In a world of coloured horizons, where Mother Nature weaves her magical tapestry, where every morning the rising sun glints on many a smiling eye, where a red river and its many tributaries sustain life like the veins in the body…in such a world do festivals offer a manifestation of this magic, life and colour. To such a world, do we proudly belong.
As the December sun,moving into January grows fuller and its warm rays tickle our skins, the air seems to fly in a happy tumult. One can sense a thrill cutting across misty mornings as Bhogali Bihu arrives, amidst colours, flavours and delights.
Also known as Magh Bihu, this festival falls in mid-January, in the month of Magh—the tenth month in the Asomiya calendar. Essentially a harvest festival, Bhogali Bihu is an occasion of feasting and merriment. Agni puja, community feast on Uruka, (the eve of the Bihu), cooking of delicacies are the highlights of this festival. In fact, the term ‘bhogali’ traces its origin to ‘bhoga’ which means eating or enjoyment.
Uruka falls on the Sankranti (The eve of the two months is called ‘Sankranti’). On the night of ‘Uruka’ ,people get together for a community feast (‘urukar bhoj’). Shopping, cooking, and eating around the fireplace as one family would, this bhoj enables people to catch up with one another, leaving aside the “sick hurry and divided aims” of their everyday lives. The warmth of the fire kindles warmth in relationships and in men’s hearts…
The morning after, on the day of the Bihu, people gather around the meji ( built on the previous day itself), and make reverential offerings of til (sesame), rice and other eatables besides betel and paan to the Agni devata--the God of fire. In the villages , ashes of the burnt mejis are sprinkled over the fields; for this is believed to increase the fertility of the soil. This meji ghar is again known by different names in accordance with the manner in which they are made. For instance, while in the districts of Jorhat, Golaghat, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar etc. (the so-called Upper Assam) the meji ghar is made of firewood—which are arranged in the shape of a square. In Lower Assam again this bonfire is made primarily of straw and is called bhela ghar. Besides firewood and hay, bamboo is also used in preparing the meji. After the offerings are made and the Agni Devata is paid obeisance to, people sit down to relish the different delicacies prepared for the occasion [though traditional delicacies like pitha, laddoos and jalpan are otherwise available in the Asomiya akholghar (kitchen) all through the year, yet it is in the Bihus, especially Bhogali Bihu that one witness greater feasting. Some other customs associated with Magh Bihu include—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)].
In some places, especially in the village areas, interesting games like- bullfights, bird fights (for instance cock-fights and bulbuli sorair juj i.e. bulbuli bird fights), egg fights, etc are arranged. Besides, there are the timeless Bihu songs and dances that lend a pulsating ambience to the festivities.
As the centres of learning and culture and the seat of the neo-Vaishnavite religion, the Satras assume an important role in the composite Asomiya society. As in the broader society, in the Satras too Bihu is celebrated with much devotion, though much of the activities are observed within namghar precincts (a namghar is a community prayer hall—established by the great saint and reformer Mahapurush Srimanta Shankardev) . Especially agni puja, naam-kirtan etc. take place in the namghar. Of course the lighting of the meji and the community feast on Uruka takes place in the open (albeit within the Satra precincts). Even here, there are certain norms to be followed. For one, the food can be cooked only by somebody whose assigned task, in the Satra is to cook. 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. After the meji has been made, a humble yet reverential offering of betel nut-paan and ‘egosi saaki’ is made (i.e. an earthen lamp is lit and offered) to Agni devata. It is after this that the fire is lit and cooking for the feast commences. After the food has been prepared and all the bhakats [monks who live in the Satras , and are often celibate (kewaliya bhakat) ] , the Satradhikar (the supreme head of the monastery) 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 sankirtan or Sabahuwa naam( communal prayer) at the meji-site after the feast. The next morning, the bhakats , especially the youths rise early. A branch of mango tree is lit and inserted into the meji from the entrance dug in the ground in the eastern direction—and the meji is set alight. After this, betel nut-paan, different delicacies prepared for this occasion (by the Vaishnav Bhakats) are offered on plantain leaves to the fire god. During the day, agni puja, naam-prasang etc. are performed, which extend all through the day. After the agni puja is over, there is ojapali, gayan-bayan, diha naam and other devotional prayer-singing in the namghar. In many Satras, the naam-kirtan extends well into the night. Much of the customs and mores associated with Bhogali Bihu, and observed by the masses, find their observance within the Satra precincts as well. The difference lies largely in the fact that in the Satras, many of the popular beliefs and traditions are adapted and given a spiritual /aesthetic connotation. Naam-kirtan, community prayer et al take precedence over songs and merriment (that are generally associated with Bihu celebrations).
Bhogali being the Bihu of ‘bhoga’ or feasting, preparation and savouring of the different delicacies assume great importance, whether it is the Satra or in the broader society. Til pitha, narikol pitha, kheer pitha, urahiya pitha, sutuli pitha, ghila pitha, tilor laru, narikolor laru/laskara besides jolpaan are some of the delicacies that every Asomiya household serves itself and its guests during Bihu, especially (as mentioned already) during Bhogali Bihu.
