Bhogali Bihu: What we have lost and what we are missing
"Maaghor Bihu aahil Moina, Maagor Bihu aahil..." These lyrics, at one time, were like an anthem for the people of the Assamese community announcing the festival of Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu which coupled with the culmination of the cold winter days.
The name Bhogali Bihu is derived from the word Bhog, and as the name suggests, there is a lot of food and its consumption associated with the festival.
The eve of the Bhogali Bihu is called Uruka. A grand feast or bhog is prepared on Uruka night. Young men build makeshift thatched-roof huts, known as ‘Bhelaghar’ and a ‘Meji’ (bonfire) which is created with hay and bamboo. Women prepare the feast in the Bhelaghar. People spend the night near these Mejis singing songs and performing folk dances. The next morning, people take bath early in the morning and then light the Mejis.
But with time, the festival has lost its traditional hues, especially in urban areas of Assam, and the manner of celebration has changed. The festival today is reduced to a virtually insignificant holiday on the calendar.
We all have somewhere or the other, grown up listening to and living the stories of Bhogali Bihu celebrations of our forebears. Until a few years back, the whole festival was about merry-making and uniting with the extended family. The festival was the mark of happy endings and new beginnings.
Recollecting the good old days of Magh Bihu celebration, Dhruba Hazarika, a former IAS officer shared that Magh Bihu for him was all about the gathering in the vast open fields. He said, “Food, which is the main essence of the festival, and where it is the Laaru-Pitha or the Xaandoh Guri (both traditional Assamese cuisine items), it was nice to see a sense of bonding growing over the love for food. The feeling and the celebration remained constant throughout the month. Now, everything has become instant and the festival is reduced to just two days, basically the 13th and 14th of January. On 13th, you do the shopping, on 14th, you eat, and on 15th, you bid good bye to the festival.”
Adding to this, he also lamented that people living in Guwahati are rather detached from the agricultural purview to understand the significance of this harvest festival which primarily revolves around agrarian practices. He sighed that the current generation living in cities and towns have become insensitive towards the efforts that farmers put behind every morsel of rice that is consumed in the homes of the state. Hazarika said, “Although it’s the root of our lives, we people today are getting distant from the beauty of the agricultural process which is the predominant factor in the villages. Magh Bihu connects us to Mother Nature, but the age of globalisation has overtaken the essence of nature today.”
In the words of Ranjit Chaliha, owner of Korangani Tea Company, the culture of joint family is fast dwindling with time which is the main reason behind the diminishing essence of Bihu. “Earlier family members of all the generations would meet to celebrate the festival. On top of that, even the villagers were like family. Today, all that exists are nuclear families and with 4-5 members in the house. You cannot expect the same enthusiasm.”
Today as we stand buried under modernisation, we cannot deny the fact that we have lost the age old fervour of the festival. The floodgates of commercialisation of the festival have taken away the spirit and the very essence of Magh Bihu. Gone are the days when the women in the families would stay awake the entire night to prepare Laaru, Pitha and other delicacies. Today, state-of-art gift packages containing traditional Assamese delicacies are easily available to be given as gifts or to bring home.
A senior person at a city-based departmental store said that he has, over the years, noticed a remarkable shift in the buying and selling trend of traditional Assamese delicacies from the store. In his words, “People today do not want to make the effort of making these delicacies, which is why there is a spike in the rates of these items in the market. Today everything is available in the market. But amidst this commercialisation, what people are missing is the emotion, the feeling of making these with their own hands through the night and serving the platter to your loved ones the next morning. You get everything in the market but the effort put in the make the homemade stuff and serving them gives a different kind of satisfaction.”
However, to keep the culture alive, several self-help groups in Guwahati have initiated a process of uniting at a place and preparing all the delicacies in a very traditional manner, and also sell conventional items to preserve our heritage. These women, from the city and the nearby villages, prepare Laaru-Pithas, sell Doi-Cheera, and other eatables in the open, enjoy a small feast during the lunch and dinner together and spread the message of unity and love.
For the Assamese community, Bihu is more than just a festival; it is the heart, soul and identity of the race. While it is just natural for every celebration to undergo change with time, losing its charm in the name of modernization will only call for long term adversity. Preserving a culture is a unanimous effort of every human being. It is what will shape us ahead, in our own land and abroad.