Bohag Bihu: The recounting of life's blessing

This four-day festival is all about reconnecting with our roots and understanding what is important and good for us – a theme that reflects in our meals as well, says Assamese culinary custodian Geeta Dutta.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy: A Foodies’ Diary

To the world, Bohag Bihu, one of the three harvest festivals (Bihu) to mark the agricultural calendar of Assam, may be a day affair, but for culinary researcher and archiver, Geeta Dutta (founder, A Foodies’ Diary, and a doctor), “it is a week-long affair that not only allows her to understand her legacy but also explore traces of her food tradition including a special dish called Exo ebidh xaak. This traditional stir fry that marked the beginning of Summers in Assam is traditionally made with 101 greens that grow in abundance in the region during the time, with each serving a purpose of making one fitter for the weather. In fact, according to old Axomiya texts, the Exo ebidh xaak, a stir-fried dish, is the perfect antidote that not only detoxes the system, repairs it but also builds it against the vagaries of nature and heat.

And yet, rues the culinary custodian, “it is hard to find even 20 of those varieties to make a dish.” Thus, she continues, “understanding and appreciating festivals like Bohag Bihu, one of three Bihus celebrated in Assam, that marks the beginning of the farming calendar is so important. After all, here is the festival that in four days not only explains you the essence of life, but also the idea of having time for everything.”

Fascinatingly, the concept behind Bohag Bihu, which technically began yesterday with Goru Bihu, is akin to the rest of the country – it is a farmer’s time off from farming, a time that he spends tending to his cattles (cows and buffalos), family and friends. It is also the time when tribes host these little parties and even go out foraging to bolster the sense of brotherhood – the fruits of which in some tribes is celebrated over mugs of rice beer. But while elsewhere in the country, this agrarian festival (which came to be known as the New Year with urbanisation) is a one-day festival, Assam, especially the rural parts of the state still celebrate it as a weeks’ event, with each day dedicated to a certain aspect of a human’s life beginning with thanking not just the land but also the cattle and ancestor wisdom who made it all possible. The festival begins with the Goru Bihu where the cattle is bathed with a concoction that has the healing turmeric and their shed is cleaned, smoked with “jag” (a herb) and makhiyoti followed by a special offering of a meal called chaat made of all kinds of gourd, brinjal and other vegetables on a skewer and prayers to outlive all. This ritual is followed by a gathering where the young seek the blessing and wisdom of the elders. The next day is Manuh Bihu, which, says Dutta, “is the day which marks the start of a calendar and is often celebrated as one. While women dress up in silk makhela sari and apply the jetuka (mehendi), men adorn the silken gamusa and relish the Bihu Jolpaan which is a traditional spread made of hira or beaten rice, that come in as many varieties as they are paddy although the preferred ones are Malbhog chira and Bora dhanor chira not only for the texture but taste well, a kind of puffed rice (muri) called Hurum, curd, melted jaggery/honey, cream and of course the special Kumol Saul. A GI tagged variety of rice, Kumol Saul is one of the rare breeds of paddy that needs no cooking. You can soak it for 15 minutes and it would be ready to eat. In fact, back in the day, continues Dutta, “this nature’s instant food would be the main ingredient in the sack carried by men (and their families) as they set on this long boat journeys to meet their near and dear ones. On this day however, Kumol Saul is had with fresh cream and jaggery as mark of happiness and is the first thing that is offered to guests at any rural Assamese house followed by the traditional Tambul Paan (a beetle nut known for its medicinal and digestive properties).”

The Jolpaan which takes on a more lavish appearance with the addition of pithas, especially the Chunga pitha (made in hollow bamboo), and larus or ladoos made of coconut, sesame seeds and semolina incidentally also marks the change of food styles in Assam, which goes towards lighter, more fermented food with greens prominently featuring in the meal not just during the week-long celebrations that continues with Kutum Bihu (celebrated with family, neighbours and kin) and Husori (where a group or men and women visit household singing and dancing songs of blessing and happiness and are presented with the gamusa, tambula paan and bota or bell metal utensils).

Traditionally Rongali Bihu marks the entry of Poita Bhaat or Panta Bhaat into the household. Essentially fermented rice dish made with rice soaked in water overnight, this dish also ensures the entry of minimally cooked and mildly flavoured dishes beginning with Xaat Saak, which is a stir-fry of seven different varieties of saag that grow in every household’s kitchen garden during the time of the year. Among the meat, pork and fish take prominence over mutton and are often cooked with gourds, leafy vegetables flavoured with either lemon, thekera or tomatoes given the change in the palate, and heat, says Dutta, whose meals every day, especially lunch, has one sour curry and one stir-fry as must.  One of the techniques that becomes a popular mainstay at homes with Rongali Bihu is that of tenga. “In fact, there are so many versions of tenga that any lentil, meat or vegetable can be made into one, and is made at homes during this time,” says Dutta, who finds the festival not just a lesson in food but the ancient wisdom of how to adopt to things to lead a happier life, taking time out is one of them. And that, concludes the curator of A Foodes’ Diary, “is the essence of Bohag Bihu.”