The post-harvest Bhogali Bihu has just ended across Assam. Down the Brahmaputra valley, it coincides with Makar Sankranti in the Barak valley, celebrated through a popular festival called merameri in Sylheti. Bihu assumes so many different forms starting from Sadiya to Dhubri, a cultural geography known for its assimilative cultural diaspora. It consists of a large number of tribes and ethnic communities along with other non-ethnic groups as well. Everyone owns the festival of great unity, harmony and mutual gift-giving and receiving, with candour and gaiety. If there is any uniting factor in this living with ethnic and cultural differences, it is the common shared practice of uruka burning — cleaning the air and water of the ethnoscape by a symbolic burning of a house of hay — and demonstrating a rich repertoire of closing off a season of hard work in the field with the reaping of harvest.
The winter Bihu known as Bhogali Bihu, as opposed to Rongali Bihu at the beginning of the sowing season in summer, is marked by several rituals pregnant with very deep faith and meaning. Post-harvest, one needs to reclaim the land and seed, and clean up the ecosystem when water is scarce. Burning the house of hay in the middle of the field, clears up the left over hay after rice crops are collected by the community. The burnt ashes replenish the field with its nutrients. Anthropologically, it is an exercise of bio-cultural rights over land that sustains an agrarian economy in rural Assam.
Young people erecting meji and bhelaghar as makeshift huts for the purpose of feasting and then burning it next morning, signify a collective bonhomie. One could also see the symbolic continuance of the practice of the erstwhile youth dormitory as it prevailed across the Northeast,where young people were trained in physical and mental exercises, and cultural norms and values.
Bhogali Bihu is celebrated in different names and differently-evolved rituals among tribes like Mishing, Deuri, Moran, Bodo, Rabha — in all, some 36 plains and hills tribes assume a colourful form of feasting, dancing, singing and rejoicing coinciding with the progress of winter. Interesting recreational and competitive fights involving animals, birds and their eggs, and water sports are organised across Assam to energise the community after days of hard work in the field. People belonging to various professions too get involved in agrarian rites that reconnect them to their roots.
What is significant at this point is not just a celebration of a traditional ritual but exercise of bio-cultural rights in the context of Assam and the entire Northeast. The Kuki-Chin festival of Chavang Kut also brings in a parallel ritual of invoking the ancestors and burning weeds from the field near the store holes of grains — these come close to the agricultural practices of the hills. Among the Mizos, Chapchar Kut as a post-harvest festival has a significant bamboo dance part where men will only sit and tap the bamboo, while women perform the dance — it also reminds one of the matrilineal past of the Mizos, where women were the main cultivators and protectors of the harvest. Among the Southern Angamis of Nagaland, the Phousnyi or Sekrenyi festival (translated as sanctification or purification festival) comes pretty close to Makar Sankranti in its style and spirit. Sekrenyi involves ritual observance of Mi-KI fire after cleaning the sources of water, which is absolutely necessary for the next harvesting season. The Eastern Nagas like Lothas celebrate the post-harvest festival called Tokhu Emomg marking a ritual collection of food grains and edibles in their traditional baskets, which is redistributed by the community priest.
The winter-festivals celebrated across the Northeast by ethnic groups involve preparation for the next harvesting season. A kind of re-objectification of the rice and maize seeds happen in a variety of ways. In case of Assam, sowing boro rice is an effective way of making use of early summer flood carrying sediments and also preserving a good harvest. The cycle of harvesting is regenerated through burning in the field, ritually symbolised in uruka and meji burning. In case of Angami Nagas, for preparation of Zhuto, spouted rice grains along with the hulls are fermented into mash and mixed with bamboo shoot and preserved in a wooden vessel. This preparation during winter allows the rural community to save seeds, which are harvested during the rainy season. The whole process involves rituals meant for preparation for the next farming season.
The entire preparation and processing is guided by a bio-cultural need and that is preserved by ritual practices. They have both positive and negative meanings. When rice is turned into feast, it is rice beer that is ritually used to signify both success and future sustenance. The variety of rice beers used during winter festivals involve a long chain of grain collection, onward to fermentation, and observance of strict cultural norms and taboos in ensuring a tasty and healthy drink. Angami and Chakesang genna (meaning taboo) guides the community towards certain do’s and don’ts that are useful in making rice beer.
The varieties of rice beers across the Northeast also mark the possibility of a material basis for such rituals. Rejuvenation of both ancestral and other spirits living across the hills, rivers and fields, occupy the imagination by naming them, possessing them and celebrating their release in the form of healing and successful harvest.
The inter-relationship between enhancing values of harvest in rituals and production of rice beer is an anthropological delight that has fascinated many observers. The traditional Laupani speaks volumes about the continued significance of an agricultural life-world despite the turbulence in the social world.
On the negative side of it, certainly there is a perpetuation of witchcraft and superstition in certain parts of the Northeast. Repeated witch-hunting in Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and other parts shows a kind of failure of state promises and a failure to comprehend rapid technological changes that suddenly dislodges the agrarian land relations and cultural practices. The disruption and displacement affect a variety of significant rituals, art, image-making and craftsmanship. As some philosophers have argued, this also marks a recession of the sacred and the rise of the so-called secular life that abandons quintessential aspects of customary and traditional practices.
When it comes to Assam, internal displacement of minorities and smaller ethnic groups like Tiwa and Laung along with Bengali Muslims, Santhals and Bodos created a situation of lack of inter-cultural empathy and ambience. One of the major reasons for decline in traditional faith is a kind of extreme inward-looking affirmation of culture that is not able to catch up with challenges coming from new technologies and symbols. The traditional artefacts and their symbolic significance within folk culture and narrative are often given a go-by in the upsurge of religious identities that pushes out cultural symbols. One interesting case is a gradual conversion of imageless cults such as Sankari culture, or Donyi-polo into some iconic Hindu features that internally changes the rules of a culture.
Such changes leave their debilitating mark on rituals and festivals like Bihu. Although everyone agrees about Bihu’s great unifying role in Assam’s assimilative culture yet there are signs of depletion that affects its cultural reproduction. The unifying role is both literal and metaphorical as cultural and religious difference are levelled by Bihu through its culinary, musical, ritual and social commonalities that is shared among Hindus, Christians, Muslims and others.
This can play a significant role in catalysing public knowledge that feeds back into each other’s responses to one another’s culture by expa-nding the domains of cultural logic in a democratic manner.
(The writer is an associate professor of philosophy at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong)