Bihu and its many forms are a group of festivals that are of utmost significance to the Assamese heritage and culture. Assam is the second largest state in the north east of India and is abundant in terms of flora and fauna. The people of the state have ever since time prevailed, been in close connection with nature and its many forms. As they celebrate the Magh Bihu this year on the 15th of January, we join in to understand a little more of why this day is celebrated and how.
Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu is a loud celebration of nature and its plentiful fruits that are a gift to man. It is also a time for the Assamese folks to share and mull in the community spirit as they share and receive these gifts of nature as one to strengthen the notion of oneness, unity and belongingness to one’s culture, identity and history. This warm spirit of oneness manifests itself as scrumptious delicacies, snacks, savories, and fruits that are all relished throughout the festivities.
Bihu in itself is a complete cycle that denotes the beginning and the end of a complete harvest cycle. Ever since man was civilized, they made it a point to celebrate and make a great show in their many ways on the day of the harvest or the day they sowed the seeds, or even celebrate on a day that lied anywhere between the two milestones. It has been in our nature to be able to call upon and invoke the best of nature’s fertilities and powers to benefit our crops or our land. In doing so, we celebrate and pray to nature itself in so many ways. The ways vary in the same way our tribes and cultures vary, but the ideal remains the same.
Bihu itself is a festival that is divided in 3 parts, each celebrating an important milestone in the harvest cycle.
- The Bohag Bihu or Rongali is celebrated mid-April. This day is celebrated to denote the onset of spring in the region that makes way for the beginning of the crop planting cycle. This is also when the crops are sown into the lands.
- The Kati Bihu or the Kongali Bihu is celebrated in October where in a day is reserved for the farmers and the people to pray to the gods and nature to bestow upon them, a good harvest the coming year.
- Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu is celebrated mid-January and this marks the day that completes the agrarian cycle of the region after the people have literally reaped what they sowed the previous year.
Magh Bihu is celebrated on the last day of the month of Pausa according to the lunar calendar that is also called Domahi where two months cusp. This day is also an important one in the Hindu lunar calendar due to its astronomical significance. It is celebrate das Makar Sankranti.
All across India, in many states and regions that are inhabited by Hindu families, this day is spent in the worship of the sun god Surya. In Tamil Nadu it is celebrated as Pongal, in Gujrat it is celebrated as Uttarayan and in Punjab as Maghi. But in Assam this day is observed as the day to worship the fire God, Agni.
One of the most significant contributions made by the Ahoms in the field of Paddy cultivation is the introduction of Sali-kheti or wet rice cultivation that was then, a new way of cultivating the paddy crop in contrast to the earlier technique called the Ahu technique that did not require standing water to cover the fields. This new introduction was made in the 13th century CE which was then a major invention due to the high quality crops that was yielding in the farm lands which was so much better than the crops that were coming about before the introduction was made.
Ceremonies and rituals:
before the day of the Magh bihu, a spirit of oneness and harmony prevails the air. The night is called the Uruka (the day/night before the Magh Bihu). On this night a community gathering space is created which is called the Bhelaghor. The Bhelaghor is a structure created mostly by using wood, bamboo and left over hay. This is the structure under which all the people feast together the night before. Before the Uruka ends, the folks also get together to make a tower-like structure called the Meji that is made of wet bamboo that contains water, hay and wood. The Meji is built on the ground or at the Namghar (which is a community prayer ground) or the Sutal which is a chosen household to conduct the festivities. Mind you, both the structures, the Bhelaghor as well as the Meji are made by the coming together of village folks and their combined manpower and hard work.
Each and every household contributes by giving raw materials for the next day’s celebrations in the form of raw materials to construct these structures or to make the feast.
A ritual, that is also done on the day of the Uruka is fishing, people from each family gets together to spend the day at the community pond or such water bodies to do fishing. A fresh catch on this day further goes towards the Uruka’s feast.
A rather fun and interesting ritual reserved for the younger generations of the community is the ritual of stealing. Yes you heard that right… stealing. Young boys or girls get together and decide what they would like to steal. The items of the steal may include either things made of bamboo, hay, wood… or simpler things like vegetables or an entire fowl for the upcoming feasts. This mischievous act is easily forgiven by the elders who are in a very generous mood on that day. Later the community feasts well and sits outside a bonfire talking and sharing stories of the past.
The next day, braving the cold winter morning breeze, the people gather around the Meji to witness it burn. The burning of this structure symbolizes the triumph of life over death or good over evil. It is also a way to worship the ancestors. When the wet water-filled bursts into two from the fire, one can tell that today is the last day of the winters.
The delicacies to be eaten on the day of the Magh Bihu are prepared well in advance by the women folk. This is also a time for them to come together as women and enjoy feminine energies to the max. The sound from the Denki blankets the region. Denki is a wooden device that is used to pound the rice and also to grind it. The grinding of the rice to reach a perfect consistency is and art. This art requires experience, intensity and measurements. The task is herculean, but with the women engrossed in their banter, gossip laughter, singing and occasional dancing, this is an easily achieved feat.
The delicacies enjoyed on this day are mostly made with rice as the base ingredient. Many varieties of different tastes, shapes and sizes of rice cakes are made called the pitha, they also prepare til pitas (pithas made of sesame), narikol pitha (pithas made of coconut), tekeli gila, sunga pitha and other sweet dishes that are mostly made of coconut called Laru.
On the day of the Magh bihu, all the hard work pays off as one witness people coming together to enjoy the fruits of their labor and hard work with the company of their loved ones along with the entire village. As the girls dance to the traditional Bihu dance and the boys beat on their drums and musical instruments; their singing provides an environment of merry making, of feasting of fun and frolic and of thanks to the god of fire to have blessed their harvest for the year .
After the festivities get over, the delicacies along with a few savory side dishes are decorated in a plate and sent as offerings to each other’s homes to bond each family with the other and to end the festival in a note of love and offering. Isn’t it amazing how harvest is celebrated in so many cultures and in so many ways? Tell us how harvest is celebrated in your culture in the comments below.