Assam is a land of fairs and festivals and the majority characterise the spirit of accommodation and togetherness of the diverse faiths and beliefs found there. This perfect fusion of heritage shared by the numerous races living in Assam has made it home to the most colourful festivals and reflects the true spirit, tradition and lifestlye of its people.
The major festivals celebrated in Assam are Ambubashi Mela (for all Hindus), Bihu (for everyone), Baishagu and Kherai (for Bodo), Ali-Ai-Ligang (for Mising), and Me-Dum-Me-Phi (for Ahom).
The people of Assam also celebrate Holi, Durga Puja, Diwali, Swaraswati Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Kali Puja, Idd, Muharram, Christmas Day and the birth and death anniversaries of Vaishnava Saints Srimanta Sankardev and Madhabdev.
Many of the traditional dances are only performed at specific festivals and we describe the major ones below. Some customs may vary from village to village within the same community.
This is the most important festival of the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati and is held every year during monsoon (mid-June). This festival is closely related to the Tantric cult and is also known as Kamakhya Devi Puja. It is believed that Goddess Kamakhya goes through her menstrual cycle during this time and for three days the doors to the temple are kept closed because the earth is impure. Ambubachi Mela is celebrated at the Kamakhya temple on the fourth day when thousands of devotees from all over India and abroad are once again allowed to enter the temple for worship. When the doors are finally opened the devotees charge through hoping to receive prasad, small pieces of cloth supposedly moist with Goddess Kamakhya’s menstrual fluid, and which are considered highly auspicious and powerful.
Bihu is the most important and widely acknowledged festival in Assam and is celebrated with joy and abundance by everyone irrespective of caste, creed, religion, faith or belief. There are three Bihus, each one marking a distinct phase of the annual rice-farming calendar and they are held at three different times of the year. The Bihus, Bohag Bihu, Kati Bihu and Magh Bihu, are named according to the months of the Assamese calendar.
Bohag or Rongali Bihu, the most important, is celebrated in the middle of April. It marks the Assamese New Year and coincides with the advent of spring and seeding time. Rongali in the Assamese language means colourful so, as the name suggests, this is the most colourful and vibrant of the three Bihus and can continue for several days.
Kati or Kongali Bihu, the quietest, is observed rather than celebrated in mid-October. It is held just before the rice is harvested and involves silent prayer in the form of lighting earthern lamps in the paddy fields to ensure the success of the crop. The Assamese word kongali means scarcity or deprivation and the mood of this Bihu is very sober with none of the usual dancing and singing.
Magh or Bhogali Bihu is celebrated in the middle of January immediately after harvesting the rice crop with village feasts (bhogali means feasting in Assamese).
At Bohag Bihu (which also marks the Assamese new year) and Magh Bihu (the harvest festival) young women dressed in colourful traditional festive costumes woven out of pure muga (silk) dance and are accompanied with wild and lusty beats from the men dressed in dhoti (baggy white pants) with gamuchas (traditional scarves) tied round their foreheads playing the dhol and pepa.
The dhol is an essential part of Bihu. It maintains the rhythm and is similar to an Indian drum, played with two sticks and made out of a wooden barrel. The two open ends are covered with animal skin. Tightening or loosening the skin with ropes or nuts and bolts adjusts the pitch. The dhol dates back to the 15th century when it was played during wartime. The pepa, a chunky flute-like instrument, is also played during Bihu. It is made from buffalo horn with a short tapering stem of bamboo, cane or reed as the mouthpiece.
The songs are mostly based on the theme of love and often carry erotic overtones. Bihu dances are extremely energetic and feature both young boys and young girls, although they tend to stay in their separate groups. The dances are charactised by brisk steps, stylish footwork, the flinging and waving of hands and the erotic swaying of hips to represent youthful passion.
The first phase of Bohag Bihu is dedicated to cattle. They are smeared with mustard oil and then taken to the nearest pond or river for a ceremonial bath. The people, too, take a bath in the river. The first part of the dance consists of Husari Kirtans (religious songs). One man sets the refrain, which is soon picked up by the rest and young men only perform the dance in a circle.
Both young men and women take place in all the other Bihu dances where the songs are often love ditties which are sung in couplets and often performed in the fields and under trees. Both men and women play clappers called taka and the dancers form circles, rows and figures of eight (representing the motif of intertwined serpents).
During the second phase of Bohag Bihu villagers don new clothes, exchange gifts and visit relatives and friends in groups and perform Bihu dances in the open.
Magh Bihu also brings much revelry and merry-making. Bonfires are built high and after the chanting of prayers and much singing and dancing they are set on fire. The dances are similar to the ones performed at Bohag Bihu but more vigorous.
