Celebrating Harvest Festival in India (Part 2: The Wonderful New Year Celebrations in Eastern India)
In the eastern region of India, the hindu new year is celebrated with fervor and gaiety in the different states.
In West Bengal, Poila Boishakh (or the first day of Boishakh) is celebrated as the new year. Poila Boishakh is the first day of the Bengali calendar; it is the day after Vishuva Sankranti, also known as Choitro (Chaitra) Sankrati in Bengali. Pohela Boishakh connects all ethnic Bengalis irrespective of religious and regional differences. It falls on 14 or 15 April of the Gregorian calendar depending on the use of the new amended or the old Bengali calendar respectively. Usually on the day of Poila Baishakh, the houses are cleaned and sometimes painted. People take early bath and put in their best dresses. Much of the day is spend by paying a visit to relatives, friends and neighbors. Special food items are prepared on this day. There is also an age-old tradition of starting the day by having a breakfast consisting of panta bhat (soaked rice) along with onion, green chillies, and fried Hilsa fish.
In the state of Assam, new year is celebrated as Rongali Bihu. Rongali Bihu, also called Bohag Bihu) is the celebrates the onset of the Assamese New Year (around April 15) and the coming of Spring. It’s a time of merriment and feasting and continues, in general, for seven days. The farmers prepare the fields for cultivation of paddy and there is a feeling of joy around. The women make pitha, larus(traditional food made of rice and coconut) and Jolpan which gives the real essence of the season. The first day of the bihu is called goru bihu or cow bihu, where the cows are washed and worshipped, which falls on the last day of the previous year, usually on April 14. This is followed by manuh (human) bihu on April 15, the New Year Day. This is the day of getting cleaned up, wearing new cloths and celebrating and getting ready for the New Year with fresh vigor. The third day is Gosai (Gods) bihu; statues of Gods, worshiped in all households are cleaned and worshiped asking for a smooth new year. Rongali Bihu is also a fertility festival, where the bihu dance with its sensous movements using the hips, arms, etc., by the young women calls out to celebrate their fertility.
In Manipur, Cheiraoba is celebrated with great enthusiasm and fervor to mark the beginning of a new year. It is one of the major festivals of this north eastern state. Observed in the month of April, Cheiraoba festival is celebrated by Hindus and Muslims alike with equal zeal and energy.The Manipuris in the state and also living elsewhere follow religious rituals and traditions during the festival of Cheiraoba. On this day, the people worship their local deities to seek divine blessing and eternal happiness for the year ahead. Usually, a grand family feast comprising of several local delicacies, is prepared to observe the special occasion.
Part 3: West India celebrates the new year in Gudi Padwa
Bohag Bihu or Rangali Bihu also called Haat Bihu (Assamese: ব’হাগ বিহু, Hindi: बोहाग बिहू) (seven Bihus) is a festival celebrated in the state of Assam and north eastern India, and marks the beginning of the Assamese New Year. It usually falls on April 13, historically signifying the time of harvest. It falls on April 14 in 2016. It unites the population of Assam regardless of their religions or backgrounds and promotes the celebration of diversity. In India it is celebrated seven days after Vishuva Sankranti of the month of Vaisakh or locally ‘Bohag’ (Bhaskar Calendar). The three primary types of Bihu are Rongali Bihu, Kongali Bihu, and Bhogali Bihu. Each festival historically recognizes a different agricultural cycle of the paddy crops. During Rangali Bihu there are 7 pinnacle phases: ‘Chot’, ‘Raati’, ‘Goru’, ‘Manuh’, ‘Kutum’, ‘Mela’ and ‘Chera’.
- Raati Bihu (ৰাতি বিহু): This phase begins on the first night of month of Cheitra and lasts till Uruka. This phase was usually performed beneath an ancient tree or in an open field illuminated by burning torches. It was celebrated in the Chowdang villages and was meant as a gathering for the local women. The participation of men was mostly ceremonial where they played a pepa i.e. a buffalo hornpipe. Another notable musical instrument played in this phase was the bholuka baahor toka which is a split bamboo musical instrument.
- Chot Bihu (চ’ত বিহু): Also called Bali Husori, this phase begins on the second day of the month of Cheitra. On this day Bihu songs and dances are organized by the young at outdoor locations, fields or a naamghor bakori (yard of community prayer hall) till the occurrence of Uruka, the formal beginning of Rongali Bihu.
