Assam is hailed as a land of fairs and festivals which characterise the spirit of unity and solidarity of its diverse ethnic groups. It welcomes you to a kaleidescope of festivals, where its people come together in a colorful melange, reflecting the true spirit, tradition and values of its unique culture and heritage.
The primary festivals of the Assamese are the three Bihus. Intricately connected to agriculture, the celebrations have no religious significance. People come together to celebrate this festival irrespective of caste, creed, religion, faith and belief. The word ‘Bihu’ originated from the language of the Dimasa people (part of the Kachari group). Bi means “to ask” and Shu means “peace and prosperity”. In a year there are three Bihu festivals in Assam – in the months of Bohaag (mid April), Maagh (mid January), and Kaati (mid October). Each Bihu coincides with a distinctive phase in the farming calendar.
The most important and colourful of the three Bihu is the harvest festival Bohag Bihu also called Rongali Bihu celebrated in mid April. It marks the new year, advent of spring and beginning of the agricultural season. The farmers prepare the fields for cultivation of paddy and there is a feeling of joy around. On the eve of Rongali Bihu, the cows which are considered sacred by the assamese are ceremoniously washed with turmeric, fed with vegetables and the ropes used for securing them are replaced with new ones. Celebrations extend over a week and include exchange of traditional hand woven gamochas (scarves), singing, dancing and merriment accompanied by the resonating beats of local musical instruments- the dhol (drums) and Pepa (buffalo hornpipe). Songs sung are woven around themes of love and often carry erotic overtones. Men are seen in new traditional attires – the Gamocha and Dhoti while women adorn themselves in their local ensemble – the Mekhala Chador. The Assam Tourism Department also organizes a special Rongali Utsav at Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, Guwahati which attracts lots of tourists and visitors.
Magh Bihu is the harvesting festival of the assamese and is celebrated in January with community feast, buffalo fight and other forms of local entertainment. Maagh Bihu marks the end of the harvesting period and is also called Bhogaali Bihu or the Festival of Food. It is celebrated in mid-January, during which the harvest is gathered. On the eve of Magh Bihu, the locals build temporary shelters (meji) of hay and wood to a considerable height resembling a lofty temple on the harvested paddy fields, beside which a bonfire is lit for community feasting to celebrate the harvest. The next morning, the meji is ceremoniously lit. The feasting is followed by sports throughout the day. The half-burnt sticks and ashes of the meji are strewn on the fields and at the root of fruit trees, as they are believed to increase fertility of the soil.
Compared to Rongali and Bhogali Bihu, Kati Bihu is a tame affair celebrated in the month of Kartika (mid October) and marks the completion of sowing and transplanting. Kaati Bihu is also called Kongaali Bihu or the Festival of the Poor. People chant silent prayers and light earthen lamps in paddy fields and in the courtyards of their homes for the bountiful harvest. This Bihu is also associated with the lighting of lamps at the tip of a tall bamboo pole, and is believed by the locals to lead the souls of the dead to heaven.
The Dehing Patkai Festival is a once-a-year festival held at Lekhapani in Tinsukia district of Assam. The festival is named after the majestic Patkai range and the meandering Dehing River and incorporates tribal fairs, tea heritage tours, golfing, adventure sports, and wildlife pleasure trip. Another attraction of the festival is that it offers a trip to the 2nd World War cemeteries. It also arranges a trip to the Stilwell Road, which was once the passage to the golden land of Myanmar. Visitors can also choose to go for a wild expedition on an elephant safari. Food Festival, Craft Fair, and Cultural Functions are also held during these days. The Festival offers a wide range of adventure sports like angling, kayaking and parasailing. Trips to the Tea Gardens and the Digboi oil field are also a part of the festival. Through this festival, the state aims at drawing attention to the rampant poaching of elephants and seeks to create awareness among the villagers and help them co-exist with the animals in their natural habitat.
