Rongali Bihu: its facets and changes

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Rongali Bihu: its facets and changes

Dr Arunima Bharali | April 13, 2018 18:08 hrs

When we utter the word ‘Bihu’, it is ‘Rongali Bihu’ that generally comes to the mind. There is lot speculation about the genesis of the word ‘Bihu.’ Some trace its origins to the Sanskrit word ‘Bishub.’ Another line of thought believes it has its roots in the Bodo word ‘Baishagu.’ Variations to these opinions account for the Dimasa word ‘Bushu’ while the word ‘Bichu’ from the Deuri community also cannot be ruled out.

‘Bohag Bihu’ or ‘Rongali Bihu’ is basically an agrarian festival. The concept of fecundity or productiveness remains hidden within it and is precisely the reason of the co-relation between the long history of agriculture and traditional Assamese Bihu. The concept is clearly reflected in different Bihu songs. This national festival of Bihu is the end-product of the fine assimilation of Assamese culture with the rich cultures of the different ethnic tribes of Assam.

Under the aegis of the Ahom Kings, the festival of Bihu had acquired a hugely ebullient shape. In the courtyard of the famous ‘Rang Ghar’ Bihu festivities unfolded substantially to encompass cultural and sporting activities as well. Various ethnic games of the different tribes and sects got the royal approval and sponsorship. The festival was instrumental in generating cultural exchanges and goodwill thus creating harmony within and among different communities.

Rongali Bihu has also been called ‘Saat Bihu’ because the festival is celebrated over a period of seven days. Practically though, the festivities of Rongali Bihu last almost for a month.

There are two important sub-variants of Rongali Bihu – the ‘Phaat Bihu’ and the ‘Jeng Bihu’. Assam being a land of amazing diversity, the demography comprises a number of ethnic tribes like Mising, Deuri, Ahom, Chutia, Koch, Kaivarta, etc. The mighty Brahmaputra River has a number of tributaries and their banks are extremely fertile. Its fertile banks are inhabited by a variety of tribes which celebrate Bihu with day long song and dance activities and exchange baskets of traditional sweets like pitha and laru. A special tradition of many tribes is the community feasting where the leaf of a special banana tree is used as the platter on which the food is served. The folks sit around together and feast on the local cuisine served on these banana leaves. Opinions vary as to why this celebration is termed ‘Phaator Bihu’ or ‘Phaat Bihu’ with one line of thought claiming that the word ‘phaat’ can be traced to the ‘Tai’ language.

In a few other parts of Assam, another variant of Bihu is observed and is termed ‘Jeng Bihu’. Documented history is bereft of its time and place of origin though. In some places, it is popularly known as ‘Suali Bihu’ or ‘Maiki Bihu’ – ‘suali’ and ‘maiki’ being Assamese for ‘girl’ and ‘lady’ respectively. The maidens – girls or ladies – render the Bihu dance under the shade of a Banyan tree or any other similar big tree. The Bihu songs, in their essence, carry the very heart-beat of Assamese people. The songs depict their social portrait and history. In the month of Baishakh, with Nature playing its grand part, the Assamese spirit is virtually resurrected and the Bihu songs are a true reflection of the advent of the ‘Basanta Ritu’ or spring season which gives a new life as much to the landscape of Assam as to the spirit of its people.

Rongali Bihu is not just a festival of fun and gaiety – it is an inspiration to the Assamese to be active and dynamic. The farewell to Bihu essentially transforms the Assamese farmer into a physically and mentally charged worker and they take to their cultivation and farming activities with renewed vim and vigor.

In the urban landscape of modern Assam, the passage of Bihu from a rustic festival to a contemporary gala event has been phenomenal and it has a firm footing in the specially erected pandals and stages of the towns and cities. Many prosperous villages also celebrate Bihu in the modern way and the festival has become an event of huge cultural gathering and social exchange. Bihu has been singularly instrumental in the resurrection of Assamese culture and bringing it ample recognition all across the country and in foreign lands.

Rongali Bihu has fostered a sense of brotherhood and kinship among human beings elevating them culturally while at the same time, rekindling the dormant spirit to better and a more active life. We sincerely believe that by keeping the tradition and spirit of Rongali Bihu intact, the greater Assamese community will be a better-knit, cohesive force – both physically and intellectually – and will thus pave the way for firmer footsteps on the path of progress towards building a Sonar Bor Asom (Greater Golden Assam).

(The author is a retired Professor of Assamese from B. Barooah College and author of several novels, short stories, poems and song lyrics)

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