The Punjabis celebrate this festival as Baisakhi. The Assamese call this festival Bohag Bihu. In Kerala they usher in the new year with Vishu. For Tamilians it is Varasha Porupu, while Gudi Padva is important for Maharashtrians. But what are they celebrating in the first half of April? The start of a new year according to the indigenous calendar system, and the start of a new agricultural season. The harvesting is over and the old agricultural cycle has ended. Winter has been chased away by the colours of spring, and summer is upon us. It is a time for feasts.

As farmers take in the sight of the rich paddy harvest their hearts are full. And they can already smell the intoxicating mango, the jackfruit and jasmine. And just as the earth needs some time to get ready for the new sowing season it is time for the farmer to recharge energies for the year ahead. What better way than to celebrate? These are festivals which beautifully show the relation between the cycle of seasons and agricultural activities and are celebrated by all communities in India, in rural as well as urban areas.

The Bhangra beats of Baisakhi.

A Harvest of Festivals [Illustrations by Shridevi & Kusum Chamoli]
A Harvest of Festivals [Illustrations by Shridevi & Kusum Chamoli]

When you think of Baisakhi in Punjab you think of the vigorous dance of Bhangra, performed by men or the Gidda performed by women. The bright clothes they wear seem to reflect the bright rays of the sun and may even make the peacock feel dull! To the beats of the dholak or drum, the men narrate the story of the agricultural cycle, beginning from the tilling of the soil till the harvesting process. As the dancing men follow every change in the dholak’s beat the viewers know which part of the story they are telling: right from ploughing and sowing to the final reaping

The ‘panj piaras’

Baisakhi is celebrated for another reason too. It was on this day that the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh started the Khalsa order, to give a definite identity to the Sikh community. It is said that the Guru wanted to test his disciples’ loyalty so he asked five volunteers to offer their lives for the cause. When five of them did so readily, the Guru was happy with their display of loyalty. He spared their lives and killed a goat instead. These five persons, called the panj piaras or the beloved five, are remembered to this day. On Baisakhi day, Sikhs all over India take out huge processions which are led by five individuals symbolising the panj piaras.

Bohag Bihu of Assam

With the beginning of Bohag, the first month of the year it is time for the people of Assam to celebrate the spring harvest festival of Bihu. Though the preparations for the Bihu festivities start much earlier and often continue for a month after the harvest, the actual ceremonies begin on Vishubha Sankranti. It is the last day of the last month (Chot) of the year. The celebrations continue for a week in the new month of Bohag in the new year.

In springtime, when nature is so lush what can a festival be but merry. The special Bihu song and dances are some of the best examples of folk poetry. It is difficult to stop dancing when the dhol (drum) the pepa (buffalo-horn pie), the taka (bamboo clapper) and hand claps are beating irresistable tunes.

It is also a time when Assam receives the first cooling showers of rain following the Norwester wind. And there’s a story behind it.

The legend of Bardoichila

People will tell you about Bardoichila, a legendary character who visits her mother in Assam during Bihu and returns to her in-laws’ place after a few days. Likewise, the approaching winds bring the showers that is so important to bring the thirsty earth back to life. Only then can it receive the seeds the farmers sow.

The seven days of Bohag

On the first day of Bohag it is the turn of the cattle to receive grateful appreciation as the farmer’s best friend. It is called Goru (cow) Bihu. On the second day it is the turn of the family elders to be at the centre of rituals. This is called Manuh (human) Bihu. On the third day, it is the turn of the gods to receive prayer and attention, on Gosain (gods’) Bihu.

The eggfighting game

On Sat Bihu, or the seventh day, a special food called the ‘sat sak’ is made from seven different kinds of leafy vegetables. Fun and play is an important part of Bihu and you can see the game of Kanijuj or egg fighting here! It is a game in which two people try to hit the egg that another person is holding. Every time an egg breaks, a smile breaks out on viewers’ faces. If they run out of eggs there is always Dhop or a ball game or hau, which is a form of kabaddi. There is also an indoor game of dice played with cowrie shells which women play.

The Malayalee’s Vishu or seeing the first light of the new year

It is the first morning of the new year or Vishu. Even as children and adults rub their eyes sleepily, they know they cannot open their eyes right away. They are led by the elder women in the family to the room where they have kept a bell metal oil lamp (kanni) burning since the previous night. They open their eyes to see the first light of the new year and what better omen can there be for a fruitful year ahead? It is called Kanikanal (seeing the kanni).

It is a day of great fun for children and for any member of the family who has somebody older to him or her. For, on this day, elders bless the young with gifts. There is a ritual custom of elders placing a silver coin on the palms of younger family members as a symbolic wish for their prosperity.

It is a grand sight to behold. Arranged alongside the kanni are the heady and brand new fruits of the harvest: luscious jackfruit, raw rice, the golden ‘konna’ or cassia flowers, new cloth, a mirror, gold ornaments. These are kept on an uruli or bell metal platter.

In Kerala villages, bands of musicians carry the decorated kanni from house to house in the early hours of the morning so that every family can start the new year’s day on an auspicious note.

It is interesting to see how the life cycles of humans also move in tune with the seasonal and agrarian cycles. In rural India, traditionally the post harvest season is followed by marriages. Like the earth which readies itself to start another new cycle of life, so do humans. What can be better than that?

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Readability: Grade 8 (13-14 year old children)
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Filed under: features
Tags: #india, #assam, #festivals, #harvest, #baisakhi

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