Me-dam-me-phi is celebrated by the Ahom people on 31st of January every year in memory of the departed. It is the manifestation of the concept of ancestor worship that the Ahoms share with the people originating from Tai-Shan what is present day Yunan in China. It is a festival to show respect to the departed ancestors and remember their contribution to society. The word ‘Me’ means offerings. ‘Dam’ means ancestors and ‘Phi’ means gods. So the word ‘Me Dam Me Phi’ means oblations offered to the dead and sacrifices to the gods. It is observed extensively by many ethnic groups of Assam, invoking 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, feasts, dances and songs and the devotees dress up in traditional finery especially for the occasion. The day begins with the hoisting of the Tai-Ahom flag, followed by the recitation of incantations by priests. A community feast is also held at which everyone irrespective of caste, creed, rank or status is welcome to attend.
Jonbeel Mela is one of “the rarest of the rarest festivals” where both tribal people and non-tribal people of Assam and Meghalaya practice a barter system for exchanging agricultural produces in a festive manner at the end of the Assamese Magh Bihu period (Makara Sankranti). The genealogy of the Mela can be traced back to the 15th century when a three-day fair took place under the auspices of the then Gorbar kingdom and the participation of the Jaintia king of neighbouring Meghalaya. The traditional barter system of exchanging agricultural products by both the hill and plains tribal people of Assam and Meghalaya still continues in the Mela. People from the hills bring spices, herbs, ginger, fruits to exchange them with rice, fish and other things which don’t grow in abundance in the hills. The Jonbeel Mela is held in the town of Jagiroad, about 30 Km from Guwahati. They spend three days in make-shift bamboo huts and all the participating communities mingle, live and dine together as a group making brotherhood and harmony a significant feature of the Jonbeel Fair. During the Mela, all these tribes and communities go into huge celebration by performing their traditional dance and music in perfect style.
Brahmaputra Beach Festival is a refreshing open-air festival held in Guwahati on the ravine beaches of the mighty Brahmaputra River. It is held every year in January and coincides with the Magh Bihu, the harvest festival in Assam. It is a fusion of the conventional with the modern and represents the culture and tradition of the state of Assam. The aim of the festival is to promote indigenous culture, crafts and popularising traditional sports of Assam. The festival is organized by the Assam Boat Racing and Rowing Association (ABRRA) in Guwahati in collaboration with the Assam Tourism Development Corporation (ATDC). During the festival, stuctures are designed and installed on the beaches to set up fairs. The festival includes various events like Beach cricket, Beach volleyball, water rafting, canoeing and wind surfing, ice skating, kayaking and aero sports like ballooning, paragliding and hang gliding. Traditional games like elephant races, egg breaking and cock fighting are also held along with these modern and technically advanced games. Drawing and kite flying competitions are also held for children.
The Kaziranga Elephant Festival is a yearly festival held in Feburary in the Kaziranga National Park of Assam for the conservation and protection of the Asiatic elephant. The festival is jointly organised by the Forest Department and Tourism Department of Assam with an objective to highlight and find ways to resolve the increasing conflict between man and elephant. Hundreds of domestic Asiatic elephants, groomed and adorned from head to toe, participate in the festival. They take part in parades, races, football and dance to entertain spectators.
In the North-Eastern state of Assam, the hub of Shivratri celebrations is at the Umananda Temple, situated on the Peacock Island in the middle of Brahamaputra River in Guwahati. Thousands of Shiva devotees from all over the country pay a visit to the temple on the occasion of Shivaratri. Sivadol in Sibsagar, the capital of the erstwhile Ahom kings, is the other major centre of Mahashivaratri celebrations in Assam. It is one of the most sacred and revered pilgrimage centers in India and stands on the bank of Borpukhuri tank in the heart of Sivasagar. Each year during the Shivaratri, a huge mela is organized in the temple ground and thousands of devotees come to offer fruits, flowers and bel leaves on the shivalingam- and idol representation of Lord Shiva.
