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Celebrating Rongali Bihu-Pohela Boishaakh Together

Celebrating Rongali Bihu-Pohela Boishaakh Together

Mona Jethai telling Sona how she used to celebrate the Rongali Bihu and Pohelaa Boishak together
Women performing Bihu
Bihu Performers
Women of Assam Association Delhi performing Bihu
Women of Assam Association Delhi performing Bihu on stage +7
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In this heartwarming story by Dr. Monideepa Das, a niece and her aunt take a walk down memory lane to remember the best of Rongali Bihu and Pohela Boishaakh

Sona who had just turned 11, loved spending time with her Mona Jethaai (mom’s elder sister) and they bonded like best friends despite over four decades of age difference between them. She was very happy that her Jethaai had finally arrived after more than a year for a two-week stay with them.

Whenever Jethaai would come visiting, Sona would move into the guest room, so that they could either have long chit-chats or play a couple of rounds of Ludo before finally retiring for the night.

 

10th March 2021; 10:00 pm 

It was their second night together; Jethaai had been too tired the previous night and had slept off. So, tonight, the plan was for some chatting and catching up.

Sona initiated the conversation by sharing how things had changed since the pandemic, about online classes and occasional chats with friends over video calls, about jamming with her three best friends and performing for the first time at a recent function, as the vocalist of their newly formed band, the FAB4.

As usual, jethaai listened patiently, responding now and then. The conversation next moved on to the topic of the new craze of K-pop. Realising that jethaai had not the faintest clue about it, Sona sang one of the songs of the Korean band to give an idea about the genre. It was a catchy number and her Jethaai started humming along.

This prompted Sona to demand, “Jethaai… please, please, please sing a song… please…???!!!” Mona had no option but to succumb to her coaxing. As low as she could keep her voice, she sang an old but popular Bihu Geet and they both clapped to keep the beat. The infectious rhythm and energy of the Bihu Geet aroused Sona’s curiosity about Rongali Bihu and she began bombarding Jethaai with questions about how she had celebrated it during her childhood.

It looked to Mona, that the night ahead would be a long one, as the aunt-niece duo boarded the “Time Machine” and travelled back to when Mona had been a chirpy 11-year old herself.

 

April 1978

The first terminal exams were over and Bohaag or Rongali Bihu was just around the corner. Mona and her brother Baba were excited about going to Koka-Aita’r ghor to celebrate the festival with their grandparents. The journey through the familiar roads from Dibrugarh to Sonari always seemed much longer than usual.

Finally, from the main road they caught sight of their beautiful ancestral home and were not at all surprised to see Koka pacing up and down the large front verandah, as if impatient for their arrival. As soon as the charcoal-grey ambassador drew up to the porch, Baba almost sprang out and jumped straight into Koka’s arms.

By then Aita, three sets of Khura-Khuri and six cousins had all assembled to welcome them. After exchanging the customary hugs, Mona looked across the main road, the famous Dhodar Ali, and as expected, saw Lopa and her brother Alok standing behind their gate and waving frantically. She waved back happily. The next seven days would be full of fun.

The Dutta and Bose households had been living like one blissfully happy family, embracing each other’s customs, traditions, food and festivals since many many years. Arun Kaku and Bulu Khura were best friends since their childhood. Thamma was just as fond of Mona as Aita was of Lopa and vice versa. While communication was pretty much smooth among all else, it was always extremely amusing to hear Thamma and Aita struggling to speak in the other’s language.

There were just four days left for Rongali Bihu; the distant sounds of dhol and pepaa had already filled the air setting the mood for the celebrations of this colourful harvest festival.

The following day, Lopa’s aunt, Khukhu Jethi-ma and her cousins Kuhu and Keya arrived from Kolkata, thereby completing the group of 12 energetic kids ranging from 6-13 years. The elders fondly called them the ‘Darling Dozen’.

The festivities of Bohaag or Rongali Bihu, also called Xaat Bihu (7-Bihus) extend over a  month; but Goru Bihu and Maanuh Bihu were the only ones that were of interest to the children. Mona and the girls would be delighted to watch Jeng Bihu performed by ladies dressed in beautiful Muga Mekhelaa Saador who would gather in an open field around a bamboo bush during the day, sing, dance and make merry.

Bihu Dance

They would wait eagerly for the Huchori groups to arrive in the evenings and perform the special form of Bihu dance in the front courtyard. At the end of the performance, at Koka’s insistence, Deuta would take on the role of the grihosto or head of the household and offer Paan-Taamul and cash on a Xoraai and everyone would seek blessings.

The 13th of April marked Goru Bihu.

Be it for farming or for providing milk and milk-products, cattle have always been an integral part of almost every household in the rural and suburban parts of Assam. Hence, as a gesture of respect and gratitude, the last day of the Sot/Chaitra month of the lunar calendar is dedicated towards showing reverence to cattle.

