Unlike the rest of the world, in India, we don’t have just one new year! Different communities from different parts of India celebrate their new years at different times . The new year of Tamils and Malayalees from the south, the Bengalis and Odiyas from the east and that of the Punjabis from up north falls in mid-April. Whereas in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the start of a new year begins in mid-March. And quite differently, in Gujarat, it is celebrated at the time of Diwali.
So, why do we all have different new year beginnings?
Today, the world follows a standardised system of time keeping based on the Gregorian Calendar system. This calendar is a solar calendar, which is based on the movement of the earth around the sun.
According to the Gregorian solar calendar, a year has 365 days and an extra day every fourth year (leap year). A solar year is divided into 12 months with some months having 31 days, some having 30 and February having 28 (0r 29 in a leap year). The year starts on January 1st and ends on December 31st.
Of course, we all know this! We follow this calendar for all practical purposes in India too. This Gregorian calendar system was adopted by India during the colonial era. But, what system of time-keeping did we follow before the Europeans arrived?
The indigenous calendar systems of course! Yes, there was not just one, but many systems of time-keeping in vogue in ancient India.
India has always been home to diverse communities and cultures. Each region, community or clan had evolved its own calendar system, based on its own needs. It is said that according to an assessment by the Government of India in 1952, there were at least 30 full-fledged calendar systems being followed in India.
Some of these were solar calendars, some others were lunar calendars.
So, what is a lunar calendar?
A lunar calendar is a calendar system based on the movement of the moon around the earth. The lunar cycle from new moon to new moon is roughly 29 and a half days. So a lunar month is slightly shorter than a solar month and a lunar year with 354 days is 11 days shorter than a solar year.
Although most Indian calendars follow the lunar cycle, they also try and align the year to the solar cycle that decides the seasons.
In order to reconcile the difference between the two calendar systems, every 3 years, a month is added to the lunar year, and the month is referred to as adhik maas.
Our calendars are luni-solar
So, in reality, most Indian calendars follow a luni-solar system that takes into account both the movement of the moon around the earth and the sun’s position in the sky as seen from the earth. This causes a difference to the start of the year and to the number of days in a year.
This is one of the reasons why the new year in the luni-solar calendars does not fall on the same day every year. For example, Ugadi that marks the start of a new year for the Telugu and Kannada people fell on March 25th in 2020, but was celebrated on April 6th in 2019 and on March 18th in 2018.
Apart from the adjustments made to reconcile the lunar and solar cycles, the new year is also decided by the specific calendar in use in a particular region.
In the Deccan region, particularly in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana and Maharashtra, the the Shaliwahana or Shaka era calendar is followed. According to this calendar, the new year is celebrated on the first day of the waxing or growing moon in the month of Chaitra that stretches from mid-April to mid-May.
In several parts of Western India and northern India, the Vikram era calendar is followed. According to this calendar, the new year begins with the Amavasya or new moon day in the month of Karthika that stretches from mid-October to mid-November.
Whereas in Tamil Nadu and Kerala that follow the solar calendar, the new year falls on April 14th every year. Several parts of Eastern India including Odisha and Bengal too follow a similar calendar and their new year too falls around the same date.
On March 22nd, 1957, the Indian government adopted the Shalivahana or Shaka era calendar as the official calendar along with the Gregorian calendar.