Assam has always been a melting pot of various cultures merging with their distinct characteristics. There are three broad divisions of the festivals observed here: religious festivals, agriculture based festivals and socially recognised festivals.
• Religious Festivals:
Shaivites constitute a large part of Assamese population, thus Shivaratri (the night of the fourteenth lunar day of the month of Phagun when Shiva is worshipped) is one of the most celebrated festivals. A few famous places where Shivaratri is held are Umananda (at Guwahati), Mahabhairav (at Tezpur), Singari, Bishwanath, Nagshankar and Shiva Doul (at Sivasagar). Shiva. ratri held at Shiva Doul is perhaps the most fambus. Another religious festival is Asokasthami, held in the month of March. On this day people perform some rituals by the banks of the Brahmputra river. It is believed that on this day the river Brahmaputra was born. Ambubachi mela is also another festival celebrated in the month of Aahar (third month of the Assamese calendar). It is believed that beginning from the 7th day of this month the earth, becomes Impure for three days. During this time no farming work is undertaken. After three days, the house is washed thoroughly as the mother earth regains her purity. Ambubachi mela is held at the Kamakhya temple, after being closed for the aforementioned three days. Other such festivals are Durga Puja, Kali Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Agni Puja etc.. Among the Vaishnavites. Janmashtami is a popular festival celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna, who is the Preserver of the Universe. On this day, Naam, Bhaona (theatrical performance in the old Assamese style) etc. are held generally in the premises of the Naamghar. Me-Dum-Me-Phi is the important religious festival o the Ahoms. The festival. is celebrated annually on 31st January at some common venues. It is mainly about worshiping the ancestors. Devotees dressed in traditional fineries take out colourful processing on the occasion. The Bhadon (fifth month of the Assamese calendar) month is considered to be an auspicious month. bevotionai prayers known as Naam are held throughout the month. The tithis or anniversaries of two great saints Sankardeva and Madhabdeva are observed during this month. As in other parts ‘Holi’ is also celebrated with traditional gaiety. In Barpeta, in Lower Assam, this festival is also called Doul Utsay. The Muslim community celebrate Eid. Mahram etc., the Buddhists celebrate Buddha Purnima etc.
Agriculture Based Festivals- Bihu is a famous and popular festival which is largely based on agriculture. Bihu can be broadly divided into three categories: Bohag Bihu, Kaati Bihu and Maagh Bihu. Bohag Bihu augurs the wish for a good harvest because this is the time when farmers start sowing. Kaati Bihu is observed to mark the cutting and binding of grains and Magh Bihu marks the season of harvesting of grains. In the older times, ‘Bihu’ was not a name given to these cyclic events. Men propitiated the sun, fire, earth and water etc.
so that harvest would be good. With the passage of time, the religious aspect dimmed and gave way to gaiety and enjoyment with it. It was from the time of the Ahom kings that Bihu got its prevalent shape and form.
• Bohag Bihu
Bohag Bihu is observed from the last day in the last month of Assamese calendar Chata (called Sankranti, transit or passage from one zodiacal sign to another). Earlier Bohag Bihu was celebrated for seven days together and each day had a different name like Goru Bihu (for cows), Manuh Bihu (for mankind), Tator Bihu (for loom), Gossain Bihu (for Gods), Nangalor Bihu (for plough), Bihu for domestic animals and Chera Bihu (concluding day of the Bihu). ‘Bohag Bihu’ is the season of unfettered greenery with early monsoon, and with Nature clad in beautiful colours. Such variety is not to be found elsewhere. On the first day of this Bihu, which is meant for the cows, in the early hours of the morning cows are taken out for washing in the nearest ponds and ‘Beels’. With the help of a small three pronged shaped Bamboo implement, brinjals and water gourd are out into pieces and hurled at the cows. Other vegetables like bitter gourd, turmeric and Thekera (the gamboze fruit) are also used. These implements are interchanged with others to ward off the evil. Later in the evening when the cows return home they are tied to new Pogha (rope for tying cow) and the shed is filled with smoke to prevent any evil. Cows are indispensable for cultivation and thus such treatment on the special day. Another important ritual of this day is that ladies and girls apply henna and mehendi on their hands and feet. Mehendi (locally known as Jetuka) is a way of bringing colour to life, apart from its medicinal properties. Man//h Bihu follows Goru Bihu when people visit relatives uod exchange Gamochas (a kind of towel woven in cotton). Bihuwan Gamocha is a symbol of dignity in Assamese society. Jalpas.an, a special food item, is an important part of Bihu. Chira-Doi (flat rice made out of parched half boiled paddy and curds), Aakhoi (fried paddy or Indian corn etc.), Gur (raw or unrefined sugar; molasses), Sandahguri (wet rice. parched and pounded into lumps) etc. mainly comprise the Jalpaan. Pithas or rice cakes which are parts of the Assamese delicacy add richness to the feast. Bohag Bihu is the time when people sort out their differences. Hunsari is an integral part of Bohag Bihu. Hunsari constitutes a team which has an elderly -member who leads Ihe other members of the team with men and boys, who go and sing Bihu songs at the houses of every person in the village. The team makes a visit first to the most revered person in the village. The Hunsari team is generally presented with Seleng Chadar (this cloth wrapped round the body), flowery Gamochas or flowery, colourful towels and a silver coin or so. This is the householders’ Way of according them respect. The money collected from Hunsari singing is used for development works like building of a library, a naamghar etc. People also have community feasts with the money collected in this manner. It is a time honoured custom to offer Tamol-Paan or betel nuts to the Hunsari Dol in Bohag Bihu.
