On Monday, January 15, 2018, Assam will celebrate Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu, which marks the end of the harvesting season. Bihu is one of the most auspicious and chief festivals of Assam. Interestingly, Bihu is celebrated not once, but thrice in a year in Assam. This is because there are three different Bihu festivals. Rongali or Bohag Bihu is celebrated in April and signifies the Assamese new year and the spring festival. Rongali Bihu is celebrated at almost the same time as Baisakhi in Punjab, Poila Baisakh in Bengal, Puthandu in Chennai and Vishu in Kerala. The second festival is Kongali or Kati Bihu, that is observed in October. It reflects a season of short supplies and is an ‘animistic festival’. The third is the Bhogali Bihu or Magh Bihu that is celebrated in January. Magh Bihu is all about food! While the Rongali Bihu coincides with Poi-Sangken festival in Thailand and other regions of East and South-East Asia, Kongali Bihu and Magh Bihu are unique to Assam.
The Bihu festival has been celebrated in Assam since ancient times. And each Bihu coincides with a distinctive phase in the farming calendar. The Bihu is a Hindu festival that pays reverance to Krishna, cattle (Goru Bihu), elders in family, fertility and mother goddess. However, the celebrations and rituals do reflect the influences from aborigine, southeast Asia and Sino-Tibetan cultures. Magh or Bhogali Bihu typically falls in mid-January every year. This day marks the end of the harvesting season. During this period, the granaries are full and there is an abundance of everything. Hence, Magh Bihu is celebrated with this merrymaking and feasting. The night before Magh Bihu is called ‘Uruka’, which means the night of feasts. On the eve of the day called uruka (which is the last day of pausa), the men go to the field which is preferably near a river. They then build a makeshift cottage that is called ‘Bhelaghar’ using the hay of harvest fields.
During the night, various dishes made of vegetables, meat and sweets such as Pitha, Laru are made out of sesame, molasses (black syrup from sugarcane) and coconut are prepared. Community feasting, bonfires (also called ‘meji’) and bhelaghar are the most important things of this night. The entire night is spent with people exchanging sweets, greetings and singing bihu songs. They also beat the dhol and boys steal firewood and vegetables for fun. The next morning, people take a bath and burn the meji and throw ‘Pithas’ (rice cakes) and betel nuts into the fire. After offering their prayers to the God of Fire, the harvesting year comes to an end. The Assamese people then go back home with pieces of half burnt firewood. This firewood is thrown among fruit trees for favourable results. Through the next day, different competitions are held for the entertainment of people. These sports include Buffalo-fight, Egg-fight, Cock-fight and Nightingale-fight.
Magh Bihu is celebrated with great pomp and fervour by not just the agricultural folk, but also in the big cities and towns in Assam. The mode of celebration differs from the villages to the cities. While feast, music and dance remain common, some also hang brass, copper or silver pots on poles in front of their house. Children wear flower garlands and greet the new year as they pass through the streets. Bihu is also celebrated internationally. There are many Bihu committees and associations across the world, an example of which is the London Bihu Committee (LBC) in the UK. The scintillating folk songs and mesmerising folk dance make Bihu one of the most impressive festivals of India.