- Goru Bihu (গৰু বিহু): This phase is related to the agricultural roots of Assam and the reverence of livestock which provided an ancient method of livelihood. On the last date of Cheitra month or the day of Sankranti, the first day of Rongali Bihu is dedicated to the caring upkeep of livestock and a cattle show. Typically the collective cattle of a village are brought to a water source like a pond or a river. The cattle are washed with a combination of symbolic herbs : maah-halodhi (black gram and turmeric paste), whipped dighloti(litsea salicifolia, a plant with long leaf), makhioti (flemingia strobilifera, a plant with flower like soft plastic butter-fly) and pieces of lau (bottle gourd) and bengena (brinjal). People sing the following passage: “Dighloti dighal paat, maakhi marru jaat jaat; lau khaa bengena khaa, bosore bosore bardhi jaa, maare haru baapere horu toi hobi bor bor goru” . This is roughly translated as : “With our herbs and the leaves of dighloti, we drive away the flies which disturb you; we hope you accept our offering of brinjals and gourds, and continue to grow every year; and may you outgrow your parents”. After washing the cattle, the remaining branches of dighloti-makhioti and lau-bengena chak etc. are hung on the roof of the cattle ranch signifying their participation. Games are organised which include collecting exho ebidh haak (101 types of vegetables), with variations of activities which may include specifics like gathering amlori tup (larvae of weaver ant, Oecophylla smaragdina), binding betel leaf plants, planting some bamboo roots, and many other symbolic harvest related ritual materials. There is also an occasional food fight, also known as Kori Khel, Paakha Khel and koni-juj. At Dusk, the cattle are paraded back to their ranches. The cattle are decorated with new harnesses, dressed in garlands, and are fedpitha (the typical Assamese confectionery). The day’s end is marked by burning rice bran to create smoke.
- Manuh Bihu (মানুহ বিহু):The first day of the Vaisakh month marks Manuh Bihu (‘Manuh’ symbolises “Elders”). . People have a special maah halodhi bath, put on new clothes and light chaki at Gohai Ghor (the household prayer place). “Manuh Bihu” involves the tradition of seeking blessings from the elders in a family and presenting the ceremonial patch of Bihuwan or the Gamusa cloth, as a gift, to be worn as a symbol of cultural pride. A ‘Gamusa’ is an indispensable part of Assamese life and culture with its distinctive symbolic significance. The intricacy of its handcrafting symbolically historically heralded of the ideas of friendship, love, regards, warmth, hospitality and it is intimately woven into the social fabric of Assam.
- Kutum Bihu (কুতুম বিহু): The second date of Visakh is Kutum Bihu (“Kutum” symbolises “Kin”). On this day people visit their families, relatives and friends and have lunch or dinner together and share news and stories.
- Mela Bihu (মেলা বিহু): The third day of Bihu is marked by the celebration of Bihu with cultural events and competitions in outdoor locales (Mela symbolises “Fair”). In the ancient days, the King and his staff used to come out to such fairs or bihutolis to mingle in the Bihu celebrations. This tradition of events is continued till date with Bihu Melas or Bihu functions. The fairs are attended by people from all over Assam and are aimed at fostering an atmosphere of the communal brotherhood and the inclusion of everyone.
- Chera Bihu (চেৰা বিহু): Also called Bohagi Bidai, Faat Bihu it is the fourth and final day of Rongali Bihu. In different regions of Assam, people celebrate it differently but the common theme is wrapping up the celebrations with contemplation and future resolutions. It is marked by the exchange of Pithas made by different families during the Bihu week among their friends and relatives.
Bihu (Assamese: বিহু) denotes a set of three different cultural festivals of Assam and celebrated by the Assamese diaspora around the world. Though they own their origins to ancient rites and practices, they have taken definite urban features and have become popular festivals in urban and commercialized milieus in the recent decades. Bihu is also used to imply Bihu dance and Bihu folk songs. The Rongali Bihu or the Bohag Bihu is an important festival of Assam. The most important festivals of Assam are the Bihus, celebrated with fun in abundance by all Assamese people irrespective of caste, creed, and belief.
