Sri Sri Pitambar Dev Goswami
(translated from the original Assamese by Stuti Goswami)
In a year there are two ayan i.e. the half year in which the sun is in the north or south of the earth. These are Uttarayan and Dakhinayan . Each ayan has three ritu or seasons—of which hemanta (Autumn), baxanta (spring) and xeet (winter) seasons fall in Uttarayan . Bihu celebrated in each of these three seasons. Taken together these three comprise the mainspring of the socio-cultural life of the Assamese society and the Assamese race. Each festival has its distinctive traits and traditions, customs and mores. i) While The Bohag Bihu falls on the Mahavishuv Sankranti on the domaahi or the last day of the month of Sot and Bohag months (respectively the last and first months) in the Assamese calendar ii) the kati bihu falls on the domahi of ahin and kati (the sixth and seven months in the Assamese calendar respectively ) on the Jalavishuv Sankranti iii) the Magh bihu falls on the makar-vishuv sankranti of the Pooh-Magh domahi (Pooh is the ninth and magh the tenth month of the Assamese calendar year).The history of Assam can be broadly divided into three ages—a)Ancient age—from 2nd /3rd century to the end of 12th century A.D. till the fall of the Pal dynasty b) from Middle age—from 13th century A.D. to the beginning of 19th century A.D. i.e. from the advent of the Ahoms till the advent of the British. C)Modern age—from the 19th century onwards till the present times.[Sarbeswar Rajguru, Itihaaxor Paat Meli]There is no recorded evidence of the celebration of Bihu festival in the Pragjyotishpur and Kamrup of the ancient times. Though some scholars tend to trace the origin of the songs and dances intrinsically associated with the Bihu celebrations to the Austrics [ R.M. Nath, The Background of Assamese Culture] . The era of Sri Sri Sankardeva and the Navavaishnav Andolan or the Neo-Vaishnavite Movement falls in the Middle Age. During that period, Bihu was celebrated amongst the masses, but there is no specific mention in the Gurucharit (the sacred text) of Bihu being celebrated or observed in the Satras. Though it is difficult to determine the precise moment of initiation of Bihu celebrations into the Satra institution, it is undoubtable that observation of the Bihu festival in the Satras traces its origin to royal patronage: satras that enjoyed royal benefaction saw incorporation and intermingling of certain royal traditions, customs and mores into its aesthetic world. (From this point of view, Bihu celebration in the satras of Assam dates back to the middle of 17th century). Bihu being primarily an agricultural or agro-centric festival, Bihu (celebration) in the Satras that differs considerably from the Bihu (celebration) in the Assamese social life. Thus while songs , dances and merriment occupy centre stage in Bihu celebration amidst the masses, Bihu in the Satras is observed, keeping in view the aesthetic and spiritual aspects of the festival—that are in accordance with the objectives of the Satra institution.Bohag Bihu:Also known as Rongali Bihu or Sotor Bihu, Bohag Bihu is celebrated for three days. Though the Bihu songs-and-dances do not find in the Satriya way of life, the husori-- that precedes the Bihu songs-and-dances and that has aesthetic connotations-- is performed in the grihee satras(i.e. satras whose inhabitants are householders) by the local people . In keeping with its objectives, the Satra institution has a tradition of devotional songs and dances during Bohag Bihu.The three days of Bohag Bihu as observed in the Satras are similar to that observed amongst the masses—a) Goru Bihu—which entails worshipping and ritual purification of the cow(goru) as well as the cowshed (gohaali) b) manuhor bihu—that entails veneration towards man (who is believed to be the incarnation of God Narayan)[manuh means ‘man’] c)sera bihu—which implies the end of the main Bihu festival. Of course different activities related to this festival extend over the entire month of Bohag. In the Satras, this includes—naam kirtan, special puja, donning of new clothes, feasting, different games et al. Of course all these activities are marked by a restraint that follows the injunctions of Mahapurush Sri Sri Sankardeva. On the day before the Sankranti—the Uruka—the namghar precints—especially the manikut, the storehouse, the gurugrih(the abode of the teacher), the tenements of the bhakats, are all swept and wiped clean. The tenements are wiped with cow dung; in an agrarian society the importance of the cow is unquestionable. Cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd, ghee –these are considered highly sacrosanct. In the Satras, the cow is deemed as equivalent to a devata. It is believed, that all the devatas and religious shrines of the Hindu pantheon reside in the cow. On the day of goru bihu the cows are rubbed clean with a mixture of grounded gram , haldi and mustard oil and taken to the neighboring water bodies like beel, ponds or river for a bathe. After which they are left to graze. In the meanwhile the cowshed is swept and wiped clean. In the evening, the cows are led back to their sheds with mild swaps of makhiyoti and digholoti leaves. These leaves are believed to have medicinal properties. The gohali or cowshed is smoked by burning straw, leaves of hemp (bhang) etc. to drive away mosquitoes and flies. Each of the cows is tied with a new rope (called pogha). Rongali Bihu being the festival of merriment, different games are also organized in the Satras. These games can be