Magh Bihu – Harvest Festival of Assam

Buffalo fight on the occasion of Magh Bihu
Source: asianage.com

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.

A simple bhelaghor. Source: reddit.com

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.

Modern day Bhelaghor
Source: hindustantimes.com

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.

Our society Meji in Guwahati

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.

Assamese jolpaan and pitha served during Bihu. Source: nenow.in

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.

Choklong – The Ahom Wedding Rituals & Dress

Marriages are made in heaven but solemnized on Earth

This is a popular saying on the institution of marriage and sounds cliche. But trust me, the customs, ceremonies, and rituals involved in a marriage are so varied, yet grand and beautiful that the institution itself cannot be cliche. An Assamese marriage ceremony is different for every ethnic community in Assam and each has its own intricate ritualistic affair.

Choklong is the unique marriage ceremony of the Tai-Ahom community of Assam. Choklong is the marriage ceremony performed in the divine presence of the Gods by lighting 101 earthen lamps.

The Maral with 101 earthen lamps distinctive of a Choklong marriage ceremony.
The Maral with 101 earthen lamps distinctive of a Choklong marriage ceremony.

In the ancient days, the Choklong marriage ceremony was a nine-day long ritualistic affair. But nowadays it has been reduced to three days namely Juron diya, Murot tel diya, and the main day Choklong ceremony. The Ahom priestly classes, i.e., Deodhai, Mohan and Bailung perform all the religious ceremonies of the community which included the marriage ceremonies as well. They had full knowledge of the Choklong system of marriage and therefore full authority too.

The most important aspect of a Choklong marriage is the lighting of the 101 earthen lamps. On the day of the marriage an altar is prepared which is called the Maral. It is basically an extensive rangoli decorated with 101 earthen lamps. In the rangoli pattern, 16 small earthen lamps are arranged in 6 concentric circles, and 4 medium earthen lamps are placed in the innermost circle. In the centre a large earthen lamp is placed. Another important part of the Choklong marriage is the Hengdang which is a single-edged sword with a long handle. The Hengdang is offered by the bride to the bridegroom which has a lot of symbolism. By accepting the Hengdang the groom is basically promising to protect his bride lifelong and look after the family. In the ancient days, the groom accepting the Hengdang meant that he would defend his country against enemies and thereby protect the nation.

Hengdang the sword of Ahoms
The Hengdang
Source – ancientpages.com

The Wedding Dress

The wedding apparel of the bride and groom in a Choklong marriage is so royal and elegant that it adds to the grandeur of the ceremony. The groom wears a kurta and dhoti with a turban on his head. A traditional cheleng sador is wrapped around the groom’s kurta. All these are made of our very own Muga silk, sometimes paat silk also. The bride wears a mekhela, reeha, full sleeved shirt like blouse, and a muga headgear. With time, however, the traditional mekhela sador is widely worn by the bride with the headgear.

Learn more about Assamese wedding dress in The Silk Tales – Assam Traditional Silk.

Every girl, at some point in her life, fantasises about her marriage even if for a second. She wants to look the best on her wedding day and fantasises her wedding dress, the jewelry, the sets, customs and rituals as well. I was no exception to this. In fact, from the day I learned about the royal Ahom Choklong marriage ceremony, I was very sure I am going to have one. My favorite part of the ceremony was the offering of the Hengdang to the groom by the bride. For me, it seemed larger than life event with the groom dressed in traditional Muga kurta and dhoti along with a muga turban. I was mesmerised by the thought of the groom promising to protect the bride from all evil with the Hengdang in his hands.

Ahom bride and groom in their wedding apparel of muga silk
Ahom bride and groom in their wedding apparel
Source: https://instagram.com/frozenframeproduction?igshid=sj5401s2q2on

The Wedding Rituals

An Assamese marriage these days is traditional with its unique customs and rituals, but also with a touch of modernity as far as the attire, extensive sets and glamour are concerned. It is an amalgamation of both. Ceremonies and rituals start many days ahead of the actual wedding day. In my previous post on Xajpani I had mentioned about Na purushor hokaam. This is the first ritual in any Assamese marriage which takes a few days prior to the marriage. The name, however, may vary according to different communities.

