Ask any Assamese, and he or she will tell instantly that Bhogali Bihu – also called Magh Bihu because it is held on the first day of the Assamese month of Magh – is essentially a harvest festival, which means it is primarily related to agriculture. It is known by several other names across Assam; in certain districts of lower Assam, they call it Maghar Domahi – ‘domahi’ meaning the junction of two months, one of them being Magh. The Bodo people call it Domachi, Domashi or Domasi. The Deuri community calls it Magiyo Bisu, while the Dimasa people call it Busu or Magh Sanjora. The Karbi people call their harvest festival Hacha, while certain communities in Goalpara locally call it Domahi. Scientifically speaking, it marks the first day of the sun’s transit into Makara (Capricorn), marking the end of the month with the winter solstice and the start of longer days. In many parts of mainland India, the Hindus refer to it as Makara Samkranti, dedicated to Surya or the Sun-god. This significance of Surya – or the Sun as a god – can be traced back to the Vedic texts, particularly the Gayatri Mantra, which is one of the most sacred hymns of Hinduism found in its scripture named the Rigveda. Makara Samkranti is one of the few ancient Indian festivals that have been observed according to solar cycles, in contrast to the fact that most festivals are set by the lunar cycle of the luni-solar Hindu calendar. Being a festival that celebrates the solar cycle, it almost always falls on the same Gregorian date every year (January 14), except in some years when the date shifts by a day for that year. And the way the Assamese celebrate as Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu, people in Punjab mark it as Maghi preceded by Lohri. Certain Hindu communities in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana call it Pedda Pandaga, while the Hindu Bengalis call it Paush Samkranti, and the Tamils Pongal. Makara Sankranti being regarded as important day for spiritual practices, members of certain Hindu communities take a holy dip in rivers. In mainland India, people particularly flock to the Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Krishna and the Kaveri, while in eastern and Northeastern India, the destination is Parasuramkunda in Lohit district in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. The bathing is believed to result in merit or absolution of past sins. They also pray to the Sun and thank Surya for their successes and prosperity. What is interesting is that while many communities particularly in Assam observe it as harvest festival, there is also this practice of burning meji – a ceremonial stack of firewood – at dawn on the first day of Magh. In certain districts of Upper and North Assam, people also throw pebbles in the northern direction to apparently chase off the winter, while burning of the meji and bhelaghar – the latter a house made of hay or field stubble that is left after harvesting the paddy crop – also signifies bidding farewell to winter. The burning of winter indicates the advent of spring. In certain countries of Europe too, communities observe ceremonies that are similar to Magh Bihu where they symbolically burn winter and usher in spring.
But what is exactly happening in Assam even as the communities go ga-ga over Bhogali Bihu is that domestic agricultural production is much behind the required demand in the state. Yes, Assam had become self-sufficient in rice production towards the end of the previous AGP-led government of 1996-2001. But then, the productivity is still much below the national average. Likewise, the state is sadly lagging behind in the average production of various lentils and pulses, peas, grams, mustard, potato, etc. Among cash crops, sugarcane and jute occupy a substantial area, but again, the production and productivity are simply dismal. In the horticulture sector Assam is the original home of citrus fruits and bananas. But then, the productivity story is the same and disappointing. The overall achievement of agriculture and allied sector during the 10th Plan was just 1.16 per cent. The production of egg, fish and poultry is another sad story. Assam requires about 59 lakh eggs every day; but the state produces only about 27 lakh, importing 32 lakh every day from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Assam has a market demand of 375 tonnes of meat per annum, but produces only about 150 tonnes. The state’s annual fish requirement is three lakh tonnes, but it produces only about 32,000 tonnes. Though the economy of Assam is mainly agrarian with agriculture and allied activities contributing about 20 per cent to the state’s net domestic product and providing livelihood support to about 75 per cent of the population of the region, most farm families continue to live in hand-to-mouth subsistence.