A colourful start to the new year in Assam

Rongali Bihu, which means colourful Bihu, is one of the most important festivals of Assam and considered the lifeline of the Assamese people

While each agrarian society celebrates the new year at different times of the year, Assam celebrates the new year as the Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu in the middle of April every year with the spread of the fragrance of the wild orchids, Kopou Phul (foxtail orchid), wildflowers and the singing of the cuckoo bird to mark the advent of Spring in the entire Assam Valley.

Rongali Bihu, which means colourful Bihu, is one of the most important festivals of Assam and can be considered the lifeline of the Assamese people. This springtime folk festival is related to agricultural prosperity, seasonal change, and raising livestock as well as the way of living in an agrarian society. Apart from being a colorful festival of joy and merrymaking, Bihu also depicts the ingrained value of respecting the elders in which the younger generation bestows respect by offering bihuwan or gamucha ( colorful cloth with handwoven motifs) by touching the feet of elders.

The celebration of Bohag Bihu is associated with many Assamese delicacies like chira, pitha, laroo, etc with joyful singing and dancing by young folks with traditional drums (dhol), traditional cymbals (taal), buffalo horn instrument (pepa), bamboo instrument ( gagana), flute( baahi), etc. While performing Bihu dance, the performers wear Muga silk, golden silk which is found only in Assam and has received the G.I tag and gained popularity when the runaway models sashayed down the ramp with both modern and contemporary designs at the New York fashion week, 2022.

The innocuous Bihu songs are one of the richest treasures of Assamese oral literature. The songs are normally quatrain in nature. Here, in most of the Bihu songs, the first two lines are related to nature and the second two lines are about love, courtship, various springtime flowers, birds, people’s daily lives and activities, and their experiences of the environment, culture, and history. But generally, it could be perceived that Bihu songs are excellent poetry of youthful enthusiasm and feelings towards one's beloved. Here is an example:

Your eyes are just like the eyes of dear
Lotus seed vessel in the bosom,
Your arms are just like the stem of lotus
Covered with the end of scarf

The origin of the Bihu songs and dances cannot be traced but, as a performing art form style, was endorsed by the Ahom king, Rudra Singha who invited Bihu dancers to perform Bihu in the field of Asia’s ancient amphitheater, Rang-Ghar.

The patronization of the Bihu songs and dances received a different level during the reign of the Ahom dynasty, the dynasty that ruled Assam for 600 years and claimed to be India’s only documented ruling dynasty.

The foundation of the current Assamese society was laid down by Sukapha, a Dai prince from the current Ruili, China, in the early 13th century who traversed the jungle across the Patkai hills with around 9,000 men and women. They intermingled with the local population and created a new secular nation called Assam. This is the dynasty in India that defeated the Mughals 17 times, who were at the zenith of their rule in entire India. After the patronization of Bihu by the Ahoms, Bihu has become an integral part of the Assamese community.

As handloom is a part of traditional Assamese daily life, in many Bihu songs the lady love would mention her weaving for her lover during the Bihu times. This tradition of weaving in the handloom has been instilled in Assamese women from the Ahom days and therefore when Mahatma Gandhi, during his visit to Assam in 1946, rightly mentioned that Assamese womenfolks were dexterous enough to weave fairytales in their handlooms. In history, it was mentioned that the soldiers of the courageous Ahom force before going into the war would wear cotton clothes prepared by their beloved wives overnight from arranging the ingredients (cotton) and weaving them in the handloom before the dawn called Kavash Kapur in the belief that their husbands would return home safe and fine.

Though the Bihu songs narrate nature, love, environment, etc. they are passing through the different stages of evolution with the social and cultural paradigm of the state. But the pleasantness and the melodious tune of the songs still entice the Assamese diaspora as a whole, be it Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. regardless of whether they reside in Assam or outside of India.

The seed of Unity among diversity among the Assamese community was sowed by the Ahoms in Assam during their rule which is still prevalent among the people and this sentiment is cemented by the Bihu festival and songs as an integral identity of the community. It would be apt to conclude with a popular Bihu note sung in every Assamese household:

Very dear to me is the muga bobbin
Very dear is the shuttle

Dearer still is the Bihu of Bohag
How can I stay without it ?

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