The ceremony starts with the Juron diya. The family of the groom brings gifts for the bride which includes her wedding trousseau, along with gold and traditional Assamese jewelry, cosmetics, ceremonial maah halodhi to be applied by the bride on her wedding day. There are many other things brought along with these. These are brought in two earthen pots, one with gifts for the bride,another with maah halodhi. The bride takes out a portion of the maah halodhi and leaves some for the groom in the same pot which is later carried back to the groom. Juron is given by the groom’s mother and other female relatives and basically is an all-female ceremony. The bride later changes her attire to the ones gifted by the groom’s family and seeks blessings from the elderly people present in the ceremony.

There’s another ritual called koina or dora nuuwa meaning bathing the bride and groom in a ceremonial way. This is arranged in the respective places of the bride and groom. The maah halodhi kept aside during the Juron ceremony is applied on the body of the bride and groom, and later washed with water. For this a bei is made with bamboo where the bride and groom are made to sit for the ritual. Under this bei is buried one egg, a needle, kasi, beetle nut and a coin. This ritual signifies cleansing the bride and groom of any impurities or evil spirits thereby preparing them for their new life. The water used during this ritual is brought from a nearby river or lake in another very ritualistic manner. The mother along with the ladies of the family and community goes to a nearby water body singing biya naam. This ritual is called pani tola.

Murot tel diya is solemnized on the next day after juron. Biya naam are traditional wedding songs sung during this ritual, and in fact throughout all the ceremonies related to marriage. The bride is applied tel now by her relatives and other female guests. The female guests gathered then asks for xoraai from all the family and relatives by singing biya naam. The xoraai basically consists of tamul-paan, gamucha, money, sweets etc. given to the ladies which is an expression of happiness and thanksgiving. This is more like a fun ceremony.

An Assamese Choklong marriage is an elaborate affair, a larger than life affair as all other Assamese marriages are. One cannot but be awe- inspired to witness such a marriage. It is all about customs and rituals. But with modernisation there has been some positive changes too which, however, have not affected the rituals. Videographers, photographers, make-up artists, dress designers, jewellery designers are involved nowadays to make a marriage more memorable. In Assam we have a talented bunch of such artists who gave given a whole new look to our traditional marriage ceremonies and taken it to another level. So if you ever get an invite to attend a Choklong marriage or any other Assamese marriage, do not miss the opportunity. You would be more than happy to be a part of an Assamese marriage.

To know more about the Ahoms and their traditions you can refer to this book : https://amzn.to/2MhxhZz

 

 

Toy Train from Kalka to Shimla passing through a dark tunnel

Why do you Travel?

Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

– Ibn Battuta

Travelling enriches us with knowledge that comes from experience. It broadens our mind as we come in contact with different cultures. Our perspective changes and we become better as human beings. And in the words of Ibn Battuta, we become storytellers in the process. We have so much to share, we almost relive those moments every time we share our travel stories, which is the best part of travelling. You become richer with memories that will last a lifetime.

With a little money and proper planning it is possible to travel to places, provided you have the interest to do so. Travelling alone is fun, but the company of like-minded people always makes travelling all the more thrilling.

It doesn’t matter where you’re going, it’s who you have beside you

– Unknown

For me and my sisters, travelling was always about taking a break after the gruelling school exams. We would wait for our parents to make plans either during the summer or winter vacations.

Luckily for us, my father was an employee of Indian Railways which came with the perk of free travel passes. My father’s position allowed him four first class train passes a year to travel anywhere within the country.

Toy train from Kalka to Shimla going through a dark tunnel
Toy Train from Kalka to Shimla
Source – nativeplanet.com

People travel for different reasons like for relaxation, or work. Basically the idea is to visit new places and get a taste of their culture, food and the likes and enriching thereby. With the rise of social media, Instagram and YouTube influencers, travelling nowadays is more about work and image building, and promoting stuff rather than vacationing.

