Rongali Bihu: Heralding spring

Photo by Kangkan Hazarika
From time immemorial, Assam has had various kinds of folk songs and dances sung and played at different seasons of the year by the common folk of the countryside when festivals are held to make merriment of various kinds. Among the festivals, the new year festival is celebrated with great pomp and grandeur in the spring season when the sky is overwhelmed with the utterances of the coming of the "Bordoichila".

All classes of people, irrespective of caste, creed and religion take part in the new year spring festival. This festival in Assam is known as Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu. The most significant part of the spring festival is the songs and dances which are sung and played expressing delight and also the love for life, society and friendship. Young girls from the countryside sing and dance to welcome Bihu. Nature begins to bloom with new colours and a new urge for recreation. This is expressed through various rites and festivals, song and dances and merry making.

Among the seasonal festivals of Assam, the Bihus have a wider popularity. There are three Bihu festivals in Assam which mark the agricultural season. The first is celebrated at the beginning of cultivation. The second is at the time when the seeds sown begins to appear as seedling, and the third is at the time of harvesting. The Rongali Bihu or Bohaag Bihu or the spring festival is celebrated at the beginning of the period when seeds are sown in the field. Bhogali or Magh Bihu is observed at the period of harvesting of crops. Further, there is the Kati Bihu or Kongali Bihu when agricultural fields are blooming with new crops - greenish in colour at first and gradually turning into yellowish colour and the time for harvesting approaching. In Bohag there is the completion of the sowing of seeds and there is the hope of getting good returns. The returns depend on the fertility of the earth and good weather. In order to propitiate nature, men and women, young boys and girls begins to worship nature in many ways.

Photo by Vikramjit Kakati
Of the three Bihus, the Bohag Bihu is the most important ceremony. It is celebrated when the Assamese new year enters on the Chaitra Samkranti day. In such a time spring touches the naked earth - everywhere there appears new life. During Rongali Bihu, nature is enlivened with a new spirit. It takes on a new life, with new colours in the sky, and in the forests and hills. Minds of men are vibrant with joy and they come out to make merriment through dances and songs. The girls come out with traditional dresses signifying their ripeness of youth. The red Riha is the symbol of ripeness. During this period nature is gay with new urge for creation. Nature also welcomes the song birds like the cuckoos who "pour out their music". The sky is bright and blue and occasionally "rolling drum of the thunder cloud is heard". The young boys wearing typical Bihu dress with Gamocha in the head come out with drums and different kinds of flutes.

Bihu songs are typical folk-songs. The songs have deep meaning appealing to the mind. The songs are sung in the fields, by the river side and under the banyan tree. In the Bihu songs, there is the depiction of love - sweet love of man to man, love towards nature - river, forest, hills and birds.

Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu festival continues for seven days. The Samkranti day of Chaitra (generally April 14) is the Goru Bihu (Cow Bihu). Other Bihus are Manuh Bihu, Hat Bihu, Senehi Bihu, Maiki Bihu, Rongali Bihu and Sera Bihu. The first day of the Bihu is the Garu Bihu which is celebrated to pay respect to the cows, which are used in agriculture.

The remaining days of the Bihu are celebrated in merry making and participating in other social activities. The elders offer blessings to the younger ones. The young boys and girls pay respect to the elders offering them traditional Gamochas.

The spring festival or Rongali Bihu has come a long way since its inception when people had to depend solely on nature. Gradually changes have taken place in the celebration of the Bihu and at present it has occupied a place of social coherence, brotherhood, fellow feeling, etc. Rongali Bihu is now the most important festival, which has been accepted by all classes of people as the meeting ground of unity in diversity. Rongali Bihu has been able to bring about a new philosophy of life — to live together, to sing together and to be one.