By Dr Jyotsna Bhattacharjee
The season of spring is regarded as a harbinger of joy by all the people through centuries. April is a beautiful month when wintry sun begins to turn warm and days get longer. Flowers bloom in all their splendour in this season. This month of April is very dear to the people of Assam, as it heralds the most lovable festival of Bihu, which throbs the heart of every Assamese.
The spring festival is celebrated in almost all the parts of India under different names. It is Baisakhi in Punjab, Bohag Bihu in Assam, Poila Baisakh in West Bengal, Vishu in Kerala, Pudu Varsham in Tamil.
The spring festival, marking the New Year in different calendars in various parts of the country, is celebrated in different ways. In Punjab, Baisakhi, traditionally a harvest festival, is celebrated on the 13th April every year. Once in 36 years it falls on 14th April, marking the Punjabi New year. People celebrate the joyous festival by performing Bhangra and Giddha to the pounding rhythms of the dhol. Sikhs visit Gurdwaras and listen to the Kirtans and religious discourses. After the prayer Kada Prasad (sweetened semolina) is served to the congregation. The function ends with langar, the community lunch served by the volunteers. Processions are taken out featuring mock duels and bands playing religious tunes. For people in villages this festival is an opportunity for relaxing before they start harvesting of corn.
In Kerala Vishu is the first day of the Malayalam calendar. Malayalees make elaborate preparations for this day to ensure that the year will be a fruitful one by following the custom of seeing the Vishukasi (auspicious sight) early in the morning. On the previous night of Vishu, fresh agricultural produce such as rice, paddy, cucumber, jackfruit, areca nut, coconut and ripe bananas are aesthetically decorated and placed at the feet of Lord Krishna. The little yellow flowers called Konna Poovu which are in full bloom in this season are considered as obligatory in this assemblage which is looked upon as the symbol of prosperity.
At the crack of dawn, before sunrise, members of the family are brought to this assemblage blindfolded. There is a belief that to catch a glimpse of these signs of prosperity in the mirror (Vishukasi) at the crack of dawn would bring prosperity to the individual. People buy new clothes for the occasion and the elders of the family distribute tokens of money to the children, servants and tenants. While men and the children engage in bursting crackers, women start cooking a variety of delicacies for the day’s lunch. The dishes are prepared from the vegetables and fruits that are abundant in this season. Temples are filled with devotees and special pujas are held in which people worship and pray for a prosperous new year.
In Tamilnadu Pudu Varsham, which marks the day when Lord Brahma started creation, is celebrated with great fervour. There are many customary rituals which are followed on this first day of Tamil New Year. On this day early in the morning, the entrance of the house is decorated with Kolam (Rangoli). The door ways are adorned with mango leaves to mark the auspicious nature of the occasion. After an early bath the whole family prays together, after which the children are supposed to take blessings of their parents. Lord Ganesha is offered fruits, sweets and flowers. Food is also a very important part of the festival. Particular emphasis is given to pulses and cereals. Business people generally start account books for the new year on this day.
In Bengal, Poila Baisakh is celebrated with great fervour in homes. The day marks the first day of “Naba Varsha” or the Bengali new year. To welcome the new year people clean and decorate their houses. Women draw beautiful designs called ‘Alpana’ in front of their homes. People worship Goddess Lakshmi for their well – being and prosperity. Here also it is the beginning of all business activities when businessmen purchase new account books and start their new accounts. Songs, indigenous games and recitation of poems are the other highlights of this season.
Bihu is the biggest festival of Assam. This is a regional festival which demonstrates the sense of solidarity and unity among the people of the region. It is celebrated thrice a year and they mark the changes in the seasons. The first of these Bihu falls on “Chaitra Sankranti”. This is called Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu. It is the most festive, hilarious and joyful of all the Bihus. The other Bihus are known as Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu and Kati Bihu or Kongali Bihu.
The harvest festival celebrated in winter in the month of January is called the Magh Bihu when the crops have been harvested. Feasting is the special feature of this Bihu, since there is an abundance of food at this time. People make Mejis or Bhelaghars (Bonfires) and make a night of it. On the Bihu eve every household prepares a sumptuous feast with meat, fish and other things. Rich or poor, everybody must have some fish on that night. Groups of young men and children organize community feasts in temporary structures made of hay, bamboo sticks, wood or anything they can lay their hands on. These are known as Bhelaghars or Mejis. The young people spend the night there and at the crack of dawn set fire to it. Ladies in various homes prepare ‘Chira’ (beaten rice), ‘Pitha’ (rice cakes) and ‘Ladoo’( sweet balls) of various kinds. They are the special delicacies of Magh Bihu. Curd is also essential for this Bihu. It is customary for the young people to get blessings from the older members of the family.
Kati Bihu, the last of the Bihus, falls around October – November, when paddy crop are yet to mature and the granaries are almost empty. There is no food stock and hence it is known as “Kangali Bihu”, which implies poor Bihu. Special Tulsi pujas are performed in the evening with offerings of gram and fruit.
Of all the Bihus, Bohag Bihu or the Rangali Bihu is the most joyful. It is a spring new year festival and agricultural festival combined. The first day of the Rangali Bihu is called “Goru Bihu”. On this day cattle rites are performed. Household cattle get special attention and they are decorated with colourful garlands and given food. The next day is ‘Manuh Bihu’, exclusively meant for human beings. Paying homage to the elders is customary on that day. Special meals are prepared with chira, curd, pithas, ladoos, and other delicacies. An attractive feature of this Bihu is the offering of “gamocha” to friends, relatives and family members.
Along with the passage of time the “Bohag Bihu” also has gone through some changes. In the earlier times groups of young men went from home to home to sing Bihu songs and dance to the tune at any time during day or night. People used to keep their front doors open for the “Husori” (Bihu performers) parties any time during day or night. After their performance was over the master of the household offered them cash, gamocha and some Bihu delicacies and bowed before them for blessings. The girls did not join the husori parties – but they danced on their own in the field with divine Kopou (Orchid) phool in their hair. But now husoris are not performed at homes – at least not in urban areas.
Now Bihutolis are arranged in various areas where all sorts of games and competitions are held. In the morning the Bihu flag is hoisted by some dignitary and after that the functions start. In the evening musical extravaganza are held in various Bihutolies. Bihu dances, songs and other items from the North – East are displayed. Some famed singers and dancers are also invited to participate in the functions to add spice to the celebrations. Competitions are held for the Bihu dancers to select “Bihu Kuwori”, (Bihu Princess) and “Bihu Samragyi” (Bihu Empress).
All said and done, for me the earlier Bihus were more spontaneous and hilarious without any trace of artificiality. Competitions imply rivalry—and some kind of artificiality. In earlier times women of the families wove gamochas in the family looms. But now weaving has become almost non—existent, specially in the urban areas. The divine Kopou phools also are not seen. The Bihu dancers use dreary plastic imitation of Kopou phool. We buy gamochas from the market to keep up the tradition. The Bihu delicacies like pitha, ladoos etc. also can be bought in various shops.
Yet the spirit of Bihu is still there. This spring festival is celebrated in different ways all over the country. It is diversity that defines India. Yet in spite of diversity there is unity, which is the speciality of India. No other festival demonstrates it better than the spring festival which is known as ‘Bihu’ for us. Some changes may have occurred in the celebration of Rongali Bihu. But in spite of certain changes in the celebration of this spring festival, the Rongali Bihu is as dear to us as it was in the past. We have to admit that change is inevitable in the passage of time from the past to the present to the future. Let us celebrate Rongali Bihu with joy and hope, dear reader. I wish you a very happy Bohag Bihu.