Bihu is the chief indigenous festival in the Assam state of India. It refers to a set of three different festivals: Rongali or Bohag Bihu observed in April, Kongali or Kati Bihu observed in October, and Bhogali or Magh Bihu observed in January. The Rongali Bihu is the most important of the three celebrating the Assamese new year and the spring festival. The Bhogali Bihu or the Magh Bihu is the one that is all about food. The Kongali Bihu or the Kati Bihu is the sombre, thrifty one reflecting a season of short supplies and is an animistic festival.
The Rongali Bihu coincides with many different festivals all across East and Southeast Asia. These include the Chinese new year in China, Poi-Sangken festival in Thailand and other regions of East and South-East Asia. The other two Bihu festivals every year are unique to the indigenous Assamese people. Like festivals in other Southeast and East Asia, Bihu is associated with agriculture, and rice in particular. Bohag Bihu is a sowing festival, Kati Bihu is associated with crop protection and worship of plants and crops and is an animistic form of festival, while Bhogali Bihu is a harvest festival. Assamese celebrate the Rongali Bihu with feasts, music and dancing.
The three Bihu are indigenous ethnic festivals with reverence for cattle on the first day of Rongali Bihu (Goru Bihu), elders in family, fertility and mother goddess, but the celebrations and rituals reflect similarities from aborigine Austric, Southeast Asia and Sino-Tibetan cultures. In contemporary times, the Bihus are celebrated by all indigenous Assamese people irrespective of religion, caste or creed. It is also celebrated overseas by the Assamese diaspora community living worldwide.
Origin of Bihu
Although the modern form of Bihu is a synthesis of varied cultural elements from diverse ethnic groups and races like Austro-asiatic, Tibeto-Burman, Aryan and Tai-Shans, it was originally a agricultural festival celebrated by the Tibeto-Burman groups.
The origin of Bihu can be traced to the admix of the cultures of Austro-asiatic and Tibeto-Burman races which constitute the greater Bodo race in Assam. The word Bihu has been derived from the Deori (a form of Bodo tongue which was once the original language spoken by the Bodo-Kacharis of Upper Assam) word Bisu. This form of Bihu was once celebrated by the Bodo-Kachari tribes of Upper Assam, consisting of Sonowal Kacharis, Chutias, Thengal-Kacharis, Morans, Deoris and Motoks (majority). These groups were known as Sadiyal Kacharis, having lived in the kingdom of Sadiya. The other branch of Bodo-Kacharis which include Bodos, Dimasas, Rabhas, Tiwas, etc have also been celebrating Bihu since ancient times. The Bodos call it Baisagu, while the Dimasas, Tiwa and Rabha call it Bushu, Pisu, Dumsi respectively.
The first reference of Bihu can be found in the Deodhai Buranji which mentions that the capital of the Chutia kingdom, Sadiya was suddenly attacked by the Ahom forces on the first day of Bihu/Bisu in 1523, when the people were busy celebrating Bihu. This further proves the fact that the roots of Bihu lies in the traditions of Sadiyal Kacharis. It is also well-known that the modern form of Bihu dance was derived from the Faat Bihu dance celebrated in Dhakuakhana, Lakhimpur. The performers were called by the Ahom king Rudra Singha in 1694 to dance in the royal arena Rang Ghar. The origin of Faat Bihu can be traced to Sadiya. The word Faat in Deori-Chutia language means “to migrate”. After the defeat of the Sadiyal Kacharis in Sadiya, the survivors were displaced from Sadiya to different places in the kingdom. A group of these people moved from Sadiya, to Dibrugarh and finally settled down in Harhi Sapori, Dhakuakhana. These people had brought the idols of god and goddess along with them and established a temple now known as Harhi Dewaloi. It was here that the first form of modern Bihu dance was developed. Later, in the 19th century, this form of Bihu dance was adopted by the other communities as well and started being performed in Mahguli sapori, Dhakuakhana by Chutias, Sonowals, Deoris, Ahoms, Mishing, etc.
The Tai-Shans/Tai-Ahoms(as called by the natives) upon their arrival in Assam found the natives(Tibeto-Burmans) celebrating a festival of cow-worship spraying fresh water. This ritual looked similar, to the ancestral Poin-Cham-Nyam ritual of their homeland. So, they called the existing festival of this land Poin-hu. Thus, the Bisu was later corrupted with Poin-hu to form what is today known as Bihu. The Bihu dance was first given royal patronage by the Ahom king Rudra Singha in 1694.
The Indo-aryans upon their arrival in Assam helped in gradually sanskritisation of the native Bihu/Bisu to bring it to the present form. Being the pioneers of Astronomy, they further associated the term Bisu with the Visuvan day for coincidence of the Bohag bihu with other springtime festivals observed elsewhere in India on this day and adopted the festival of the natives.
