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Bohag Bihu means Literally 'spring', Bohag Bihu is the most important festival in Assam and occurs three times a year. In April, it is called Rongali or Bohag Bihu, in October November Kati Bihu, and in January, coinciding with Makara Sankranti, it is called Bhogali Bihu. Thus the festival celebrates the three seasons of spring, important to the largely pastoral people of Assam. It is in thanks giving or a prayer with the hope of having a good harvest to the earth, sun, cattle, and the implements to which a farmer owes his living.
Rongali or Bohag Bihu, celebrated in April, is the most important. It is celebrated for three days and ushers in the New Year for the Assamese people. It is also a precursor to the harvest and marks the advent of the spring and the rains. On the first day called Goru Bihu, cows are worshipped. In the morning, their feet are washed, horns and hoofs are painted various colors and are adorned with flower garlands. The cows are driven through the village followed by a troupe of musicians, to a near by pond or river. Here they are given a ceremonial bath. Their old ropes are cut and they are let loose for the day. On this day, they are permitted to pasture in any field without restraint. On returning from the river, the younger people seek the blessings of their elders. Everyone bathes with special paste called mati mah. In the evening, when the cows return home, they are tied with new ropes. Some people also light oil lamps and incense in the cow sheds to ward off mosquitoes and illness.
On the next day, called Manuh Bihu, special dishes made of flattened rice, curds, and jaggery and sweets are prepared and eaten. The third day is called Gosain Bihu and is dedicated to the worship of deities. On all three days of the festival, troupes of musicians and dancers visit houses and perform the Bihu dance in the open. Young men and women participate in this rhythmic dancing which was traditionally reserved for unmarried girls and was also a ground for many marital alliances. In earlier times, women were confined to their home, occasionally lending a hand in the fields. On Bihu however, they were allowed a certain amount of freedom to mix with young men. The women wear tightly-wound cream and red saris and men wear the traditional dhoti . Because of the tight fitting saris, dancing takes the form of short steps to rhythmic music with an artistic bending of the hips, shoulders and hands. The dance is accompanied by extremely frivolous and playful songs, the theme of each being coyness, sometimes even wantonness, on the part of the women, and entreaties and endearments on the part of the men. On the last two days of Bihu, a piece of heavily embroidered cloth called gamocha is given to elders as a form of respect, and their good wishes are sought in return.
Kati Bihu is a one-day festival in autumn in the month of Kartik. Kati literally means Kartik. It occurs just after the fields have been sown. This is a solemn affair, and there is no feasting as the granaries are empty. The festival is hence also called Kangali Bihu, the poor or bankrupt Bihu. After a ritual bath, people keep a day - long fast and pray to the tulasi plant. In the evening, earthen lamps are lit and placed near the basil and banana plants, granary, the backyard and the fields. Prayers are also offered at these places to protect the seedlings from any damage or danger and also for a good crop. After this ceremonial lighting of lamps, people visit each others homes and exchange greetings and sweets.
Bhogali Bihu is celebrated in Magha immediately after the winter harvest. The word 'bhogali' comes from bhoga which translates to 'feast', and the festival is essentially one off easting and merry making after a good harvest. Every villager contributes in some way or the other to this feast .Special structures called meji, made of hay from the newly harvested field, banana leaves and green bamboo stalks, are constructed in the fields. These structures are the venue for the community feasts in which special meat and fish dishes are prepared. Young people stay up all night in the meji, singing, dancing and gossiping around a bonfire. In the earlier days when the fields were surrounded by dense tropical forests, these huts were night-posts to guard the newly harvested crops from wild animals. The vigilante used his high-pitched drum to rouse the village if he spotted a wild animal. In recent times, even though there is no such danger, this custom has been retained at least during the days of the festival. The next morning ,these structures are burnt symbolizing the end of such arduous vigils before the next harvest. Practically too, the burning removes all dirt and leftovers from the harvest, and clears the fields for the new harvest. Farmers offer prayers to the sun and the earth, and apply vermilion and sandalwood paste on their cleaned and polish d implements. This day marks both the annual servicing of the tools as well as their worship. The festival comes to a conclusion with another feast at night.
The three Bihu festivals represent the three phases of human life: birth, growth and death. While Bhogali Bihu represents the birth and nurturing in the form of the harvest, Rongali Bihu represents its growth and adult hood. Kati Bihu represents the symbolic death when the fields are bare. But even in death lies the hope of birth.