How social media changed the meaning of Travelling

Travelling before social media was a totally different concept to what it is today. Computers were totally new, and we were taught ‘LOGO’ in school…. I mean Yes… I bet many of you don’t even know what that is. Well, a turtle (a triangle cursor basically) appeared on the computer screen and typing instructions we could make the turtle to draw figures. So, LOGO was actually a computer educational programming language. Rest is history! It was around in 12th standard or so that I learnt to send an e-mail, and much later opened an account in the social networking platform called Orkut.

What I am trying to say is that the memories that we created while travelling was not for pictures. We literally lived those moments which remains fresh till this date. Everything about travelling was raw, unaffected by the thoughts or actions of sharing first, travel later on social networking sites. I agree that we all love to share what we have seen or experienced, but the difference was in the medium of sharing. Earlier we shared our experiences by relating through words and now we relate through pictures.

Dudhsagar view from afar with a train crossing by
Dudhsagar – On the way to Goa
Source – indiatoday.in

My personal experiences with travelling in India via Indian Railways

I have had the opportunity of visiting many tourist destinations of India with my parents and sisters. There was something exciting about those train journeys, 2-3 days without washing up, cramped in our seats playing cards or antakshri, making new friends, and staring out of the window towards the endless green and the dimly lit unknown towns. Though we could avail first class compartments, but sometimes we chose to travel 2nd class sleeper merely for the insane thrill and excitement.

It is not the destination where you end up but the mishaps and memories you create along the way

– Unknown

The swarming in of unreserved passengers during daytime, the monotonous loud voices of the hawkers, the sweaty smell in those small compartments is what sleeper class is all about. But the best part for me was the bustling in of the food vendors with a variety of food options like Jhal muri, puri sabji, bread omelette, tea, coffee, cucumber etc. These vendors were prohibited in the first class compartments resulting in the journey being extremely boring.

Throughout the day we would munch something or the other, get down on big stations to do a little stretching, or look through the stuff brought by the vendors on the train. I remember ordering egg thalis for dinner on the train which came with 2 eggs per thali.

The famous mango wafers of Malda Junction, the brightly lit Farakka Barrage, the breathtaking view of the Dudh Sagar waterfalls while travelling to Goa, the 103 tunnels to Shimla, the fear stricken train journey over the Pamban Bridge in Rameshwaram are memories which gives me the thrills even today.

Pamban Bridge in Rameshwaram, Tamilnadu

The true nature of travelling

Our journeys were not about comfort travel, luxurious hotels, multi- cuisine food or high end brand shopping. We mostly travelled 2nd class, stayed at budget hotels, toured in tour buses, ate normal desi food and did minimal shopping. The happiness was in being able to see new places. Those few days of vacation felt like a lifetime of good memories.

This thrill, happiness and memory is what I want to give to my child. The raw pleasure of visiting new and unknown places. Growing up I want him to fondly remember these trips, the precious moments he had spent with his parents visiting famous tourist destinations from a very young age.

It’s a big world out there, it would be a shame not to experience it

J.D. Andrews
Pallabita Bora and her son, Nevaan in front of Shiva Dol Sivasagar Assam
Myself and Nevaan in front of Shiva Dol, Sivasagar

Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, the musical exponent of Assam had composed another famous song,

Asom amar rupohi

Gunaru nai xesh

Bharotore purba dixhor surjya utha dexh

– Dr. Bhupen Hazarika

Assam has so much to boast about and we have yet to explore Assam in all its beauty. So to begin with I decided to visit all the tourist attractions as well as destinations in Assam, and what could be better than exploring it together with my child. We kickstarted our travel in mid April this year, during Rongali Bihu when we were visiting our parents for the first time after Nevaan was born. He was, to be exact, 104 days young on that particular date. And the first place he visited was the SHIVA DOL situated in historic Sivasagar. It was like seeking the blessings of the divine in this new and exciting journey of ours.

inside Dibrugarh university with my child

Dibrugarh University – The True Indomitable Spirit

Dibrugarh University Logo
Dibrugarh University Emblem
Source – nyus.in

Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, the cultural icon of Assam, was a playwright, poet, songwriter, writer, and filmmaker. In his popular song,

“Ture Mure alukore jatra

Abyartha Abyartha 

Ami palu jibonor artha abhinav

Swagat swagat xateertha” 

he sums up the beautiful journey of a student. This journey towards enlightenment is unfailing and would add meaning to our otherwise meaningless life. We all are comrades in this journey and the poet takes the opportunity to welcome everyone to embark on this life-changing journey.

