Assam celebrates Bihu festival with bonfires, bird fights

Saturday, January 15, 2011

HAJO - For a prize comprising traditional bell metal utensils, up to 200 birds and their owners were locked in a bitter fight Saturday — an event that marks Bhogali Bihu, the harvest festival in Assam.

Since morning, this dusty roadside village, some 30 km west of Guwahati, came alive with an estimated 200 red-vented bulbuls, a small bird belonging to the Pycnonotus cafer family, fighting one another amid loud cheers from their owners and thousands of spectators.

Bird fights have been an integral part of the Bihu celebrations in Assam with the locals of Hajo preparing for the annual event with tremendous enthusiasm for the past many weeks in a tradition dating back centuries.

The daylong event was held at the precincts of the Hindu temple of Hyagriva Madhava with the birds being coaxed and cajoled to fight by their owners — all for a token prize offered by the temple trust.

“Bird fights are held on the first day of Magh Bihu and is a tradition which has been going on for decades,” Ranjit Pathak, a village elder said.

The preparations for the event begin at least two weeks in advance with people catching birds using various ingenious means like bamboo traps and other baits. Once caught, the owner grooms the 20-centimetre-long bird for the big day.

“We make a concoction containing bananas and some locally available intoxicating herbs, some black pepper, clove, and cinnamon, and feed the bird regularly to make them strong and sharp for the fight,” local resident Bipul Das said.

Tied by a string on its legs, the inebriated birds start fighting one another aggressively, surrounded by clapping crowds who gather in large numbers at the temple ground.

“Once the fight is over, the locals set all the birds free,” an organiser of this unique bird fight said.

Bhogali Bihu, akin to Makar Sankranti that is celebrated in many parts of the country, marks the end of the harvest season. With the granaries full, the festival is marked by a lot of feasting.

Magh Bihu, also known as Bhogali Bihu, is a two-day festival and dedicated to Lord Agni, the Hindu fire god.

People across Assam early Saturday made a bonfire of ‘mejis’ and ‘bhelaghars’, while feasting and making merry overnight.

The ‘meji’ is a high temple like structure made by piling firewood, bamboo, and hay stacks, while ‘bhelaghar’ is a makeshift cottage made of bamboo and hay close to the ‘meji’.

To denote that the festival has begun, the ‘mejis’ and ‘bhelaghars’ were set on fire early Saturday and people offered prayers at Nam Ghars or temples.

Uruka is the first day of the festival that began Friday evening, while the actual Magh Bihu is on Saturday.

Community feasts were held on the Uruka night with varieties of fish and meat being served.

People across Assam scattered the ashes of the ‘mejis’ and ‘bhelaghar’ on the farmlands to increase fertility.

While the bonfires were witnessed mostly in villages, people residing in towns and cities too celebrated Bihu although without the bonfires due to constraint of open space.

“We did light a small meji and offered prayers,” said Nirmala Das, a Guwahati resident.

On the Magh Bihu day Saturday, the midday lunch generally includes ‘chira’ (flattened rice), ‘pitha’ (rice cakes), and curd.

The whole day is celebrated in a grand manner with bullfights attracting huge crowds, bird fights, and other traditional sports.

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