Come January and there's festivity in the air in the northeastern state of Assam. With the harvest season coming to an end, it's time for feasts, bonfires, makeshift huts, "Bulbuli fights" and much more — it's Bhogali Bihu time!
This year, Bhogali Bihu, also known as Magh Bihu, was celebrated on January 15, which usually coincides with Makar Sankranti, Pongal and Lohri festivals in other parts of the country — all celebrated at the end of the harvest season.
Although there was no dearth of fun, frolic and merriment even this time round, there was something missing — the traditional "Bulbuli fights" (nightingale fights) at the Haigriva Madhav temple in Assam's Hajo township.
Following a ban imposed by the Supreme Court on animal fights, the Bulbuli fight did not take place this Bhogali Bihu.
Hundreds of people have been engaged for generations in catching and training the nightingales or Bulbuls — as the bird is commonly known in other parts of India — for the unique event.
Those engaged in catching and training of Bulbuli birds said the court order did not just snatch away their bread and butter but also took away the sheen from the festival.
"I did not feel the spirit of Bhogali Bihu this time. What is Bhogali Bihu without the Bulbuli fights? This year we did not catch the birds due to the Supreme Court ban," said 55-year-old Krishna Kalita, who had been catching and training the birds since he was six.
"For me and others like me, the Bulbuli fight is the most important element of Bhogali Bihu… We had just no reason to celebrate the festival," said Kalita.
Although there is no documented history about when Bulbuli fights started, old-timers say it was started by the great Ahom King Swargadeo Pramatta Singha during his rule between 1744 and 1751.
People believe that the king saw two Bulbuli birds fighting while descending the stairs of the temple. The king was so amused by their fight that he instructed his men to catch Bulbuli birds and organise their fights.
Later it became a part of tradition and a unique signature event of the temple during the Magh Bihu.
Kalita reminisced that their preparation for the Bhogali Bihu would start a month in advance.
"The number of Bulbuli birds increases around this time of the year, as they come in large numbers. Each catcher nets 20 to 25 birds using traps made of nylon ropes and takes them to his home. They would become part of the family for one month…
"My mother, brothers, nieces… everyone would get involved in the process for a full one month," said Kalita, adding that everyone would be busy bathing the birds, drying them and feeding them regularly.
He said that the birds would be given special diet during the month, so as to keep them healthy. He, however, declined to give the details of the "special diet", as his rivals would come to know his "secret".
The birds would be trained and then divided into two teams — "Bharalitola" and "Sonaritola" — indicating two localities in the area, and the fight would be directed by experts called "Masing" in each team.
The fight would continue for several hours before three of them emerged as first, second and third winners, and then the birds would be released in the forest.
Kalita's story is similar to hundreds of others, who had been engaged in this traditional source of earning their bread for generations. Although the Supreme Court banned the animal fight, Bulbuli fight was held in the temple until 2014.
In 2015 and 2016 too birds were caught and brought to the temple for the fights, but they could not be held, as the district administration strictly implemented the court order.
This year, however, they did not catch the birds as the temple authority had announced in advance that the Bulbuli fight will not take place.
Apart from being part of a legacy and cultural tradition, the Bulbuli fight had also become a top tourist attraction in this part of the state. Hundreds of thousands of tourists, including domestic and foreign, used to throng the Haigriva Madhav temple every year to witness the Bulbuli fight.
"It is also a matter of emotion for all the people of Hajo. We cannot defy the Supreme Court ban. But the court should have considered the fact that the birds are never hurt by their keepers as in other animal fights.
"The Bulbuli fight is unique and it does not fall in the category of cruelty to animal of birds," said Ranjir Das, a local resident.