 In Assam, Rongali Bihu draws from many different traditions— Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Burmese and Indo-Aryan—and is celebrated with great fervor. Celebrations begin in the middle of April and generally continue for a month. This is the traditional new year. In addition there are two other Bihus: Kongali Bihu in October (associated with the September equinox) and Bhogali Bihu in January (associated with the January solstice). Like some other Indian festivals, Bihu (all three) is associated with farming; as the traditional Assamese society is predominantly agricultural. In fact, similar festivals are also celebrated around the same time elsewhere in India. Bihu is also celebrated overseas by the Assamese community living in different countries around the globe.
The three Bihu Festivals
In a year there are three Bihu festivals in Assam – in the months of Bohaag (Baisakh, the middle of April), Maagh (the middle of January), and Kaati (Kartik, the middle of October). The Bihus have been celebrated in Assam since ancient times. Each Bihu coincides with a distinctive phase in the farming calendar. The most important and colourful of the three Bihu festival is the Spring festival “Bohag Bihu” or Rongali Bihu celebrated in the middle of April. This is also the beginning of the agricultural season. Bihu is celebrated in all parts of Assam and by people belonging to all castes and religions. Bihu is a secular festival which brings in humanity, peace and brotherhood among the people of various tribes, castes and religions of the region.
Bohag Bihu (mid-April, also called Rongali Bihu), the most popular Bihu celebrates the onset of the Assamese New Year (around April 14–15) and the coming of Spring. This marks the first day of the Hindu solar calendar and is also observed in Bengal , Manipur ,Mithila, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab, Kerala and Tamil Nadu though called by different names. It’s a time of merriment and feasting and continues, in general, for seven days. The farmers prepare the fields for cultivation of paddy and there is a feeling of joy around. The women make pitha, larus (traditional food made of rice and coconut) and Jolpan which gives the real essence of the season. The first day of the bihu is calledgoru bihu or cow bihu, where the cows are washed and worshipped, which falls on the last day of the previous year, usually on April 14. This is followed by manuh (human) bihu on April 15, the New Year Day. This is the day of getting cleaned up, wearing new cloths and celebrating and getting ready for the new year with fresh vigor. The third day is Gosai (Gods) bihu; statues of Gods, worshiped in all households are cleaned and worshiped asking for a smooth new year.
The folk songs associated with the Bohag Bihu are called Bihugeets or Bihu songs. The form of celebration and rites vary among different demographic groups.
Rongali Bihu is also a fertility festival, where the bihu dance with its sensuous movements using the hips, arms, etc., by the young women call out to celebrate their fertility. In this aspect, the bihu dance can also be called a mating ritual by the young men and women.
The Seven days
Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu festival continues for seven days and called as Xaat Bihu. The seven days are known as Chot Bihu, Goru Bihu, Manuh Bihu, Kutum Bihu, Senehi Bihu, Mela Bihu and Chera Bihu.
Kongali Bihu (mid-October, also called Kati-Bihu) has a different flavor as there is less merriment and the atmosphere has a sense of constrain and solemnity. During this time of the year, the paddy in the fields are in the growing stage and the granaries of the farmers are almost empty. On this day, earthen lamps (saki) are lit at the foot of the household tulsi plant, the granary, the garden (bari) and the paddy fields. To protect the maturing paddy, cultivators whirl a piece of bamboo and recite rowa-khowa chants and spells to ward off pests and the evil eye. During the evening, cattle are fed specially made rice items called pitha. The Bodo people light lamps at the foot of the siju(Euphorbia neriifolia) tree. This Bihu is also associated with the lighting of akaxi gonga or akaxbonti, lamps at the tip of a tall bamboo pole, to show the souls of the dead the way to heaven, a practice that is common to many communities in India, as well as Asia and Europe.