Ali–Ai-Ligang is a spring festival associated with agriculture and is celebrated by the Mising (descendants of the Astro- Mongoloids) ethnic community of Assam. The festival marks the onset of sowing seeds and is held to appease mother earth and the fore-fathers. ‘Ali’ means root or seed, ‘ai’ means fruit and ‘ligang’ means sow. On the day of the festival, the heads of families ceremonially sow paddy in a corner of their respective rice fields and pray for a good crop as well as for general abundance and well-being of their family. It is a colourful festival and occurs every year on the first wednesday of the month of Ginmur Polo (February-March) in the Mising calendar. The festival continues for five days with strict adherance to taboos regarding cutting trees, fishing, ploughing and burning the jungle. Dancing and singing is a big feature of this festival and is performed by the youth. The dancers are rewarded by the host with rice beer, meat and sometimes even cash. The last day of the festival is called lilen and is celebrated with a huge community village feast that includes pork and dried fish and rice beer. It is a day of utmost merriment for the Mising community where they usher in hope and luck for the new crop they are about to sow.
Famous for its myriad colours and merriment, ‘Baishagu’ is generally celebrated by the Bodo Kacharis during mid April. It is the most cherished festival of the Bodo tribe, a branch of the Indo-Mongoloid family, they are the largest Scheduled tribe in Assam. The Bodos celebrate Baishagu as a springtime festival at the advent of the new year. The first day begins with worship of the cow. The next day which synchronises with the first day of the month of ‘Bohag’ of the Assamese calendar. The supreme deity ‘Bathow’ or Lord Shiva is worshipped during the festival with offerings of chicken and rice beer. Merry making and dance is the integral part of this Bodo Festival and all are welcome to join in irrespective of age or sex. The Bagarumba dance is typically performed during this festival and is said to be the most attractive dance of the Bodo community. Girls dressed in their local ensemble perform this dance accompanied by men playing traditional musical instruments as they utter “bagurumba hay bagurumba”. It is also called the Butterfly Dance as the girls look like pretty, fluttering butterflies as they dance with their arms outstretched with their shawls creating the impression of wings.
Rongker is an annual springtime festival of merriment observed by the Karbis of Assam. Associated with the welfare of the village and their harvest, it is observed to appease the local deities and to ward off evil from their community.The festival does not have any specific time although it is usually observed at the beginning of the New Year of the assamese calendar (month of April). This festival is performed only by the men folk and the females are totally excluded from it. During the festival, all agricultural activity comes to a halt and no one is allowed to leave the village. The festival lasts for three days. All the villagers contribute in cash and kinds and donation are also collected from the neighbouring villages in order to meet the expenses of the rituals. The festival is divided into four major stages which is celebrated over days of rituals, animal sacrifices, merriment and feasting.
With the grand arrival of monsoon the landscape of Assam is covered in lush greenery and the water level of the Brahmaputra swells to the brim. This is when the fertility celebration of mother earth in the form of Ambubachi Mela starts at Kamakhya Temple of Guwahati with grand fervor. Nilachal Parvat, about 8 km from Guwahati Railway Station is home to Devi Kamakhya, the presiding deity of Assam. She is believed to complete her annual menstrual cycle on the seventh day in the month of Aashaadha (mid of June), according to the Hindu calendar. Considered as the hub of Tantrik practices and melting pot of significant Hindu beliefs, it welcomes all sections of the society irrespective of their caste and religion. While the priests visit the place to commune with the transcendental reality, devotees arrive to seek blessings of the caring mother Kamakhya. It is believed that mother earth gets polluted during this time and all farmers of Assam halt their agricultural activities for three days whilst all the doors and entrance gates of the temples are closed to the general public. Ambubachi Mela is also known as Ameti or Tantric fertility festival and is closely associated with the Tantric Shakti cult prevalent in eastern parts of India. It is famous for the assembly of Tantric Sadhus from all over the country. Apart from this, the festival is noted for its rural craft fair.
