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Of Bhogali Bihu At My Ancestral Home

Of Bhogali Bihu At My Ancestral Home

New age Meji popular in Assam
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Among the three Bihus in Assam Bhogali Bihu is extra special because bhog means fun and feasting, with the community feast Bhoj being its highlight

by Dr Monideepa Das 

The beginning of the year invariably takes me back in time by a good four and a half decades, to those glorious winter holidays of my childhood, spent at my ancestral home in Seujiapam Sonari, now Charaideu.

Prelude: It would only be fair to mention that Seujiapam is that locality of the small town of Sonari which in the bygone days, belonged exclusively to the Dutta clan of which my great-grandfather was the patriarch. My grandfather (Koka), was the youngest among four children. He eventually built a home, the Notun Ghor by the side of the main road, separated by a vast expanse of paddy fields from the Puronaa Ghor, which comprised of a cluster of houses where my Koka’s elder brothers and elder sister (Bor-Koka, Maju-Koka and Jethaai-Aaita) resided with their families.

During winter holidays, our family would head from Dibrugarh to Sonari to spend the vacation with my grandparents, uncles and cousins. Almost simultaneously, my aunts and cousins from Shillong, Jorhat and Dimapur would join us. Needless to say that the entire Seujiapam would be waiting eagerly to welcome all of us and our home would soon be bursting with people and abuzz with activities.

Magh Bihu has always remained my favourite among the three Bihus because of the aura of festive preparations preceding it. This harvest festival is justifiably called Bhogali Bihu, because the word bhog means fun and feasting; the community feast Bhoj is the highlight of this Bihu.

For me, Bhogali Bihu was extra special because it meant the annual get-together of all the cousins at our Koka-Aita’s home, courtesy the long winter vacation following annual exams. The weather would be just to my liking, bright sunny days and cold chilly nights.

The preparations for the Urukaa which falls on the day of Sankraanti would start many days prior to the actual day. Among other preparations, one of our favourite activities would be pukhurixisaa meaning emptying the pond of water. Under Koka’s expert supervision, fishing nets would initially be used to catch the fish and thereafter, our helpers would make pairs, hold ropes tied to either side of a large tin and drain out the water from the pond.

Two or three such pairs would work simultaneously to hasten the process. My cousins and I would crowd around the pond and watch fish of all sizes and varieties being caught. Most of the fish would be transferred to a large concrete tank filled with water where they would be kept alive, to be used for the feast and subsequent days.

After the pond water had been drained, we would be allowed to get in and roll in the muddy base of the pond for a few precious minutes much to the chagrin of our mothers who would keep shouting out warnings about leeches and stingy fish. Dearest Koka would of course, smile indulgently. Our mud bath would be promptly followed by a hot scrub bath and dressing up in warm clothes.

Preparations would be on in full swing at Aita’s end too. She would be using her resources in preparing seera, moori, aakhoi, hurrum for Bihu Jolpaan. I would be awestruck watching the synchronised movements of the ladies working at the dheki while pounding rice into pithaaguri for making the varieties of pithaa.

MejiThe agenda of building the Bhela ghor and Meji would come up next; my dad and uncles would take command in different capacities while we, the children would join the ‘task force’ as faithful soldiers. The area for the Bhela ghor would be mapped out in our front yard. This makeshift hut would basically serve as a night shelter for having the Urukaa’r Bhoj.

The exercise of making the Bhela ghor involved pitting of bamboo posts to the ground and roughly weaving straw, dried leaves into the bamboo framework which would serve as walls. A thatched roof overhead, a door cut out on one side and hay piled alongside the walls to be used later as cushioned mattress during that much looked forward to night.

The making of the Meji would be as exciting. I particularly loved my dad’s signature Meji which would have one tall bamboo at the centre with dried branches of the betel nut trees and coconut trees tied around it. The Meji would resemble a conical pine tree or perhaps a rocket bomb to be more precise. A little away, we would have the main Meji; which would be as tall as it could get, piled with firewood, broad at the base tapering towards the top.

 

With the Bhelaghor and Mejiready, we would now make the rounds to check on what’s cooking in Aita’s Paakghor (kitchen). Obviously the ladies of both Notunand Puronaa Ghor would work in tandem, arranging the family Bhoj. At one end we would find a couple of my aunts busy making pithaa, laaru, kaata-nimki, maah-koraai and at the other end, we would see my mother and aunts busy cooking for the feast. The floating aroma of the fries and curries would make us count the minutes and seconds, in eager anticipation for the upcoming feast.

Potatoes in bonfireA bonfire would be lit a little away from the Bhelaghor and the men and children would sit around it. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, some vegetables and fish would be cooked on the red hot charcoal to be served as Pitikaa (mash). In the meanwhile, batches of savoury pakoras and fried KaathAalu(Yam) would be served. The children would be the first batch to be served as soon as the food for the Bhoj was ready; the men would eat next and finally it would be the turn for the ladies who would be served by men in the family.

