Bihu, the chief festival of Assam in India, is basically a celebration of the change of the seasons. Even though the festival has ancient significance and practice, it has eventually become a popular urban festival, which includes performance of Bihu folk dance with Bihu folk songs, accompanied by various musical instruments like dhol (drum), pepa (made of buffalo horns), baanhi (flute), taal (manjira or kartaal), gogona (a vibrating reed instrument) and others. The festival of Bihu gives a unique identity to the people of Assam and despite being a Hindu festival, it is celebrated by all in high spirit, irrespective of caste and creed, religion and faith. The name Bihu is said to be derived from the Dimasa Kacharis word ‘Bishu’, where the meaning of ‘Bi’ is ‘to ask’ and ‘shu’ stands for ‘peace and prosperity’.
Bihu, connected with agricultural seasons, is celebrated with reverence to Lord Krishna, cattle (cow), elders in family, fertility and mother goddess. However, the celebrations and the related rituals surprisingly reflect aboriginal influences from Southeast Asia and Sino-Tibetan cultures. The festival is actually a set of three different seasonal festivals, celebrated in three different calendar months. Rongali or Bohag (Baishakh) Bihu observed in the middle of April, Kongali or Kati (Kartik) Bihu observed in the middle of October, and Bhogali or Magh Bihu observed in the middle of January.
Bohag Bihu, also known as Rongali Bihu, is celebrated the onset of the Hindu solar calendar, based on the Sanskrit text Surya Siddhanta. Among the three, it is the most popular Bihu, celebrated as a sowing festival, It is a time of merriment and feasting for seven long days. During this period the farmers prepare the fields for cultivation of paddy and women prepare traditional snacks or jolpan, like Laru and Pitha, made of coconut, rice and molasses. The seven days of the festival are named separately.
On the first day, known as Goru Bihu or Cow Bihu, the cows are ritually washed, decorated with new harnesses and dressed in garlands. This is followed by Manuh or Human Bihu, when people dressed in new clothes and gathers together to enjoy the togetherness. On the third day, called Gosai (God) Bihu, the idols or statues of Gods are worshipped and people pray for a smooth new year. On the Kutum Bihu, people visit their families, relatives and friends and have lunch or dinner together to enjoy the special day. The remaining three days of Bohag Bihu are called Senehi Bihu, Mela Bihu and Chera Bihu.
Rongali or Bohag Bihu is a fertility festival as well. The Bihu dance with its sensuous movements of the young feminine beauty calls out to celebrate their fertility.
Kongali or Kati Bihu is celebrated in an atmosphere that has a sense of compulsion and solemnity. During this period the paddy fields become full with the crop in the growing stage, while the granaries of the farmers are almost empty. According to ritual, people place lighted earthen lamps at the foot of the household Tulsi plant, the granary, the garden and the paddy fields. To protect the maturing paddy from pests and the evil eyes, cultivators whirl a piece of bamboo and recite chants. This Bihu is also associated with the ritual of lighting lamps at the tip of a tall bamboo pole, to show the souls of the dead the way to heaven, which is known as the ‘Akaxi Gonga’ or ‘Akaxbonti’.
Bhogali Bihu is also known as Magh Bihu, as it is celebrated during the month of Magh in Hindu solar calendar. It is completely a harvest festival and marks the end of it.
This is the festival for feasting and celebrating, as the granaries are full and farmers are no longer required to worry about their crops. On the eve of the day called ‘uruka’, young men build makeshift cottages called ‘Bhelaghar’ with hay, where they eat and indulge. The entire night is spent around the ‘megi’ or bonfire, singing Bihu songs with the rhythmic beats of Dhol, or playing games, while the boys roam about in the dark stealing firewood and vegetables for fun.
The next morning they take a bath and burn the makeshift huts and throw Pithas (rice cakes) and betel nuts in the fire and offer their prayers to the God of Fire, which mark the end of the harvesting year. Apart from the rituals, different types of sports like Buffalo fight, Egg fight, Cock fight, etc. are also held throughout the day.
Bhogali or Magh Bihu marks the Makar Sankranti, the transit of the Sun towards the Tropic of Cancer, which indicates the end of winter and the beginning of longer days.