Assam Bihu

In India almost all festivals have agricultural basis, some being celebrated at the advent of the agricultural season to others being celebrated at the harvest of the kharif and rabi crops. Bihu is the main festival of Assam, the beautiful state in North East India. It is celebrated thrice in a year, first at the beginning of spring season when the seeds are sown. Then second time, when paddy fields are in full bloom in autumn and third time at the time of harvest in the winters.  The festivals related to agricultural practices have their beginnings along with the birth and growth of agriculture. They are ancient festivals which have evolved with the times, but their importance has not waned till now.

History

The festival of Bihu has agricultural roots and originated in the Pre-Aryan days around 3500 century BC. The word Bihu has been derived from the language of Dimasa Kacharis who are an indigeneous agrarian tribe of the North East India. The word ‘Bishu’ was at first etymologically derived from their language, as ’ Bi – meant to pray’ and ‘Shu- meant asking peace in the world’. The festival is an occasion to pray for peace in the world. Gradually the ‘S’ vanished from the name, and it came to be known as BIHU. It has now become an all encompassing festival over time and is celebrated all across Assam by all communities and tribes enthusiastically.

Three Bihu Festivals and Their Celebrations

Assam celebrates three Bihu festivals- Rongali Bihu, which is celebrated in mid April and continues for a month. Kongali Bihu, is celebrated in September or October and Bhogali Bihu which is celebrated in January.  The three Bihu festivals relate to the farming practices and coincide with similar harvest festivals celebrated in other parts of India at the same times.

Rongali Bihu

The most elaborately celebrated of the three Bihu festivals as it marks the arrival of spring- the agricultural season and the Hindu New year. It is also called Bohag Bihu, and coincides with the Assamese New Year celebrations which are celebrated around April 15 in the spring season.This indicates the first day as per the Hindu Calender and New Year is also celebrated in various other regions such as Bengal, Kerala, Manipur, Orrissa,Nepal, Tamil Nadu and Punjab and is called by different names such as Baisakhi in Punjab, Vishu in Kerala.

Celebrations

To celebrate the festival people dress up in new and colourful clothes and visit their relatives alongwith distributing sweets. It is a week long celebration in Assam, and a time for feasting. As the fields are prepared for paddy cultivation and women of the house prepare traditional food called Larus- made of coconut and rice, along with Jolpan- the traditional snacks and Pitha- special rice cake is also served.   

The week long celebrations begin with the cattle is worship also known as Garu(Cow) Bihu, This is followed by Manuh(Human) Bihu, when people clean themselves and dress up in new clothes. The young boys and girls dress up in traditional attires, wearing dhoti,gamosa, saadar mekhela and sing Bihu geets or Folk Songs in traditional Bihu Tolis. These songs have been passed on from generations and are composed in couplets that rhyme with each couplet enhancing a different emotion altogether. The farmers believe that the erotic nature of these songs, arouses the earth’s body, leading to an abundant harvest.They are accompanied with an orchestra of Dhol, Pepa(Bufffalo Homepipe) and Gagana.

People dance with no holds barred also symbolizing the fertility rituals of the tribes of North East India.  Bihu fairs are also organized all over the state. On the third day is Gosai or God’s Bihu when gods are worshipped and prayers are held for a smooth and healthy new year.

Kongali Bihu

This is celebrated in mid October at a time when the paddy grows in the farmers fields and he waits earnestly for a good harvest. The granaries are empty, that is why it is called Kongali Bihu with ‘Kongal – Meaning ‘Poor’.

Celebrations

It is not celebrated with as much fervor as Rongali Bihu, but still people mark the occasion by subtly lighting candles in home and fields. Candles or ‘Saaki’ as they are called are lit in various places, from the house to the paddy field. The Saakis are also lit in front of the Tulsi plant at home to worship it for its medicinal properties and also as it is considered very auspicious in Hindu religion. As the plant is worshipped various prayers are done and ‘Prasad’ is distributed amongst the family.

In the paddy fields a special type of lamp is also lit which is called ‘Akash Banti’ (Sky Candle). These lamps are lit up high on tips of tall bamboo. This was done to attract the insects to the fields and kill them as they fall in the fire of these lamps. Thus, ensuring the long life of the crops.

Bhogali Bihu

It is celebrated in Mid January, on the first day of ‘Magh’ month of Assamese calendar so it is also called Magh Bihu. The name comes from ‘Bhog’ which means ‘enjoyment and eating’. It marks the end of the harvesting season, and the granaries are full at this time.

Celebrations

The celebrations begin a day before, on the last day of the previous month called ‘Poh’. People build a structure called ‘Meji’ on this day of wood and tree leaves, to be burnt the next day on Bhogali Bihu. This Meji is guarded by people all night, and for guarding people built temporary houses of hay called ‘Bhela Ghar’. At night grand feasts are held for people staying in ‘Bhela Ghar’ and this feast is called ‘Bhoj’.

On the next day people take bath early morning and the ‘meji’ is lit up by an ols member of the village. This marks the worship of Fire God( Agni Devta).  Various edible things like coconut and betel nut are fed to the Fire God. Various kinds of potatoes are roasted in this fire and shared amongst everyone present in the celebration. Youths celebrate with a cracker made out of Bamboo called ‘Hiloi’. It is believed that the fire of ‘Meji’ takes away the coldness of winter along with it.

The food preparations began weeks in advance, as ladies prepare ‘jolpan’ for Bhogali Bihu. There are also traditional sporting events which are held all over the state like Buffalo Fight, Bird Fight, but with most popular being the egg fight.

Bihu Recipes

Larus

It is a traditional Assamese dish made of rice and coconut.

Rice Based Snacks

Common Bihu recipes include recipes for rice based snacks. They are an important part of Jolpan (Jolpan is the term used for a platter consisting of snacks, pitha, laddu and tea, which is traditionally served on these occasions). One example is Kumol Saul, which is a kind of rice variety from Assam that can be consumed in uncooked form. It is just soaked in water for some time before consumption, so that it softens. It is then eaten with milk or curd and jaggery.  Chira is another type of jolpan, which consists of de-husked and flattened rice, in the form of dry flakes, which soften and swell on addition of water. It can be eaten hot or cold, with or without the addition of seasonings like salt, sugar, jaggery, milk or curd. 

Pitha

 It is a pancake made of rice. The rice is soaked and grounded, and the batter of this grounded rice is cooked on a frying pan or hot griddle into a flattened cake like form. Alternatively it can be fried in oil or roasted over slow fire.  There are many variants to the dish, including Til pitha, Ghila Pitha and Lakhimi Pitha.

Laddoo

It is a ball shaped sweet confection often made of flour, sugar, clarified butter and other ingredients. The Bihu recipes for laddoos show many variations in terms of ingredients used and method of preparation.

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