The feast would comprise authentic Assamese dishes most of which would be cooked using indigenous ingredients. The meats cooked would be the traditional mutton curry cooked with potato and raw papaya(Omitaa-Aalu di Pathaa’r Maangxo), duck with ash gourd(Kumuraa di Haanh’or Maangxo) or pigeon cooked with banana stem(Paaroaaru Posolaa). It would be interesting to note that chicken was considered bilaati or foreign and was hence exempted from the menu.

Fish, invariably a staple for the Assamese would form an integral part of the Bhoj; fried fish and tangy fish curry being irreplaceable. A variety of Bhaajis or fries and Laabra(curry with seasonal vegetables), not to miss the quintessential Khaar, would make up the vegetarian fare. The special attraction of the feast was that food would be served in kolpaat(banana leaf) and kolpotuwaa(bowls made of fresh banana stem).

Minor acts of theft conducted on the night of Urukaa, such as stealing old pieces of furniture, portions of the fence from the neighbouring houses for bonfire or vegetables from thebaari(garden) for the subsequent Bon-Bhoj(picnic) was an interesting aspect of this Bihu. My cousins and I were considered too young for the task but we would be empowered by an overwhelming feeling of importance when, armed with torch lights and sticks, we would be allowed to assist our trusted helpers Putu and Kusnu as vigilantes on the lookout for anyone who might try to steal vegetables from our kitchen garden or chicken from our coop.

After everyone had relished the Bhoj, the Bhelaghor would be cleaned up; the hay piles at the sides would be spread out and old bedcovers pulled out over them. My cousins and I would refuse to go indoors and insist on sleeping in the Bhelaghor. Therefore, blankets and pillows would be brought in to keep us warm and cozy.

Storytelling sessions would follow until our tired bodies would finally be overcome by sleep. The elders would stay up until very late in the night, sitting around the bonfire and talking. Our uncles would have to forego the comforts of their beds and spend the night with us in the Bhelaghor.

At the crack of dawn, still dark and foggy, we would be woken up and there would be a race of sorts as to who would reach the Meji first, bathed and dressed. Such would be the enthusiasm that not even the biting cold could deter us from that early morning bath.

Aita would arrange a neat Xoraai being careful to include every variety of pithaa, laaru, koraai which would be offered to the flames of the ceremonially lit Meji. The flames would warm us up in no time and the nodes of the bamboo would make a loud sound like the bursting of cracker on catching fire.

Pithas

Til pithaa, naarikol pithaa, tel pithaa, nimokhiya ghilaa pithaa, tekeli pithaa, til laaru, naarikol laaru, pokaa mithoi, moori’r molaa, xutuli, would all vie with each other to find place on the plate and we would sit around the Meji and relish them.

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This would be followed by Jolpaan of home pounded seera (flat rice) along with moori, aakhoi, hurrum (different varieties of puffed rice) which would be served with curd, cream, milk and jaggery.

Lunch would be a welcome change from the usual rice and curries combination, as it would include soft, puffy Luchi, But’or(Gram) Dal, Bengenaa Bhaaji(Brinjal Fry), Baandhakobi-Aalu-Motor Bhaaji(Cabbage-Pea-Potato Stir fry), Jolphaai’r Tokk(sweet-sour Chutney made of Olives) among other things.

Bihu Bhoj- 2

Tummies tucked, we would then laze in the sun and in our minds, each of us would rewind the wonderful time spent during this vacation, comparing it with previous ones. A cloud of gloom would inevitably hang over our heads as it was now time to pack and return back to our homes

As if on cue, Koka would announce the grand finale to perk us up in the form of Bon-Bhoj, a family picnic by the side of the nearby river. While the elders would take a walk, we (the children) would load ourselves on the wooden carts used to transport things to and from the market and be wheeled to the spot by our beloved uncles.

Cooking would be done on temporary souka, a makeshift stove by digging a shallow pit and positioning bricks in a triangular position upon which large utensils would be placed for the mass cooking over firewood. We would sit in two rows facing each other. This simple yet sumptuous meal would be the befitting farewell meal for the season and a promise for an even better Bhogali Bihu celebration in the coming year.

I can say with not an iota of doubt that I would not trade my childhood with anything. When I would share these childhood memories with my children, they would listen with astonishment bordering on disbelief and no wonder!

Today, most of the grandparents have relocated from the rural to urban settings; hence children of the new generation are deprived of these small joys of life. I feel that it should be our sincere endeavour to try and recreate the Bhogali Bihu celebrations of our childhood and give them the sweet taste of simple rural life for a refreshing change.

 

Photographs by Pranjit Borkakaty and Rituraj Dewan from their own Bihu celebrations

 

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