The commemorative main gate of Dibrugarh University is named JYOTI BATSORA (named after Jyoti Prasad Agarwala) which bears this meaningful song engraved on one side of the gate. This adds substance to the true spirit of Dibrugarh University.

Jyoti Batsora Dibrugarh University
Me and Nevaan in front of Jyoti Batsora

Every student who enters through this gate is driven by an indomitable spiritThe long road which leads us from the gate, with trees on either side seems to be symbolic of the road which lay ahead of us in life. We can definitely take rest under the shade of the trees when we are tired, but can never give up.

Memories of my University days are quite vivid in my mind even today, though it has been over a decade now. The best thing I realized about University life is something called ‘department sentiment ‘. We were seen as a department first, then as an individual. So wherever we go, we actually represent our department…be it the varsity week, any cultural event, or seminar or even a casual visit to the canteen.

This sentiment brought out the best in us. We became more passionate about whatever we did in order to maintain the pride and dignity of our department. We passionately participated in almost every event during the Varsity Week, because like I said earlier, even though the road is tough we can never give up.

When it came to studies we got boosted by the newly introduced semester system. Securing first class in a literature subject was a little tough until then. But the semester system gave us hope of securing a better percentage if not a first-class.

dibrugarh university auditorium
Dibrugarh University Auditorium
Source – quikr.com

Dibrugarh University is a State University set up in 1965 and leading research and innovation-driven university. Spread over an area of 500 acres, the University has a Central Administrative building, a State of the art Library, an auditorium, Indoor Stadium, a recreational park, Health center, DU haat, Students Day Activity center, VC bungalow, Guest House, separate Boys and Girls Hostel, Professors quarters, Canteen and various Departmental buildings.

It has research programs like Ph.D., M.Phil, D.Sc and D.Litt. Postgraduate degree,  Undergraduate degree, Postgraduate Diploma, Certificate courses, Advanced Postgraduate diploma are also available in the university.

Dibrugarh University has affiliations to University Grants Commission (UGC), National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), and Association of Indian Universities (AIU). The University was accredited ‘A’ grade in 2017 by NAAC which remains valid for a period of 5 years.

Dibrugarh University also accepts Foreign/NRI students to Post- Graduate,  Undergraduate and Diploma programs in different fields. 15% seats on the supernumerary basis are reserved for admission for Foreign/NRI students.

The University, however, doesn’t have any provision for scholarships for Foreign/NRI students. The detailed guidelines for admission of Foreign/NRI students are available in the Dibrugarh University official website.

Hopefully, the Global linkage opens up new avenues for the students of Dibrugarh University in terms of further education, projects, and scholarships.

dibrugarh university administrative building
Dibrugarh University Administrative Building
Source – educations.com

Dibrugarh University has brought about many positive changes in the last few years. These include the introduction of new courses at different levels. Dibrugarh University Institute of Engineering and Technology (DUIET), Centre for Performing Arts are worth mentioning (in my opinion). Apart from these PGD in Tea Technology and Plantation, Masters in Travel and Tourism Management, PGD in Journalism and Mass Communication and a lot more other new courses are drawing the attention of students and parents as well.

This is the indomitable spirit I was referring to…. the desire to keep growing undaunted by any kind of obstacles, both internal and external. Students of Dibrugarh University are driven by the passion to achieve their desired goals and the University is driven by the urge to impart quality education.

Dr. Karabi Deka Hazarika, an accomplished educationist, ex- Professor of the Dept. Of Assamese, and currently, the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dibrugarh University has given the lyrics of the University anthem. In the anthem titled “Niyatang kuru karma “, she aptly refers to the University as the Sun. Like the rising sun which spreads sunshine, the University has spread its light of knowledge far and wide, dispelling the darkness of ignorance.