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.

Maha Shivratri and Shivdol of Heritage Sivasagar

Shivdol
Source: templepurohit.com

Shivdol is a group of structures on the banks of the Sivasagar tank, also known as Borpukhuri, in Sivasagar, Assam. It comprises of three different temples namely Shivdol meaning temple of Lord Shiva, Vishnudol meaning temple of Lord Vishnu and Devidol meaning temple of Goddess Durga. Lord Shiva along with Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma form the holy trinity (trimurti) of Hinduism. Lord Shiva is responsible for the destruction of the Universe, with the goal of recreating it.

Located in the heart of the city of Sivasagar the Shivdol is a popular destination for pilgrims. Tourists and pilgrims come from around the country to offer prayers to Lord Shiva. The temple stands tall at 104 feet high and is said to be the tallest Shiva temple in North East India. Situated at the topmost part of the temple is a golden dome called Kolosi which is seven feet tall.

Mahashivratri meaning the great night of Shiva is the most important festival celebrated here on the new moon day in the month of Magha according to the Hindu calendar. The origin of this festival is not very clear and there are different versions. Some believe it to be the marriage consummation of Lord Shiva with Goddess Parvati. According to another belief Shivratri is celebrated as the day when Lord Shiva saved the world from the pot of poison that emerged from the ocean during Samudra Manthan. Devotees visit the temples and offer milk, fruits, flowers, fresh leaves and sweets to the shrine. Ardent devotees also remain awake throughout the night and engage in chanting prayers, or meditating. Some also keep fast to please Lord Shiva and receive his blessings.

Sadhus on the occasion of Mahashivratri at Shivdol
Source : Swarnav Borgohain

A special prasad made on the occasion of Mahashivratri is the bhang laddo or bhang lassi which is an edible preparation of cannabis. This is basically a cannabis infused sweet or drink and is the highlight of the festival. Bhang is said to be Lord Shiva’s favourite food. After having spent one night sleeping under this plant’s leaves, he ate it in the morning and feels refreshed. It is widely believed that since then Bhang became his favourite food.

Shivratri in Sivasagar is said to have been celebrated since the construction of the Shivdol by Queen Ambika, second wife of Swargadeo Siva Singha in 1731. Every year during Mahashivratri a huge mela or fair is organised over a few days and pilgrims and tourists alike visit from far and wide to offer their prayers as well as take part in the celebrations. This coming year Mahashivratri falls on February 21st, 2020 and as usual festivities and fairs are expected to be arranged for the occasion. The brightly illuminated temple standing on the banks of the Borpukhuri ( Sivasagar tank) is the most pleasant sight to see at night, with people bustling around the fair surrounding the temple walls on all sides.

Night view of Shivdol with the Sivasagar lake
Source: flickr.com

Sivasagar is a place of rich cultural heritage and great historic importance in Assam as it was the capital of the Ahom kingdom who ruled Assam for glorious six hundred years. It was earlier known as Rangpur and got its current name after its then ruler Swargadeo Shiva Singha. Sivasagar is home to some the most amazing historical monuments in Assam built during the Ahom rule. These include Ranghar, Talatal ghar, Kareng ghar which in a way boasts of the glorious Ahom reign.

In my earlier post on Talatal ghar, I have mentioned in details how to get to Sivasagar and other related information. There is a lot to visit and explore in this historic place called Sivasagar when it comes to history, architecture and culture which would definitely leave you enriched.

Rang Ghar front view

Ranghar – The Tai-Ahom Heritage Monument

Sahityarathi Laxminath Bezbaruah had composed this beautiful song back in the days when Assam was not economically sound. But the poet firmly believed that we, the Assamese, can never be poor.

Ami Asomiya, nohou dukhiya

Kihor dukhiya hom?

Hokolu asil, hokolu ase

Nubuju nolou gham.

Sankare dile bishudh dharam,

Lachite baahut bol

Sati Joymotir satitwa tezere

Asomi aai probol.

Bajok doba, bajok sankha

Bajok mridang khul.

Asom akou unnatir pothot

‘Jai Aai Asom’ bul.

Yes, Assam has a very rich cultural heritage which is much precious to every Assamese. The language, literature, religion, custom, tradition, values which have been passed down from our ancestors is what makes us rich. Economically we are gradually growing too, but socially and culturally we never were and never will be poor.

Historic Sivasagar bears testimony to this rich cultural heritage of Assam in general, and Tai- Ahom cultural legacy in particular. And standing tall is the Ranghar, one of the earliest pavilions of outdoor stadia in the Indian sub-continent.

Ranghar

Ranghar was first constructed during the reign of Swargadeo Rudrasingha with bamboo and wood. It was later re- built with brick by Swargadeo Pramatta Singha in AD 1744 – 1750.

Ahom kings and nobles watched various activities like buffalo fights and other sports mainly during the Rongali Bihu festival from this amphitheatre. They would sit all high and mighty enjoying the fun down at rupohi pathar. Ranghar, in my opinion, therefore became more like a symbol of power and majesty of the Tai Ahom royalty.

Keeping with this tradition Ranghar comes to life once a year during Rongali bihu. Day long cultural programmes are held and people come from far and wide to experience this colourful event.

Ranghar is a popular tourist attraction of Assam. I too have visited Ranghar several times ever since my childhood. But my most memorable visit was the school field trip to Sivasagar when we were in 7th standard. Our school used to organise trips for students every year for all the classes. The lower classes were not taken to trips but allowed to picnic in school campus. But, if I remember correctly, from 5th standard onwards students were taken on day long short trips.

beautiful ranghar and its surroundings
Beautiful Ranghar and its surroundings

Source – commons.wikimedia.org

I loved these trips but at the same time was always nervous because I suffered from motion sickness. I knew very well that such bus trips would make me sick and I could barely enjoy. But I always ended up signing for these trips for the mere joy of going together with friends. Planning started several days ahead of the actual trip on the lunch menu, games to play and other stuff. Playlists of songs were finalised to be played on the Walkman. Breakfast was provided by school but we had to carry our own lunch boxes. This planning was the real exciting part of the entire trip.

In school ours was a crazy group of seven friends and we called ourselves Rainbow group. Back in those days to own a camera was a luxury and only a few of us could afford it. I don’t quite remember who among us carried a camera but we did manage to take a few pictures. And I am very sure most of my school buddies still cherish those beautiful moments and pictures as well.

Me and my child Nevaan in front of Rang Ghar
Me and Nevaan in front of Rang Ghar

This year, in the month of April, I revisited this historic monument to create memories with my 3 months young baby. As we were travelling for the first time with our baby from Guwahati to Ledo, a distance of 522.9 kms, we decided to take a break at Sivasagar for a night. It was an exhausting journey with a baby and two fur babies. After taking a good rest for the night we went to visit Ranghar, Talatal ghar and Shivdol early next morning. The charm and glory of this town and the historic Ranghar will never fade.

Sivasagar should be a must visit destination in your bucket list. It has much to offer when it comes to historic monuments, and most villages in Sivasagar will give you the real thrill of raw Assamese village life. And trust me Spring is the best time to visit Assam when nature is at its best.