Bihu is the greatest festival of Assamese people. It is secular in concept because it is intimately connected with agriculture. There are three bihus that come off at various stages of the cultivation of paddy, the principal crop of Assam. Bahag (Baisakh) Bihu, Kati (Kartika) Bihu, and Magh (bihu). At the first stage, the cultivators start preparing the fields; at the second stage young paddy seedlings, after transplantation, begin to grow; at the third stage; the harvest has been gathered. Bohag Bihu is the most important of the three. It is also popularly called Rangali Bihu (bihu of merriment). The festival begins on the last day of Chaitra. This Sankranti day is meant for cattle; in the early hours of the morning cows are taken out for washing in the nearest ponds and rivers.
On the first day of this Bihu, which is meant for the cows, in the early hours of the morning cows are taken out for washing in the nearest ponds and ‘Beels’. With the help of a small three pronged shaped Bamboo implement, brinjals and water gourd are cut into pieces and hurled at the cows. Other vegetables like bitter gourd, turmeric and Thekera (the gamboze fruit) are also used. These implements are interchanged with others to ward off the evil. Later in the evening when the cows return home they are tied to new Pogha (rope for tying cow) and the shed is filled with smoke to prevent any evil. Cows are indispensable for cultivation and thus such treatment on the special day. Another important ritual of this day is that ladies and girls apply henna and mehendi on their hands and feet. Mehendi (locally known as Jetuka) is a way of bringing colour to life, apart from its medicinal properties. Manuh Bihu follows Goru Bihu when people visit relatives and exchange Gamochas (a kind of towel woven in cotton). Bihuwan or this Gamocha is a symbol of dignity in Assamese society. Jalpaan, a special food item, is an important part of Bihu. Chira-Doi (flat rice made out of parched half boiled paddy and curds), Aakhoi (fried paddy or Indian corn etc.) Gur (raw or unrefined sugar; molasses), Sandahguri (wet rice parched and pounded into lumps) etc. mainly comprise the Jalpaan. Pithas or rice cakes which are parts of the Assamese delicacy add richness to the feast. Bohag Bihu is the time when people sort out their differences.
Hunsari is an integral part of Bohag Bihu. Hunsari constitutes a team which has an elderly member who leads the other members of the team with men and boys, who go and sing Bihu songs at the houses of every person in the village. The team makes a visit first to the most revered person in the village. The Hunsari team is generally presented with Seleng Chadar (this cloth wrapped round the body), flowery Gamochas or flowery, colourful towels and a silver coin or so. This is the householders’ way of according them respect. The money collected from Hunsari singing is used for development works like building of a library, a naamghar etc. People also have community feasts with the money collected in this manner. It is a time honoured custom to offer Tamol-Paan or betel nuts to the Hunsari Dol in Bohag Bihu.
Bihu folk dance is a separate item performed by both young men and women. The songs sung are mostly folk tune based and are related to love. Games like bull-fight, cock-fight, arm wrestling are popular. During Ahom rule these games were held in the fields close to Ranghar taking on the character of Olympiads held in Greece in ancient times. The last day of Bihu is called Chera Bihu. It is a tradition to eat Pita Bhaat (cooked rice soaked in water overnight and consumed the next day) and curds. Hand fans are used for the first time during the year heralding the advent of spring. The Assamese in villages bid farewell to Bihu in a traditional manner. After seven days or eleven days of the Chera Bihu a group of young people go and pay their respects in the Naamghar with a Sarai (tray with a stand) of Tample-Paan and Gamocha to formally wind up the Bihu festival. Then they go to a big tree near the village and put the Bihuwan on one of its branches and then leave an instrument used in the ‘Bihu Utsav’, thus symbolically bidding farewell to that year’s Bihu.
However, the lack of awareness about Bihu prevailing amongst the younger generation especially the folk residing outside Assam is a cause for concern. While it may be stated that the lack of an ‘Assamese’ environment can be one of the reasons, it is not a convincing reason. The speed at which we are progressing in this modern world makes us believe that traditional culture and the celebration of festivals have no place in this fast-paced life. Moreover, as has been personally observed, due to the constraints of time as well as studies/employment, we are unable to visit our native place during the month of Bohag, thereby being deprived from the celebration and enjoyment of the Bihu festivities. Definitely we would love to celebrate this joyous festival in the same manner as it is celebrated in Assam but we know that this is far more easily said than done. The only thing that we can do is to organize programmes albeit on a smaller scale, so that every out-station Assamese can participate and feel such festivities are not something alien for him/her.
Dr. Nandita Choudhury
Note – Photographs and a few details used in my article have been sourced from a website www.assam.org.