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Bihu Festival

India is a colorful and diverse nation with each state featuring its own rich culture, heritage and languages. This nation is famously renowned for being the land of festivals that Indians celebrate with grand pomp and fanfare. This country is popularly known for its harvest festivals that are commemorated magnificently. The first yield of the crop is a source of joy and happiness for people and they celebrate it grandly as a festival. One of the most well-known harvest festivals in India is the Bihu festival of Assam. It is believed to be the most important festival of the state.

What is Bihu Festival?

About Bihu: the Festival of Harvest in Assam

Bihu is a collection of three significant festivals celebrated in the Indian state of Assam. While Bohag or Rongali Bihu is marked in April, Kongali or Kati Bihu is commemorated in October, and Bhogali or Magh Bihu is observed in January. Out of the three spring festivals, the Rongali Bihu is believed to be of most importance. The Bhogali Bihu or the Magh Bihu is a harvest event, with community banquets. The Kongali Bihu or the Kati Bihu is said to be the somber, economical one, contemplating a season of short supplies and is deemed to be an animistic festival.

Similar to other Indian festivals, Bihu is related to agriculture, specifically rice. While Bohag Bihu is celebrated as a sowing festival, Kati Bihu is linked to guarding crops and venerating plants while Bhogali Bihu is considered to be a harvest festival. Assamese honor Rongali Bihu with lavish dinners, music and dancing. Some people are known to hang brass, copper or silver pots on poles in front of their houses. Children wear colorful flower garlands and welcome the new year as they walk through the streets.

The three Bihu festivals are honored to venerate Lord Krishna, cattle, elders in the family, fertility as well as Mother Goddesses, but the way it is observed and the numerous rituals reveal influences from Sino-Tibetan and Southeast Asia cultures. In recent times, the Bihus are marked by the Assamese people, regardless of caste, religion or creed. It is also commemorated overseas by the Assamese diaspora community residing worldwide.

 

History of Bihu Festival

The meaning of Bihu has its origins from the Sanskrit term ‘Bishu’ that suggests ‘to ask blessings and prosperity from the Gods’ during the harvest season of Assam. Even though the contemporary form of the Bihu festival is an amalgamation of diverse cultural elements from groups such as Tibeto-Burman and Tai, it has a deep foundation in the indigenous culture. The Bihu festival history dates back to pre-Aryan days, approximately around the 3500 century BC. From then onwards, the celebrations used to continue for about a month or more, which has since then been condensed to a week. Even the term ‘Bihu’ is believed to stem from the dialect of Dimasa Kacharis, an agrarian tribe that has been around for several centuries. For a long time, Bihu has been a festival to celebrate, offer gratitude and hope for an abundant harvest.

As per a local Bihu story that discusses the origin of the festival, it is believed that Bordoisila (referring to north-westerly winds in Assamese) was the daughter of God Earth who tied the knot to a man from some faraway land. She pays a visit to her mother’s home once annually during the spring period, signifying the beginning of Bihu and departs after a couple of days, signaling the end of Bihu. Assam experiences a powerful gale at that time which observes the beginning of Bihu and another tremendous windstorm after she leaves, which is rather destructive. The term ‘Bordoisila’ originates from the Bodo word – Bordaisikhla – suggesting ‘girl of the storm’. A dance performance with the same name happens among Bodo people during ‘Bwisagu’, thereby indicating the origin of Bihu in the Bodo-Kachari groups.

One of the first citations of Bihu can be observed in the copperplate inscription of the Chutia King Lakshminarayan. The inscription was unearthed in the Ghilamara area of Lakhimpur district in 1953 and it was believed to be issued in 1401 AD. It declared that King Lakshminarayan had given away enormous land grants to Brahmins on the holy occasion of Bihu. This suggests that on the sacred occasion of Bihu, a Brahmin named ‘Dvija Ravidev’ was presented with land by the ruler. This signified that Bihu played a vital role in the social life of the Assamese at that time.

The influences of Bihu are not believed to be restricted to farmers and people associated with agriculture. It is said that incredible and renowned writers and composers in the Assamese language were also enormously inspired by this exceptional festival. As per a couple of experts, the origin of Bihu can be credited to the Sanskrit term ‘Bisuvan’. It was renowned in ancient days when people carried out fire sacrifices with the desire of producing an improved harvest. According to numerous scholars, this practice was the foundation of the Bihu festival.

 

Types of Bihu Festival

Bihu Festival Celebrated

This festival is honored thrice every year, each time to represent a different stage of cultivation of the rice paddy.
Let’s take a look at each festival in detail:

Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu

It is one of the most significant festivals celebrated by the Assamese people. It marks the start of the harvest season and is also considered to be the first day of the Hindu solar calendar. Similar to other harvest events of India, Bihu encompasses the farmer community who offer their gratitude to the deities for a successful harvest. They also pray for a better harvest in the future. Bohag Bihu (Rongali Bihu) occurs at the same time as other renowned harvest festivals such as Baisakhi, Vishu and Tamil New Year. It is also observed in Bengal, Orissa, Manipur, Nepal, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and other regions with varied names.

How is Bohag Bihu Celebrated?

