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Rongali Bihu Celebrations

Rongali Bihu, the harvest festival of Assam, inspired unbounded joy and enthusiasm, expressed through intoxicating songs and dances.

Assam is a land of myths and mystery for those who are not familiar with it. The land of the Red River and Blue Hills, as it is described, has an enchanting beauty. It has a unique landscape with sprawling tea gardens and unending stretches of paddy fields interspread with goves of coconut, beatelnut and banana trees. its population is a confluence of streams of different races and tribes like the Austrics, the Aryans, Negroids, Indo-Burmese, Indo-Tibetans and Mongoloid. They have enriched each other and have evolved to give a distinctive identity to the Assamese people.

A vast majority of the people in the state, as in most other states in the country, are closely associated with agriculture. It is, therefore, natural that almost all the important festivals and dances are rooted in agricultural activities and the changing moods of nature. The festivals of Assam are a synthesis of diverse cultures which have blended to become a common heritage of the people of the state.

The Bihus are the most important festivals of Assam. Basically non religious, these festivals have an agricultural and seasonal background. The most important and also the most loved festival, is called the Rongali or Bohag Bihu. It derives its name from Sanskrit Vishuvam when day and night are rendered equal throught the vernal equinox. It coincides with the Assamesse New Year in April and corresponds to the month of Chaitra in the lunar calendar. People welcome the spring season and pray for a bountiful and rich harvest.

The week long festival of Bohag Bihu starts from the Vishuva Sankrant day. It comes when the first shower of the year, the blossoming of varieties of colourful flowers, the sweet voice of the cuckoo and the fragrant breeze transform the environment into an earthly paradise. Rongali Bihu inspires unbounded joy and enthusiasm expressed through dances, songs and other festivities.

The first day of the festival week is called Garu Bihu and is dedicated to the cattle and livestock. In the morning the cattle are taken to nearby ponds or river banks for a ceremonial bath. The horns and heads of the animal are rubbed with the paste of newly harvested turmeric and black gram. Pieces of aubergine, turmeric and laogourd are thrown on the cattle and are also fed to them. The animals are tethered with mew ropes and garlanded with a collection of different kinds of leaves.

The rest of the week-long celebrations, are known as Manuh Bihu. A mood of festivity and gaiety is seen throughout Assam during the seven days of Rongali Bihu. Some people celebrated it for almost a month. Hundreds of bihutolis a groups of young men and women perform bihu dances and sing to the accompaniment of drums and pepa, a flute made of buffalo horns. The sensuous and brisk bihu dance is performed in the fields, at road-sides and over specially erected stages. They also sing couplets expressing love for the was sweethearts. The bihugeets as they are called, are tuned to rhythmic beats to which the bihotolis dance.

During the bihu days, everyone wears new clothes. Cakes are baked. People invited each other for feasts. Fairs are organized at several places and the mood of festivity is palpable everywhere. Women present gamochas or self woven napkins to the men and sweets are distributed to neighbours, relatives and friends. Each day different programmes are organized and people participate in large numbers.

Rongali Bihu is associated with two types of folk dances-Husari is carol singing and dancing in a group consisting of only men, led by the elderly ones. The group starts visiting the houses in the village before noon, to dance and sing benedictory songs. Husari songs are more religious than festive. The residents honour the group by offering pan (betal leaf), tambul (areca-nut), sweets and money in a sarai (brass dish) as dakshina (offering). The funds collected are spent for repairing the village Namghar (community prayer hall) and for community feasting.

The bihu dance is performed in open fields, or groves, or even in jungles by young unmarried men and women, dancing and singing sometimes through the night. The girls dress in their best traditional clothes-a read floral mekhala with a red border, a shawl woven out of the golden silk fibres, and a red blouse. Their feet and palms are painted with the red pigments made of myrtie leaves. Kapou phul, a beautiful purple coloured orchid, is very popular with the girls. The young men wear dhoti and kurta and tie the gamocha around their heads and waists. The brisk and sensuous bihu dance with the various movements of hips, arms an the upper parts of the body suggests that it is a fertility dance.

Besides the Rongali Bihu, the people of Assam celebrate two other bihu festivals. The Kati Bihu or Kangali Bihu is generally a soleman affair. It falls during autumn, on the last day of Ashwin month, in mid October every year. There are no festivities on that day and people spend the day in prayers. They also place diya or earthen lamps near tulsi plants and bamboo poles.

The third bihu is called Magha Bihu or Bhogali Bihu. This is a harvest time celebration which falls in January and synchronizese with Makar Sankranti. People light fires and distribute sweets and cakes. Young boys visit houses in various localities and sing huchari to collect donations. An interesting aspect of the celebrations, is the practice of constructing small huts out of straw and bamboo shoots. These huts are burnt late at night.

The Rongali Bihu in particular reflects the primeval urge for fertility, survival and growth. Similar festivals seem to be observe not only by different tribes of Assam, but also by several neighbouring countries like Tibet, China, Thailand and Burma. In course of time, the influence of different cultures has introduced changes in the celebrations. Nowdays, under the pressure of modern civilization, the modes of Bihu celebrations have changed to a great extent. Clubs, committees and Associations are now organizing the Rongali Bihu. Bihu dance competitions are also held and the best female dancers and honoured with Bihu Queen titles. However, in mot of the rural areas its originality and emotions are very much alive.

The Bihu festivals of the Brahmaputra valley not only remind her people of the traditions of Assam but also tell the story of man, built on the edifice of agricultural and pastoral life.

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