“Bohagote amare aai mohura hoi ghure
Maghot xunor haatere lakhimi aadore
Xorot nixai torare xojai aair e kexh
Bharatore purba dixhor surya utha dexh”
“In (the month of) Bohag, mother dances and whirls with grace like a mohura (spool of thread).
In Magh, she welcomes the goddess of prosperity.
She adorns her tresses with the stars of the autumnal sky of Sarat.
She is the land of the rising sun.”
These lyrics from a song by the late Dr. Bhupen Hazarika captured the beauty and spirit of the land of Assam, in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent.
The festival of Magh Bihu (মাঘ বিহু) (also called Bhogali Bihu (ভোগালী বিহু) or Maghar Domahi (মাঘৰ দোমাহী) and its relationship with agriculture and fertility, is of utmost significance to the culture and heritage of the region.
It is a celebration of bountiful nature and abundance which marks the end of harvesting season in the month of Magh (January–February).
A bonfire, named Meji, is lit for the ceremonial conclusion and prayer to the God of Fire.
The festival of Bihu has three forms: Bohag Bihu, Kati Bihu and Magh Bihu, each of which coincides with crucial events in the agricultural calendar of the region.
Bohag Bihu (celebrated in mid-April) marks the onset of spring and the beginning of the crop-planting cycle, Kati Bihu (October) is observed as a day of prayer for a good harvest while Magh Bihu (in mid-January) marks the completion of the agrarian cycle after the harvest has been reaped.
Harvest festivals are as old as human civilization itself and are rooted in the desire to harness nature’s fertility through various rites and rituals.
For this reason, the origin of Bihu is difficult to establish. The festival is primarily linked to the cycle of paddy cultivation, hence it has evolved along with the development of rice cultivation in Assam.
A number of present-day Bihu rituals such as ancestor-worship, and dances and songs evoking fertility, are believed to be the cultural remnants of the beliefs and practices of certain indigenous tribes of the region like the Khasis.
However, the most significant contribution to the cultivation of paddy in the region was made by the Ahoms who came to Assam in the 13th century CE, who revolutionised the cultivation of paddy in the Brahmaputra valley by introducing Sali-kheti or wet rice cultivation, instead of the earlier Ahu technique which did not require standing water on the field.
A spirit of harmony and togetherness pervades every aspect of Magh Bihu, a festival marked by feasts and bonfires.
Celebrations start on the last day of the previous month, the month of “Pooh”.
Usually the 29th of Pooh is 14 January, and is the actual only day of Magh Bihu in modern times (earlier, the festival would last for the whole month of Magh, and so the current name Magh Bihu).
The night before is “Uruka” (28th of Pooh), when people gather around a bonfire, cook dinner, and make merry.
The word Uruka is originally derived from the Deori-Chutia word Urukuwa which means “to end”, signifying the end of the harvesting season as well the Pausha month.
On this day, a feast is organised at night known as Bhuj, and various indigenous communities prepare their rice beers usually undistilled.
Another age-old tradition observed on the day of Uruka is that of fishing, in which the people of a village fish together in a river or a community pond. The fresh catch goes towards the preparation of various delicacies for the feast.
On this day, young people erect makeshift huts, known as Meji and Bhelaghar, from bamboo, leaves and thatch, in Bhelaghar they eat the food prepared for the feast, and then burn the huts the next morning.
Another unique and fun-filled tradition of Magh Bihu is that of stealing, indulged in mostly by young boys of the village. Items of theft may include hay, bamboo, and vegetables and fowl for the feast. After the feast, the night is spent in reminiscing and sharing of stories around bonfires.
On the next day, Magh Bihu, people brave the chills of the freezing winter morning to witness the burning of the Meji. Rice, pulses, ghee and Pithas, snacks, are poured into the fire as offerings to the sun-god.
The burning of the Meji symbolises the triumph of light over darkness, and life over death, while some ethnic communities of Assam associate the burning of the Meji with ancestor worship.
For them, the Meji represents the epic warrior Bhisma’s funeral pyre.
According to the legend Bhisma, blessed with the boon of wilful death, decided to abandon his mortal body only after the sun had transitioned to Uttarayan. Thus, the fire of the Meji also represents a channel for communicating the blessings of the ancestors for the welfare of the community.
The bonfires are usually made with fireword, green bamboo, hay and dried Banana leaves, and people take bath before setting up them, as a tradition.