The three Bihu Festivals
In a year there are three Bihu festivals in Assam – in the months of Bohaag (Baisakh, the middle of April), Maagh (the middle of January), and Kaati (Kartik, the middle of October). The Bihus have been celebrated in Assam since ancient times. Each Bihu coincides with a distinctive phase in the farming calendar. The most important and colourful of the three Bihu festival is the Spring festival “Bohag Bihu” or Rongali Bihu celebrated in the middle of April. This is also the beginning of the agricultural season.
Bohag Bihu ( )(mid-April, also called Rongali Bihu), the most popular Bihu celebrates the onset of the Assamese New Year (around April 14-15) and the coming of Spring. This marks the first day of the Hindu solar calendar and is also observed in Bengal, Manipur, Mithila, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab, Kerala and Tamil Nadu though called by different names. It’s a time of merriment and feasting and continues, in general, for seven days. The farmers prepare the fields for cultivation of paddy and there is a feeling of joy around. The women make pitha, larus (traditional food made of rice and coconut) and Jolpan which gives the real essence of the season.
The first day of the bihu is called goru bihu or cow bihu, where the cows are washed and worshipped, which falls on the last day of the previous year, usually on April 14. This is followed by manuh (human) bihu on April 15, the New Year Day. This is the day of getting cleaned up, wearing new cloths and celebrating and getting ready for the new year with fresh vigor. The third day is Gosai (Gods) bihu; statues of Gods, worshiped in all households are cleaned and worshiped asking for a smooth new year.
The folk songs associated with the Bohag Bihu are called Bihugeets or Bihu songs. The form of celebration and rites vary among different demographic groups.
Rongali Bihu is also a fertility festival, where the bihu dance with its sensuous movements using the hips, arms, etc., by the young women call out to celebrate their fertility.
The Seven days
Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu festival continues for seven days and called as Xaat Bihu. The seven days are known as Chot Bihu, Goru Bihu, Manuh Bihu, Kutum Bihu, Senehi Bihu, Mela Bihu and Chera Bihu.
Kongali Bihu (mid-October, also called Kati-Bihu) has a different flavor as there is less merriment and the atmosphere has a sense of constrain and solemnity. During this time of the year, the paddy in the fields are in the growing stage and the granaries of the farmers are almost empty. On this day, earthen lamps (saki) are lit at the foot of the household tulsi plant, the granary, the garden (bari) and the paddy fields. To protect the maturing paddy, cultivators whirl a piece of bamboo and recite rowa-khowa chants and spells to ward off pests and the evil eye. During the evening, cattle are fed specially made rice items called pitha. The Bodo people light lamps at the foot of the siju (Euphorbia neriifolia) tree. This Bihu is also associated with the lighting of akaxi gonga or akaxbonti, lamps at the tip of a tall bamboo pole, to show the souls of the dead the way to heaven, a practice that is common to many communities in India, as well as Asia and Europe.
Bhogali Bihu (mid-January, also called Magh Bihu) comes from the word Bhog that is eating and enjoyment. It is a harvest festival and marks the end of harvesting season. Since the granaries are full, there is a lot of feasting and eating during this period. On the eve of the day called uruka, i.e., the last day of pausa, menfolk, more particularly young men go to the field, preferably near a river, build a makeshift cottage called Bhelaghar with the hay of the harvest fields and the bonfire or Meji, the most important thing for the night. During the night, they prepare food and there is community feasting everywhere. There is also exchange of sweets and greetings at this time. The entire night (called Uruka) is spent around a Meji with people singing bihu songs, beating Dhol, a typical kind of drums or playing games. Boys roam about in the dark stealing firewood and vegetables for fun. The next morning they take a bath and burn the main Meji. People gather around the Meji and throw Pithas (rice cakes) and betel nuts to it while burning it at the same time. They offer their prayers to the god of Fire and mark the end of the harvesting year. Thereafter they come back home carrying pieces of half burnt firewood for being thrown among fruit trees for favourable results. All the trees in the compound are tied to bamboo strips or paddy stems. Different types of sports like Buffalo-fight, Egg-fight, Cock-fight, Nightingale-fight etc. are held throughout the day. There are other conventional festivals observed by various ethnic-cultural groups. Me-dam-me-phi, Ali-aye-ligang, Porag, Garja, Hapsa Hatarnai, Kherai are few among them. The koch celebrates this bihu as pushna.
Instruments used in Bihu
Bihu is also seen to be celebrated abroad. Many Bihu associations / committees exist elsewhere where this festival is celebrated with enthusiasm. The London Bihu Committee (LBC), UK is one of them amongst others.
