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25. 09. 2017
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BIHU FESTIVALS

Bihu is the biggest festival of the people of Assam region. Now Assam is actually a much shortened form of the region previously known as Assam or Kamaroopa. No other festival generates such enthusiasm and high spirits among all age groups as does Bihu, cutting across all man made divisions of a human society. This is truely a regional festival which brings a sense of solidarity and unity among all the people of a region. As a local song claims :

Bihu anondia Bihu binondia Bihu man mitha hat Bihur ba lagi bihua kokair e Deu dhoni laguse gat.

[Bihu is full of joy; Bihu is beautiful; Bihu songs are very sweet — When the winds of Bihu blow, one's body becomes possessed by the dancing sprit.]

Coming thrice in a year and marking the change of seasons in the lush and verdant hills and valley at the foothills of the Himalaya in Assam. It is April which is the spring season here when felicity and joy start oozing from nature. Flowers and foliage cover the landscape and 'Ropoful' (orchids) of exotic shape and colour hang from the trees in their magnificent splendour. The purple orchid is the favourite of the girls which adorns their hair. The first of the three Bihus' which falls on Chait Sankranti (transition of the Sun in Aries or Mesh around middle of April). It is called Bihag Bihu or Rangoli Bihu. Historically these festivals and the dances associated with them are of pre-Aryan origin. In fact the Aryan influence is conspicuous by mostly its absence in this region. In fact Bihu is essentially a festival of fertility. Hence its all dances and rituals point towards this very fact. The farmer believed that songs with evident erotic contents would lead to a strong sexual arousal in the body of the earth which would result in increased crop production. The dances are performed exclusively by men with no holds are barred to erotic manifestations. These men craving for higher fertility of the land dance whole might in their open fields. Now this celebration is being developed as a sort of healthy competition with boys and girls from different localities forming groups and invite veterans to teach and lead them in the competitive performance of dances which express the Assamese 'joie de vivre' In this sense, Rangoli Bihu is the most festive and gayful of all the Bihus. Other Bihus are known as Magh Bihu and the Kati Bihu. The Bihag or Bohag Bihu is a spring, new year and agriculture festival all rolled into one. Spring is the season when all nature, so lush and rich in Assam is vibrant with new life; trees creepers and orchards are in bloom, the air is fragrant with flowers, and bird song reverberates through hills and plains. This spirit imbues the people also and is given full play in the festival of Bohag Bihu. Since it is most colourful, it is also dearly called Rangoli Bihu.

'Bohag' is the first month of the Assamese calendar and 'Chot' or Kati the last. The Bohag Bihu thus marks the advent of the new year. Naturally people's thoughts are on their hopes for the welfare and prosperity of family and the community in the coming year. Prayers are offered and homage paid to elders and their blessing sought.

Usually at this time nor' wester strike Assam and bring the first showers. Tradition among the Assamese has it that these winds are caused by 'Bardoichila' — a legendary lady who visits her mother during Bihu and returns to her in laws after a few days. The showers accompanying the storms revive the parched land which is then ready to be prepared for planting seeds and seedlings. The popularity of the Bohag Bihu is expressed in song :

Dear is the muga bobbin Dearer is the shuttle Dearer still is the Bihu of Bohag How can we leave it uncelebrated.

Normally every home in Assam used to have a loom. The women wove their own clothes and one of the special weaves is the 'gamacha' a decorated towel with intricate designs woven in. They are a prized possession, given as any (Bihu presents), especially by a mother to her son, a wife to her husband — in short by the one to one's dearest (male). Worn over the waist over their white 'dhoti' or 'lungi' or as head hands these 'gamachas' ceremonially adorn men especially during festivity. They are also used to cover the especial places reserved for 'TamuP (Tam boola or betel leaves) to be offered to the 'Bihu dais' (Bihu teams) that come visiting and dancing all through (he week with their music instruments called dhool (dhol or drums), pepa (an instrument made from buffalo horn) and gagana (made from bamboo and held between the teeth) and small cymbals keeping rhythm. They sing devotional songs, in a style known as 'hoseri', invoking Lord Krishna to bless their households with health, wealth and prosperity. One of the songs sung on this occasion proclaims invoking Lord Krishna's blessings :