The annual Deodhani dance festival that dates back centuries is held for three days every year at Kamakhya temple in Guwahati where ‘Deodhas’ (temple dancers) dance like men possessed by a spirit. It is celebrated every year in mid august when thousands of brightly dressed devotees, encircled with brilliant fresh flower necklaces and adorned with vermillion die, make trance offerings to the Serpent Goddess (Manasa Puja) at the Kamakhya temple. Devotees participating in the festival go through a month long preparatory phase, during which they are not permitted to meet their families and stay in the temple premises with a photograph of the deity they want to represent. It is believed that taking part in this festival bestows the dancers with powers from goddess Kamakhya. The festival has also gained popularity amongst the travellers who attend it for research and knowledge.
Majuli is the lone place in Assam where the Raas Leela of Lord Krishna is celebrated through the plays enacted by the devouts. For the past several centuries, it is the tradition of the Majuli people to pay their obeisance to Lord Krishna by enacting his Raas Leela. During the Raas festival, Majuli becomes a veritable place for pilgrimage. Locally made masks are one of the major features of the dance dramas and represent various mythological creatures. The festival and celebrations continue for four days. Cultural performances combined with local traditions are a specialty of this festival. The food festival organized during this time offers mouth watering delicacies of traditional, tribal and native Assamese cuisine. Exhibitions also form an important part of this festival and display those articles that immensely reflect the rich tradition of the state. Discussions and seminars are organised for those interested to know more about the festival and the unique inhabitants of this river island. It is also a good time to catch glimpse of migratory birds who temporarily visit and nest during this season. The nomination dossier of the island for UNESCO World Heritage Site had a chapter on the Raas festival to give an impression of the realm of spiritualism in which the people of the island live and as to how they have been keeping their centuries-old cultural heritage alive.
The Tea Festival gives travellers the opportunity to meet the warm hearted people of Assam and relish Assam’s beauty and cultural diversity. This is when Assam welcomes you to a world of entertainment with traditional hospitality, jungle safaris, tea tastings and garden visits, golf, local cuisine, shopping, angling, rafting in turbulent rivers and cultural extravaganza. The Tea Festival of Jorhat, the nerve centre of the tea industry is all about tea, music and gaiety. It brings about a world of festivity with a warm and traditional cordial reception and offers an excellent package of business, fun and excitement. Tea producers from all over Assam are invited to bring their wares to the festival. Vendors set up stalls and offer tastings of their latest harvest. Teas can be purchased at tea tastings. Another highlight of this festival are performances assam’s regional dancers -the Jhumer. They are brightly dressed and surrounding a drummer, they wave their arms to perform their dance steps and entertain the audience.
Chavang Kut, the harvest festival of the Kukis, is celebrated with traditional and religious fervour by the members of the Kuki community from Upper Assam. Chavang Kut is usually celebrated in the early part of November and marks the end of the harvest season. The age-old traditional festival originated from the prehistoric time when the people were animists worshipping their ancestral gods and supernatural forces and spirits. Literally the term ‘chavang kut’ means autumn festival. Chavang means autumn season and Kut means festival. It is celebrated after almost year-long hard work and toiling in the Jhum (slashes and burn method of cultivation) which is the main source from where the people eke out their livelihood. In this festival, folk songs are sung with traditional dances. During the observance of the festival people display their skills in playing the traditional musical instruments. Though the advent of modernization has impacted the traditional customs in some urban areas, but in villages, these are still in practice with minor modifications.
The Kherai is another Bodo festival and is associated with worshipping their god ‘Bathow’ (Lord Shiva) the principal god of this particular tribe. Worship and dance are inseparable in this festival, the dance being an essential part of the Kherai worship. Traditionally a young girl, a female shaman or oracle, is selected to play the key role and forms the main part of the worship. With the help of the Oja (priest), she falls into a trance and he consecrates her before the altar of their supreme god. She then begins to perform the deodhani dance with the intention of appeasing and seeking favour from nineteen gods and goddesses. At one stage she dances a fierce war-dance where 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. She is joined by women dancers, men playing the khum (drum), the sifung (flute) and the jotha (cymbals). At the end of the dance, she predicts fortunes and answers questions addressed to her by the attending villagers.