The Bihu Festival of Assam
Assam is the land through which the mighty River Brahmaputra flows, a land of vast green tea plantations, exotic wildlife, magnificent natural scenery, and also one where dozens of tribes and races live and coexist, in complete harmony. Assam is the state where we see a confluence of several cultures, traditions and belief systems. What unites the people of Assam, more than anything, is the Bihu festival – which is celebrated with great pomp and show, and with enormous enthusiasm, by everyone, regardless of their caste, creed or religious affiliation.
There are three different Bihu festivals in Assam, celebrated during the different seasons of the year. The Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu, which heralds the onset of Spring, is the most popular, and celebrated with great gaiety. The Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu is celebrated during the Winter season and the Kongali Bihu or Kati Bihu, in Autumn. We discuss each of the Bihu Festivals here in this article.
Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu
Bohag Bihu is so named as the festival is held in the month of ‘Bohag’ which is the first month of the Assamese new year, which usually starts on April 15. It also heralds the start of spring in Assam, which is celebrated with great happiness by the people. Hence the name ‘Rongali Bihu’ as Rong means joy and celebration in the Assamese language.
While all the three Bihu festivals are related to harvesting, Rongali Bihu celebrates the start of a period when farmers don’t have much work to do, but a plenty of time to enjoy their harvest. This is that beautiful time of the year when farmers enjoy the fruits of their great labor.
There is satisfaction and happiness in the air, at a year that has gone well, when a plenty of work was done, and all that remains is to reap the benefits of such honest labour and hard work. This makes the celebrations during the Rongali Bihu all the more beautiful and exuberant.
On the eve of the festival, women get all the clothes cleaned and have sumptuous Bihu delicacies such as Pitha and Chira prepared. Men busy themselves collecting Tara Pogha (or ropes for cattle) and brinjal, turmeric and gourd in preparation for festivities to follow.
The first day of the festival involves the worship of the cattle – cows and bullocks – that serve as a source of livelihood for so many in Assam. The animals are ceremonially bathed in nearby rivers and lakes, their feet washed, horns and hoofs painted in beautiful colours and decorated with flowers.
They are offered brinjal, gourd and other eatables and allowed to pasture in the fields, completely unhindered, for the rest of the day. On returning home in the evening, the cows are tied with new ropes specially made for the occasion. Incense sticks are lit in the cow-shed to ward off mosquitoes and ensure that the cows sleep well.
The second day of the festival, known as Manuh Bihu, will have the women prepare special sweets and delicacies made of rice, curd and jaggery. The onset of the Bihu Husori is welcomed formally at the Namghar or prayer hall. The third day of the Bihu festival is the day of the Gosain Bihu, during which the deities are worshipped.
Bihu Song and Dance
All three days of the Bihu festival are celebrated in great style, with musicians and dancers visiting the neighbourhood and performing the beautiful Bihu dance. Young, unmarried men and women get together, wearing bright and colorful new clothes and sing melodious songs of love, happiness and the joy of romance.
The young women look resplendent in their bright clothes, glistening jewelry and the Ko-pou flowers adorning the hair. The young men are dressed to match the occasion as well.
Folk songs are sung, with drums and a flute called pepa, accompanied by general merriment, with young men and women dancing to the tunes. The dances are performed in circles, according to a method that has been perfected through generations.
There are fairs organized in every village and town, with roller coaster rides and merry-go-rounds arranged for children. Several small stores are set up and artists and artisans use the occasion to sell beautifully crafted handlooms and handcrafted items at the village or town fairs. The fairs are busy and bustling with activity, with blissful peace, happiness and satisfaction in the air.
Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu
Bhogali Bihu or Magh Bihu is celebrated in January after the harvesting of the paddy cultivation. The festival is usually marked with a community function help in temporary thatched accommodations called the Bhela Ghar or Meji Ghar, which are specially built for the purpose on fields where the crops have already been harvested.
A feast is held for the whole village which is celebrated by all communities. The people of the village spend the entire night partaking in the community feast in the Bhela Ghar or Meji Ghar and early in the morning, the thatched accommodations are lit with fire, which marks the end of the festivities.
At every home in the village, the womenfolk prepare traditional Assamese delicacies such as Pitha and Laru. Then people visit the homes of friends, relatives and neighbours and exchange traditional Bihu greetings, one of hope and friendship. Snacks are distributed, news traded and gossip exchanged. It’s a time of joy and contentment.
Kongali Bihu or Kati Bihu
Kati Bihu is the quietest Bihu festival, which is celebrated without too much celebration unlike the other two Bihu festivals. It marks the start of the Kati or the seventh month of the Assamese calendar – which falls around October 15. The Kongali or Kati Bihu is celebrated with nothing more than a silent prayer in the paddy fields and the lighting of earthen lamps, in the fields as well as next to the Tulasi plant, for the success of the crop that has been planted.
Often, this is the time of the harvesting season when farmers and their families are most tense, as it is hard to predict how their crop would turn out, as much depends on external factors such as the weather and the rains. That’s why there isn’t much merriment during the Kati Bihu unlike what is seen during the Rongali Bihu. It is a time of quiet prayers and contemplation.