This festival indicates the commencement of the harvest season and the beginning of spring. Celebrations such as feasting and singing are observed. Men and women have a traditional Bihu dance performance, thereby commemorating the carnival of the new year. This specific festival is observed over a week (seven days). The first day of the Bihu festival of Assam is referred to as Goru Bihu or Cow Bihu, where cows are bathed and worshipped.

To observe this festival, people wake up early and cleanse themselves by bathing in raw turmeric and urad dal paste. They drape themselves in new and fresh traditional attire and seek blessings from the elders of the family, followed by Jalpan – a light traditional breakfast containing sticky rice with curd and jaggery.

This festival is observed with people wearing bright and colorful clothes. Young boys and girls are draped in traditional outfits while they sing folk songs and perform a local dance that showcases their vibrant and rich culture. During this festival, there are numerous Bihu fairs where Assamese assemble to partake in many games and enjoy delicious and lip-smacking local delicacies.

The Bihu 2022 date for this festival falls on 13th April 2022.

 

Magh Bihu

It is one of the most significant community festivals in Assam. Also referred to as Bhogali Bihu, it is commemorated with community banquets after the yearly harvest. The local Assamese people observe this occasion during mid-January. It is believed to be the Assam celebration of the world-famous renowned festival of Makar Sankranti, with feasting lasting for a week.

 

How is Magh Bihu Celebrated?

Villagers build bamboo huts, referred to as Bhelaghor or community kitchen and start the preparations. During this festival, the local Assamese people make rice cakes and a couple of sweets from coconut named Laroo. On this auspicious occasion, people begin their day early and clean their homes. They don fresh and new traditional attire. On this day, people offer their prayers to Lord Indra, because he is believed to be the ‘God of Rain and Clouds’ as per Indian mythology. People venerate the deity as they are hopeful for abundant rainfall in the coming months, so they can receive a decent harvest.

The Bihu 2022 date for this festival falls on 15th January 2022.

Kati Bihu

While the other two Bihu festivals are related to harvest, this Bihu festival is marked in honor of the period of relocation of the rice sapling. Kati implies ‘cut’. This festival is also referred to as ‘Kongali’ (Poor) as the granaries are generally empty and there is not much food to consume during this time of the year. Kati Bihu is not as showy and flashy as the other two Bihus and the festivities are typically quieter.

 

How is Kati Bihu Celebrated?

This Bihu festival is commemorated by lighting the lamps of saaki (candles) at various parts of your home. The chief lamp is lit in the courtyard next to the holy Tulsi plant, believed to be extremely sacred in Hindu Dharma as it is known to come with numerous medicinal values that can heal an individual of several illnesses.

During this festival, this plant is cleaned and is positioned on an earthen platform, referred to as ‘Tulsi Bheti’. Make your prayers and offerings to Goddess Tulsi and ask for the wellbeing of your family and for producing a great harvest. This process continues for the entire month of Kati.

In the paddy fields, farmers light a special kind of lamp, known as ‘Akash Banti’ (Sky Candle). These mustard oil lamps are positioned high on the tips of the extremely tall bamboo poles. It is deemed that these lamps are illuminated to direct ancestors to heaven even though they are known to be useful for luring insects to the flame so they can die, which in turn helps in keeping the crops healthy.

Kati Bihu festival occurs on the first day of the month of Kati (Karthik) as per the Assamese calendar. The Bihu 2022 date for this festival falls on 18th October 2022.

 

Significance of Bihu Festival

Bihu Festival Dance

The state of Assam is a rich fertile land encompassed by picturesque mountains and the Brahmaputra River. The occupation of a lot of people residing in this place is agriculture and the society is generally agrarian in nature. Bihu is typically observed as a celebration of the change of the seasons. Each of the three Bihu festivities is believed to represent a significant phase in the farming cycle of Assam. This auspicious occasion is meant to encourage the celebration of ethnic diversity. Even though it is fundamentally observed as a harvest festival, its main goal is to bond and unite the diverse native communities of Assam.

How is Bihu Festival Celebrated?

The festivities include dressing up in traditional attire, cooking local and regional mouth-watering delicacies and dishes related to the Bihu festival, and dancing to foot-tapping Bihu folk songs.

Bihu Festival Dance

The Bihu dance is regarded as a folk dance that is commonly performed at the Bihu festival. Dancers are known to be clad in traditional Assamese outfits. Young men and women participate in this dance. Songs that are sung during this auspicious occasion showcase themes of love and have an erotic tone. People are known to wear traditional attires such as Dhoti, Gamocha and Chadar, Mekhala. This Bihu dance has become a powerful cultural identity of the northeastern state. The ethnic groups Deoris, Sonowal Kacharis, Moran, Borahis and so forth regard this festival to be vital to their culture.

Bihu Festival Food

Bihu Festival Food

Local Assamese cook delicious delicacies during this harvest festival of Assam. Let’s take a look at some of them:

Jalpan: This nutritious dish is primarily a porridge-like dish that is generally paired with curd and jaggery. It does not have any spices including salt.

Laroo: Whether it is prepared out of ground til (sesame), rice powder or coconut powder, it is considered to be one of the healthiest dishes across India. It does not contain any spices or masala. It is usually cooked on the eve of Bhogali Bihu.

Fish Recipes: An array of delicacies featuring fish are prepared for this festival but you will not find typical masala ingredients in them.


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