Bihu folk dance is a separate item performed by both young men and women. The songs sung are mostly folk tune based and are rel6ted to love. Games like bufallow-fight, cock-fight, arm wrestling are popular. During Morn rule these games were held in the fields close to Ranghar taking ori the character of Olympiad held in Greece in ancient times. The last day of Bihu is called Chera Bihu. It is a tradition to eat Paita Bhaat (cooked rice soaked in water overnight and consumed the next day) and curds. Hand fans are used for the first time during the year heralding the advent of spring. The Assamese in villages bid farewell to Bihu in a traditional manner. After seven days or eleven days of the Chera Bihu a group of young people go and pay their respects in the Naamghar with a Sarai (tray with a stand) of Tamol-Paan and Gamocha to formally wind up the Bihu festival. Then they go to a big tree near the village and put the Bihuwan on one of its branches and then leave an instrument used in the ‘Bihu Utsav’, thus symbolically bidding farewell to that year’s Bihu.
Baisagu is the Bodo version of Bohag Bihu. This famous festival of Colours and mirth is the most cherished festival of the Bodo people. Like Bohag Bihu, Baisagu is a spring festival celebrated in mid April (Bohag is the first month of Assamese calendar). The first day begins with the worship of cow and the second day with young people seeking blessings from elders. The Baisagu draws no lines or bars. The supreme deity Bathou or lord Shiva is worshipped during the festival.
• Kaati Bihu
Kati Bihu is one of the festival of three Bihus. The Kati Bihu is known as “Kangali Bihu”, “Kongal” means “Poor” because there is not much to eat at this time of the year. The Kati or Kangali Bihu is also closely related to agriculture. Towards the end of Aahin (sixth month of the Assamese calendar) month the farmers’ labour brings forth the golden glow on the ripe grain. In the month of Kaati (seventh month of the Assamese calendar) following Aahin, the farmer gets ready to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. It is done by lighting chakis (earthen lamps) under the Tulsi( black basil) plant.
Kaati Bihu is the time when the granary is empty hence lending the name Kangali Bihu. The granary is also adorned with an earthen lamp so as to auger a full granary throughout the coming. months. There is another custom of lighting an earthen lamp on a long sliver of a bamboo. There is a belief that this is done to ease the departed one’s soul to the other world. This ‘earthen lamp’ is also called Askash Banti. Parallel to this Bihu, the festival of Deepavali is also celebrated, with the lighted ‘diyas’ dispelling the darkness.
It is observed to celebrate the harvesting of grain. It is usually held on the 14th and 15th of January (1st and 2nd Maagh, the tenth month of Assamese calendar). The first day is called Uruka, when people build a temporary shed and have feast. Four bamboo rods are placed beside the four posts and then a Meji (a pile or column on split fire-wood or straw erected for burning in the early morning of the Maagh Bihu) is built in the shape of a temple, in a conical shape. In the early hours of the next day people take a bath and after the Meji is lighted, they pay their respect and the Bihu is officially started. The ashes of the burnt Meji is scattered over the fields, for it is believed that doing so would increase the fertility of the soil. Delicacies like pithas are served together with Jalpaan. Various kinds of potatoes (Kaath Aloo, Mitha Aloo etc.) are also eaten on this day. Many games are also played keeping the spirit of the Bihu alive. Bihu is the treasure of the Assamese, something which they have to protect at all cost. But now commercialisation has cost Bihu some of its lustre. In place of Chira, pithas, curd, cakes, biscuits etc. have taken over. Bihu dances and songs have been restricted to the stage with its being brought within the bounds of competition.
