An Assamese Festival and Global Message of Brotherhood of Bihu - Alternative Media Forum


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Saturday, 11 April 2015

An Assamese Festival and Global Message of Brotherhood of Bihu

Guwahati, Main Uddin, Shazida Khatun, Sultan Mujtafijul Hoque: BIHU is the national festival of Assam, a far North-Eastern state of India which celebrates irrespective of caste, creed, religion, specific faith or belief. Assamese culture distinguishes itself remarkably from the rest of India via the cultural festivities that happen throughout the year. Bihu, the Assamese festival occurs more than once a year, it denotes mainly three different festivals and is always associated with farming. The three festivals are: Rongali Bihu, Kaati Bihu and Magh Bihu. Bihu is also an irreligious festival and is celebrated by all Assamese people irrespective of caste, creed, religion, specific faith or belief. Though they own their origins to ancient rites and practices they have taken definite urban features and have become popular festivals in urban and commercialized milieus in the recent decades. Bihu is also used to imply Bihu dance and Bihu folk songs.

The word Bihu is derived from the language of the Dimasa people. Bi means "to ask" and Shu means "peace and prosperity" in the world. Hence the word BISHU gradually became Bihu to accommodate linguistic preferences. The other suggestion is that "Bi" means "to ask" and "Hu" means "to give" and so came BIHU. In Assam, Rongali Bihu draws from many different traditions— Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Burmese and Indo-Aryan—and is celebrated with great fervor. Celebrations begin in the middle of April and generally continue for a month. This is the traditional new year. In addition there are two other Bihus: Kongali Bihu in October (associated with the September equinox) and Bhogali Bihu in January (associated with the January solstice). Like most other Indian festivals, Bihu (all three) is associated with farming; as the traditional Assamese society is predominantly agricultural. In fact, similar festivals are also celebrated around the same time elsewhere in India. Bihu is also celebrated overseas by the Assamese community living in different countries around the globe.

There are 3 kinds of Bihus:

In a year there are three Bihu festivals in Assam - in the months of Bohaag (Baisakh, the middle of April), Maagh (the middle of January), and Kaati (Kartik, the middle of October). The Bihus have been celebrated in Assam since ancient times. Each Bihu coincides with a distinctive phase in the farming calendar. The most important and colourful of the three Bihu festival is the Spring festival "Bohag Bihu" or Rongali Bihu celebrated in the middle of April. This is also the beginning of the agricultural season. Bihu is celebrated by the all parts of Assam and all cast and religion. Directly we can say that Bihu is secular festival which brings the humanity, peace and brotherhood among the various cast and religion.

1.Bohag Bihu/Rongali Bihu:

Bohag Bihu (mid-April, also called Rongali Bihu), the most popular Bihu celebrates the onset of the Assamese New Year (around April 14–15) and the coming of Spring. This marks the first day of the Hindu solar calendar and is also observed in Mithila, Bengal, Manipur, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab, Kerala and Tamil Nadu though called by different names. It's a time of merriment and feasting and continues, in general, for seven days. The farmers prepare the fields for cultivation of paddy and there is a feeling of joy around. The women make pitha, larus (traditional food made of rice and coconut) and Jolpan which gives the real essence of the season. The first day of the bihu is called goru bihu or cow bihu, where the cows are washed and worshipped, which falls on the last day of the previous year, usually on April 14. This is followed by manuh (human) bihu on April 15, the New Year Day. This is the day of getting cleaned up, wearing new cloths and celebrating and getting ready for the new year with fresh vigor. The third day is Gosai (Gods) bihu; statues of Gods, worshiped in all households are cleaned and worshiped asking for a smooth new year.

The folk songs associated with the Bohag Bihu are called Bihugeets or Bihu songs. The form of celebration and rites vary among different demographic groups. Rongali Bihu is also a fertility festival, where the bihu dance with its sensuous movements using the hips, arms, etc., by the young women call out to celebrate their fertility. In this aspect, the bihu dance can also be called a mating ritual by the young men and women. Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu festival continues for seven days and called as Xaat Bihu. The seven days are known as Chot Bihu, Goru Bihu, Manuh Bihu, Kutum Bihu, Senehi Bihu, Mela Bihu and Chera Bihu.

Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu is the festival that refers to the onset of the Assamese New Year (April 14th of every year), which is the advent of seeding time. Rongali Bihu is celebrated over several days. At this time of the year the Assam valley becomes vibrant, colourful and the air is filled with the sweet fragrance of exotic spring flowers such as Kopou Phool, Keteki, Nahor. Also filling the skies with joyous songs are migratory birds such as Kuli, Keteki. During Rongali Bihu, ladies are busy by weaving Gamosas and Mekhela Chadors (the traditional Assamese 3 pieces costume). The ladies also make different types of traditional snacks called ‘Pithas’ such as Til, Ghila, Sunga, Monda, Tekeli Pithas and Laroos (different kind of snack made out of rice flour, coconut, molases or sugar).

The first day (April 14th) of Rongali Bihu is known as Goru Bihu in which cattle and livestock are taken to the river or pond to bathe in with Mah-Haldhi (paste of turmeric with different types of pulses). New tethering rope is given to the livestock and the animals are allowed to roam free in the fields. Cows are gently struck by sprigs of plants called Dighalati and Makhiyati and are blessed by reciting – “lao kha bengana kha, bosore bosore barhi ja –mar xoru, baper xoru, toi hobi bor bor goru” (blessing the livestock to grow year by year, better than their parents). The second day is known as Manush Bihu (‘Human Bihu’, celebrated on April 15th). This is the day for men, women and children to celebrate and the community comes together to visit one another. New clothes are worn whilst visiting friends and relatives. Delicacies are prepared in advance in every house-hold to feast upon. There is always an emphasis on old quarrels and differences being settled to start the New Year afresh. Hand-woven Gamosas are made as presents to be given to friends and family alike. Rongali Bihu carries on for seven days, the main activities of which mainly consist of song, dance and feasting with visitors.

Rongali Bihu is the single most important festival in Assam celebrated by its people. During this time young people from the villages move around in groups with enthralling girls dressed in beautiful traditional Assamese attire whilst singing Bihu songs of love and romance. Such gatherings are called Mukoli (open) Bihu. Husori is another form of dance performed during this phase. The dancer’s form a ring and start thumping the ‘Dhul’ (drum) and they announce their arrival by beating it at the gate of the house hold. Traditionally, it is sung and performed by the men but in recent times ladies are also seen to be taking part. Once the Husori is finished, the householders thank the dancers by offering a small token of money in a Xorai with Tamul Pan (beetle nut and beetle leaf). The household is blessed in return for a prosperous new year to come. Most significantly of all is the folk song called Bihu Geet (Bihu Songs) sung during the festivities, which generally varies with different Assamese ethnic strands. The Bihu Naach (Bihu Dance) is an exciting, sensuous body movement using hands, palms of the hands and hips which is performed by young boys and girls wearing traditional Assamese garb. Bihu Geet is accompanied by Dhul, Taal (cymbals) Pepa, Gogona, Baanhi (flute) Toka Xutuli (musical instrument made out of bamboo).

2.Kongali Bihu/Kati Bihu:

Kongali Bihu (mid-October, also called Kati-Bihu) has a different flavor as there is less merriment and the atmosphere has a sense of constrain and solemnity. During this time of the year, the paddy in the fields are in the growing stage and the granaries of the farmers are almost empty. On this day, earthen lamps (saki) are lit at the foot of the household tulsi plant, the granary, the garden (bari) and the paddy fields. To protect the maturing paddy, cultivators whirl a piece of bamboo and recite rowa-khowa chants and spells to ward off pests and the evil eye. During the evening, cattle are fed specially made rice items called pitha. The Bodo people light lamps at the foot of thesiju (Euphorbia neriifolia) tree. This Bihu is also associated with the lighting of akaxi gonga or akaxbonti, lamps at the tip of a tall bamboo pole, to show the souls of the dead the way to heaven, a practice that is common to many communities in India, as well as Asia and Europe.

