Magh Bihu: The harvest festival

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By: Aadrita Chakravorty

Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu, as its name suggests, is a festival of feasting and merriment. It marks the end of the harvesting season, in the month of Magh, according to the Assamese calendar. Assam is an agricultural state, and the festivals celebrated in the Assamese community revolve around the three different phases of nature and the farming cycle. Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu celebrates the onset of spring that is followed by the rejuvenation and rebirth of nature, as everything blooms and blossoms and nature rises to its full glory in the month of Bohag (mid April), thus, Assamese calendar considers this month as the beginning of a new cycle, and a new year.

Kongali Bihu on the other hand falls in the month of Kati (mid October), when the granaries are empty and there is not much to eat, hence the word ‘Kongali’ which means poor. This is a time of sobriety and prayer, where the community prays for the protection of the crops and abundance in harvest.

Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu, marks the end of the harvesting season, in the month of Magh (mid January). The festival signifies the abundance in the fields, and is marked as the period, where the labour of the farming community pays off and hence they can now sit back and enjoy its fruits. Punjab, like Assam, is an agricultural state, hence North India, specifically the Punjabi community, is seen celebrating “Lohri” as Assam celebrates Bhogali Bihu. The Koch community celebrates it as Pushna.

Although, Magh Bihu traditionally demands an atmosphere akin to the rural pastures, the fervour is not dim among the rural folks. Assam, from the remotest of villages to the busiest of cities, gets into its festive vibe during the season. As a girl growing up in the urban settings, I have seen my kith and kin celebrate it with undying zeal and excitement. The women in the family would start preparing pithas, ladoos, and other delicacies made out of sesame, molasses and coconut prior to a week of the festival.

The men start building the Bhelaghor, a makeshift cottage made entirely of hay, where the entire community feasts. Though in towns, it is usually built for symbolic purposes to be burnt with the Meiji, the next morning after Uruka. Post the advent of media houses and social media, Bhelaghors of different shapes and sizes are being built, adding to the competitive spirit, with one trying to be more creative than the other. Another trend we can witness in electronic and print media is the discovering of gigantic fishes and vegetables, large enough to possibly feed the entire neighbourhood. However, the idea that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ should be done away with when it leads to the misinterpretation of culture. As far as I remember, Bhogali Bihu was more of a private affair, where only the near and dear ones feast and make merry together.

The eve of Magh Bihu, is called Uruka, when the feasting and frolicking takes place. The morning after is Magh Bihu, which falls on Makar Sankranti. People rise early in the morning to pay homage and give offerings to the fire god symbolised by the Meiji, a temporary structure made of bamboo, wood and hay. The Bhelaghor is burnt along with it.

Waking up after a long night of frolicking becomes a Herculean Task. Something to look forward to on Magh Bihu, is the traditional Assamese breakfast consisting of doi, seera, akhoi, muri, gur, and other items that can make for a scrumptious Jolpaan.

In some parts of the state, the festival is marked by traditional sports like egg fights, cock fights, nightingale fights, and bull fights and so on. Sports coupled with dance and music becomes a part of the festivity. Needless to say, the festival during this time of school vacations becomes a unifying force among families. Despite the political unrest within the state, Magh Bihu will help us reconnect to our natural habitat and culture characterised and symbolised by every festival of the Assamese community.

The soaring prices, the harsh winters and the vile political scenario are not enough to lessen the festive fervour of the Bihu Boliya folks.

However, with local news channels invading this privacy and bringing Bhogali Bihu into the limelight, people started misrepresenting the entire festival. I still remember a non-Assamese friend asking me if people dance Bihu in all the three festivals, that is, Rongali, Bhogali and Kongali; as that is what they could interpret from all the cultural representation in the local news channels, which they thought was authentic.  The youth too are misguided by this kind of representations where instead of introducing them to the different traditions involved in the three different Bihus, they are attracted to cheap publicity and entertainment, thanks to the local TV channels. Cultural functions and Husori should be limited to the festival meant for it, that is, Rongali Bihu. It is all fun and games until we come to a point where our culture is at stake, and there is a need to preserve our heritage and our identity.

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