Text and photographs by Anusmita Dutta
Recently I was in Assam during the famous Rongali Bihu festival, a time when the entire state irrespective of religion and caste celebrates the onset of the Assamese New Year which is also the season of harvesting.
It wouldn’t be wrong to call the ‘Bihu’ festival the heart of Assamese society. The word ‘Assam ‘ more often than not conjures up images of pretty girls attired in Moga Makhela Sador (traditional Assamese attire for women) posing against a picturesque background in a typical Bihu dance pose. In fact, when Priyanka Chopra became the state’s tourism ambassador, she was often seen cutting the same pretty picture.
The state is indeed synonymous with Bihu Festival. There are three different occasions when Bihu is celebrated in the state. These are Kati Bihu celebrated in the month of October, Magh Bihu celebrated in the month of January and Rongali Bihu celebrated in the month of April. Magh Bihu is also celebrated as Makar Sankranti and Lohri in some parts of the country. Rongali or Bohag Bihu, the Assamese new year, has its Bengali and Punjabi counterparts in Poila Boishak and Baisakhi respectively.
With time and urbanisation, many of the traditional rituals of the Bihu festival that are closely associated with harvesting season in villages are losing context and practice among people. People in the cities and towns of Assam now associate Bihu more with shopping, socializing, cultural functions and some traditional sweets made for the occasion. Sadly, the essence and traditions of the festival are gradually getting lost with time.
Some of the rituals of the festival beyond the Bihu functions (cultural functions) and pithas (traditional sweet made from rice) that define the true essence of the festival have roots to villages and farming. Luckily, I was able to experience some of these rituals during a recent trip.
A day before the new year, ‘Goru Bihu’ (Goru means’ Cow’)is celebrated. The cattle are taken down to the rivers and ponds and given a bath, where the cows are also treated with vegetables and in the evening fire from special leaves are made for smoke near the cowshed. People on this day follow the custom of applying “jetuka” or “Mehendi” by grinding the fresh leaves and then applying in their hands, toe and nails.
There is a traditional belief behind this ritual, where applying jetuka keeps away skin diseases. In fact, men too apply jetuka to ornate their hands and nails on this day. There is much bonhomie and neighbourly banter as people collect the jetuka leaves from neighbours instead of going to the market. That apart, on this day, the house is sprinkled with garlic water to purify it. Games like “Koni Juj” ( Egg Fight) is popular. Originally, these games were played post bath and worship of cows.
People eat ‘Poita Bhat’ ( Known as ‘Panta Bhat’ in West Bengal and Bangladesh) during lunch. Poita bhat is fermented rice wherein cooked leftover rice is soaked in water overnight and eaten in the morning garnished with lime, raw chillies, onion slices, salt and some mustard oil. The dish has a savoury and tangy flavour and has a cooling effect in hot weather.
But one of the most interesting rituals is the evening vegetable dish prepared from 101 green leafy vegetables! People go over to each other’s gardens to find the vegetables they want and collect as many leafy vegetables they can find. The vegetable sellers in the market too sell these vegetables in bundles. Getting 101 different varieties of vegetables is not easy, and people nowadays settle to cooking 51 or even 11 of them. Many of these vegetables grow on their own and have good medicinal value. The dish cooked is never short of being delicious. It showcases the rich flora that Assam has.
Another custom on this day is writing of the prayer – “Deva Deva Mohadeva Nilagriba Jatadharo Batong Bristi Harong Deva Mohadeva Nosostute”, on a piece of Nahor Pat (Bay Leaf) which is then fixed on the ceiling of the entrance of the house. The belief is that this prayer can protect the household from heavy rains and thunderstorm.
The next day is celebrated as ‘Manuh Bihu’ (‘Manuh’ refers to human). People wake up early, take a bath and wear new clothes. They eat “Jolpan” (Snacks) as breakfast in the morning. Jolpan is flat rice, curd and jaggery. There are other delicacies too that are enjoyed like varieties of pitha, (known as ‘Pithe’ in some parts of India like Bengal, Orissa) Malpua and Larus (laddoos).
Though earlier, people used to prepare these delicacies at home, now a lot of these are bought from the market. These are small businesses run by village women who sell these delicacies during the festival. The ‘Jolpan’ is usually a large spread that people prefer to have as a late breakfast and skip lunch altogether.
This is also the day when people make time for social visits. As a custom, ‘Gamosa’, beautifully hand-woven torso cloth is exchanged among people as a token of good-will. Home-made Bihu delicacies are also exchanged by people. Children are gifted hand-woven handkerchiefs. Some customs like ‘Bihuan’ giving the ‘Gamusa’ to elders and seeking their blessings are followed diligently by all.
Husori is an integral part of Rongali Bihu wherein girls and boys form groups and visit people’s courtyards to sing and dance to Bihu songs. There are some changes to these practices too as nowadays only a few Husori groups perform at individual houses, and that too only on invitation. Today, it seems Husori groups confine themselves to taking part in various competitions at Bihu functions.
Assamese New Year is also the time when statues of Gods are worshipped and their blessings sought for a smooth year ahead. This is done on the day following the ‘Manuh Bihu’.
Throughout the month, there are functions to welcome the advent of New year and a month later to bid the harvest season farewell which is called ‘Bohagi Bidai’ ( ‘Bidai’ means farewell). Across the world, the Assamese Diaspora celebrates Bihu functions with much grandeur. But it is all the more beautiful when people celebrate keeping the rituals and the real essence of the festival intact and pass them onto the next generation.
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