In the most plain sailing cognizance of the populace, the day when the sun on its Celestial path, which when moves from the southern mansion towards the northern, converges the equator moving into the zodiac sign of ‘makara’ (Capricorn), is known as ‘Makar Sankranti’. The Hindus (Vedic religious people) consider it as ‘a holy day of transition’ and they have a firm belief that the people who depart during this phase attain ‘moksha’ (Sanskrit: moksa) meaning emancipation, liberation or release from their earthly bondages. According to the Indian mythology, during the war of Mahabharata, Bhisma (the first general of the Kauravas) was shot with arrows by Arju, piercing his entire body. He awaited his death in the bed of arrows till the transition of the sun towards the northern mansion from the southern. Hence, as per the beliefs of the people go, the bonfire prepared during ‘Makar Sankranti’ is also considered as the funeral pyre of the great Bhisma. This festival of fire is celebrated in many countries; some burn hayrick and some prepare huge bonfires to observe the occasion. Most Hindus celebrate it by worshipping the Fire God (Agni Puja) as they believe that Agni (origin; Agrini) is the supreme or the tongue of all Gods and Goddesses. Accordingly, if one worships and pleases Agni, at the same time one pleases the other deities too. Probability is that, it might be the sole reason why all the Hindu religious rituals are somehow associated with fire. According to various other myths, people also surmise that during this period of ‘Makar Sankranti’ the river Ganga had united with the mighty ocean and therefore by taking a bathe in the Ganga in the early morning, one can easily acquire ‘punya’ (purgation).
Since foregone days, ‘Makar Sankranti’ is being celebrated in Assam. Customarily, it is commemorated as ‘Magh Bihu’ or ‘Bhogali Bihu’. Although, of late, there has been a drastic change in the festivities; things have taken a conspicuous overturn to which I myself have been a witness, especially since the last six decades. As far as I can recall, in the earlier days during my childhood, ‘Magh Bihu’ was observed only for one day and a night in lieu of celebrating it for a week or even more. However, contrary to that, in the contemporary scerio, the celebrations begin from a fortnight, especially in accordance to the programs telecast by the news channels. Nevertheless, during ‘Magh Bihu’ the people of a guild or a particular village gather together in front of a ‘am Ghor’ (religious place of the Vaishvas) or in any other open place. People in groups go to the forest in order to collect fire woods, while few others go for fishing and yet some get busy in other arrangements for the merriment. Generally, two kinds of hayricks could be classified that were prepared during this festival; one made of wood and the other made of dry ba leaves. The heights of the hayricks were 10 to 15 feet in general. It was a homespun fest yet euphoric symbolizing brotherhood and camaraderie in contrast to modern day’s competitions of making ‘bhelaghors’ of different styles and increment in the height of the hayricks.
At the eve of ‘Makar Sankranti’ feast are prepared by the people. As par the tradition goes mostly duck meat and mutton were prepared and not chicken. A special kind of thing was made and blasted mely, ‘Pani Hilloi’ (water filled bamboo) and people used to sing and shout with sink to that, “puh gol magh hol, agni devata bor hol” (meaning: after the month of ‘puh’ and the advent of the month of ‘magh’, fire turns supreme and more powerful). Unlike the festival of ‘Bohag Bihu’ people never danced to Bihu songs and dhuls. Before the feast blessings are given and taken which the people believe to be very fruitful. People seeking for goodwill promise to offer things like a pair of duck prior to the festival. Even before the sunrise people use to wake up and bathe in a nearby pond or river even in the coldest weather and burn the hayricks following the rituals. Nobody was allowed to go near the bonfire without bathing as it was considered holy. People roast sweet potatoes and arum roots in the bonfire and eats them and believed that the one who does not eat those would be reborn as a pig. According to the customs few people had to be at the night watch at the place of the hayricks. The young boys tend to steal neighbors old bamboo fences, poultry and sweet potatoes. The boys in a mischievous manner secretly exchanged same color calves between two different families, so that in the morning both deny to drink milk which left the owners in distress. These incidents initially led to a fun-filled ambience during those days unlike today where in the me of custom, few people tend to damage good properties and create nuisance.
Past, present or the future - whatever may it be, till the time we are associated with our roots and continue to follow and bear them with full vehemence and responsibility, without mutilating its authenticity, we will surely continue to enshrine and illumite our tradition, our identity and our existence to a completely different level.
(The writer is an Assamese film director, producer and a retired lecturer of Debraj Roy College, Golaghat)