Poila Baisakh is never complete without a Panjika
Eminent Bengali humorist and literateur Sri Shibram Chakraborty has imortalized the most appropriate analysis of a new year celebration by concluding that enthusiasm for ushering in a new year is meaningless. He opined that whenever a new hear has come, it never lasted more than a year !
Despite such enlightened wisdom availabe at our disposal, mere mortals drown themselves in the giltz of the new year in celebrantion. Bengalis are generally festival loving community. In keeping with such reputation, the New Year revelry of the past centerered around the Bengali New Year. Then English New Year celebrations joined the band wagon. Presently new year of many communities including the micro minorities in the city like Chinese has emerged as festivals, drawing participation from the Kolkata crowd.
Ushering in of the new year in traditional Bengali style is incomplete without a glace through the new year’s almanac - the Bengali Panjika. Although the word rhymes with Ganjika the vernacular for weed! The two bear a faint resemblance, as reading through the pages of a new Panjika is bound to make you heady with a tad of mild intoxication with old-world charm when life was less complicated and people believed more than they questioned. The Panjika controlled a Bengali's social life like an invisible friend and was not limited to Rashifal (horoscope) and religious observations related to births, deaths, rice and thread ceremonies.
The new Panjika is available in the market, a few days before the Bengali New Year. Publishers like Gupta Press, PM Bagchi, Benimadhab Seal claim their publications to be based on the ancient Surya Siddhant treatise propounded by Raghunandan. Whereas Visuhddha Siddhant on the other hand claims that their Panjika is based on the Government of India Panchang, which follows the Driksiddha calculations, and hence is scientific.
It is often said that the word Panjika has its roots in the word Panchang. However, Shabdakalpadruma - the Sanskrit thesaurus compiled by Raja Radhakanta Deb, clarifies that Panchang has its origin in the word Panch, whereas Panjika is derived from Panji. One is reminded that in colloquial Bengali a Panjika is often referred as Panji - making us ponder that Panjika and Panchang may not be related from etymological or grammatical perspective. However, from functional approach, they may be related as the Panjika also provides information, essentially on five matters - Tithi, Nakshatra, Yoga, Karana and Baar.
The evolution of the Bengali Panjika or almanac is related to the history of the Bengali Year or Bangabda. There are different opinions about its origin. While some historians trace its origin to the reign of King Sansanka, some others credit it to the reforms undertaken during the rule of Emperor Akbar. Previously, the affairs of the state were conducted on the basis of Lunar month. This caused the months to occur in different seasons leading to problems in farming and related collection of revenue. This prompted Akbar to register the help of eminent astronomer Amir Fathullah Shirazi to convert the lunar Hijri year to a solar year system.
The origin of the Bengali Panjika is shrouded in obscurity. Some experts are of the opinion that hand written Panjika was used in Bengal. The aristocrats and royalty could only afford to use these hand written scripts. Common people mainly depended on the timings of sun rise and sun set. Pandit Raghunandan Bhattacharya edited and published the first Bengali Panjika in the 16th century which was known as Nabadwip Panjika. Later, during the reign of Raja Krishnachandra of Nadia, the responsibility was entrusted on two eminent scholars, Ramrudra Vidyanidhi and Vishwambhar Jyotisharnab. It is said that on the basis of a copy of this Panjika, Durgacharan Gupta styled and published his famous Gupta Press Panjika in the year 1869 - thereby bringing this vital guiding source of social and religious practices within reach of common Bengali Hindus.
Before the democratization of the Panjika through mass publication, a special class of Brahmins known as Grahacharyas used to visit the household on the day of the new year and recite the annual horoscope of the family member - mostly the elders and head of the household or the karta. Other members like children appearing for board exams also featured in the list for particular years. During the year they provided astrology related services to their clients including presiding over special rituals aimed to pacify the plants and stars. They also provided remedies to counter adverse planetary positions that included prescribing different kinds of yantrams and herbal roots. It was a generally accepted custom that offering meant for the plants were not to be accepted by other Brahmins. Thus, the practice of astrology as profession was reserved for the grahacharyas.
Like many professions, these practicing astrologers and their association with the new year Panjika recitation has faded into oblivion. These simple folks have been replaced by publicity savvy modern astrologers who peddle the same prescription of hope and aspiration to distressed householders - but in a more attractive package through local satellite television channels.
The Panjika today usually begins with advertisements of these astrologers who claim to have solutions to every problem concerning your social, personal and economic life. Their claims are as tall as their tagline - "A miracle - but 100% true". These are followed by publicity of books that may include everything from cheaply produced pulp fictions to epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The real story of the Panjika starts with the enumeration of differnt planets. They never forget to mention the time of solar and lunar ecplise. This is followed by the horoscope of twelve months begining with Baishakh and ending at Chaitra. Then comes the horoscope of India, West Bengal, Assam and Tripura! Obviously horoscopes must be available for other states and countries too. But why should an average Bengali bother about the horoscope of Burkina Frasco or Kamchatka? Hence these are left out.
The next section of the Panjika is extremely useful for a common user. It enumerates the auspicious timings for conducting rites and ceremonies like marriage, thread and rice ceremony, starting construction, planting sapling, etc. Interestingly, it should be noted that the day of the Saraswati Puja does not feature as an auspicious event for hatekhori or the initiation of education for children. The generally observed norm of priests who perform this ceremony during Saraswati Puja is not supported in the Panjika it seems!
Old American almanacs included mandatory sections on humour, which is missing in a Bengali Panjika. However, with a little bit of imagination, the section enumering the result of house gecko falling on you can more than compensate for this lapse. The Panjika says that if a gecko falls on your head, it can result in you becoming the monarch of a kingdom or at least gaining royal pleasures, if it falls on your ear, it can bring you ornaments. A gecko falling on your nose can yield you incense or perfume - though it never mentions the brand. And a gecko falling on specific part of your body can even lead to financial loss or even death!
The bulk of the book includes the section that lists the time for conducting various rites and rituals, sun rise and sun set time, time of high and low tide etc for each day of the year. These information are spiced with prohibitions and bans of various kinds, including restrictions on eating various vegetables during different tithi, times to avoid beginning a journey and even the blemish that may affect the dead on the basis of the poor soul leaving the body! For some, these may at best seem strange. But believer in this tradition are quick to point out the underlying scientific reasons behind such diktats.
Despite its strong foundation of old customs, the Panjika's inherent attempt to modernize does not escape the eyes of an inquisitive reader. Along with the listing of time and date to worship some obscure deity, a modern Panjika never forgets to mention that 6th June is World Environment Day. The special section dealing with auspicious time of marriage also reminds the user to ensure pre-marriage medical checks to protect future generation from ailments like thalassaemia. While a Panjika seems redundant in many modern urban households, it still holds complete sway over the daily lives of millions throughout Bengal anchoring them to their tradition. The indispensable part of the Bengali New Year celebration also provides an interesting view of evolution of our society.