Despite fears of digressing, this writer cannot resist undertaking a detour through some of the delicacies that adorn our dining tables, and fill our kitchens and heart(h)s with mouth-watering aromas during the festivities. (As) We believe, this detour will only make the end—the culmination of this journey(of this write-up)--sweeter and more interesting…
Til pitha: the ‘til’ (sesame) is roasted, and then grounded and mixed with ‘gur’ (jaggery). Dry powdered rice [the ‘Bora’ variety of rice to be precise] is taken in handfuls and spread on a hot taava or pan in the shape of a small chapatti. Into this, the mixture made above is stuffed and then the chapatti-shaped powdered rice is folded into a semicircular shape or into the shape of a roll.
Narikol pitha: The procedure is similar as til pitha with the only difference being that in this, the stuffing is made from grated coconut (Narikol) fried in sugar or jaggery (gur).
Kheer pitha: This process is similar except that the stuffing is made of kheer.
Urahiya pitha: Here the dry rice powder is made into a dough, out of which little balls are made which are then flattened with the palm of the hand and stuffed with the til-gur mixture (as used in the til pitha); this then folded into the shape of an ‘urahi’ (i.e. a butter-bean), the sides sealed with deft finger-strokes and fried in oil.
Sutuli pitha or voja pitha: Here the gur is diluted and boiled, when it is tepid powdered rice and a pinch of soda bicarbonate are added: a thick paste is thus prepared which is then fried like maalpuas or .
Ghila pitha: In this,a dough of powdered rice and liquefied gur is prepared, which are then made into little balls and flattened, and deep fried. This pitha is shaped like a knee-cap(ghila is the Asomiya term for the knee cap).
Pheni pitha: This is the Asomiya counterpart of the popular jalebi! Firstly dough is prepared of powdered rice and water, which is then made into small balls and rolled in the wooden board like chapattis which are fried. The fried pithas are then dipped in gur syrup.
Tilor laru: In making these laddoos (or larus as is the Asomiya pronunciation), the dry til (sesame) is first roasted. The liquefied gur is then thickened by boiling. The boiled and thickened gur is finally poured over the roasted til and rolled into balls.
Narikolor laru or loskora, akhoir laru, murir laru and chirar laru: The procedure for these other laddoos is the same as the one described above. Gur or jaggery is used in each of these with the exception of the narikolor laru where the grated coconut (Narikol) is fried in either sugar or gur. Akhoi (roasted paddy) is not fried like the til or the coconut and nor is muri which is parched/puffed rice. Chira (flat rice made out of parched half-boiled paddy) is roasted and made into balls.
Payash pitha: This pitha is unique in itself; and is different from the other kinds of pitha cited above. Here dough is made out of rice-powder (called pitha-guri in Asomiya) and water/milk. This dough is then grated with a sieve: the grated dough is placed into a pan of boiling milk with sugar added in it. The payash (what might probably be termed rice pudding) that is thus prepared is called payash pitha.
Sunga Pitha: It is made of a paste of rice powder, which is then stuffed inside a raw bamboo, the ends are sealed with straw and the sunga or hollow bamboos are put over the fire with the aid of a pole/trunk of banana tree balanced on both ends by two raised poles. The pitha is allowed to cook in the fire.
Tekeli Pitha : Tekeli Pitha (which may be termed steamed rice cakes) is prepared by first soaking the rice grains for some hours before drying them and grinding them. The powdered rice that is thus obtained is then mixed with coconut and sugar and a portion of this mixture is put into a neat cloth placed over the rim of the pitcher’s mouth. The mouth of the pitcher is then ‘sealed’ with cork and the pitcher placed over the fire. The substance is baked with the heat of vapour that comes from inside the earthern pitcher (tekeli).
Another important part of the Bihu meals is the famous jolpaan, which consists of, doi (curd) (nd cream)and gur (i.e. jaggery ) besides hurum [Bora rice soaked for three/four days and then fried, pounded (in the dheki), sifted to remove the husk and then fried in hot sand), chira (flattened rice), kumol saaul (a softened form of rice prepared by soaking the rice grains) , bhoja saaul (rice prepared by roasting the grains) , bora saaul (sticky rice) , pithaguri (rice powder prepared from unroasted grains), sandoh guri (rice powder prepared by roughly grounding roasted grains), and korai guri (rice powder prepared from roasted grains which are then finely grounded).
Of course, with the winds of change blowing hard, and (with) the people actually listening to their silent whispers, many alterations are already on their way in. The traditional delicacies are not always prepared in homes nowadays. These delicacies are easily available in the market and in the pre-Bhogali and Bhogali melas that are a common occurrence in the towns and cities. Yet, changes are but a natural consequence of the evolutionary process: imminent with the flow of time. But, what need to be preserved are those nuggets that are integral to the continuation of our tradition. The availability of the traditional delicacies has enabled the sustenance of a culture in the face of the newer trends in people’s tastes, particularly the younger generations. This has also enabled an honest living to many unemployed men and women.
On this auspicious occasion of Magh Bihu, [having detoured through sumptuous delicacies and Bhogali Bihu celebrations, including (celebrations in the Satras)] we draw to a closure, and wish our dear readers life, magic and colour this Bhogali Bihu, and innumerable tickles, of the expanding sun on our skins, and of the aromas wafting over our taste buds…
Happy feasting to all.
[published in melange, The Sentinel on January 10th 2010]
**Copyright-- Stuti Goswami