played by men of all age-groups and they include, amongst others—posi khel, pasha, mangalpaat, baghmani, hoi-gudu, dhora-gudu, tekeli bhanga(breaking of pots) . Some of these games extend upto a month. The play of cymbals in the namghar herald The end of the day’s games. Accordingly, the bhakats head reverentially towards the namghar the evening’s hiyanaam .Along with the main events, the entire day is spent in naam-prasang in which all Vaishnavites of the Satra take part.On manuh bihu, the day begins with boka khel or mud-games—in which all men young and old participate. These mud-games are reminiscent of the festival of holi. The mud is prepared by mixing earth with cow dung water. These games are believed to—firstly protect the skin from skin diseases; secondly , cow dung is considered sacrosanct; thirdly, digging earth for the mud makes the soil fertile and prepares it for the next crop cycle. After cleaning the mud off the body, the Satra residents rub themselves with a paste of maah-haldi and mustard oil. This ritual is believed to not only prevent skin diseases but also purify the individual for the whole year. This ritual is observed by the people on all three days of the Bihu. After their bathes, the residents of the Satra proceed to the namghar to seek blessings of the mahaprabhu i.e. Lord Vishnu . After that before the traditional jalpaan(meal) , the people consume a few neem leaves and some grains of the masur dal. It is believed that consuming this mixture of neem leaves and masur dal protects a person from the venom of snake bite.Another specialty of this Bihu is donning of new clothes. As Nature puts on a new colour, the Satra residents too don new clothes on this first day of the new year. A typical dress in the Satra comprises dhoti, kurta, seleng (a thin cloth wrapped around the body or thrown over the shoulders ), gamosa etc. Besides, the manikut –the vestry or the room attached to the namghar in which the bhagawat is kept–and other clothes and hangings in the namghar and other quarters in the Satra are removed to hang new clothes.On the last day of Bihu—the sera bihu—the day is spent in naam-prasang as in the previous two days.Interestingly, there are minor variations in the way Bohag Bihu is celebrated in different satras. For instance in the Dakhinpat Satra, Bihu is celebrated primarily on the day of Sankranti. While in the Garmur Satra, Bihu is celebrated for two days--on the day of goru bihu and manuh bihu.In the Bengenaati Satra, special importance is given to the meal cooked on the day of sera bihu. Curd and bitter gourd are essential components in this meal. Another custom associated with this meal is the use of bisoni(hand fan made of bamboo and cane) to fan the bhakats eating the meal. In the grihee satras (where bhakats get married and live with their families ) this act is performed by the lady of the household while in the udaashin satras (i.e. where men embrace celibacy) this is done by the senior most resident of the boha or the bhakats house in the Satra. Traditionally the bisoni cannot be used before this. However in the Bihampur Satra of Majuli, there is a Gosain bihu on the day after sera bihu. . On that day, towards the evening mahaprabhu is fanned by the bisoni and only after that the others use their bisoni. Towards the evening, on sera bihu a special curry is prepared with a hundred and seven herbs and other edible plants. This curry has medicinal properties.It is imperative to note that the traditions prevalent in the Satras during Bihu celebration originate from the customs and mores of the society at large. The Assamese society is a composite society created from intermingling of different races and sub-races over time. As the Assamese culture took shape, Bihu evolved as a festival that reflected this diverse culture. As the centre of religion, the Satras are not isolated from the developments in society. Thus, many of the popular beliefs and traditions prevalent in society have been adapted and given a spiritual and aesthetic significance by the Satra institution.Kati BihuAlso known as Kongali Bihu, this Bihu falls in the month of kartik that is known as kati in Assamese and is the seventh month of the Assamese calendar. Though it is generally celebrated for one day, in some parts of Assam—including the Satras—there is a tradition of lighting of lamps especially of sky lamps for an entire month. Generally, this time of the year, in Assam is a period of shortage –with the harvest season still some months away. Therefore, this Bihu is marked by a considerable degree of restraint in merriment. Also, there is an almost unusual proliferation of pests and insects during this time; the lamps lit attract these insects et al and devour them in their flames—thereby reducing considerably the problem of pests and bugs. Further, this festival is remarkable for its greater emphasis on spirituality. On the day of the Sankranti, every household creates(the bohas in the Satras) a small raised platform of mud on the ground—and plant a sapling of the tulsi plant. An earthen lamp is lit beneath the tulsi plant with devotion and religious fervour. Because of this, in the Satras, emphasis is given on tulsi puja and lighting of sky lamps. The month of Kati or kartik is said to be the favourite of Lord Vishnu. It is believed that if one fasts during this month and pays obeisance to the Lord Vishnu with tulsi puja, the Lord is greatly pleased. Owing to this, people abstain from all kinds of non-vegetarian food. In the Satras, the