Assam, the land of the red river and blue hills, with its picturesque landscape and exotic fauna is shrouded in myths and mystery. With the ushering of the spring season, the breathtaking hills and valleys come alive with the sounds of the month long Rongali Bihu. Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu, also called Haat Bihu is the most important festival of this land and marks the beginning of the New Year beginning with the month Bohag and hence the name Bohag Bihu. The word Bihu is derived from the Dimasa Kachari language.
Rongali Bihu is also a festival to mark the coming of age for young girls and fertility, with them dancing in brisk sensuous movements of hips, arms and the upper parts of the body swaying to the male counterparts playing the pepa a flute made of buffalo horns and the beat of the toka drums and gogona made from bamboo held between the teeth and small cymbals, in ecstatic rhythms. The young unmarried men and women, dance the night away under the gentle breeze of banyan trees in open fields, or groves, or even in jungles.
They also sing spontaneously created couplets expressing love for their sweethearts. Starting with a slow tempo, the rhythm builds up to a crescendo. Traditionally the occasion also has been a mating ritual by young women and their male counterparts. The fair maidens of the land drape themselves in gorgeous floral silk mekhala with a red border, a shawl woven out of the golden silk fibres, and a red blouse and ornate gamkharu in their hands made from an alloy of silver and gold nuggets found in the rivers. Kapou flowers orchids adorn their hairs adding a whimsical touch to the formality of the outfit. Their feet and palms are painted with the red pigments made of myrtle leaves.
The young men wear traditional clothes like dhoti and kurta and tie the gamocha a traditional Assamese hand-woven cotton towel with red designs with a white background) around their heads and waists along with the Japi, a traditional Bamboo hat with colorful designs. Bohag Bihu also involves various delicious Assamese recipes. Every house cooks various pitha made from rice and coconut, laddoo made from shredded coconut and til ladoo made from sesame seed and other delicacies which gives the real essence of the season.
Women grind pitha guri with a dheki and prepare delicacies ahead of Magh Bihu or Magh Domahi. The festival involves a lot of feasting with doi curds, chira dry rice, fish like Aari, Rohu, Borali and Bokhua, Chital, meat, etc.and sporting with a traditional buffalo fight.
The elders also celebrate this festival in the form of Husori Bihu where they move from house to house singing carols, in the style of bihu geets. Husori Bihu is traditionally an all-male celebration and the women celebrate it through Jeng Bihu in which the song and dance performances are watched only by women.
During Rongali Bihu there are 7 phases: 'Chot', 'Raati', 'Goru', 'Manuh', 'Kutum', 'Mela' and 'Chera'. Raati Bihu phase starts on the first night of the month of Cheitra and lasts until Uruka. It is usually done under a centenary tree or in an open field lit by torches. It was held in Chawdang villages and is understood as a gathering for local women. The participation of the men was mostly ceremonial. A musical instrument very employed in this phase was the bhaluka bashor toma, which is a bamboo instrument.
Chot Bihu also called Bali Husori, this phase begins on the second day of the month of Cheitra. On this day, songs and Bihu dances are organized by the young people in open air places, fields or courtyards of the community prayer hall.
Goru Bihu has to do with the agricultural roots and the importance of livestock, which traditionally provides sustenance. On the last date of the month Cheitra or Sankranti day, the first day of Rongali Bihu is dedicated to keeping livestock and a show is held. Usually the cattle of a town are taken to a water source, like a pond or a river. Cattle are washed with a combination of symbolic herbs maah-halodhi (black gram and turmeric paste), dighloti beaten, makhioti and pieces of bottle squash and bengena (eggplant). After washing the cattle, the remaining branches are hung on the cattle, which means they have participated.
The first day of the month of Vaisakh marks the Manuh Bihu. The population is given a special bath and puts on new clothes. "Manuh Bihu" consists of the tradition of seeking the blessings of the elderly in a family and presenting the ceremonial patch of Bihuwan or a cloth, as a gift, to be used as a symbol of cultural pride. This suede is an indispensable part of the life and culture of Assam, with its distinctive symbolic meaning. The complexity of its craftsmanship symbolizes the ideas of friendship, love, relationship, warmth, hospitality and is intimately interwoven in the social fabric of Assam.
The second date of Visakh is Kutum Bihu. On this day people visit their families, relatives and friends, and eat or dine together and share news and stories.
Gabhori bihu falls on the third day of the festival and is intended as a day of ladies. The maidens of Assam look lovely in their wear and embellished gumkham bracelets. The orchids that adorn the hair of the ladies add a unique touch to the formality of the dress. Swinging to the rhythm of the toka (drum) and Gogona (made of bamboo held between the teeth), the women dance all night under the soft breeze of the banyan trees of Bengal. Skeletons are created spontaneously. Beginning with a slow tempo, the pace increases to a crescendo.
The third day of Bihu is marked by the celebration of Bihu, with cultural events and competitions in outdoor places. Formerly, the king and his court used to go to these kinds of fairs to mingle in the Bihu celebrations. This tradition of events continues to this day. Fairs are attended by people from all over Assam and are aimed at fostering an atmosphere of community brotherhood and inclusion.
Chera Bihu is the fourth and last day of Rongali Bihu. In different regions of Assam, people celebrate it differently, but the common theme is related to celebrations of contemplation and future resolutions. It is characterized by the exchange of pithas made by different families among their friends and family during Bihu week.