Like the rest of the Darling Dozen, Mona woke up feeling excited about the eventful day ahead. The first thing they did was troop to the Gohaali-ghor(cowshed) where Kusnu, who tended to the cattle, was preparing to take the cows and calves all the way to the Taokak river for their ritualistic bath. His brother Biru would come along to help. The task of accompanying the children to the riverside fell on the able shoulders of Bulu Khura and Arun Kaku. 

The tradition was to celebrate Goru Bihu, especially the bathing of cattle, as a community event. Therefore, the cattle belonging to most of the families of Sonari town were brought to the riverside. The place was quite crowded. Kusnu and Biru had already arrived with their small herd comprising Bogee, Kolee, Paakhori, Maakoni, Nondinee and three calves.

Scrubbing the cows with the pastes made of soaked black gram and raw turmeric and then bathing the cows,
Scrubbing the cows with the pastes made of soaked black gram and raw turmeric and then bathing the cows,

The fun began with ‘Mona & Co.’ taking handfuls of Maah-Haalodhi, the pastes made of soaked black gram and raw turmeric, scrubbing and bathing the cows, splashing water at them and at each other. Aita had explained that the reason behind using the organic scrubs was to ensure that the cattle remain free from any kind of skin ailments throughout the year ahead.

Once bathed, Kusnu and Biru gently and playfully whipped the cows with small branches of the natural insect repellent leaves, namely Digholoti, Maakhioti and Tonglati while the children sang, “Digholoti dighol paat, maakhi maaru jaat jaat”.

Gently whipping the cows with small branches of the natural insect repellent leaves
Gently whipping the cows with small branches of the natural insect repellent leaves

The boys were keen on watching Kukura-jooj(cock fight), Koni-jooj(egg fight), some games that have been a part of the festival and although they were totally drenched, the girls joined the boys. Bulu Khura and Arun Kaku of course, waited indulgently while the children hung around a little longer.

In the meantime, Aita and Padma, her helper, had strung pieces of bottle gourd, brinjal, ash gourd, bitter gourd into bamboo skewers and placed them on the dolaa; they had also made garlands with the vegetables for the cows and calves.

The Gohaali-ghor had been cleaned, walls and floor swept with a fresh coat of mud-dung mix and a few branches of Digholoti-Maakhioti had been tucked on the under-surface of the thatched roof.

When Kusnu and Biru returned from the riverside, the entire family gathered around the cows, stroked them respectfully and put the garlands around their neck. The cows were then fed with the vegetables to the tune of “Laau khaa, Bengena khaa, bosor’e bosor’e baarhi jaa… Maa’re xoru Baap’ere xoru, toi hobi bor goru”, basically urging them to eat the vegetables so that they would outgrow their parents.

Kusnu replaced the old poghaa or harness with a new one. Thereafter, the cows were left to graze in the nearby field. Aita gifted Gaamusa and a set of new clothes each to Kusnu and Biru as a token of appreciation for taking good care of the cows. They were very happy to receive pocket money from all the elders of the family.

Later in the evening, when the cows returned to the shed, they were fed pithaa, the quintessential Assamese homemade sweet-snack. As the last act of the day, the Gohaali was organically fumigated by burning rice husks along with Digholoti and Maakhioti leaves so as to keep mosquitoes and pests away.

In the afternoon, Mona and the girls had applied freshly ground paste of the jetukaa paat(henna) on each other’s nails and palmsMona was particularly fond of the colour and the fragrance of jetukaa and that night she dozed off while gazing admiringly at the large, bright orange spot on her palm.

The following day was a day of dual celebration; that of Maanuh Bihu and Pohelaa Boishakh. The first day of the month of Bohaag/Boishakh marks the beginning of the Assamese as well as Bengali New Year and this auspicious day is all about spending quality time with family.

The word ‘Maanuh’ stands for the ancestral spirits and the elders of the family. Mona’s day started with applying the customary Maah-Haalodhi paste before bath followed by dressing up in a pretty new frock. Thereafter, she chose a corner of the large Guxhaai Ghor(place of prayer in the house) and sat quietly, observing all the activities.

Aita removed the old Gaamusa from the Thaan and draped a new one. Maa and Anubha Khuri made the offerings of MaahProxaad and Paayoxh(rice pudding) while Anju Khuri and Mamoni Khuri lit the Saaki-gosaa(diyas). Finally, everyone joined in and prayed together singing verses from the Kirtan-Ghoxhaa.

Children performing Bihu dance
Children performing Bihu dance

This was followed by seeking blessings from the elders. The children were very happy to receive gifts from everyone. Since morning, almost the same activities had been going on at Lopa’s end too. 

