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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.

The term Bihu is also used to imply Bihu dance otherwise called Bihu Naas and Bihu folk songs also called Bihu Geet.

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.

Bodo-Kachari origin

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.

Tai-Shan contribution

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.

Indo-Aryan contribution

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

Bohag Bihu