Agriculture is not merely just a profession in the serene fertile valleys of Assam which is lavishly rich with silts from the mighty Brahmaputra river. The numerous tributaries of the Brahmaputra act as the life-line for the local inhabitants dwelling around the river belt, for them agriculture is the basic mean of survival. For the people of Assam, agriculture is their life, their providence and their soul. This celebration of agricultural prosperity in Assam is called Bihu.
It is generally believed the word “Bihu” originated from another word “Bishu,” which means “to give and to take” in the language of the Dimasas (a prominent tribal group in Assam).
Irrespective of caste, creed and religion the people of Assam celebrate three forms of Bihu to mark three different harvest seasons in a year with much pomp and gaiety, and it is celebrated by the Assamese diaspora around the world. These three forms are Rongali Bihu (the Bihu of merriment), Bhogali Bihu (the Bihu of abundance) and Kongali Bihu (the Bihu of emptiness). The Bihu dance is the most popular folk dance of Assam.
Bhogali Bihu or the ‘Bihu of abundance’ is celebrated to mark the ripening of the harvest in Assam. Celebrated in the Assamese month of Maagh, the festival is also popularly called Maagh Bihu. It coincides with the north Indian festivals of Lodhi and Makar Sankranti and the south Indian festival of Pongal. A day before the Bihu is called the Uruka. It generally falls on the 13th of January. The night of the Uruka is celebrated by organizing grand feasts in temporary houses generally built in the paddy fields. These temporary houses are called Bhelaghars. The next morning a huge pile of firewood called Meji is lit up to welcome home the days of abundance. Traditional Assamese food-items like pithas (traditional rice-cake), mitha-aalu (sweet-potato) etc. are prepared.
Rongali Bihu or the ‘Bihu of merriment’ is the most important festival in Assam. It is popularly called Bohaag Bihu –after the Assamese month of Bohaagon which it falls. This Bihu is celebrated to mark the start of the harvest season. The fields are ready for new grains to be sown. There is singing, dancing and merriment everywhere. The songs and dances performed in this festival have developed their own unique genre. Today, these songs and dances are known worldwide as Bihu songs and dances. The Bihu dance is often used to symbolize Assam outside the state. The Bihu songs are indubitably the most popular folk songs that echo in the lips of every Assamese. Celebrated in the month of April, Rongali Bihu happens at a time when north India dances to the festivities of Baishakhi. It also marks the beginning of the Assamese New Year.
It is believed the custom of performing songs and dances during Rongali Bihu originated in the days of the great Ahom king Rudra Singha who ruled Assam from 1696 to 1714 AD. During that era, these songs and dances were performed under the shade of trees or in the fields of Ranghar (located in present Sivasagar). Later cultural troupes known as husuri would visit households to perform such songs and dances. The households would pay the troupes some monetary benefits or other act of gratitude. The tradition of husuri is still practices in small towns and villages of Assam till date. The waves of change and modernization have engraved their marks on the Bihu songs and dances too. These popular song and dances have evolved from the shades of the trees and moved to the podium of stage-shows, audio CDs, music videos etc. Almost every popular Assamese movie contains a Bihu song in it.
Kongali Bihu or the ‘Bihu of emptiness’ is celebrated in the Assamese month of Kaati. Hence it is also known as Kaati Bihu. As per the Engish calendar, it falls in mid-October. It marks the period when the harvest from the previous seasons has been finished off and the harvest of the current season is yet to ripen. Since the granaries are empty in the households, there is no joy or merry-making during this Bihu. A saki (small oil-lamp made of clay) is lit below a tulsi tree and prayers are made for the faster growth of harvest.