I remember visiting Sareng Chuburi village (a small, cosy village located in Mangaldoi district) with my sister Prerana last month for her research work on traditional handloom in Assam. Its beauty is marked by lush green open paddy fields, dreamy ponds with the sun-rays cutting across the water surface, the narrow and muddy roads running up to Arimattar Pukhuri (a historic pond built during the time of King Arimatta) to name a few. The immense love and warmth of the people remained inked in my heart, giving me an intense sense of self-fulfillment.
I set out for it again this Kati Bihu. Starting off with my brother on his bike at around 3 in the afternoon, we reached Sareng at around 6 in the evening. Entering it, I saw men carrying long cylindrical structures of bamboo with cone-shaped mouths and learnt that they are called gosa used during this Bihu to hold earthen lamps.
The first thing we did was we visited Keshab Barua. A farmer by occupation, Barua Bordeuta is a Koch by birth. He took us to the rice-fields through his backyard garden. It was pitch-dark by then. He carried the gosa containing the dona (a rectangular sheet-like container made of plantain trunk). The dona contained some fruits, incense sticks and an outengar khola (thick skin cut out from elephant apple used like an earthen lamp). Upon reaching the fields, he fixed the gosa in a corner, lighted the khola, offered his prayers and clapping his hands, he uttered loudly,
‘Onyor dhaan aaul jhaaul
Amar dhaan mukhor saaul
Aaga deul deul!’
The ritual was done and we returned to his courtyard. I saw Runa baideu arranging the xorai (ritual offerings). She neatly placed the kolpaat (banana leaf) on which she arranged around 8 dona each carrying a khola, prasad, four different fruits as well as incense sticks. There was also a well-built tuloxir-bheti (an elevated structure built of mud where a tulsi plant is planted) adjacent to the gosa. This whole arrangement was placed right in front of the bhoral ghor (granary).
Under the starry sky, the kids sat leisurely on the cot and there was Bireihi aaita (grandmother in English), of Barua Bordeuta’s mother, squatting on the verandah clad in a green mekhela (a type of traditional skirt) tied up to her chest. After the family prayer was done, Munu, Bordeuta’s niece, took one dona each to all the sacred spots starting from the granary, the cowshed, the backyard garden as well as the entrance door of each household. This was followed by distribution of prasad to everyone – along with fruits, it consisted of maati-maah (black gram) and mugu (moong daal) garnished with coconut and ginger.
As I relished it, I observed how each member of the family was occupying his/her own space. The men clad in sacred attire occupied the central space while the women stood in the periphery, taking less part in the conversations. Young men from the neighbourhood who came as guests occupied the wooden benches and I was offered a chair. I also observed that everyone was offered prasad on banana leaves while I was offered on a dish, which signifies the insider/outsider binary perhaps.
In the mean time, I talked to Bordeuta in length and breadth about the festival. He told me how the day starts. Early morning, the men visit their fields to have a look at their crops. Then the rest of the tasks start—women sweep the courtyard and men make the day’s requirements like gosa and khola. He continued by explaining to me the essence of the hymn he had sung back in the field, that it symbolises the centrality of rice in their life and community. He further explained, ‘You must have seen me clapping hands. That is symbolic of remembering Goddess Lakshmi for her blessings. The very word Kongali in Kongali Bihu (another expression for Kati Bihu) means broken/poor. During this Bihu thus, the crop condition is poor and so we pray for a better harvest. Some people also play the borkaah (gong) as well as the xongkho (cone-shell) instead of clapping hands’.
That very moment, the rhythmic sound of borkaah came floating placidly through the festive air. I suddenly recalled seeing a lot of banana trees with rangoli designs drawn at their base at the entrance gate of some houses. I learnt from Bordeuta that some people do not use gosa but these designs to place the earthen lamps. As we were talking, Sabitri Borma (elder mother in Assamese) came with tea and snacks consisting of pitha-laru.
Bordeuta narrated, ‘Earlier, the variety of khula-sapri pitha was very common during this Bihu but it is rarely baked these days. The use of dheki is also rare you know. I am planning to make one now. On this Bihu as well as on Lakshmi Puja, we bring a part of crop from our fields early morning and store them in our granaries.’ He also narrated about the rituals and offerings that take place in the Naamghar and that he was once a member of a Naam Dol (the team who sings Naam). Soon, we went to Rupam da’s house to see the lighting of the Akaxbonti (Akaxbonti is a wooden structure tied with a rope to a bamboo pole which holds an earthen lamp. It is placed at the height of the skyline for the lamp to be visible. Every evening for a month, oil and thread are added for the flame to continue burning!).
We returned to Bordeuta’s house and experienced an energetic Naam performance by young and old men alike. After it was over I thanked Bordeuta and his family for the time and left his place. Munu and her cousin Rakesh followed me for an adda and they told me about the craziest part of this celebration, i.e., children stealing prasad from others. We burst out in laughter and amazement! As it was almost time for dinner, the kids left and I retreated to my bed. I must say that 2019 shall be a memorable year for me for this very evening!
Person in Feature Image: Keshab Barua
The article was written by Rituparna Choudhury. She is a Guest Faculty at Gauhati University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos: Rituparna Choudhury