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.