bhakats abstain from taking fish all through the month of Kati.Considered sacrosanct, and a much loved plant of Lord Vishnu, the tulsi plant is at the centre of the activities and traditions associated with Kati Bihu.The other important aspect of this festival is the lighting sky lamps . “Lamps are hung in the sky in small baskets from pole tops. They rise tier above tier along the banks of rivers with continuous flights of steps as may be seen in Banaras and Mathura. The custom is to keep these sky lamps burning all through Kartikka to light the path of departed spirits across the sky.” [The Cultural Heritage of India, vol. IV Ed. Haridas Bhattacharjya, p.488]. In the Satras, the sky-lamps range from one to twenty-one in number. In addition to the earthen lamps lit beneath the newly planted tulsi saplings in each boha , arrangements are made for a communal lighting of the sky-lamps in the middle of the Satra. As in Rongali Bihu, in Kati Bihu as well there are different devotional activities in the Satra pertaining to the Bihu—these include naam-prasang, puja et al. Four lamps are lit in the morning itself—in the manikut grih (i.e.the place where the manikut is kept)—and placed at the feet of (dedicated to ) the Mahaprabhu. After that, a lamp each is lit and dedicated to the Satradhikar, Gobindapuriya Vaishnav, disciples, all other residents and finally all the people at large. In the evening, at the end of the day’s dihanaam, gayan-bayan, ojapali et al sung/performed on the occasion of Bihu, the dedicated lamps are taken and reverentially used to lit the common sky lamps .The traditions of Kati Bihu have been raised to the level of religious rites in the Satras.Magh BihuThe festival of Magh Bihu, also called Bhogali Bihu is centered around the harvest of crops. It falls in the month of Magh—the tenth month of the Assamese calendar. Agni puja, community feast, cooking of delicacies (which are otherwise made in all the three Bihus but there greater feasting in Magh Bihu) are the characteristics of this Bihu . On the morning of the Bihu—the meji ghar, bhela ghar or haaroli ghar—-- is set afire, and offerings are made to the Agni devata or Fire God. This meji ghar, bhela ghar or haaroli ghar , made of firewood, straw, bamboo etc. is built on the previous day itself. According to the manner in which it is made it is known by different names . For instance in Lower Assam it is made of straw—and is called bhela ghar.However, unlike the broader society where Magh Bihu celebration predominantly takes place in the open fields, in the Satras, Magh Bihu is observed essentially in the namghar. Especially agni puja, naam-kirtan etc. take place in the namghar. Of course the lighting of the meji and the community feast on Uruka—i.e. the day before the Sankranti—takes place in the open(within the Satra precints). Even here, there are certain norms. For one, the food can be cooked only by a Vaishnav whose assigned task, in the Satra is to cook. Further, the meji is prepared by placing firewood in a particular manner inside a square formed by planting four uprooted banana trees.After this, four entrances are made into the meji on four sides by digging four holes in the ground beneath the meji. It is imperative to note that in the Satra, importance is not ascribed in making meji ghar, bhela ghar or haaroli ghar. The firewood is simply placed inside that square. After the meji has been made, a humble yet reverential offering of betel nut-paan and an earthen lamp to Agni devata is made after which the fire is lit and cooking for the feast commences. After the food has been prepared and all the bhakats including the Satradhikar and the other high officials of the Satra have assembled, there is invocation to Lord Hari or Vishnu (hari- dhwani) and the feast begins. In some Satras, there is a tradition of sankirtan or Sabahuwa naam( communal ) at the meji-site after the feast is over. The next morning, the bhakats especially the youths rise at the break of dawn and after performing their morning ablutions and purifying themselves they set to light the meji. A branch of mango tree is lit and is inserted into the meji from the entrance dug in the ground in the eastern direction—and the meji is set afire. After this, of betel nut-paan, different delicacies prepared for Bihu etc. are offered on plantain leaves to the fire in the meji. During the day, agni puja is performed according to Vedic rituals in many Satras—during which the Vaishnavs take part in naam-prasang that extends all through the day. After the agni puja is over, there is ojapali, gayan-bayan, hiya naam, diha naam etc. in the namghar. In many Satras, naam-kirtan extends well into the night.There are several customs and mores associated with Magh Bihu that are observed in the Satras—especially pertaining to food.This includes—eating of kaath aloo( a kind of hard yam ) and mitha aloo(sweet potato), gotkarai or maahkarai [ mixture prepared from newly harvested mati maah(Phaseolus radiatus), bora saul(a kind of rice), til(sesame)] Of course,This gotkarai or maahkarai is first dedicated to the mahaprabhu ;only after that is the gotkarai or maahkarai distributed amidst the inhabitants of the Satra from the manikut ghar.In the preparation of food—including the delicacies of Bihu, the Vaishnav reveals a dexterity that is at par with an average Assamese housewife.
[published in the journal Quest published by the Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture, a Research Centre recognised under the Dibrugarh University]