Somewhere in the land that’s decked with tea plantations and wild forests, the local community put up a jubilant spectacle of tradition and culture. The Assamese celebrate a festival known as Bihu, between every farming season, especially for their lands. You know how they say that communities staying in close proximity to nature tend to form a unique bond with mother nature, right? The farmers in Assam tend to embody that expression in the sincerest way possible. If anything, the Bihu celebration is their way of showing appreciation to the land, which only goes on to affirm their close association to it.
Just like a 3 fold meal, the Bihu celebration by the Assamese community has 3 servings of the festival, known as:
Rongali/Bohag Bihu (Festival of Happiness) – Month of April
Kongali/Kati Bihu (Festival of Scarcity) – Mid October
Magh/Bhogali Bihu (Festival of Feasting) – Mid January
These 3 festivals originated to celebrate the happy times in a farmer’s life. Although there are different names, all these 3 festivals call for the community to get together and enjoy these festivals. The Rongali Bihu is the most important of them, as it’s when the barns are full and so dances and festivities are in full swing of thanksgiving.
When Is The Bihu Festival Celebrated And Why?
The entire festival of Bihu is a passionate appreciation of the farmers, in the form of dance for their lands. It is celebrated 3 times a year around the significant farming periods. Seasons play a key role in the performance of the harvest, and farmers are the experts at noticing the changing mood of the land with every passing season. Assam has a huge agrarian community that have strong sentiments for the changing seasons. Which is why the theme of these festivals revolve around nature and the conditions of the environment.
You must’ve heard about how a peacock dances during the rain to convey its happiness for the arrival of monsoon, right? In the same way, the Assamese agrarian community also put up a festival to celebrate the changing seasons. Here are a few features of the festivals.
Rongali/Bohag festival – This festival is celebrated in the month of April (approx 15th April) and marks the Assamese New Year. It also means time for harvest and it is the grandest of the 3 Bihu festivals’ features! This festival goes on for 7 long days and on each day, the community shows dedication to supporters of a fruitful harvest.
Everyday is focused on a different aspect for expressing their gratitude. For instance, there’s washing of the cattle, seeking blessings from elders, visiting relatives and making resolutions.
Festive food such as pitha (traditional rice based food) and traditional sweets made of coconut, rice and jaggery is also prepared. Most of the dishes are made of rice and prepared in the traditional manner in backyards, with the help of neighbours.
There is also a traditional beer made of rice, served to guests. A majority of the locals wear a Gamora (a traditional attire) during these festive times. Everyone is joyous and it’s a pompous affair around a bonfire. There’s communal dancing, cooking and singing. The warmth of the setup is so damn contagious that there’s no way you won’t start feeling the same level of joy.
Most of the locals know the traditional Bihu dance and break out into a dance. These smaller gatherings happen in their backyards of locals and even paddy fields, with loud traditional songs being played in the background.
Kongali/Kati Bihu – Celebrated mid-October, this is a humble celebration to protect crops. Prayers and offerings are made to ensure that the field remains healthy. That’s because the paddy is still not completely grown and barns are yet to be full. This happens on a small scale as there is not enough food to eat at this time of the year. But there’s lighting of candle lamps in the fields to celebrate the festival. A special traditional lamp is placed with the belief that it would catch the insects and the crops will stay safe.
Bhogali or Magh Bihu – This is the time for eating! The harvesting season has come to an end and farmers can take a break and enjoy this festival. There’s bonfires and community feasting accompanied by dance and song. It’s like a very happening carnival that can make anyone drool.
Grilled fish, pork, duck meat are dishes that you must try during this time. One of the most fascinating parts about this whole culinary experience is that everything served is made of natural ingredients, including your plate.
The men make a makeshift hut out of hay for the festival, so everyone knows where to gather for the feast. Sweets are exchanged, Bihu songs are sung and the Dhol (a traditional drum) is played. In the spirit of celebration, you also get to see the peculiar tradition of Egg fights being held.
Bihu Songs and Dance
Farmers in the previous days would sing and dance when they would feel happy or have some leisure time. Singing while doing farming activities as a way to pass time slowly developed into a tradition for the farming community. The sheer sense of joy felt in small pastoral communities while they all come together in merriment for a festival holds so much meaning to them.
This is exactly the feeling of Bihu. Bihu doesn’t have any literal translation, but it’s just a feeling felt by farmers and their community. Some of the song titles are, ‘song at the time of ploughing the paddy field’, ‘paddy transplanting song’, ‘rice harvesting song’, ‘rice grinding song’ and ‘village vs town life’. Bihu music is special for the people of Assam and they can really relate to the themes of the songs.
One thing which we find absolutely delightful is the simplicity and charm of pastoral living, seen in the Bihu folk dance. The simple steps can be picked up by anyone who attends a small community party in the village. A bihu song is a narration of a story happening in the village. For that matter, it could be a simple story about a traditional activity or even a love story. The theme of many songs are based on romance and some are flirtatious in nature too.
If you watch a formal performance of the dance by professionals, it would be different from the ones that take place in villages. For a formal dance, young men and women are dressed in complete attire, maintain right posture and align their steps. These professional dances happen when they are organised by the tourism committee or a club.
The women wear colorful flowers pinned neatly to their hair. Dancers move to the tunes of traditional music instruments like pepa, dhol and Gagona, played during the performance. This traditional dance that started in the villages of Assam also made it to the 2012 London Olympics!
Where To See A Bihu Dance Performance?
We’d highly recommend getting a local experience of the festival happening in small villages. The locals invite and welcome everyone around, so you can be part of such a celebration by simply interacting more with the locals around your accommodation. They will often be more than happy for you to join their community feast during the Bihu celebration.
If you wish to see a professional performance, Rang Ghar in Sivasagar district is the place to visit. The Rang Ghar is a two-storeyed building, which in the previous days served as an amphitheatre. The place had Ahom kings and nobles as spectators at games like buffalo fights. Today, it’s the place where Bihu dances are organized for tourists.
What’s Special About the Bihu Festival?
We love how jubilant of a cultural fiesta Bihu is. The sincerest affinity and respect towards nature and land is expressed in such a celebratory way is as special as it gets. Moreover, the festival has a way of making everyone feel the spirit of community and revel in it. There’s a beautiful sense of warmth that comes with experiencing the Bihu. We find this a really special experience because of how it reminds us to celebrate nature, while displaying the sense of community. All of it while feasting on delicious food.