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Rakhi

On the new year day, Mona’s Koka would be busy doing what he does best. His handwriting was so beautiful that his manuscripts invariably looked like printed scripts. In the Assamese language, aakhor or good handwriting is compared with baakhor or gems. And Koka‘s handwriting was exactly that. The children would crowd around and watch Koka intently while he sorted out the best of the long, slender Naahor(Indian Rose Chestnut) leaves from the branch and on them, with a sharp nib, in his neat handwriting, wrote the verse, “Debo Debo Mohaadebo Nilogribo Jotaadhoro, Baatoh Brishti Horo Debo Traahi Debo, Nomostute.” Up next, he knotted the stalks of these leaves in a particular manner stringing them to a thread, two ends of which were tied to the two sides at the top of the door. The inscription on the duwaar-doli as we call it, was a prayer to Lord Shiva to ward off the dangers and damages from the rains anf thunderstorms and protect the house from such natural calamities.

One of the traditions associated with Bohaag Bihu, that Mona fondly remembered was that all the handmade hand-fans or bisonee that had been put away after last summer were brought out, rinsed and used for the first time on this day, indicating the approach of summer.

Another significant tradition was the stir-fry prepared with exho-ek bidh xaak, that is, 101 varieties of edible greens. Although it seemed practically impossible to get 101 varieties, Padma would collect as many as she could from the kitchen garden. This Xaak Bhaaji seemed like a bolus dose of vitamins and minerals eaten to ensure good health for the entire year.

For as long as Mona could remember, lunch on Notun Bosor or Pohelaa Boishakh would be at Lopa’s place. Everyone from Dutta family would arrive at Bose’s home for a hearty meal. It would feel a bit weird to be formally welcomed to a home where they could arrive unannounced at any time on other days. But this auspicious day was special.

Warm embraces and greetings of Shubho Nobo Borsho were exchanged at the entrance which had been decorated with a beautiful alpona(pattern drawn on the floor using paste of rice flour) by Minu Kaki-ma. Everyone, old and young, looked bright and beautiful in their new clothes. The timeless custom of touching the feet of the elders seeking aashirbaad had been beautifully imbibed by the children.

Maa and Khuris presented Thakurda and Kaku with the Bihuwan or Phulaam Gaamusa, which is the distinctive symbol of cultural pride of each and every Assamese.

Aita gifted Thamma a Gaamusa with Hori-Ram woven all over for her Pujo Ghor while Thamma gifted Aita the new Ponjika, a book with dates of important auspicious days and astrological forecasts of the upcoming year.

Pohelaa Boishakh was especially exciting for Mona and the rest of the Daring Dozen not just because of the variety of dishes prepared but also because of the way lunch was served. Mats were placed on the floor on both sides of the large veranda adjacent to the kitchen and children sat facing each other, six on each side.

Bashonti Pulao, Kosha Mangsho and Kaaccha Aam’er Ombol
Bashonti Pulao, Kosha Mangsho and Kaaccha Aam’er Ombol

Maa and Khuris joined Kaki-ma and Jethi-ma in serving the dishes which included Bhaat, Bashonti Pulao, Chanar Dal, Dhokar Daalna, Kosha Mangsho, Maach Bhaaja, Kaaccha Aam’er Ombol and of course, Mona’s favourite Ilish Bhapa. The special Xaak Bhaaji and Paayoxh prepared in the Dutta household were brought over to be relished by all.

Ilish Bhapa, Dhokar Daalna and Cholar Daal
Ilish Bhapa, Dhokar Daalna and Cholar Daal

Tummies filled with yummies, the children lazed on the bed and discussed about the year ahead and made plans for the next holidays when they would get together again.

Goodbyes were always tearful, but as far as they were concerned, there was the ‘looking forward to’ for the next holiday and the eager anticipation of meeting again.

But, in this context, coming back to the present meant a point of no return for Mona and her heart wanted to hold on to those precious moments of childhood. However, better sense prevailed and albeit with reluctance, she took the seat beside Sona on the “Time Machine” and embarked on the return trip to the present.

 

11th March 2021; 12:30 am

Jethaai, I wish I was born many years ago, maybe as your cousin or friend, so that I too could have had as much fun as you did during Rongali Bihu.

The celebration here at Guwahati is way too uninteresting… It is just the Bihu Melas and Bihu tolis scattered across the city… Bihu functions and huge crowds… Bihu Kunwori competitions and celebrity performances… blaring music 24×7.”

Her sleepy voice waned and before she could say more, she gave a big yawn and fell asleep.

Mona looked lovingly at the sweet smile lingering on Sona’s lips, as if in her dreams, she and her friends were bathing the cattle by the riverside and splashing water at each other.

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  • It is so beautifully written Baideu. I spent my time in Guwahati and I too agree with Sona. You has such wonderful and rich memories! Thank you for sharing about such a lovely memories.

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