The Lively Celebration
“Bihu anondia, Bihu binondia
Bihur mou mitha hat
Bihur ba lagi bihua kokair e
Deu dhoni laguse gat.”
This literally means
(Bihu is full of joy, Bihu is beautiful,
Bihu songs are very sweet, when the winds of Bihu flow
The dancing spirit possesses one’s body).
The breathtaking hills and valleys of Assam come alive with the sound of Bihu thrice a year. A festival that marks the change of season, Bihu is accompanied both by prayer and great rejoicing. One of the seven northeastern states of India (which are also known as the Seven Sisters), Assam is renowned for its picturesque landscape, exotic fauna and fun-loving people.
Origin of Festival
Originating in the pre-Aryan days around 3500 BC , the festival of Bihu used to last for a whole month, though nowadays work pressure and the humdrum of daily life has reduced celebrations to just a week. A no holds barred dancing session is the most intriguing part of the festival and symbolises the fertility rites of the original inhabitants of the hilly regions of the northeast in India. The farmers fancied that the erotic content of the songs would sexually arouse the earth’s body, leading to an abundant harvest. Bihag Bihu or Rangoli Bihu, the first of the three Bihus, is celebrated in the month of April on the dates coinciding with the sankranti, chait or baisakh (13, 14 and 15 April).
Festival Celebration during the Assamese New Year
According to the solar calendar that the Assamese follow, the New Year usually falls on 14th April. Brilliantly-coloured flowers and luxuriant foliage dress the whole of Assam in all the hues of the rainbow during the month of April. An abundance of kopoful (orchids), mostly purple in color, in unusual shapes and sizes dot the trees, and the bhebel creepers are in full bloom creating an enchanting kaleidoscope of colors. No one can fault the Assamese his choice of seasons for the Bihu festivals. The vivid attire of youth and the colorful accessories like kopoful adorning the locks (hair) of the young lasses blend with the hues of nature, spreading joy and good cheer. The day is marked with dancing, though restricted exclusively to men, who participate with unbridled enthusiasm and energy. But the winds of change have blown through this remote state also. Surrendering to contemporary trends, youngsters gather in the town centre and learn the steps from an old hand much in demand on this day.
Gomacha Weaving for Dance
Assamese women are experts at weaving the Gomacha, a towel with intricately woven designs, ceremonially presented as any bihu (bihu presents) to the men of the family. A young girl too may gift these beautiful souvenirs to her beau as a token of love. Young lads love to flaunt their prizes by tying them around their waist or as headbands while dancing. But things start warming up as the Bihu Dals approach. Bihu Dals are wandering minstrels who come visiting through the week, dancing and singing devotional songs (hosari) in praise of Lord Krishna (the black god of the Hindus), invoking his blessings for health, wealth and happiness. They sing to the accompaniment of an eclectic collection of musical instruments like the dhol (drum), pepa (made of buffalo horn), gogona (made from bamboo and held between the teeth) and small cymbals. Bihu dals along with other groups gather in open grounds called bihu tolis where dancing competitions and beauty pageants are held, and the winners get to see their names in print in the local newspapers.
The first day or Garur bihu also called uraka. This falls on the day of Sankranti and is devoted to the cow that is considered to be a sacred animal in India. The rationale behind the worshipping of cows is very simple. They are the greatest assets of a farmer because not only do they produce milk but also help plough fields, transport men, crop and so on. A lot of tender, loving care is showered on cows on this day, starting with bathing them in the pond. The horns and hooves are brushed with whisks made from deegloti or makheatr (lilsoca salocrfolea). A mixture of twigs, turmeric and moong dal (pulses) acts as a disinfectant, and is applied as a paste. A hearty meal of gourd and brinjal is fed to the cows after which their foreheads are marked with vermilion. As the night falls, the tired but satiated cows are led back to their sheds and thoroughly cleansed. Only then does the household sit down for a sumptuous meal of assorted preparations of chirwa (flat rice) and array of sweets.
