The Bengali New Year’s Celebration of Democracy and Diversity Is Declared Intangible Cultural Heritage

Mangal Shobhajatra, is a colorful rally which starts at the Graphics Arts Institute of Dhaka University in the morning of Pahela Baishakh, the Bengali new year. Image from Flickr by Aaapon. CC BY-NC 2.0

Mangal Shobhajatra is a colorful rally which starts at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Dhaka University in the morning of Pahela Baishakh, the Bengali new year. Image from Flickr by Aaapon. CC BY-NC 2.0

Mangal Shobhajatra, a colourful public rally organized by students and teachers of Dhaka University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in Bangladesh to celebrate the Bengali New Year, has been recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Every year on the morning of Pohela Baishakh, the first day of the Bengali calendar (14 or 15 April), thousands of people from all walks of life gather for the rally, which starts in front of the Faculty of Fine Arts located in the busy Shahbag intersection of the Bangladesh capital Dhaka. Participants wear traditional dress and multicoloured masks and hold placards depicting the rural life and the daily affairs of Bengali people.

According to the UNESCO:

The Mangal Shobhajatra festival symbolizes the pride the people of Bangladesh have in their folk heritage, as well as their strength and courage to fight against sinister forces, and their vindication of truth and justice. It also represents solidarity and a shared value for democracy, uniting people irrespective of caste, creed, religion, gender or age. Knowledge and skills are transmitted by students and teachers within the community.

Over the years, the Mangal Shobhajatra rally, which has been protested and threatened by religious fundamentalists, has stood as a bold statement against communalism and religious fanaticism in the Muslim-majority country.

UNESCO announced the honor on November 30, 2016 after a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Bangladeshis were excited about this recognition. Misir Ali wrote on Facebook:

এটা আমাদের বিজয়, বাঙ্গালী সংস্কৃতির বিজয়|সেই সাথে আমাদের দায়িত্ব আরও বেড়ে গেল বর্ষবরণের বর্নিল আয়োজন করার,কারন এটি এখন শুধু আমাদের প্রোগ্রাম থাকল না,সারা বিশ্বের মানুষের অনুষ্ঠান হয়ে গেল|

This is not only the victory of a country, but the victory of the Bengali culture. And this puts added responsibility on us to ensure that the New Year's celebrations remains colourful and joyous as ever, as it is now a world event.

Shortly after the announcement, the state minister for foreign affairs, Mr. Md. Shahriar Alam, explained on Facebook that the declaration was the product of much work on their part:

আমরা বেশ কিছুদিন যাবৎ এটা নিয়ে কাজ করছিলাম এবং আজকে সকালে দুই ঘণ্টাব্যপী বিতর্কের পর এটা নিশ্চিত করা গেছে । সবাইকে অভিনন্দন !!!

We were working on this for a while and today the declaration has been secured after a two-hour debate. Congratulations everyone.

People celebrating Pahela Baishakh at Mangal Shobhajatra (Rally), a procession organised by Dhaka University’s Faculty of Fine Arts to welcome the Bengali new year. Image by Sourav Lasker. Copyright Demotix (14/4/2015)

People celebrating Pahela Baishakh at Mangal Shobhajatra (Rally), Image by Sourav Lasker. Copyright Demotix (14/4/2015)

‘Fun and happiness can push away the fear inflicted by the dictatorship’

Although the Bengali New Year celebration is a few centuries old, the Mangal Shobhajatra is a relatively new addition. The rally was started in 1989 by the students of Dhaka University, who were frustrated with the military dictatorship that ruled the country at the time. The following year, that same frustration would boil over into mass protests around Dhaka, a movement that eventually ousted the dictatorship and paved the way for parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh.

Artist Najib Tareq was one of the organisers of the early days of Mangal Shovajatra. He remembers being one of the youngest volunteers:

১ লা বৈশাখে হবে শোভাযাত্রা এবং সেটা হবে আনন্দ শোভাযাত্রা। আনন্দই পারে স্বৈরাচারের জুজুর ভয় দূর করতে। স্বৈরাচার তো আনন্দকেই প্রথমে হত্যা করতে চায়, তো আনন্দই হোক স্বৈরাচার প্রতিরোধের প্রথম ও প্রধান হাতিয়ার।

The fun rally began on the first day of Bengali New Year. We knew that fun and happiness can push away the fear inflicted by the dictatorship. Any dictator wants to suppress the happiness among the population and install fear. So we let the happiness be the first and foremost weapon to fight the dictatorship.

Rafiqun Nabi, an artist and a teacher at the Graphics Arts Institute of Dhaka University, also recalled in an interview the resistence that the rally has received:

মঙ্গল শোভাযাত্রাকে একটি সার্বজনীন উৎসবে পরিণত করতে গিয়ে স্বৈরাচারীদের নানা রকম হুমকি শুনতে হয়েছে, মৌলবাদীদের রক্তচক্ষু দেখতে হয়েছে।

We faced immense difficulties in making Mangal Shovajatra a public fest. We got intimidated by the dictatorship and threatened by the religious fundamentalists.

Bangladesh has a rich heritage of nearly 2,000 years accomodating peoples from numerous different religions, castes and creeds. Present-day Bangladesh is 90% Muslim. Many conservatives have deemed that Mangal Shovajatra is not Islamic and goes against religious values.

Conservative Islamic leader Maulana Ahmed Shafi has called for scrapping the Mangal Shovajatra:

মুসলমানদের বিশ্বাস মতে ভাল-মন্দ, মঙ্গল-অমঙ্গল সব কিছুই আল্লাহর হুকুমেই সংঘটিত হয়ে থাকে। মুসলমানকে কল্যাণ ও মঙ্গল কামনা করতে হবে একমাত্র আল্লাহর কাছেই। সুতরাং মুসলমানদের জন্যে মঙ্গল শোভাযাত্রার সংস্কৃতি চর্চা অবশ্যই পরিত্যাজ্য।

According to Muslim belief, good and bad, benevolent or nefarious, all happen according to the will of Allah. So Muslims should pray only to Allah to wish good in the society. So the culture of Mangal Shovajatra should be avoided by Muslims.

Some also term the festivity to be part of Hindu religious celebrations, and therefore they think Muslims should avoid them.

However, on Facebook Gazi Joyeeta Mahid countered the rhetoric of religious conservatives:

যতদিন বাংলাদেশ থাকবে, বাঙালি থাকবে- ততদিন এই নববর্ষের আয়োজন থাকবে। আনন্দ উৎসব থাকবে, বৈশাখী মেলা থাকবে, মঙ্গল শোভাযাত্রা থাকবে। এইটাই অসাম্প্রদায়িক চেতনার বাংলাদেশের প্রতিচ্ছবি।

As long as Bangladesh lives, there will be this type of New Year's celebration. There will be fun and festivities, New Year's fairs and Mangal Shivajatra. This is the image of a secular Bangladesh.

A colourful sea of New Year's revellers

TV journalist Shimul Bashar made a documentary on Mangal Shovajatra. He shared it on YouTube after hearing about the Cultural Heritage declaration:

Here are some images of Mangal Shovajatra from Instagram.

The masks for the rally are being prepared by the students of Faculty of Fine Arts of the Dhaka University. Others also help them make:

Not only masks, other colourful placards and pieces of art are painted by hand:

The Mangal Shovajatra takes over many of Dhaka's streets:

Mangal Shovajatra is now celebrated in many countries across the world by the expat Bangladeshi community. Here is one such event in Western Australia:

Everyone plays a part in the festivities:


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