Bihu gave us distinctive flavours during our childhood. Although the festival is mostly indigenous aboriginal and for agrarian people living on the riverside, the Assamese society is believed to be from beyond Patkai Hill, India’s north-eastern border with Burma.
The Ahom, the descendants of the Tai people, mostly living in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand,
Vietnam and China reached the Brahmaputra valley in 1228 and the local native joined over time. Thereby food habits and lifestyles still have some connection with the people of South Asia.
Northeast India is home to varied vegetables such as herbs, shrubs, trees, and creepers. Aita’s (grandma) searches of different varieties of xaak (greens and herbs) on first Bohag from our backyard remained wistful about the good old days.
For Rongali Bihu, the Assamese new year, a special dish is traditionally prepared with ‘ekho-Ek bidh xaak’ (101 varieties of local leafy vegetables), which is believed to be beneficial to health. Over the years, it becomes rare and difficult to spot, but the tradition remains in the heart of many that I was sweetly reminded of by writer Syed Nazibur Rahman the other day.
Villagers could only feel their boundless energy and youthful enthusiasm, while cattle are washed in the river, a day before the new year with symbolic herbs such as maah-halodhi (black gram -turmeric paste), whipped dighloti (a plant with longleaf), makhioti,
(tonglati – a plant with a flower-like soft plastic butterfly), lau (bottle gourd) and bengena (brinjal).
We dived into the mighty river as it’s auspicious for a bathe in the Brahmaputra during
the festive season. Bihu dance remains the heart and soul of Assam and accompanying pitha and laddu made our days filled with merrymaking. Wearing phoolam gamosa (intricate designs of traditional Assamese towel) around the head, we ran to bihutoli (the field for Bihu) after hearing the rhythmic thuds of Dhol and Pepa for participating in Kukura Juj (ancient games cockfight), but they are on the verge of extinction now.
We were like ancient Olympic victors, wearing wreath of flowers on our head and typical
garlands of Champa (Frangipani – Plumeria). Those were made of an arrangement of flowers and coconut leaves in a circular shape.
It’s similar to the wild olive wreath called kotinos, which had deep religious significance for the ancient Greeks. Our Koka (grandfather) offered us such a typical gift during
Bohag. The crown of flowers and foliage is part of the wedding groom in our family. A mali (gardener) from neighbouring Rani village, used to bring such decoration for our
family as a sign of respect.
There were rulers by the side of the Garo hills during Ahom rules. Our ancestors were part of the Rani Kingdom for collecting khajana (land revenue). Rani was an independent territory until pre-British time stretching from Jalukbari to Palashbari and from Rani Chapari to Khasi and Garo hills. While Mong Mao prince Chaolung Sukaphaa, the first Ahom King and his followers settled his journey at Sibasagar, another group
might have settled in lower Assam, undivided Assam-Meghalaya.
Our forefathers’ names were like Chathura, Mathura (thura means brave, gallant in Burma), Majum, Naomon (Mong Mao prince Chao-lung Sukaphaa), Sansing (Aung San
– the Burmese leader) and they are both culturally and genetically very similar and
primarily identified through names and livelihood. Probably our ancestors resembled
Burmese connection. I belong to the eighth generations of our ancestors. Ahom King Gadadhar Singha made a Garo queen of the state Rani. The queen helped him during political disputes among Ahom royal families. Patgaon was the capital then. Rani lost
its status as a kingdom and converted into Mouza (revenue circle) during British rule. Now they are Dakhin Rani, Chayani and Ramsarani mouza.
There was no written records/manuscript of prehistory. Our family histories across time and cultures are also not available. Archaeologists and historians have to rely on artefacts, biological remains (fossils) or other evidence to get something to be knowable. The earliest evidence of manuscript (Sanchi puthi) writing in India goes back to the 5th century, the Buddhist period. Assamese manuscripts, the earliest one Gajendra-cintamani in 1713, are very rare and hardly found in Sattras. They were handwritten
(hastalipi) documents. The typewriter came in the late 12th century. But a manuscript legacy of ours is available at Puja and now required upkeep.
We never realise such traditions of Burmese into our family; however people of Myanmar celebrate Thingyan, the water festival that marks the advent of the New Year
in mid-April. Buddha images are washed, and monks are offered alms. It is also marked by dousing people with water and festive behaviour such as dancing, singing, and theatrical performances. While comparing, it is found, Burmese people also make a ring made of flowers and leaves or evergreen plants that are green all year. The kingdoms do no longer exist but today I remain nostalgic with that wreath of flowers.