The Na-Khua tradition – Thanksgiving in Assamese culture

O mur dharitri ai,

soronote diba thai

Khetiokor nistar nai,

mati bin oxohai

Doya kora doyaxila ai

……..

……..

Mati ke xaboti dhori

Mati ke sarothi kori

Matir bukut sunit dhalu

Jironi pahori

Dhoritri ai mur

Amak tumi neriba

Tumar seneh bine ai

Ami nirupai

Dr. Bhupen Hazarika

Assam is mainly an agriculture based economy and the farmers consider this land as their mother, the one who nurtures them. They forget all pain and toil incessantly to nurture the land which is their only source of livelihood. They pray to her to keep blessing them with good crop every year and thus nurture them. In the above song composed by our very own Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, this plight of the farmers is highlighted.

Since agriculture is the main source of livelihood in Assam so naturally a good crop is the reward for all farmers. And as thanksgiving to Mother Nature the Na- khua festival is organised. It is a lesser known tradition in Assam followed religiously by a few ethnic communities and a certain section of the society. It is like a community feast organised to celebrate the first meal of the fresh new harvest. The winter crop starts coming in by the month of Aghun ( mid-November to mid-December) according to the Assamese calendar and Na- khua is organised in this month.

A traditional Assamese platter
Source: Kaberi Gogoi Deka

Na-khua is a combination of two Assamese words, Na means new and khua means the act of eating. This is an extensive meal prepared in the traditional way with local ingredients from the local markets. Sometimes these ingredients are home grown in our own little farms. There’s a lot to learn and taste in such community feasts and is a good opportunity for those who would like to learn about Assamese food. The best part is that these dishes are cooked in firewood which gives a different flavour to the dish.

The dishes prepared in Na-khua are very elaborate and so I thought it better to discuss about the same with someone who has good knowledge of it. I got in contact with a home chef based in Guwahati, Kaberi Gogoi Deka who is very passionate about cooking and has won quite a few cooking competitions here in Guwahati. Her food related posts in social media are very interesting. She cooks the perfect pithas ( rice cakes) and has in depth knowledge of Assamese cuisine. She told me that Na- khua is actually synonymous with a few signature dishes like Haah manxho kumura ( duck with ash gourd), mati mah kath alu ( black gram and yam) , bora saul tora patot diya ( sticky rice wrapped in tora leaf) etc. These, in fact, are compulsory cooks apart from a variety of other dishes which may vary. Other typical ethnic dishes include gahori manxho khorikat diya ( pork barbecue), borolia maas khorikat diya ( fish barbecue), lai xaak bhaji ( mustard green), alu bilahi pitika ( mashed potato and baby tomato) and the list goes on.

Sticky rice wrapped in Tora leaf
Source: Kaberi Gogoi Deka

Na-khua, however, is organised in a different manner at my in- law’s place which was very novel to me. I witnessed a proper Na-khua ceremony of the Deodhai class of the Ahom community with elaborate rituals after my marriage. Na-khua is also called Mritokor hokaam by them because the food is first offered to the ancestors (grihadam) with full rituals as a kind of Thanksgiving to them. Xajpani is the most important requirement for every occasion in the Ahom Deodhai community. So about two weeks ahead of the set date ( in the month of Aghun) the mixture for xajpani is prepared and kept aside for fermentation. Another requirement for the ceremony is red hens which are also offered to the ancestors. The number of hens depended on the number of expired members of the family. A special kind of plate was made from bamboo for offering the food which is called the mehenga.

The food for the offering is prepared in the kitchen and it is very unique. The compulsory dishes are : bhapot diya bora saul ( steamed sticky rice), mati mah kath alu ( black gram and yam), gahori laixaak ( pork with mustard greens), ou-tenga borali maas ( a fish variety with elephant apple), goroi maas pura ( a variety of fish roasted over fire), kukura pura ( chicken roasted over fire) and our indispensable Xajpani.

The offering for ancestors on Na-khua

The Deodhai purohits perform the rituals uttering prayers in Tai language. They invoke the ancestors, express gratitude and seek blessings on behalf of all the family members. After the rituals a part of the offering is handed to the family members for them to share and eat. It is only after the rituals are over that the purohits and other guests present sit down for the meal. Xajpani is also served to everyone present. Along with all the dishes already mentioned there are few others which are very popular like haah kumura ( duck with ash gourd), masor petu (fish intestines), kukura petu ( chicken intestines), haah petu ( duck intestines), kol posola ( banana shoot).

Na-khua basically is a fun tradition but certain ethnic communities do have set rules or rituals. It is all about eating a hearty meal after the toil at the agricultural fields bear fruit and farmers are blessed with a good crop.

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