Magh Bihu is known as the harvest festival of Assam. It is celebrated in the month of Magha marking the end of the harvest season in Assam. It falls around mid- January and is a time of abundance which we celebrate with lot of festivities and feasting. Hence this Bihu is also called Bhogali Bihu derived from the word Bhog meaning eating and enjoying.
My reminiscence of Bhogali Bihu goes back to the days when we spent the Bihu eve beside the fire till midnight guarding our kitchen garden which my father nurtured with great care. My father used to grow vegetables in the little piece of land he had which mainly included potato and black gram ( mati mah ). Apart from these he also planted cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, bottle gourd, baby tomato, parsley, etc. in very small quantities. So it was naturally our duty to protect it from the local youngsters during the Uruka night which is the Bihu eve.
For those who might be wondering why we need to guard our kitchen garden on Bihu eve. Well, in Assam it’s like a tradition during Uruka night of Bhogali Bihu to steal from the neighbourhood gardens and farms. The more logical explanation of this tradition is that in villages the cowherd used to spend the entire Uruka night guarding the harvest in the granary and also the Meji built for the early morning of the Bihu. January in Assam is cold and to keep themselves warm the cowherd used to steal wood and bamboo from their neighbour’s field to light a fire. They also stole vegetables to satisfy their hunger throughout the night. This is more like a fun tradition and was an open secret for both parties involved. There were no fights later on for the theft done.
These festivities and traditions were not restricted to the villages only but also celebrated with much enthusiasm in the towns and cities of Assam as well. I grew up in the small town of Dibrugarh and just like the cowherd guarding their granary in the villages, we guarded our small kitchen gardens.
Bhogali Bihu starts on the Uruka night when a community feast is organised in villages and towns alike to celebrate the end of the harvest season. People get together and contribute to arrange for the grand feast, the highlight being the new harvest of rice and of course our very own Xajpani in some cases, the impotance of which I have described in detail if you follow the link given. Men, women and children all help with preparation for the feast. We sing, dance and enjoy to our heart’s content rejoicing at the good harvest we are bestowed with God’s grace. Bhogali means feasting and merriment and we live up to its name.
A Bhelaghor is a makeshift hut made with the haystack of the harvest fields for the Uruka. It is here that the cowherd spend their night and eat their feast. In the earlier days this hut was made in as simple a way as possible. But with time the artistic minds of people have taken the art of making bhelaghor to the next level.
A Meji is a massive bonfire made of wood, bamboo and haystack for the morning of the main Bihu day. We get up early in the morning, take our bath and offer our prayers by lighting this Meji. We also offer pitha or rice cakes, betel nut to the sacred fire in thanksgivings. Some also offer Mah-karai, a special mixture of roasted rice and black gram to the fire which is considered auspicious too. This mixture is later also eaten by the people along with other delicacies like a variety of pitha, jolpaan etc. The makeshift bhelaghor is also burnt down along with the meji.
The Bhogali festivities continue for a few days with family and friends visiting each other. A variety of pitha or rice cakes are made by the ladies to treat their guests. A traditional way to treat guests is to serve xurum, xando or sira Jolpaan with curd and gud ( jaggery). Pithas included til pitha, tel pitha, steamed pitha, til ladu, coconut ladu etc. served with xajpani. Sometimes the ladies get together as a community and prepare them on the Uruka night.
Buffalo fight is another important aspect of the Magh Bihu festival. Such fights are still organised in some parts of the State and people in large numbers gather to witness these iconic fights. However, with the risk involved there has been a gradual decrease in such fights. This one time I was travelling to my hometown for Magh Bihu I happened to witness a buffalo fight somewhere in Nagaon, Assam. The dust in the air, the massive crowd hinted at the majesticity of the event.
Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu is considered the second most important festival in Assam after the Rongali Bihu or Bohaag Bihu. In a state where agriculture is the main source of livelihood, where a majority of the population rely on farming the Bhogali Bihu holds a very special place in our hearts. The sweat and tears of the farmers bear fruit and this calls for nothing but celebration.