Today is the Assamese New Year,first day of the month of Bohag(Vaisakh) according to the Assamese Calendar which is a variation of the Vedic Calendar or Bhaskar Calendar followed in India for traditional festivals and auspicious undertakings.Known as Bohag Bihu or Rangali Bihu(rangali:colourful),technically the festivities start a few days before the first day of the new year,with different names and rituals marking each day of the celebration period that may last for the whole month of Bohag.The Assamese, from the north-eastern state of Assam(the land of tea gardens and the famous Assam Tea,not to forget the one-horned Rhino) in India,traditionally being an agrarian society,the main festivals celebrated in the region are the three Bihus,viz.,Magh Bihu,Bohag Bihu and Kaati Bihu which signify the different periods in the paddy crop harvesting cycle.
Bohag Bihu or Rangali Bihu which usually falls in the month of April in the English Calendar is the biggest and most important of all the Bihus which traditionally signifies the month of harvest,the spring season and unites the people of Assam,with the festival being celebrated by all its people irrespective of religion or background,promoting diversity in the state.This is the time for the people to take a break from their busy schedules and reconnect with friends and relatives,eat bihu special jolpan,the traditional Assamese breakfast of seera(flaked rice),hurum(type of puffed rice),kumol saul(especial type of parboiled rice,indigenous to Assam) with rich and creamy yoghurt and jaggery,and delicacies such as til pitha(traditional assamese delicacy,a type of dry crepe made out of bora saul(a variety of sticky rice indigenous to Assam,different from Asian sticky rice) with a sesame seed and jaggery filling),ghila pitha,narikol laru,til laru,kata nimki,and a lot more.Also it is the perfect time to appreciate nature’s bounty with the surroundings bursting with a riot of colours and fragrances of the kopou phool(the state flower of Assam:the fox-tailed orchid),togor phool,nahor phool,ashok phool,jaba phool among others(note: phool means flower).The younger generation pays respect to their elders and a month long festival of dance and music is celebrated where both young and old dance the bihu dance to the tunes of bihu geet(bihu songs) which has reached a level of extreme competition these days.
Kaati bihu or Kongali bihu which usually falls in mid-October,in the month of Kaati,according to the Assamese calendar is observed with a sense solemnity and constrain because it traditionally signifies the emptiness of a granary during the period with still a few months left till the crops are to ripen for harvesting.During this bihu,every household lights earthen lamps under the tulsi plant(the holy basil) and in their gardens.Lamps are lit in the granary and paddy fields in villages.This Bihu is also associated with the lighting of akaxi gonga(the milky way) or akaxbonti, lamps at the tip of a tall bamboo pole, to show the souls of the dead the way to heaven.
Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu which falls in January,in the month of Magh,derives its name ‘bhogali’ from the word ‘bhog’ meaning eating,i.e.,feasting.Since this is the time when the crop is brought home and the granary and households are filled with an abundance of grain and vegetables,this bihu is for elaborate feasts and merriment.
Though the three Bihus are traditionally agrarian festivals,they have become part of the Assamese identity.People,especially today’s city kids,who’ve never seen a paddy field identify with the festival because Bihu is inherently Assamese.And though I have spent significant part of my life out of Assam in academic pursuit,I always look forward to the Bihus,especially,the Bohag Bihu.By some luck,this bihu I am at my home in Assam and am enjoying all the festivities after a very long time.Usually,at this time I’m always away from home busy studying for an exam or two.Also,this year my aunty,mum’s youngest sister has come to visit along with my cousin which means double the fun.Oh!I forgot to mention that this is also the festival when new clothes are worn on the day of Manuh Bihu (bihu for man which follows the Goru Bohu,the bihu to wordship the cow),the new year’s day;so,it means new dresses. 🙂 I have been eating mom-made delicacies non-stop since yesterday and have finally managed to wow my parents with my new found culinary skill,by contributing a chocolate cake and a vanilla cake with coconut frosting to the bihu menu.Also,as I hail from the Tea City of India,it feels good to be home to the serenity and greenery of my city after many years in the concrete jungle of the metropolis.
