Rongali Bihu: The Cultural Facet of Assamese Community

Festivals signify special moments shared by groups of people which are expressed through various traditional gestures and customs.  In words of R.J. Smith, “festivals are the recurring moments of special significance celebrated with festivities and rejoicings by the members of any society”.  Festivals promote unity, friendship and integrity amongst people of a society.

Similarly, the festival of Bihu brings the joy of spring into each and every household of Assamese people. Bihu is a harvest festival and is solely related to the social life of the peoples thus generating their keen participation with full cheer and merriment. There are three types of Bihu celebrated in the state of Assam. Rongali or Bohaag Bihu, Kongali or Kati Bihu and Bhogali or Magh Bihu.  The most pompous and the one that stirs the festive fervor amongst the people is the Rongali Bihu, which is considered the most important of the lot. This great springtime festival of Assam usually falls in the middle of April.

Rongali Bihu
Image Courtesy: Ranju Neog

The significance of spring for its power of creativity is universally held all over the globe and Bohag Bihu brings the spring gaiety along with it, thus its name Rongali which means Happiness and celebrations.  The Bohag Bihu of Assam has been getting associated with fertility belief and paddy cultivation. As from primitive time people depended on agriculture and nature, the people of Assam since ages had depended on nature like the monsoon rain, which is vital for good harvest. The spring time Bohag Bihu is celebrated in mid- April after the seeds of Ahu paddy are sown and before the seedlings of Sali paddy are transplanted (Sarma, Essays on Folklore of Northeast India). Spring season indicates the onset of monsoon rains and thus to pay a homage and awaken the mother goddess for fertility and to receive a good harvest these people started the custom of celebrating Bohag Bihu.

With the onset of Bohag it is also the time of New Year in Assam. The indigenous people observe the Assamese New Year on the first day of Bohag month and many rituals are associated with this day. On this occasion, prayers are offered for the well- being of the family, the young people ask for blessings from the elders and gifts are exchanged. New clothes are worn by all on this day.

The popular myth associated with the celebration of Rongali Bihu is ‘Bordoisila’ who is supposedly the daughter of Assam and is married to a distant land. It is said that she visits her mother once a year during the advent of the spring time Bihu. And to this day it is believed that the first ghastly storm of spring announces her coming to her mother’s home and the other storm at the end of Bohag denotes her leaving. There are other interesting myths which people of Assam believe related to the origin of Bihu and Bihu dance.

Bihu Dance
Image Courtesy: Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra

There is even a history behind of the word Bihu, it has actually come from the Dimasa word ‘Bishu’, meaning ‘to ask for prosperity’ from the tribal God. The word ‘Bihu’ is actually the distorted version of ‘Bishu’. There are also other explanations of the origins of Bihu which is believed to have stemmed from etymological investigations. In the sacred Hindu texts Atharvaveda (900 BCE) and the Aitareya Brahmana (c.600 BCE), the Sanskrit word ‘Bisuvan’ occurs, referred to the day of fire worship for obtaining better crop. This practice is believed to have been practiced to this day as Bihu (Goswami, 1996).

Goru Bihu

Rongali Bihu is celebrated mainly for 7days, on the eve of Bihu the womenfolk cleans the house, prepare various delicacies specially eaten during Bihu like pitha, laru, etc out of rice, coconut and til. The menfolk prepares new shelter for the cattle, extracts the leaf of Tara tree, to prepare the ropes to tie the cattle with. They also gather various herbs and vegetable required for the coming Bihu days.

The first day of Bihu is dedicated to the cattle. As the festival is related solely with agriculture thus, worshipping and taking care of the cattle comes first in the agenda. Therefore, the first day of Bihu is named as ‘Goru Bihu’ (Goru meaning cow). The bathing of the cows takes place on the first day of the festival. The cows are led down to the nearest river and thoroughly washed. The old ropes are laid aside in the house, and new ones are put on the cattle. The cow’s heads and horns are anointed with a paste prepared from black gram, raw turmeric, roots of black zedoary, rice etc. mixed up with mustard oil and red turmeric, and the animals are given cakes to eat. In some villages various plants are strewn on the path leading to the cowshed or gurughar, and in all cases a fire is lit in front of the shed. People prepare bamboo sticks which are adorned with pieces of bengena (brinjal), jati lau (gourd), halodhi (turmeric), bor thekera (Garcinia Mangostana). In some places, these items are sewed by a string of tender bamboo. Oily ashes are also used as a paste for rubbing cattle. The young boys take great joy in this unique tradition of showering the cattle with these items, a vigorous merriment can be seen in the field early in the morning on the Goru Bihu day. Leaves of specific trees namely dighlati (Litsea polyantha) and Makhiati (Flemingia strobilifera) are used to beat the cattle to ward off any cattle disease as these trees are believed to have medicinal value. During the occasion the cowherds sing this popular phrase