Kaati Bihu or Kongaali Bihu (mid-October) coincides with autumnal ‘equinox’. The Kaati Bihu marks the completion of the sowing season. The fields are by now becomes lush green. Saki (earthen lamps) are lighted in the flourishing paddy fields and prayers are offered so that farmers are ensured a high-quality crop. Saki is also lighted around the base of the Tulsi (sweet smelling plant) in the courtyard of the household.

3.Bhogali Bihu/Magh Bihu:

Bhogali Bihu (mid-January, also called Magh Bihu) comes from the word Bhog that is eating and enjoyment. It is a harvest festival and marks the end of harvesting season. Since the granaries are full, there is a lot of feasting and eating during this period. On the eve of the day called uruka, i.e., the last day of pausa, menfolk, more particularly young men go to the field, preferably near a river, build a makeshift cottage called Bhelaghar with the hay of the harvest fields and the bonfire or Meji, the most important thing for the night. During the night, they prepare food and there is community feasting everywhere. There is also exchange of sweets and greetings at this time.

The entire night (called Uruka) is spent around a Meji with people singing bihu songs, beating Dhol, a typical kind of drums or playing games. Boys roam about in the dark stealing firewood and vegetables for fun. The next morning they take a bath and burn the main Meji. People gather around the Meji and throw Pithas (rice cakes) and betel nuts to it while burning it at the same time. They offer their prayers to the God of Fire and mark the end of the harvesting year. Thereafter they come back home carrying pieces of half burnt firewood for being thrown among fruit trees for favourable results. All the trees in the compound are tied to bamboo strips or paddy stems. Different types of sports like Buffalo-fight, Egg-fight, Cock-fight, Nightingale-fight etc. are held throughout the day. There are other conventional festivals observed by variousethnic-cultural groups. Me-dam-me-phi, Ali-aye-ligang, Porag, Garja, Hapsa Hatarnai, Kherai are few among them. The koch celebrates this bihu as pushna. All assamese people around the world celebrates this tradition on the month of January as per English calendar. The Uruka comes on 13 January followed by the Bihu on 14 January.

Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu (mid-January), is derived from the word ‘Bhog’ meaning ‘eating’ or ‘gratification’. This festival marks the end of the harvesting period. Magh Bihu is mainly a thanks-giving Bihu when crops are harvested, fields are empty and Bhorals (barns) are full. On the eve of this day, women are busy preparing rice-cakes, whilst the men build a temporary shelter in the open in which they collect firewood for a bonfire. The Meji (bonfire) is erected in barren fields and the community gathers around it after collecting hay and bamboo and it is ritually lit after a long night of big Bhoj (feast) and merriment.

Global Brotherhood Message of Bihu:

Bihu is known to be specifically an Assamese festival, however, it is far from being celebrated solely in Assam. Bihu celebrations over the course of time have travelled a very long way from the agricultural-led rural villages of Assam valley to the cosmopolitan cities and have proven to be expansive. Nowadays, Bihu festivities take place in their own shape and form across the world wherever there are Assamese diaspora. At the current time, Mukoli Bihus are not common any more. In towns and cities, there are well-organized Bihu fairs where professional or amateur troupes perform Bihu songs on stage with accompanying dancing. Bihu Kunwori (The Princess of the Bihu) contests are held widely. In these contests, young women compete in dancing to the tune of Bihu songs. The best dancer is given the title of Bihu Kunwori.

Bihu is also seen to be celebrated abroad. Many Bihu associations / committees exist elsewhere where this festival is celebrated with enthusiasm. In UK, US, Austrai, Australia, Dubai, Kenya and many more, Rongali Bihu coincides with spring-time. Bihu Committees enthusiastically organise the event during the bank holiday weekend of May, in which the Assamese community come together from all over the world to partake in the celebrations with Bihu Geet, Husori and to join in the Bihu Bhoj. The Assamese diaspora in London will ensure that our ‘Otikoi Senehor Bihu‘ will remain the heart and soul of our community for generations to come. Bihu is also an irreligious festival and is celebrated by all Assamese people irrespective of caste, creed, religion, specific faith or belief.

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