Among the tea tribes of Assam, there are many festivals which are very popular, among which mention may be made of Karam Puja and Tusu Puja. Karam is celebrated on the 5th day of Bhadon month. It has celebrated in two types — Rajah Karam and Jitiya Karam. For Jitiya Karam there is no such hard and fast rule. There are many types of songs, which are sung on the occasion of Karam Puja like Bandana, Khemta, Dat, Jhumur, Rang and Bhincheria songs, Tusu Puja is celebrated in the month of Puh and Maagh (Makar Sankranti). The idol of Tusu devi is installed in a place and a puja (worship) is performed in her honour. The next day, the idol is immersed in water. People take a bath on this day, which is. known as Makar Snan.
Ali-Aai-Lrigang — an another agri-based festival, is celebrated by the Mising community with great enthusiasm. Community feast and ‘gumrag’ dance (a kind of line-dancing) are main attractions of this festival.
Socially Recognised Festivals
Socially Recognised Festivals Ceremonies associated with birth, death and marriage have their own social significance. For example, there is a custom of bringing the newborn out in the sun after eleven days of its birth. The house is symbolically purified after thoroughly giving it a wash. This ceremony is called Suddhi. There is also a custom of drawing up the child’s horoscope based on the birth sign of the child. There is another ceremony called Annaprashan (where various delicious food and rice are prepared and fed to the baby) held in the 5th, 7th or 9th month from the baby’s birth. Generally a ceremony called Churakaran is held among Brahmins and other high castes on the occasion of tonsuring the child’s hair, nine days after it is born.
A girl attaining puberty is also a cause for celebration in Assam. She is kept in a seperate room and is not allowed to see her father or any other male relative. On the day her menses gets over a ceremony called Tolani Biya is held which is the mini adaptation of a real wedding. Only ladies can’ take part in it. In the Brahmin community a boy is invested with the sacred thread at the age of 12 years or so in a special ceremony called Upanayan which is held according to vedic rites.
Weddings are an integral part of any society and Assamese society is no exception. Right from the start the horoscopes of the couple are matched, until the time when they are finally brought together, everyday is looked forward to with joy and anticipation. Although each community has customs peculiar to it, broad based customs like ring ceremony, Joran (a ceremony where the bride is gifted with all the ornaments, cloths etc. and specially Sendur or vermilion powder and oil from the groom’s side necessary for the wedding), Adhivas (ceremony before a solemn rite performed on the previous night) etc. are observed in Assamese society also. Anointing the bride and groom with Mah and Haldi (Turmeric and other specified pulses) from the „loran day up to the wedding and then bathing with water drawn up from river or any other water source (a ritual which is called paani tola) are very much interesting part of the custom. Then there is the traditional wedding day custom where the bride and the groom are ceremoniously brought together, after the father or a guardian of the bride formally hands over the bride to the groom. Aath Mongola is another ceremony which is held when the bride returns to her mother’s place, after eight days of her wedding. Assamese weddings have another characteristic. It is Biyanaam, which again has another interesting name called Joranaam. Joranaam is basically impromptu songs sung by both the sides of bride and groom, poling fun at each other. It contains various kinds of advice for the bride and the groom. On the third day from the marriage, another function is .also celebrating in the grooms house. It is Khuba-Khubi. The evils of dowry have not yet touched Assamese society. No demands are made by the groom’s party regarding anything. It is at the bride’s parents discretion to give furniture, vessels etc. with her to start her life in a new note.
The various tribes of Assam also have their unique marriage customs. Among the Bodos, to mark the consent of a boy for a girl a pair of silver bangle is put in the thatched roof of the house of the girl or two bottles of liquor are kept outside. If the girl’s family approves of the boy then they do not return the gifts presented by the groom’s family. The girl presents the boy with a gamocha and a handkerchief, if she likes him. Among the Ahoms, marriage is solemnised according to a ritual called Chokiong which is presided over by Ahbm priests. They read from their own scripts, and also the family history is related to the couple. One hundred and one earthen lamps are lighted in this auspicious occasion. Marriage, customs in the Mising community are similar to the. Hindus. Deories have their specifically defined Gotras among whom marriage can be solemnised. Among them ‘widow-marriage is allowed and divorce is restricted. Dowry system is also seen. The Karbis are strict against illicit love. Divorce is not seen with a kind eye. The Rabhas have the practice of widow remarriage and divorce. Tiwas are same as the Hindus in the matter of marriage except that they do not light Horn or the auspicious fire.