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.