New Year Festivals in the Chittagong Hills Tracts

Just about every nation in the world has its own special way of bidding farewell to the old year, while welcoming the new. In Bangladesh the indigenous tribes of the Chittagong Hills Tracts celebrate the end of the current year and the beginning of the new year with a series of colorful and lively festivals called Sagrai by the Marma people, Bwisu by the Tripura people, and Biju by the Chakmas. While similar in many ways, each tribe has a few unique aspects to their celebrations, which take place in mid April every year, depending on the new moon.

With the Marma tribe, three days of their four-day festival are spent bidding farewell to the outgoing year, with the fourth focusing on greeting the incoming year. On the first day of the festival both male and female members of the Marma tribe form a procession to take their images of Buddha down to the riverfront. There the images will be washed on a raft with either a mixture of sandalwood and water, or milk and water in preparation for reinstalling them at the temple or in their shrines at their homes. The following two days, being the last two days of the old year, are spent in light-hearted celebration called pani-khela, where participants splash each other with water, symbolically washing away all the sorrows and ills of the past year. A similar ceremony is carried out by the Rakhaine, called rangpani, where participants splash each other with colored water.

The Chakmas enjoy a three-day festival, two of which fall into the outgoing year. The first day is dedicated to celebrations for phul bijhu, the second for mul bijhu, and new year’s day for gojyai pojya. During phul bijhu there is general merrymaking in preparation for the main festival of mul bijhu, celebrated on the last day of the outgoing year. During this time the Chakmas visit one another’s homes, socializing and eating together. Young girls, distinguished by their blue and red lungis that have been woven on hand-held looms, gather in groups to enjoy each other’s company and wander from house to house at leisure and playing games in the afternoon.

In addition to spending time visiting each other’s homes and enjoying traditional foods such as panchan, the Tripura community enjoy goraia dance, with between 10 and 100 artists participating in the dance which depicts their daily lives and the processes of jhum cultivation on the hillsides of Chittagong. Throughout the Chittagong Hills Tracts, the first day of the new year is greeted with merriment and the hope for a prosperous and trouble-free year ahead.