BIHU is the national festival of Assam, a far North-Eastern state of India. Assamese culture distinguishes itself remarkably from the rest of India via the cultural festivities that happen throughout the year. Bihu, the Assamese festival occurs more than once a year, it denotes mainly three different festivals and is always associated with farming. The three festivals are: Rongali Bihu, Kaati Bihu and Magh Bihu. Bihu is also an irreligious festival and is celebrated by all Assamese people irrespective of caste, creed, religion, specific faith or belief.
Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu is the festival that refers to the onset of the Assamese New Year (April 14th of every year), which is the advent of seeding time. Rongali Bihu is celebrated over several days. At this time of the year the Assam valley becomes vibrant, colourful and the air is filled with the sweet fragrance of exotic spring flowers such as Kopou Phool, Keteki, Nahor. Also filling the skies with joyous songs are migratory birds such as Kuli, Keteki. During Rongali Bihu, ladies are busy by weaving Gamosas and Mekhela Chadors (the traditional Assamese 3 pieces costume). The ladies also make different types of traditional snacks called ‘Pithas’ such as Til, Ghila, Sunga, Monda, Tekeli Pithas and Laroos (different kind of snack made out of rice flour, coconut, molases or sugar).
The first day (April 14th) of Rongali Bihu is known as Goru Bihu in which cattle and livestock are taken to the river or pond to bathe in with Mah-Haldhi (paste of turmeric with different types of pulses). New tethering rope is given to the livestock and the animals are allowed to roam free in the fields. Cows are gently struck by sprigs of plants called Dighalati and Makhiyati and are blessed by reciting – “lao kha bengana kha, bosore bosore barhi ja –mar xoru, baper xoru, toi hobi bor bor goru” (blessing the livestock to grow year by year, better than their parents).
The second day is known as Manush Bihu (‘Human Bihu’, celebrated on April 15th). This is the day for men, women and children to celebrate and the community comes together to visit one another. New clothes are worn whilst visiting friends and relatives. Delicacies are prepared in advance in every house-hold to feast upon. There is always an emphasis on old quarrels and differences being settled to start the New Year afresh. Hand-woven Gamosas are made as presents to be given to friends and family alike. Rongali Bihu carries on for seven days, the main activities of which mainly consist of song, dance and feasting with visitors.
Rongali Bihu is the single most important festival in Assam celebrated by its people. During this time young people from the villages move around in groups with enthralling girls dressed in beautiful traditional Assamese attire whilst singing Bihu songs of love and romance. Such gatherings are called Mukoli (open) Bihu.
Husori is another form of dance performed during this phase. The dancer’s form a ring and start thumping the ‘Dhul’ (drum) and they announce their arrival by beating it at the gate of the house hold. Traditionally, it is sung and performed by the men but in recent times ladies are also seen to be taking part. Once the Husori is finished, the householders thank the dancers by offering a small token of money in a Xorai with Tamul Pan (beetle nut and beetle leaf). The household is blessed in return for a prosperous new year to come.
Most significantly of all is the folk song called Bihu Geet (Bihu Songs) sung during the festivities, which generally varies with different Assamese ethnic strands. The Bihu Naach (Bihu Dance) is an exciting, sensuous body movement using hands, palms of the hands and hips which is performed by young boys and girls wearing traditional Assamese garb. Bihu Geet is accompanied by Dhul, Taal (cymbals) Pepa, Gogona, Baanhi (flute) Toka Xutuli (musical instrument made out of bamboo).
Kaati Bihu or Kongaali Bihu (mid-October) coincides with autumnal ‘equinox’. The Kaati Bihu marks the completion of the sowing season. The fields are by now becomes lush green. Saki (earthen lamps) are lighted in the flourishing paddy fields and prayers are offered so that farmers are ensured a high-quality crop. Saki is also lighted around the base of the Tulsi (sweet smelling plant) in the courtyard of the household.
Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu (mid-January), is derived from the word ‘Bhog’ meaning ‘eating’ or ‘gratification’. This festival marks the end of the harvesting period. Magh Bihu is mainly a thanks-giving Bihu when crops are harvested, fields are empty and Bhorals (barns) are full. On the eve of this day, women are busy preparing rice-cakes, whilst the men build a temporary shelter in the open in which they collect firewood for a bonfire. The Meji (bonfire) is erected in barren fields and the community gathers around it after collecting hay and bamboo and it is ritually lit after a long night of big Bhoj (feast) and merriment.
Bihu is known to be specifically an Assamese festival, however, it is far from being celebrated solely in Assam. Bihu celebrations over the course of time have travelled a very long way from the agricultural-led rural villages of Assam valley to the cosmopolitan cities and have proven to be expansive. Nowadays, Bihu festivities take place in their own shape and form across the world wherever there are Assamese diaspora.
– Assamese in London celebrating Rongali Bihu in the late 1950’s (photo courtesy: Mrs Nafisa Hussain)
In the UK, Rongali Bihu coincides with spring-time in Britain. London Bihu Committee enthusiastically organises the event during the bank holiday weekend of May, in which the Assamese community come together from all over the UK to partake in the celebrations with Bihu Geet, Husori and to join in the Bihu Bhoj. The Assamese diaspora in London will ensure that our ‘Otikoi Senehor Bihu‘ will remain the heart and soul of our community for generations to come.