Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu festival marks the beginning of the Assamese New year celebrated with great enthusiasm in the state of Assam. Although the date differs from year to year, usually it falls on the April 13th of every year. Along with Assam, this festival is also celebrated in other north-eastern states of India. Rongali Bihu marks the start of a new Assamese year and brings people together from all walks of life. Rongali Bihu is just one type of the Bihu festival. The other two types include Bhogali Bihu and the Kongali Bihu. Each of these three signifies the start of a new different cycle of farming. This agricultural cycle usually refers to the cultivation of paddy crops. Celebrated over a course of a week, the Rongali Bihu festival has seven phases - Chot, Chera, Raati, Goru, Kutum, Mela and Manuh.
During the Rongali Bihu festival, most Assamese men and women perform to Assamese folk music. The music is usually accompanied by the sound of unique instruments like the gagana or Gogona (a jaw harp), the pepas (a type of flute made from the horns of Buffalos!), toka (an instrument made of Bamboo) and drums.
How Do the People of Assam Gear Up for This Festival?
People buy new clothes, get cleaned up more than ever and immerse themselves into preparing for the festival. A lot of young Assamese people also choose to visit their elders and gift them cotton towels known as "Gamosas". These aren't towels found in stores and markets. These are specially hand woven by Assamese women and are usually white in colour with red designs.
Along with the singing, dancing and gifting, Bihu is also celebrated by organizing fetes. This involves the whole community of friends, relatives and neighbours. The dishes served include sweets like Jolpan (snacks) and Pitha (Assamese Sweet). The unique thing about Rongali Bihu is that the type of celebration changes every day. Different types of events are organized on all the seven days.
Significance of Rongali Bihu
The significance of Rongali Bihu is three fold. It doesn't just mark the start of a fresh year. Out of the three types of Bihus, Rongali Bihu is undoubtedly the most popular one and is celebrated with the most enthusiasm.
As mentioned above, Rongali Bihu is of extreme significance because of three reasons. Firstly, it marks the Assamese New Year. Secondly, it marks the start of a new agricultural cycle. Finally, it also marks the start of the spring season, therefore indicating a new start. The season of spring usually signifies leaving old things behind and starting all over again. That is essentially the essence of the Rongali Bihu festival. It can be said that Rongali Bihu signifies a new beginning - not only of time but also related to agricultural activities.
Seven Phases of Rongali Bihu
The Raati Phase
This is the first phase which begins on the first night of the Chaitra month and goes on till Uruka. The latter marks the beginning of the festival. During this phase torches are ignited on open fields or under a tree, which has to be a few hundred years old. The Raati Phase is the day which gets all the local women together. Men also play a role by playing the pepa in the background.
The Chot Phase
This is the second day of the Chaitra month. This day is celebrated by singing and dancing at outdoor locations like a community hall or an open field. This phase also continues till the time of Uruka.
Goru refers to the cow. The cow is of great significance in Hinduism. However, this is not why the first day is celebrated. The Goru Phase in the Rongali Bihu festival is related to paying respect to the cow which supplements the income of farming communities since ancient times. This is the first official day of Rongali Bihu and it is dedicated to all types of livestock and cattle.
All the cows belonging to a village are collectively taken to a source of water - a river or a pond. Then the men and women wash their cows with great care using herbs. The list of herbs includes turmeric and black gram. Several plants like the Makhioti are also used in bathing the cows. Thereafter, vegetables like the bottle gourd and even some flowers are offered to the cows. During the bathing, people sing a song which denotes the fact that they are bathing the cows so that flies do not disturb them. They also sing praying for the long life of the cows.
After the bathing and the offering of food comes to an end, the remaining plants and branches are hung on top of the cow shed, thus signifying the participation of the cow in the festival. In the evening, the cows are brought back to the shed and are offered "Pitha", thus ending the day on a sweet note.
The Manuah Phase is the second day and on this day, people clean themselves using turmeric. Along with cleaning themselves, the people also clean their houses. Then they wear new clothes and go out and meet their elderly relatives. The "Gamosa" as mentioned above, is exchanged in almost every household. Another ritual includes writing mantras in Sanskrit on "Nahar" leaves. These leaves are then hidden behind the house. This is performed for protection from negative elements of nature.
Kutum refers to the term "relatives". On the third day of the Rongali Bihu, Assamese go out to meet their friends and relatives and have lunch together. It is more or less similar to the Manuah phase, minus the exchange of gifts.
The Mela is the fourth day of the Rongali Bihu. In historical times, the king of Assam took part in the celebrations along with his royal subjects on this day. Although royalty is no more there, people gather in large numbers all across the state and participate in "Bihu Melas" or fairs.
This is the final day of Rongali Bihu and it is celebrated with a tinge of sadness. The general theme includes wrapping up everything and exchanging of Pithas among families.