The women folk make different varieties of delicacies or Bihu pithas (flaky rice powder pancake rolls) like Til Pitha which is stuffed with sesame seeds fried with molasses. In the paddy fields during the day the men build megis (large bonfires) and Bihu ghors (temporary house-like structures made from bamboo and thatch) and in the evening they feast and there is much singing and dancing. Next morning they bathe early, chant prayers and set the Bihu ghor alight as they celebrate with more singing and dancing. They then take pieces of burnt wood to the fields as auspicious offerings. People will also visit their relatives and friends at this time and games are sometimes organised like bull fighting, javelin and sword fights. Being a harvest festival, Magh Bihu is celebrated almost everywhere in India and is known as Sankranti.
The Bodos, a branch of the Indo-Mongoloid family, are the largest Scheduled tribe in Assam. They migrated south from Tibet and Burma and were one of the first to settle in Assam. They generally celebrate Baishagu, famous for its myriad colours and merriment, in mid-April. It is the most cherished festival of the Bodo tribe and is also celebrated as a springtime festival to commemorate the advent of the new year.
On the first day the cow is worshipped and on the following day young people of each household reverentially bow down to their parents and elders. Finally they worship the supreme deity Bathou or Lord Shiva by offering chicken and zou (rice beer).
The Bagarumba dance is typically performed during this festival and it is the most attractive dance of the Bodo community.
Girls alone, dressed in dokhnas (draped skirts) chaddar (cloth used as a bodice) and jhumra (shawls), perform this dance (also known as Bardwisikhla) accompanied by men playing traditional musical instruments like the serja (a bowed instrument), sifung (flute), tharkha (a piece of split bamboo) and khum (a long drum made of wood and goatskin), as they utter “bagurumba hay bagurumba”. Although it is cheerful and creates a festive mood of much gaiety and merriment providing the girls with relief from their normal hardworking village life, it is also serious, and the lyrics that accompany it are a simple description of the world of nature.
The purpose of the dance is to appease the Bodos’ supreme god Bathow, for whom the Sizu tree is a symbol. It is also called the Butterfly Dance as the girls look like pretty, flighty butterflies as they dance with their arms outstretched, their shawls creating the impression of wings.
The Baishagu festival is closed with community prayers offered at the garja sali, a place of common worship, located outside the village in the corner of a grazing field.
The Kherai is another Bodo festival and is associated with worshipping Bathow (Lord Shiva) the principal god of this particular tribe. The Kherai puja (act of worship) is always followed by a series of ritual dances called the Deodhani. The puja and dance are inseparable, the dance being an essential part of the Kherai worship.
The term Deodhani is derived from the Sanskrit word deva meaning god or deity and dhani meaning sound or echo. Hence the word “Deodhani” literally means the sound or utterings of a god or deity although some people believe dhani has the meaning woman.
Traditionally a young girl, a female shaman or oracle, is selected to play the key role. She must have reached adulthood, be a virgin, and possess a shapely form with a slender waist. The priest first consecrates this dancer at the altar of Bathow after which she leads the Deodhani dance. The dance is performed only by women but is accompanied by two men playing the khum (drum), two men playing the sifung (flute) and two men playing jotha (cymbals).
The dancers, with their hair free, wear long woven dresses, often red in colour, black girdles, and a yellow or red gamocha around their waists. Historically, at the time of dancing the main dancer was naked above the waist other than her jewellery of nose rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets, used to carry a small drum as a talisman, had a vermillion mark on her forehead and her hair dressed in a heart-shaped plait.
Three stages mark the puja the main dancer performs. Firstly, with the help of the Oja (priest) who is responsible for ensuring that all the sanctities and rituals are performed correctly, she falls into a trance and he consecrates her before the altar of the Bathow. She then begins to dance with the intention of appeasing and seeking favour from nineteen gods and goddesses beginning with Bathow (Lord Siva) and ending with Lakshmi. At one stage she dances a fierce war-dance at which time she takes up a sword and a shield. Her movements reflect the different deities to which her dance is dedicated and the beat of the accompanying instruments also changes accordingly. The third stage is at the end of the dance when she predicts fortunes and answers questions addressed to her by the attending villagers.
A two or three day Deodhani festival is also celebrated every year in the middle of August when thousands of brightly dressed devotees, encircled with brilliant fresh flower necklaces and adorned with vermillion die, flock to Guwahati and make trance offerings to the Serpent Goddess (Manasa Puja) at the Kamakhya temple there.
The dance begins in the evening and continues until dawn as the devotees express the sacrifice of their lives to the holy goddess. As they dance they flourish live pigeons and goats which are later sacrificed in the temple.
Ali-Ai-Ligang is the spring festival of the Mising (descended from the Astro-Mongoloids). Originally a hill tribe from Tibet and Mongolia, they travelled from Manasa Sarovar, the highest freshwater lake in the world and settled in Arunachal Pradesh and the plains of Assam in around the 8th century.