Lau kha, Bengena kha
Bosore bosore barhi jaa,
Dighlotir dighol paat
Makhinumarey jaak Jaak
Maar horu Baaper horu
Toi Hobi Bor Goru”

(The phrase says that, ‘eat the gourd, eat the brinjal, and grow year after year. The long leaf of dighloti will drive away the swarm of flies. Both your mother and father are small but you will grow to be a big cow’). For the rest of the seven days dancing and merriment go on unabated.

The cattle are left to roam about freely for that day in any pasture they want. In the evening when they return home the cattle tied with new ropes (pogha) made from the Tara leaves. Their shelters are cleaned and the leaves of dighloti and makhiyoti are hung around their shelter to ward of insects. The householders then offer horai (a high pedestaled Assamese artifact made of brass-metal) and prokhaad (Prasad/ offering given to god) to the cattle.  On that day in every household jaak  is prepared, which is a bonfire made from straw, chaaf etc, to get rid of unwanted insects and mosquitoes. Thus, ends the first day rituals of Rongali Bihu. A traditional belief which is practiced in some places is the indication of occurrence of flood or favorable weather for agriculture in the New Year according to the standing postures of the cows (Gogoi, p 13).

Mukuli Bihu Dance
Image Courtesy: Ranju Neog

Manuh Bihu

As the word Manuh denotes man or human, this day is specifically dedicated to the people in general. Since ancient days this day was celebrates by the farmers and community members who had spent days to bring the harvest home. Early morning people bathe themselves and wear new clothes. The younger folk visit the family of their elders and pay respect to them; they are in return blessed by their elders. People exchange gifts on this day, the hand woven Gamusa is a necessary which are gifted to one another symbolizing love and respect towards each other.  Every household breathes in the enchanted sweet flavours of Bihu delicacies which are offered to the guests. These delicacies are mostly prepared from rice like til pitha (linseed pitha), narikol pitha (coconut pitha), tel ot dia pitha (stuffed pitha fried in oil), chira doi (flaked rice and curd), haando千旺彩票 (grinded rice) etc.

Sweet Flavours of Bihu
Image Courtesy: Avilasha Pathak

This day marks the starting of a new year, a new start to life leaving besides old grudges and with positivity all around. Thus, this marks the beginning of the traditional Husori (group of male Bihu performers) groups starting from the Namghar (temple) of the village. Village elders then move from house to house singing the Bihu songs and dancing. The husori group announces their coming at the entrance of the gate locally termed as podulimukh by beating the dhols and cymbals, they wait for the owners to traditionally welcome them inside. Once they enter the gate they sing and dance with joy, the family of the house joins them in merriment. At the end the husori group is offered tamul paan (beetle nut and beetle leaf) on a horai and they bless the household for the coming year. If a family is unable to invite the husori band due to death or illness then the group blesses them from the podulimukh and move on the next house. The Bihu rituals are all about happiness, love and care and it definitely shows in the various customs and traditions followed till date.

The remaining days of Bihu are celebrated differently at different regions of Assam. The third is celebrated as Gossain Bihu (paying homage to the ancestors) or in some places as Haat Bihu. Fourth day is celebrated as Tator Bihu in some place and in other areas it is celebrated as Senehi Bihu. Fifth day is referred to as Nangol Bihu whereas in other areas it is celebrated as Maiki Bihu. Sixth day is called Senehi Bihu in few regions and Rongali Bihu yet in other areas. Seventh day is celebrated as Sera Bihu. All together all the days have equal festive fervor and are celebrated with full enthusiasm all over Assam.

gostolor Bihu
Image Courtesy: Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra

On all the days various kinds of traditional games, dance etc, continues. Small children play egg fight locally termed as ‘koni juj’ and young girls go the open fields to sing and dance. These open field Bihu performances are called ‘mukoli Bihu’ or ‘gostolor Bihu’. There is another word for the gostolor Bihu performed solely by the maidens which is called ‘Jeng Bihu’. The word ‘jeng’ comes from the fact that in earlier day’s women folk used to surround the place of their performance with sticks dug into the ground which were called ‘jeng’.  This particular Bihu was also referred to as ‘Aita Bihu’ in the old days where mainly the old women folk the grandmothers ‘aita’ used to organize such Bihu, where only young girls and married women used to dance Bihu. There are yet other kinds of Bihu dance which are performed by both men and women folk together termed as ‘Log bohu’.