Bhogali Bihu (mid-January, also called Magh Bihu) comes from the word Bhog that is eating and enjoyment. It is a harvest festival and marks the end of harvesting season. Since the granaries are full, there is a lot of feasting and eating during this period. On the eve of the day called uruka, i.e., the last day of pausa, menfolk, more particularly young men go to the field, preferably near a river, build a makeshift cottage called Bhelaghar with the hay of the harvest fields and the bonfire or Meji, the most important thing for the night. During the night, they prepare food and there is community feasting everywhere. There is also exchange of sweets and greetings at this time. The entire night (called Uruka) is spent around a Meji with people singing bihu songs, beating Dhol, a typical kind of drums or playing games. Boys roam about in the dark stealing firewood and vegetables for fun. The next morning they take a bath and burn the main Meji. People gather around the Meji and throw Pithas (rice cakes) and betel nuts to it while burning it at the same time. They offer their prayers to the God of Fire and mark the end of the harvesting year. Thereafter they come back home carrying pieces of half burnt firewood for being thrown among fruit trees for favourable results. All the trees in the compound are tied to bamboo strips or paddy stems. Different types of sports like Buffalo-fight, Egg-fight,Cock-fight, Nightingale-fight etc. are held throughout the day. There are other conventional festivals observed by various ethnic-cultural groups. Me-dam-me-phi, Ali-aye-ligang, Porag, Garja, Hapsa Hatarnai, Kherai are few among them. The koch celebrates this bihu as pushna. All assamese people around the world celebrates this tradition on the month of January as per English calendar. The Uruka comes on 13 January followed by the Bihu on 14 January.
Instruments used in Bihu
Bihu is also seen to be celebrated abroad. Many Bihu associations / committees exist elsewhere where this festival is celebrated with enthusiasm. The London Bihu Committee (LBC), UK is one of them amongst others.
Related holidays in other cultures
It coincides with the New Years in many other Southern Asian calendars, including:
- Bengali New Year (India’s West Bengal state and Bangladesh)
- Burmese New Year, or Thingyan (Burma)
- Khmer New Year, or Chol Chnam Thmey (Cambodia)
- Lao New Year, or Songkan / Pi Mai Lao (Laos)
- Malayali New Year, or Vishu (India’s Kerala state)
- Odia New Year, or Maha Vishuva Sankranti (India’s Odisha state)
- Nepali New Year, or Bikram Samwat / Vaishak Ek (Nepal)
- Sinhalese New Year, or Aluth Avurudda (Sri Lanka)
- Tamil New Year, or Puthandu (India’s Tamil Nadu state and Sri Lanka)
- Thai New Year, or Songkran (Thailand)
- Tuluva New Year, or Bisu (India’s Karnataka state)
- Maithili New Year, or Jude Shital (Mithila)
Rongali Bihu in Assam
Beautiful agricultural state of Assam celebrates major agricultural events as the festival of Bihu. Notably there are three Bihu festivals in year namely – Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu, Bhugali (Magh Bihu) and Kangali (Kati Bihu) marking the distinctive phase in the farming calendar.
The Rongali Bihu marks the agricultural New Year at the advent of seeding time and is celebrated as the Festival of Merriment.
Of the three Bihu festivals, Rongali Bihu is celebrated with greatest excitement as it marks the arrival of spring – the agricultural season. People of all faiths and creed celebrate Bohag Bihu by singing traditional Bihugeets and performing group folk dances.
Rongali Bihu derives its name from Sanskrit Vishuvam meaning vernal equinox when day and night is of equal duration. At the time of Rongali Bihu people welcome the spring season and pray for a bountiful and rich harvest. Bohag Bihu falls in the first month of the Assamese calendar called Bohag. This corresponds to mid-April according to English calendar year. Rongali Bihu normally starts from the 13th day of April.
Rongali Bihu Traditions and Customs
Colouful rituals mark the first day of Rongali Bihu celebrated as Garu Bihu.This day is dedicated to the cattle and livestock. The rest of the weeklong celebrations of Bohag Bihu are known as Manuh Bihu. A mood of festivity and gaiety is seen throughout Assam during the seven days of Rongali Bihu.
Rongali Bihu Celebrations
Beautiful agricultural state of Assam celebrates major agricultural events as the festival of Bihu. Notably there are three Bihu festivals in year namely – Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu, Bhugali (Magh Bihu) and Kangali (Kati Bihu) marking the distinctive phase in the farming calendar …
Bohag Bihu is celebrated in Assam and north-eastern India, and marks the beginning of the …
Rongali Bihu (mid-April, also called Bohag Bihu), the most popular Bihu celebrates the onset of the Assamese New Year (around April 15) and the coming of …
Rongali bihu is the festival for which every Assamese person waits eagerly for the whole year to enjoy to the fullest. Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu is the new year …
The most popular one is the the Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu, which refers to the onset of the Assamese New Year, ie, April 15 of every year and the coming of …