- Songkran festival in Burma, Thailand and other festivals of East Asia and South-East Asia
- Bikram Samwat / Vaishak Ek in Nepal
- Sinhalese New Year in Sri Lanka.
However, this is not the universal new year for all Hindus. For some, such as those in and near Gujarat, the new year festivities coincide with the five day Diwali festival. For others, the new year falls on Ugadi and Gudi Padwa, which falls about two weeks before Bohag Bihu.Thus, Bohag Bihu is the New Year festival of the Indigenous Assamese people.
The same day every year is also the new year for many Buddhist communities in parts of East Asia and Southeast Asia such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Yunnan in China, Vietnam and Thailand likely an influence of their shared culture in the 1st millennium CE.
According to Jean Michaud and other scholars, the new year celebration traditions in Southeast Asian Massif have two roots. One is China, and this influence is found for example in Vietnam and southeastern China. These Sino-influenced communities celebrate the new year in the first or second lunar month after the winter solstice in December. The second group of people in the Massif celebrate the new year in mid April, much like most of India. This group consists of northeastern Indians, northeastern Myanmar, Tai speakers of Thailand, Laos, northern Vietnam and southern Yunnan. The festival celebrated in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Yunnan in China is celebrated in the Massif in ways like Bihu celebrated by Indigenous people of Assam and other Northeast Indian states. It is marked by an occasion to visit family and friends, splashing others with water (like Holi), drinking alcohol, as well as later wearing jewelry, new clothes and socializing. The new year festival is called regionally by different names:
Notes and references
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- Roshen Dalal (2010). Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Penguin Books. p. 136. ISBN 978-0-14-341421-6.
- Sunita Pant Bansal (2005). Encyclopaedia of India. Smriti Books. p. 67. ISBN 978-81-87967-71-2.
- Praphulladatta Goswami (1966). The springtime bihu of Assam: a socio-cultural study. Gauhati. OCLC 474819.
- S. D. Sharma (2010). Rice: Origin, Antiquity and History. CRC Press. pp. 56, 60-61. ISBN 978-1-4398-4056-6.
- Goswami, Praphulladatta (1967). “Hindu and Tribal Folklore in Assam”. Asian Folklore Studies. JSTOR. 26 (1): 19. doi:10.2307/1177697.
- Christian Roy (2005). Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 479-480. ISBN 978-1-57607-089-5.
- Roshen Dalal (2010). Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Penguin Books. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-14-341421-6.
- Uddipana Goswami (2014). Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam. Routledge. pp. 61-63. ISBN 978-1-317-55997-9.
- Amaresh Datta (1988). Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature. Sahitya Akademi. pp. 1277-1278. ISBN 978-81-260-1194-0.
- Culture of Assam – Government Of Assam, India
- Hakacham, Upen Rabha (2010). Origin of Bihu. Guwahati.
- Goswami 1988, pp7-8
- Celebrating Nature’s Bounty – Magh Bihu Archived 2012-01-17 at the Wayback Machine., Efi-news.com
- Sankalp India Foundation. “Bihu: A celebration of Assamese culture | Sankalp India Foundation”. Sankalpindia.net. Retrieved ;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Abook&rft.genre=unknown&rft.btitle=Bihu%3A+A+celebration+of+Assamese+culture+%26%23124%3B+Sankalp+India+Foundation&rft.pub=Sankalpindia.net&rft.au=Sankalp+India+Foundation&rft_id=http%3A%2F%2Fsankalpindia.net%2Fdrupal%2F%3Fq%3Dbihu-a-celebration-assamese-culture&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fen.wikipedia.org%3ABihu” class=”Z3988″>
- “BBC – Religion: Hinduism – Vaisakhi”. BBC. Retrieved ;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Abook&rft.genre=unknown&rft.btitle=BBC+-+Religion%3A+Hinduism+-+Vaisakhi&rft.pub=BBC&rft_id=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Freligion%2Freligions%2Fhinduism%2Fholydays%2Fvaisakhi.shtml&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fen.wikipedia.org%3ABihu” class=”Z3988″>
- Crump, William D. (2014), Encyclopedia of New Year’s Holidays Worldwide, MacFarland, page 114
- Karen Pechilis; Selva J. Raj (2013). South Asian Religions: Tradition and Today. Routledge. pp. 48-49. ISBN 978-0-415-44851-2.
- Peter Reeves (2014). The Encyclopedia of the Sri Lankan Diaspora. Didier Millet. p. 174. ISBN 978-981-4260-83-1.
- Jean Michaud; Margaret Byrne Swain; Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh (2016). Historical Dictionary of the Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 284. ISBN 978-1-4422-7279-8.