The songs and dances of Bihu are gracious enough to attract the attention; the eroticism in body movement, the mischievous flavors of the Bihu songs having sexual and romantic connotations becomes a vehicle for exchanging the young hearts of boys and girls. Thus, Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu opens the season of choosing one’s life partners and marriages; elopement is yet another general issue at this festive time of the year.

Jeng Bihu
Jeng Bihu (Image Courtesy: Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra)

Bihu Dress

The colors of Bihu is also reflected in the costumes of Bihu dance. The females are clad in traditional Muga Mekhala Chadar, the dresses of various tribes differ from one another but the most common dressing is Mekhela Chadar. The females adorn their hair by putting the beautiful kopou phool (foxtail orchid). It is mentioned that the Assamese women knew how to tie various khopa (hair bun), some of them are mentioned below:

  • Udhoniya Khopa
  • Koldiliya khopa
  • Ghila khopa
  • Soka khopa
  • Sela khopa
  • Togor khopa
  • Teteli khopa
  • Thio khopa
  • Negheri khopa
  • Ligiri khopa

The males wear white dhoti and kurta; various tribes prepare their unique styled waistcoat, turbans and stoles for the males which differentiate one tribe from the other.

 

Bihu Instruments

The music of Bihu has its own charm and the musical instruments are indigenous to this place which is now gaining global popularity. Some of the important musical instruments related to Bihu are:

  1. Dhol– It is a drum which has two sides and one stick called mari which is used to beat one side of the drum. It is the most essential folk instrument in Bihu, played mostly by males, whereas now girls equally practice and play the dhol. The parts of a dhol are
Dhol
DHOL. (Illustration : Mrinmoy Das)

There are various types of dhols:

  • The Bihu Dhol– general sized dhol played during the usual Bihu dance performance.
  • Oja Dhol- Played by the masters of the dhol. It is usually of the general average size.
  • Khram Dhol– played by the Dimasa and the Tiwa
  • Kham Dhol– Played by the Rabha and Boro Tribes, it is a long elongated drum.
  • Dhepa Dhol– played by the people of Darrang and Mangaldoi, an elongated drum made of goat skin and is filled with water.
  • Joy Dhol– A big drum with loud sound which is normally played during the Deodhani dance ritual during Manasa
  • Madol- played by the people of tea tribe of Assam.
  • Bor Dhol– It is the biggest of all drums and is about 1.5metres long with the sides having .5 to 1m diameter.
  • Kavi Dhol– used and played by the people of Goalpara while performing the Goalporiya Lok Sangeet.

 

  1. Pepa– Another importat and unique instrument is Pepa which is a wind instrument prepared from Buffalo horn. The parts of a pepa are:
Pepa
Pepa (Illustration : Mrinmoy Das)

There are two types of pepa:

  • Gutiys Pepa or Guwaal Pepa
  • Thuriya pepa– two horns played together which are attached with one single

 

  1. Gogona– an instrument which is held in the mouth and played. It is said to be a contribution of the Mongolian Culture. Made of bamboo, this unique instrument needs high level workmanship to prepare it and equal practice to play it correctly.
Gogona
Gogona (Illustration : Mrinmoy Das)

The parts of Gogona are

There are different types of Gogona千旺彩票 depending on its size:

  • Lihiri Gogona or Rupohi Gogona (played by the females)
  • Rmdhon Gogona (played by the males)

 

  1. Baahi It is primarily an instrument of Vaishnavite culture, associated with Lord Krishna. But it is an important instrument in The parts of Baahi are
Baahi
Baahi (Illustration : Mrinmoy Das)

There are various types of baahi or flute played by various tribes of Assam and they vary according to their shape and size.