At the end, the Bhelaghar is also burned and people consume a special preparation known as Mah-Karai, which is a roasted mixture of rice, black gram.
In the breakfast and lunch, people consume various traditional dishes like various Fish, Chicken, Pork, Duck, Mutton curries along with Rice and Rice Beer. The ashes of the bonfire Meji and Bhelaghar are then used in the trees and crops to increase the fertility of the gardens or fields.
The ritual of Magh-bondha, or the tying of straw around Lagani-gos (fruit-bearing trees) is believed to enhance their fertility.
Pieces of straw are also tied to the granary (bhoral-ghor) and cowshed (guhali) and the practice is believed to foster overall prosperity of the household.
The young seek the blessings of the elders, while different exciting games such as Tekeli-bhonga (hitting a drum blindfolded), Rosi-tona (tug of war) and Godhur-bostu-doliuwa (shot put) further intensify the festive fervour.
Traditionally, Moh-juj (buffalo fight), Kukura-juj (cock fight) and Bulbuli-juj (Indian bulbul fight) also used to be held, but these have mostly been discontinued during modern times.
In various parts of Assam, several fairs are also held on the occasion of Magh Bihu that have traditionally enabled the exchange of resources amongst different villages and communities.
However, the chief highlight of this festival are the countless delicacies prepared for the occasion, and the most popular of them being the Pithas.
In the days leading up to the celebrations, the sound of the “Dhenki” pervades the atmosphere of rural Assam, a wooden pounding device used for threshing paddy and grinding rice, an integral to most local households.
Pithas are traditionally prepared by the womenfolk of the region, and the process starts days ahead of the actual festival.
Preparing Pithas is an art: Sira (flattened-rice) grains are supposed to be “teteli-potiya”, as flat and fine as the leaves of a tamarind tree!
The base ingredient for Pithas is mostly rice, of which Assam boasts of several exotic varieties.
They are prepared out of Pithaguri (rice-flour), Til (sesame), Gur (jaggery), Narikol (grated coconut), Muri and Akhoi (varieties of puffed rice).
One of the most unique delicacies prepared on the occasion of Magh Bihu is Sunga-pitha.
Cylindrical pieces of bamboo are stuffed with equal parts of “Bora-saul”, sticky rice that has been soaked overnight, and water, and the ends are sealed with straw. These are then rested on an iron stand and a fire is lit from below using hay. The fire is kept going till the outermost layer of the bamboo is burnt and the Pitha is fully cooked.
The Pitha is then extracted by cracking the bamboo open and thereafter relished with curd, cream and other stuffs.
Pithas are also prepared by stuffing and rolling sesame or coconut mixed with jaggery into layers of rice-flour. These are known as Til-pitha, with a sesame filling, and Narikol-pitha, with a grated coconut filling.
Ghila-pitha on the other hand are dumplings prepared by frying a paste of sticky rice flour and jaggery in mustard oil.
Another delicious sweetmeat is the Tekeli-mukhot-diya-pitha prepared by steaming rice-flour mixed with grated coconut and jaggery, tied in small bundles of cloth, while Khola-sapori-pitha is prepared by frying a runny batter of rice flour and salt into thin discs over an earthenware pan called Khola.
But on the day of Magh Bihu various types of delectable Jolpan (a light meal) are also enjoyed.
For example, Sandoh-guri, a variety of porridge, is prepared by mixing coarsely ground roasted rice with jaggery and milk, while Komal-saul (a unique variety of rice that turns soft and fluffy on soaking) and Bora saul (sticky rice), mixed with Doi (curd) and Gur are other delightful Jolpan combinations.
Another preparation especially enjoyed on this day is Mah-karai, a crunchy mixture of roasted rice, sesame, black gram and dried ginger.
However, over time, the festival of Magh Bihu and the rituals and practices associated with it have changed considerably.
Although Assam’s economy is still primarily agrarian, many families have given up farming and moved to the cities. Electrical kitchen appliances have replaced traditional methods of preparing Bihu delicacies which requires teamwork and collaboration, while packaged Pithas have similarly replaced home-made ones.
But, despite all changes, at the heart of Magh Bihu lies still today a spirit of gregariousness, and It is an occasion for the Assamese to thank nature for its boundless gifts, to appreciate sustainable living practices, to enjoy and share its resources, and to strengthen a sense of belonging to the community.
Images from web – Google Research