. This entry into the Meṣa rāṣi (Aries) is taken as the first month in most zodiac-based calendars which start with the sign of Aries. Similarly, the month of Vaishākha will end when the sun enters the Vṛṣabha rāśi (Taurus) on 15th May 2022. The month of Vaishākha is so-named because the full moon would be in the Viśākhā nakṣatra, the full moon in Chaitra would be in the Chitrā nakṣatra, and so on. The same template exists in solar calendars across India, which track the seasons better, as the solar months track one saṃkrānti (sun’s entry into a zodiacal house) to another.
The modern Gregorian calendar, the Indian national civil calendar as well as the revised Bengali calendar used in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh are also examples of solar calendars, but they are tropical solar calendars (and not sidereal) which track the sun’s movement through the solstices and equinoxes (instead of through constellations). Tropical years are seasonally more accurate than sidereal years. While the tropical year is 365.242 days long, the sidereal year is 365.256 days long. This minor difference is adjusted in both cases with leap days, without which the seasons would drift away and not remain synchronized with the months. In contrast, the Hindu luni-solar calendars, which track the movements of both the sun and moon against the sidereal zodiac and are used to calculate the dates for most Hindu rituals, use synodic lunar months (one full moon to another, or one new moon to another) and sidereal solar years, adjusting for the discrepancy by adding an intercalary month (a “leap month”, so to speak: adhika māsa) or often dropping a month (kṣaya māsa) once every few years based on strict calculations. For instance, in 2020, the Samvat calendar had a “leap” Āśvina month: as a result, Bengalis saw a month-long interval between Mahalaya and Durga Pujo. The luni-solar Samvat calendar had 13 months that year, but the solar Bengali calendar had 12 months: the result of intercalation.
In sum, therefore, we may ask: was the Bengali sidereal solar calendar “transformed” or “invented” along the lines of the Islamic Hijri calendar? The answer is: not by a long shot. Shoaib Daniyal of Scroll.in seems to conclude that while the Tārikh-e-Ilahi was an invention that didn’t stick, it was an “exception […] in Bengal, where it became integral to both agriculture as well as the Hindu religion.” This, however, is factually wrong and misleading, since agriculture had always followed a pre-existing solar calendar, and Hinduism has always been based primarily on the luni-solar Samvat calendar. While it is certainly integral to the socio-cultural lives of the Bengali people, the calendar itself does not determine major Hindu festivals, with the sole exception of harvest and folk festivals (like Poush Parbon and Gajan which again are determined based on the Sun’s actual movement unlike the multicultural calendars that Sen or Daniyal would have us think), nor did Akbar “invent” the calendar in any sense of the term.
In the end, Daniyal adds a disingenuous remark. He writes that when “Durga Pujo dates will be calculated for the Bengali year 1422, the two events referenced (unknown to most Bengalis themselves) will be the migration of Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina and Akbar’s coronation”. He is, however, blissfully unaware that most Hindu rituals and festivals (including and especially the Durga Pujo) are calculated in accordance with the luni-solar Samvat calendar — and not the solar Bengali calendar. It turns out that Amartya Sen has made a similarly incorrect remark in his book The Argumentative Indian in an overstretched attempt to showcase Indian multiculturalism and secularism. This appears to be the source that Daniyal cites uncritically to claim that Bengali Hindus use this “local calendar” for ritual purposes, a remark which is categorically incorrect as well as misleading.
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keywords: amartya sen, scroll.in, the argumentative Indian, bengali hindus, durga pujo, samvat calendar, gregorian calendar, shoaib daniyal,