The following day is welcomed as manuhor bihu or the bihu of human beings. The Assamese celebrate their New Year on this day. A lavish feast called ‘bihu kabo loi’ is laid out for the day and married daughters along with other relatives are invited to partake of the meal. On this day, pitha a delicacy made from rice and coconut, laddoo (made from shredded coconut) and til laddoo (made from sesame seed) are prepared and served. Ofcourse, no festival in India is complete without buying new clothes and this festival is no exception. Everyone receives Gomachas as presents from the ladies of the house. Women look very graceful in their new mekhele chadar, woven with the golden-coloured muga silk that is indigenous to Assam. The chic look is completed with the accessories like gumkham bracelets made from an alloy of silver and gold nuggets found in the rivers.
Gabhori bihu falls on the third day of the festival and is earmarked as the day for young ladies. The fair maidens of Assam look gorgeous in their muga silk wear and ornate gumkham bracelets. The orchids adorning the hair of the ladies add a whimsical touch to the formality of the outfit. Swaying to the beat of the toka (drum) and gogona (made from bamboo held between the teeth), the women dance the night away under the gentle breeze of banyan trees. Couplets are created spontaneously. Starting with a slow tempo, the rhythm rapidly picking up pace. Once the merrymaking is over, it is customary to present fermented betel leaves over a gomacha to the dancers. On the final day, the festivities end on a religious note wherein families inscribe a mantra (religious hymn of the Hindus) on the leaves of nahar pat (Indian ironwood tree). Through this mantra, Lord Shiva (the Destroyer in the Holy Hindu Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer) is invoked to protect everyone against disease, storms and rain, and to bring peace and prosperity in the forthcoming year.
The second bihu named Kati bihu or kangali bihu is held in the month of Kartik (September or October). But there is a world of difference in the celebration of this bihu from the former.
Slowly but surely, winter is approaching, heralding the season for sowing seeds.
This is a solemn occasion as people worship the deities for a rich harvest. The young learn to value hard work so that they do not squander money away.
Predictably enough, this bihu is dedicated to the worship of none other than Goddess Lakshmi who is the dispenser of wealth to mortals. As night falls, lamps are lit in the paddy fields where farmers have toiled through the day. At the end of a hard day’s work, all the members of a family pray to the benign Goddess for the well-being of their crop and cattle.
Sacred to the Hindus, the tulsi (basil) tree is planted or pruned in the courtyard of each household. Water is poured over the plant with great reverence after puja is performed every day.
The medicinal properties of tulsi are well known the world over; the age-old recipe of tulsi leaves mixed with a few grains of black pepper and misri (sugar in the form of crystals) is a surefire way to stay in good health.
¤ Magh Bihu
The Magh bihu that generally falls on 14th January on the sankranti of the month, is the third bihu that calls for a grand celebration in Assamese homes. This is again a joyous occasion as the granaries are stocked with the recently harvested crop. Seven days of non-stop fun and frolic mark this festival. But the best thing about this bihu is the elaborate and sumptuous cuisine that is prepared. This grand feast known as bhog is held on the night of the first day of the festival that is also called uruka.
¤ Khel Dhemali-(Fun Games)
If you are an outdoor person who enjoys sports of all kinds, Assam is the place to be in at this time of the year. Everyone indulges in khel dhemali (fun and games). Each village holds its share of fights between various creatures, big and small including cockfights and buffalo fights, for the entertainment of the locals. An inexpensive way to have fun, though the poor animals might and animal rights forums would beg to differ. The chilly winters offer the best excuse to light bonfires in the great outdoors and dance around them with gay abandon.
All this is reminiscent of the festivals of Lohri in Punjab, Pongal in Tamil Nadu and Goopi in Andhra Pradesh, which is not surprising as sankranti is a time for festivals all over India.
As there are three tribes in the Meghalaya, the festivals of this region are broadly classified into the festivals of their respective regions. There are many festivals of each tribe but the following are the one of the most important festivals of the community.