 

  1. Taal– It is a percussion instrument used in a pair, made of bell metal. Various types of taal are used and different tribes have different name of Taal like Jotha, Seng, Luipi
Taal
Taal (Illustration: Mrinmoy Das)
  1. Xutuli- A half moon shaped instrument played with the mouth. Assamese folk culture denotes to the playing of xutuli in relation to inviting the rains. Xutuli is played by both girls and boys; this instrument was generally used by young boys as toy due to its easy construction. But now xutuli is predominantly used during Bihu dance as an important accessory and instrument. The parts of a Xutuli are
Xutuli
Xutuli (Illustration: Mrinmoy Das)

There are a few types of Xutuli and they are:

  • Bihuwati Xutuli
  • Pokhi Xutuli
  • Pitha Xutuli
  • Baah Xutuli

 

  • Tawka– It is bamboo slapstick primarily imitates the beats of clapping of the hands.
Tawka
Tawka (Illustration: Mrinmoy Das)

There are mainly three types of Tawka:

  • Paati Tawka or Haat Tawka– small and usually played by females in Jeng
  • Bor Tawka or Maati Tawka
  • Jeng Tawka or Dhutong

 

These instruments act as a lifeline in the Bihu performances. Now days, manufacturing of these items have become a source of earning for many families in various places of Assam. During celebrations people buy these instruments to perform at various stage and open functions. In earlier days Bihu dance and song were performed in open spaces like fields and households but now Bihu is adapted as a stage art to reach the broader public.

Clad in the best muga silk saris, with red flowers in their hair, a young group of girls of ten, twenty to thirty take part in the Bihu dance. Some of the girls beat time with ‘tawkas’, large clapping instruments made from a thick bamboo stem split along part of its length. The dancing girls usually form a circle facing inwards, and move their feet in time to the rhythmic beat of the tawka—shaking their bodies at the same time. The dance is really a sort of syncopated shuffle, the girls keeping their hands on their hips at first, but now and then raising them in the air with rhythmic movements. During all this time their faces remain expressionless, and their eyes are cast on the ground. Finally they give a last rippling shake of their shapely bodies, and the dance ceases abruptly. Among these people the marriageable girls dance in public, and at night are joined by the young men of the village who have their own form of dance. The young men’s dance is usually more energetic than that of the girls, and they are well fortified with lao-pani. One of the youths beats rapid time on a drum or dhul, using his hand and fingers; others make a hideous noise with clashing cymbals or tala. Another plays tunelessly on a pipe (pepa), which takes the form of a flute attached to a hollow buffalo horn. Others again beat time with two wooden bamboo sticks. The dancing itself is not particularly picturesque. As the night goes on and the beer circulates, the tempo increases, and nobody pays much attention when a boy and girl slip away from the dancers into the darkness. Many an affair is started or brought to a climax at the Bihu dancing. The dancing customs seem to vary quite a lot depending on the race or locality. In general however among the higher class Ahoms and Kalitas the dancing of marriageable girls takes place in private, or inside a house or shed, and the men are not allowed to watch it. (Thompson, 1948)

Old Bihu Dance
Image Courtesy: Muierhead Thompson, “The Assam Valley”

Nowadays, the competitions of Bihu dance and songs have now become a common phenomenon and people enthusiastically take part in them. Latasil Bihu Sammilan, i.e. the formal stage Bihu, which is started at the initiative of Radha Gobinda Baruah is one important place from where the tradition of stage Bihu performance started and spread across. With media gaining popularity the proliferation of Bihu dance and songs through audio cassettes, VCD’s etc., started rapidly. Bihu dance and songs carries the life blood of Assamese culture thus, the element of Bihu became one of major area of interest for the media. Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s Joymoti gave Bihu dance and music a different level of recognition in the social perspective. This trend started by Agarwala continued in the later time and it became a mere necessity for every film maker to put a Bihu number in their films.

Bihu Dance
Image Courtesy: Ranju Neog

This popular culture of the 21st century promoting the Bihu music having industrial gains is creating distortion of folk Bihu essence. Bihu performance is undergoing a rapid process of modernization and so is the festival on the whole. The popular culture and the mainstream Bihu dance and songs are going further away from the society. Therefore, the background of the celebration of Bihu that has to do with the agro based society has to be kept in mind by the people of the urban bourgeois society. The indigenous nature of Bihu should be kept intact by obtaining knowledge about the aesthetics of original Bihu performance.

 

References:

  • Gogoi, Lila, Nai Bai Ja.
  • Gogoi, Lila, ‘Bihur Bani’ in Bihu Samskritir Rup Rekha,
  • Gogoi, Lila. Axomor Sanskriti.
  • Goswami, Prafulladutta. “Bohag Bihur Parampara.
  • J. Smith, “Festivals and Celebrations”, in Folklore and Folklife : An Introduction, ed.
  • Sarmah, Achyut Chandra. “Bihur Utpatti aru Kramabikas.”
  • Thompson, Muierhead, “The Assam Valley”, 1948
  • Barua, Birinchi Kumar. ‘A Cultural History of Assam (Early Period)’.

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