Lonely Planet Writer

Temperatures soar as Dhaka prepares for Bengali New Year

The mercury is rising as Bangladesh gears up to celebrate the Bengali new year, known locally as Pahela Baishakh. This is the largest secular celebration for this majority Muslim nation, and a proud outpouring of Bengali pride on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border.

Pahela Baishakh, Bangladesh, 2015
Pahela Baishakh, Bangladesh, 2015 Image by Labib Ittihadul / CC BY 2.0

Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper is predicting temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius as more than 200,000 people gather in the capital for the start of the festival tomorrow.

Before Partition, the Province of Bengal included parts of both India and Bangladesh, and the festival is an important reminder of the cultural identity shared by Bengalis from both nations. In  the Bangladeshi capital, the centrepiece of the celebrations is a riotously colourful parade known as Mongol Shobhajatra, which features vividly coloured paper sculptures of masks and toys, created by students from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Dhaka University.

The rainbow-coloured artworks are marched through the streets of Dhaka as a symbol of the right of women and children to live lives free from violence, a secular message that has been criticised by some religious groups in Bangladesh. As a precaution, extra security is being employed at Dhaka University, and participants are being asked to carry their masks, instead of wearing them on their faces. The parade is scheduled to start at 9am on 14 April, and the gates to the University will be closed at 4.30pm as an extra security measure.

Girls in traditional costume at Pahela Baishakh, Bangladesh, 2015.
Girls in traditional costume at Pahela Baishakh, Bangladesh, 2015. Image by Labib Ittihadul / CC BY 2.0

The festival is also marked by fabulous festival food, most famously panta ilish, a feast of fried hilsa fish, dhal, dried small fry and pickles. However, demand for the delicacy is so huge at the festival that government officials are asking participants to avoid eating hilsa at this years’ celebrations to prevent over-fishing. Spring is the peak of the hilsa breeding season, and the Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina will be leading by example, with a meal of brinjal (eggplant) fritters, eggs and chicken curry.