Now,since this is a bibliophile’s blog,let me tell you about some of my favourite Assamese fiction.But I must confess beforehand that my knowledge of Assamese literature is fairly limited.Since I’m most comfortable reading fiction in English and haven’t found any noteworthy English translation of Assamese literature,I have only read a few from my mum’s extensive collection of Assamese novels.But after reading literary fiction from around the globe,I am absolutely confident that they are no less than some of the very best in world literature.Here’re some of my favourites:
Maharathi by Dr. Chandra Prasad Saikia(চন্দ্ৰ প্ৰসাদ শইকীয়া): Maharathi which translates to Mighty Warrior is the story of Karna one of the central characters from the Ancient Indian epic Mahabharata.Karna was Kunti (the five Pandava’s mother)’s first born child whom she had abandoned in a basket as a baby to float away in the river because he was born out of wedlock.The abandoned baby grew up to be Maharathi Karna who was also known as Daanvir Karna(Giver Karna) because of his magnanimity and generosity to all people irrespective of their caste or creed.The mightiest of the warriors in the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas,he died in his battle with Arjuna only because Kunti,Arjuna’s mother had begged for his life before the commencement of the battle,and a curse. Dr.Saikia’s Maharathi is Karna’s life story and the Mahabharata from his point of view.This literary piece written so eloquently is an experience in itself and brings to the fore many questions about the original story.Mainly because Karna was brought up as a Sut(person of the lowest caste according to the caste system of Ancient India) despite being the son of Surya(the Sun God) and Kunti whose other sons were princes of the Kuru dynasty,he is able to give an insight into the lives and prejudices of the ruling class against the poor especially the lower castes.The Mahabharata itself, which is one of the earliest and greatest stories ever written,can be better understood along with a new perspective under Dr.Saikia’s sharp and exceptionally skilled writing.Saikia had won the Sahitya Academy Award,the most honourable literary award for Indian literature,for Maharathi.
Jiban,Jiban Bor Anupam by Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi(নিৰ্মলপ্ৰভা বৰদলৈ): Jiban,Jiban Bor Anupam which roughly translates into ‘Life,Life is Incomparable and Special’ ,is the autobiography of an eminent Assamese litterateur:poet,lyricist and writer of Assamese Folklore, Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi.What makes this autobiography unique is her use of the word ‘anupam‘ meaning incomparable or exceptional to describe her life which had been full of tragedies being married off before puberty and made forcefully pregnant before she could understand its meaning at the age of thirteen/fourteen,which were only two of the many tragedies that plagued her throughout her life.She had written a number of award winning and other noteworthy books such as Debi,Antaranga,Asamor Luka Sanskriti,Kabita:Mon Pharingor Rang and Dinar Pisat Din as well as the lyrics of some of the evergreen Assamese songs which won her not only the Sahitya Akademi Award, but was also conferred with the ‘Saraswati Samman‘ during her lifetime as a recognition for her scholarly contributions to Indian Literature.And though I haven’t read any of her other works,this literary piece is a proof of her writing prowess which tells the tale of a very courageous and an exceptionally talented and remarkable human being,in her poetic prose.
Nijor Pora Nilogot by Nirupama Borgohain : Nijor pora nilogot which roughly means ‘Away From the Self’ is a novel about a girl who is confused about her life ideologies and goals when her ideal,her beloved elder brother dies for the cause they’d both believed in.When her boyfriend,a fellow crusader and her brother’s friend,chooses a different path after the incident to live a more materialistically promising life,she becomes disenchanted from everything and leaves Assam for Kolkata in West Bengal.There she experiences a whole new life which changes her perspective on life and marks the start of something new.A period specific novel,set during the 70’s and 80’s which marks the ULFA uprising and its consequences in Assam,Nijor Pora Nilogot is a thought provoking existential literary fiction.
Siene Nadir Dhow by Uma Baruah: Siene Nadir Dhow,meaning ‘The Waves of River Seine’ is a tragic love story about a prodigious Assamese artist who loses the love of his life to his madness for art and the Seine river of France.Set in Paris,Guwahati and Shillong,this literary love story is a heartrending piece which is one of those rare novels which has an excellent narrative,compelling storyline with memorable characters and is of extraordinary literary merit.
So,these are some of my most favourites from Assamese Literature.There are also a few others which I love very much but these are the only ones I remember off the top of my head.It is really sad that there is a dearth of substantial English translations or translations into any other language of Assamese fiction.Being familiar with some of the most revered literary pieces from around the world,I am sure that world readers would appreciate them too if they get a chance to read them.I really hope that there will someday be noteworthy translations of Assamese classics which can be enjoyed by everyone,but since Assamese is not a commercial language and only used in the state of Assam,it seems like a pipe dream at present.
I must stop now before this turns out into an epically long post.I appreciate your patience for reading this far and hope that I have been able to throw some light onto the Assamese culture,its tradition and literature through my amateur writing.
I am always curious about new cultures and traditions and would love to know if you celebrate your New Year on a different date or month than the English New Year,or you could tell me about your new year traditions.And last but not the least,let me treat you to a visual of some of the Bihu special delicacies.Enjoy and Happy Bohag Bihu to all !!