Ali-Ai-Ligang is the most colourful festival and occurs every year on the first Wednesday of the month of Ginmur Polo (February-March) in the Mising calendar. It is held to appease mother earth and the fore-fathers of the Mising and to mark the new sowing season. Ali means root or seed and ai means fruit and ligang means sow and the heads of families ceremonially sow paddy in a corner of their respective rice fields in the morning hours and pray for a good crop during the year as well as for general abundance and well-being on this day.
The festival continues for five days and on the fourth day there are taboos regarding cutting trees, fishing, ploughing and burning jungle that must be strictly observed and the Mising take complete rest that day. Dancing and singing is a big feature of this festival when the young boys and girls don traditional costumes. They dance Gumrag Pakes Cha Nam, characterised by brisk stepping, flinging and flapping of hands and swaying of hips to indicate youthful passion, reproductive urge and general gaiety which is accompanied by drums, pipes, flutes, cymbals and gongs. The gong is only ever played at Ali-Ai-Ligang and the drums have a special beat for the Gumrag dance.
The formal dance of the festival starts on the courtyard of the easternmost house in the village. The performers dance in circles on the courtyards of every house in the village and in return the host rewards the dancers with rice beer, chicken and even on some occasions cash. The dancers often move outside into the fields.
The songs sung at Ali-Ai-Ligang are not confined to the songs of youth alone. Their themes are vast and varied and include the life of man, his sufferings and death. However there is focus on the joy and sorrow of love.
The last day of the festival is called lilen and is celebrated with Dapan Tipan, a huge community village feast that includes pork and dried fish and at which poro apong or rice beer is drunk.
The Buddhist Tai-Ahom, led by Sukapha, arrived in Assam in 1228 from what is present day Yunan in China. Befriending the Moran and Borah tribes, and with many of his followers marrying their womenfolk, he is attributed with being the architect of modern Assam. Later, intermixing with immigrant Bengalis, most converted to Hinduism.
The most important Tai-Ahom festival is the Me-Dum-Me-Phi, the ancestor worship festival, which is observed by the whole Tai-Ahom community. An ancient rite dating back some two thousand years, it is performed annually on 31 January. In addition to worshipping ancestors it invokes individuals' life forces to attain social solidarity and vitality in times of peace and conflict, thus helping to develop social contacts and community feeling. It is celebrated with colourful processions and devotees dress up in traditional finery especially for the occasion.
The day begins with the hoisting of the Tai-Ahom flag and is followed by a heralding incantation. Next priests recite incantations in which the whole tribe, old and young, takes part. Children participate in quiz competitions and adults listen to scholars lecturing on the significance of the festival. A community feast is also held at which everyone irrespective of caste, creed, rank or status is welcome.
Due to the increasing participation of many non Tai-Ahom people in this festival it is now celebrated all over Assam.
Sattriya Nritya, one of the eight classical dance forms of India, originates from Assam. It has remained a living tradition since its creation by the Assamese Vaishnavite saint Srimanta Sankardeva in the 15th century to accompany his Ankiya Naat (a form of self-devised one-act plays).
The core of Sattriya Nritya is to use the artistic and enjoyable form of dance to pass on mythological stories and teachings to its audience. Traditionally performed only by bhokots (male monks) in monasteries as part of their daily rituals or at special festivals, today it is also performed on stage by men and women who are not members of the sattras (religious institutions) and can have themes other than mythology too. Over the years it has divided into many genres.
Sattriya Nritya is accompanied by musical compositions called borgeets (some composed by Sankardeva himself) and which are based on classical ragas (a series of five or more musical notes depicting emotional expressions). The instruments traditionally used are khols (drums), taals (cymbals) and the flute but now other instruments have also been added like the violin and harmonium. The dresses are usually made of pat, a type of silk produced in Assam woven with intricate local motifs. The ornaments are also based on traditional Assamese designs.
The Sattriya culture is the basis of the religious and cultural fabric of Assam.
Barpeta’s Bhortal Nritya
The Bhortal Nritya of Barpeta evolved from the classical dance form of that particular district of Assam and was developed by Narahari Burha Bbakat, a well known Sattriya artist. It is performed in a group of six or seven dancers or sometimes in even in larger groups and is performed with the intention of praising God.
The dancers carry large cymbals that they play to the music’s very fast beat and which makes the dance a very interesting and rousing one. The movements are designed to produce colourful patterns, unique amongst the other dances of Assam, and as a result of all these elements it appeals to people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.
The Jhumur is one of the traditional folk dances of Assam. It was developed over the years by the tribes living and working in the tea gardens, called kulls. It is performed by girls and boys together or sometimes by the girls alone and is traditionally performed in the Autumn to the beat of a madal (drum).
The Jhumur is a celebration of youth and vigour and both the young and old dance together in gay abandon. It requires precision footwork while the dancers clasp tightly to each other’s waist. The female dancers wear red saris, red blouses and jewellery of bangles and anklets.