Chotote Chakori bohagat bogari

Jhetothe aamona dhan Gaur bihu dinakhon shara's aagloraba Tehe paba baikunthat dham

[In Chait thread spinning; in Baisakh plums;

In Jaath (Jhetha) the fields are full of red coloured poddy;

On the day of 'cow-bihu' offer the 'sheranai platter

Filled with Prasad

Then you will reach Baikunth Dham (heaven where Lord Krishna dwells)]

The first day of this Bihu is known as Goru Bihu (Cattle Bihu) and is reserved for cattle rites. Household cattle get special treatment. In the morning, the cowshed is cleaned, the cows' feet are washed, oil rubbed on their horns and hoves, and sometimes they are decorated with garlands. Then they are taken to a nearby pond or river. On the way they are gently struck with twigs of the 'dighatti' and 'makhiyati plants', and pieces of gourd, brinjal and other vegetables which are fitted on bamboo sticks are thrown at them, while the following song is recited :

"The 'dighalati has long leaves,

We beat the cows again and again

Eat the gourd, eat the brinjal,

And gnow from year to year.

Your mother was small, your father was small,

May you grow into a big cow."

Normally it is mostly children who enthusiastically do these rites under the watchful eye of their guardians and grown ups.

At the river or pond, the cows are given a ceremonial wash, and those accompanying them also bathe. Then the old ropes tying the cattle are undone and the cows let loose for the day.

On returning home, the young pay homage to their elders who give them their blessings. After a special bath, the older members of the family offer prayer at the family altar or at the community prayer- hall. Bath at this occasion is deemed very auspicious and it is customary to rub oneself with a paste of Urad dal called 'mati math' mixed with turmeric, neem leaves and other herbs.

At dusk when the cattle are back, a lighted earthen lamp is placed in the cowshed. The cows are fastened to new ropes. Homage is paid to them and they are offered cakes and sweets to eat. A special smuge is burnt not only to drive away mosquitoes and fleas but also diseases and other evils — goblins, spirits etc. — which are generally said to disturb the cattle life.

The first of Bohag falls on the next day which is called Manuh Bihu (Human Bihu) day. Paying homage to elders is also customary on this day and relatives and friends are also visited. On this occasion, a special meal is prepared consisting Chivra (flattened rice), curds and sweets.

An attractive feature of this Bihu is the offering of presents known as 'Bihuwan'. The 'Bihuwan' generally consists of some cloth in most cases a 'gamacha' (napkin) woven by the women on the family loom. The present can also be garments or other articles and a symbol of affection, or respect depending on the relationship of the giver (as mentioned already).

'Gosain Bihu' (God's Bihu) is called the third day of Bihu which is set apart for religious services. The following days have no special rites associated with them, but the seventh Bihu day, the Sat Bihu, has its especial significance. On this day, it is customary to eat a special preparation of seven different kinds of leafy vegetables called 'Sat Sak.' In some parts of lower Assam, the sat-saki is a minor ceremony in which elderly women go to some waste land near the villages to collect the leaves and there they daily sing and sometimes dance.

Games and sports are necessary part of the Bihu celebrations. A special game is 'Kanijuj' (egg-fighting) which is played by two people each hitting the eggs the other holds. Coweric shell games and other chess-like games are usually preferred by women. Out door games like 'dhop' (a ball game) and 'hau' (a local version of Kabbaddi) are also popular. Children not only watch these but join in with great fervour.

However, what distinguishes the Bohag Bihu from the other Bihus and for that matter, from other festivals of Assam is the performance of special Bihu songs (referred to already) and dances. Most of these songs are folk songs woven round the theme of love. Now some filmi tunes also given them a queer touch. Sung to the accompaniment of the 'dhol', pepa, taka, lat ang gagan (Jews' harp) and hand chipping. The Bihu dance is a vigorous, captivating dance reflecting the spirit of youth and vitality.

