Assam's subdued Bihu during coronavirus lockdown reminiscent of distressing historical events 

While the subdued Bihu seems like a historic first to many — hardships, earthquakes, even war have seemingly proven small deterrent for the festival — there is a precedent for it, one that dates 193 years ago.

Tulika Devi April 21, 2020 15:31:47 IST
Assam's subdued Bihu during coronavirus lockdown reminiscent of distressing historical events 

Amid a nationwide lockdown to combat the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Bihu was an eerily quiet affair in Assam.

Rongali or Bohag Bihu is the state’s main festival — the start of a new year — and calls for communities to celebrate together. The first day of the festival is called Garu Bihu, which sees all the households in a village bathe their cows by the riverside, followed by songs and merry-making. This sets off a weeklong celebration, the second day of which is Manuh Bihu, when people visit relatives, friends and neighbours to exchange Bihu snacks like pitha and laru, gift gamusas and bihuwans, while also receiving blessings from elders.

To understand what significance the festival holds in the lives of Assamese, one need look no further than the words of Dr Bhupen Hazarika: “Bohag mathu eti ritu nohoi, nohoi bohag eti mah, asomia jatir ei ayushrekha, gana jiwanar ei sah (Bohag is not just a season or month it is lifeline of Assamese and the strength of mass life).”

For the first day of the Assamese calendar to pass unmarked, without the usual joyous celebration, has been difficult for the state’s people, although they understand the reasons for the muted observance.

“We couldn’t celebrate properly,” says Saurav Borah of Jorhat’s Jakharia village. “Traditionally we exchange vegetable sticks for the Garu Bihu ritual, but couldn’t this time. Since the shops were closed, we couldn’t buy new clothes. That’s okay though, as saving our society and country is most important right now.”

Assams subdued Bihu during <span class=coronavirus lockdown reminiscent of distressing historical events " width="825" height="465" />

In the current sombre atmosphere, with most of what constitutes everyday life coming to a standstill, this non-festive Bihu feels like part of “the new normal” as Thanu Gogoi from Number1 Kapahuwa village, Lakhipathar, Tinsukia district, attests.

“These are hard times and we have to accept practical solutions for our own safety,” Gogoi says, listing all the traditions that the villagers had to forego this Bihu — preparing sweets together, weaving gamusas on the loom, preparing ‘chat’ (long sticks stuffed with various vegetables), making a new ‘pagha’ (post to tie the cow to), community celebrations.

“This time, we maintained social distancing and the rituals were just a formality,” Gogoi notes. “I have never seen such a Bihu in my 70 years… Maybe we have caused nature enough destruction and must now answer for our deeds. Anyway, we have had to sacrifice emotion for the sake of safety and abiding by government regulations. As village headman, I requested people to be rational and careful for the sake of humanity.”

Assamese households narrate similar stories of a Bihu in lockdown:

Assams subdued Bihu during <span class=coronavirus lockdown reminiscent of distressing historical events " width="825" height="465" />

“We completed all the customs within the household. We bathed our cows within our compound and on the first day of the Assamese New Year, we offered ‘sarai’ (traditional bell metal utensils) to our lord in the home temple and prayed for good times. We have consoled ourselves that this year it’s a sacrifice for the greater good and this would help our next generation to celebrate Bihu properly,” said Dipali Dutta, a resident of Digboi. “We made pitha just for our family, performed a puja,” said Rumi Chetia from Tiyok, Jorhat.

With many younger Assamese living in different states or areas for work or education, families couldn’t reunite for the Bihu celebrations as is the norm. “Our children couldn’t return home and we are just praying for their safety. Bihu celebrations are hollow without their presence,” said Rina Das from Guwahati. Social concerns were also on people’s minds in the midst of the festival, with requests for those from low income families to receive support.

While the subdued Bihu seems like a historic first to many — hardships, earthquakes, even war have seemingly proven small deterrent for the festival — there is a precedent for it, one that dates 193 years ago.

Assams subdued Bihu during <span class=coronavirus lockdown reminiscent of distressing historical events " width="825" height="465" />

Acclaimed researcher of Assamese folk music and culture Dr Anil Saikia points to the signing of the Yandabo Treaty in February 1826 (which marked the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War), following a truly dreadful year for the Assamese people, when they were forced to seek shelter in hills and caves. “There is a significant difference between that time and the present,” Dr Saikia adds, “as this year we are at least celebrating our customs with social distancing etc, but in that year Assamese couldn’t even take part in any traditional activity.”

Bihu is primarily an agriculture festival and during the time of the Burmese invasion, the predominantly agrarian society was completely in shambles. There were uncountable deaths, and untold misery. Dr Saikia says, “Our farmers are the original flag bearers of Bihu. We recite ‘lau kha, bengena kha (eat bottle gourd, eat bitter gourd)’ while bathing our cows on Garu Bihu. We prepare the gamusa on our personal looms. Assamese have never celebrated Bihu with market-bought items.”

Assams subdued Bihu during <span class=coronavirus lockdown reminiscent of distressing historical events " width="825" height="465" />

However, eminent historian and former civil servant Lakhinath Tamuly counters that Bihu was not “skipped” even in the year of the Yandobo Treaty even if “the festival may not have been marked with the usual pomp and gaiety since the Assamese ruling family was in hiding, and hence no royal celebration could be held”. Tamuly points out that even before the events leading to the Treaty, there was the Moamoria rebellion (1769 to 1805) that disrupted the socio-economic condition of the region. The Burmese invasions too marked a period of agony for the Assamese started in Assam: a time of mass murders, dacoity, lakhs of men and women taken as hostages. While grand celebrations were impossible in this situation, the villages would observe Bihu in a low-key manner, Tamuly says.

Tamuly points to the self-sufficient, self-reliant and community-centric nature of Assamese society at the time as a reason for doubting that Bihu could go entirely unobserved even in times of grave social distress.

As in the past, so in the present. While modernity has wrought change in Assamese society, the spirit of Bihu sustains.

All images courtesy of the author.

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