Though the Bihu festival has a rural and agricultural origin, with changing times the manner of its celebration has also changed. In recent times, the tendency, particularly in urban and semi-urban areas, has been to observe the Bohag Bihu by organising public functions with programmes of song, dance, sports, etc. Bihu songs naturally dominate but other items representing the diverse ethnic groups, both inside and outside Assam, are also included — so the filmi songs and tunes filled with local language substitutes. Another kind of singing and dancing is 'huchari' which is common at the time of Bohag Bihu. Huchari songs have religious overtones and are sung in village courtyards by bands of young men and the middle-aged. The Bihu songs and dance including Huchari are characteristic of Bihu celebrations only in upper and middle Assam but not in lower Assam.

Here, however, there is a special occasion connected with Bohag Bihu which is not found in other areas. This is a fair held immediately following the Bihu days called Bhatheli or Suwari in the Kamrup region. The various tribal groups of Assam too have festivals akin to Bihu at or around this time which they celebrate according to their respective customs and rites. Among them are the Bodo-Kacharis Boisagu, the Rabhas' Baikhu and the Mishings' Ali-ali ligang.

The harvest festival celebrated in winter is the Magh Bihu when crops have been harvested and the villages have ample leisure. Feasting forms the main feature of this Bihu and so it is also called Bhogali Bihu or Bihu of enjoyment. It is also connected with the fire rites, the lighting of bonefires being another important part of its observance. In the evening of 'Uruka Day' (Bihu eve), every household has a special meal—fish, meat and other delicacies it can afford. The fish is often obtained earlier in the day from nearby rivers or lakes. In some areas, villagers go community fishing, which is an occasion for lot of fun. Groups of young people and children hold community feasts in or around 'Bhelaghars' or 'mejis' - specially erected structures made of hay, dry banana leaves, green bamboos, etc. Often these groups stay up all night gossiping or singing around a fire. The fire is kept alive with material collected earlier which is even sometimes good — humouredly stolen. Early in the morning, everyone bathes and then sets fire to these structures which throw up huge flames and burn with sharp crackling noises because of the green bamboos in them - to the especial glee of children. Prayers are said to the Fire - god and eatables thrown into the fire as offerings.

The Bihu specialities among food items are 'Chivra' (beaten rice), 'pitha' (rice-cakes) 'laru' (sweet balls) of various kinds and 'karai' (a mixture of different kinds of fried gains) which women prepare quite lovingly. These are eaten at mid-day meal along with curds and jaggery, and friends and relatives are invited. This often continues for several days. In this Bihu, too, it is customary for the young to show respect to their elders and receive their blessings. Normally the elderly people assemble in private shrines and community prayer halls to say their collective prayers.

The last of the Bihus' is Kati Bihu which is an one day celebration. It falls around October-November (the last day of the local month called Ahin) When the paddy crops has yet to mature and the granaries are almost empty. Hence it is also called as kangali Bihu (Poor Bihu). Naturally there is no feasting in it. This celebration is akin to the Tulsi Puja (worship of the basil plant in the North). The plant found in every courtyard is worshipped mainly by women. The Tulsi altar is plastered with cow-dung and mud, and a small banana tree planted near it. At dusk, lighted earthen lamps are placed around tulsi plant and on the trunk of the banana tree. Lamps are also ceremonially put outside the granary, the back yards and in the rice fields. Women and children bow before the Tulsi plant and sing simple hymns like :

Beneath the 'Tulsi'

Grazes the deer

Seeing this

Ramchandra takes up his bow and arrow.

This function is similar to the one held on Kartik Shukla Ekadashi (11th day of the bright fortnight of the month of Kartik) in north India which also involves Tulsi worship. This similarity between the festivals of Tulsi pooja held so far and wide as UP and Assam underlines the cultural unity of India.

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