Saga of the Bamboo God
The Assamese saying “jaar naai baanh, taar naai xaah”(those who do not have bamboo, do not have courage) aptly suggests the sheer importance of bamboo for myriad occasions from agriculture, housing, handicraft to cultural artefact and rituals. The variegated communities in Assam have various culturally defined symbols, taboos and myths around bamboo. The cultural code of certain communities entails bamboo as a token of good fortune and it becomes an indissoluble part when it comes to the rituals. By virtue of the rapid growth of the bamboo species, it exerts particular impact on cultural perception; hence bamboo stands as the symbol of productivity, growth and prosperity. The Baanh Goxaai Utsab (Festival of the Bamboo God) of the Sarania Kachari community and Bhatheli , a folk festival from old south Kamrup are two important festivals celebrated during the spring season that share the vibrant spirit of Rongali .
The Sarania Kachari community celebrates Baanh Goxaai utsab for seven days from the last day of the last month of Assamese calendar, also called as Chotor Xankranti, which is associated with Rogali Bihu. On the day of Chotor Xankranti the villagers assemble at the village temple premises and under the guidance of the priest, youths of the village chop off a mature bamboo pole from its grove. Before the pole is chopped, they offer puja with areca nut and areca leaves at the bamboo grove. Then the bamboo pole is brought to the temple; usually the length of the bamboo pole is expected to be ‘9 hat and 5 anguli’ (approx. 11 ft and 6 inch.). The villagers cleanse it in river or other water bodies before placing it in the temple. Following that, the bamboo pole is wrapped up with white cloth over which it is decorated with gamosa (traditional Assamese towel), handkerchief and fur. At the top end of the pole one brass metal musk is placed and red sindur is put on it. It is then followed by placing the bamboo pole in front of the temple where people pray to the Bamboo God for good fortune and prosperity in the New Year. At the end people carry the bamboo pole in vertically straight position and move seven times around the temple with ritual music.
On the very next day, that is, the first of Bohag (first day of the first month of the Assamese Calendar), youths of the village take out a ritual march in the village and the pole is taken to each of the households where people from respective households offer puja and pray before the Bamboo God. At the end the Bamboo god is again placed in the temple back in its earlier position. On the day of full moon of Bohag (usually it is on seventh day of the first month of Assamese Calendar), people assemble again in the temple to perform special puja to the Bamboo God. Subsequently the Bamboo pole is immersed in river or other running water bodies. Nowadays this particular day is celebrated regionally in a convenient place together by the neighbourhood villages. Thus, on the day of full moon, people from each of the neighbouring villages bring their Bamboo God to the festival ground and offer worship in a collective manner. The Sarania Kocharis consider bamboo as the idol of God. Their cultural beliefs appear to define Bamboo as the divine representation which brings good luck. The natural growth and regeneration cycle of Bamboo is perceived as symbol of productivity and growth. The nature culture symmetry prevalent among the people translates itself into this amazing cultural practice.
In the old South Kamrup region during the month of Bohag, people celebrate Bhatheli, a folk festival per se, for social solidarity and prosperity. Arikuchi, Ramdiya, Komarkuchi, Ulabari, Chandkuschi, Sondha of present Kamrup district are some of the places where this festival is celebrated with robust enthusiasm. Usually there is no fixed date for Bhatheli, villagers through community consultation select a date within the month of Bohag for this occasion. In Bhatheli two Bamboo poles are usually erected on the festival ground and worshipped. These bamboo poles are called Paara in the locality; there will be two Paaras, one is considered as male and the other female.
On the festival day young men would go to the bamboo grove to the bamboo pole. This pole is later cleansed in water and decorated with coloured cloth and flowers. Having it decorated the pole is brought to the village temple, where the temple priest offers puja. Then people carry the pole to the festival ground with a ritual march. In the festival ground the Bamboo pole is erected beside a tree. The bottom of the tree is cleaned and decorated for offerings. Traditionally, it is organized by two neighbouring villages jointly or by two chuba or chuburi (small habitation) of the same village in a collective manner. Customarily, if the place of the festival ground is located in a particular village or chuba, then the people of the respective village or chuba would be called male Paara and other village or chuba female Paara. In Arikuchi village near Hajo there are two chubas, one belongs to Brahmin and Kayastha and the other to Kaibortya (Schedule caste), and people from both celebrate Bhatheli in a carnivalesque manner typical of Rongali. The Bhatheli ground is located at the chuba inhabited by Brahmin and Kayastha, so they make it a male Paara and female Paara would be the people of Kaibortya chuba. It is a symbolic institution of equity and equality nurturing brotherhood among people. For Bhatheli as well bamboo is symbolic of productivity and growth and social harmony. In addition with the rituals, a fair is also held on the ground, where different traders and local artisans come with agricultural products, tools and gears used in weaving, etc along with handicraft products for sale. People from neighbouring villages turn up at the rendezvous. In fact, people from Islamic faith from the neighbouring villages participate in the Bhatheli fair either as a trader or as visitor. Social solidarity regardless of the differences in religious faith or social practice is this folk festival all about.
These folk festivals vividly reflect culturally defined perception of people and their institution. It is also a sign of affinity of the people to nature and social concord. Therefore, to protect and promote these folk festivals to continue our legacy of folk heritage is certainly immediate call of the time. We should not ignore the tremendous potential in bringing these folk festivals under the aura of eco cultural rural tourism.
Photo and Text- Jayanta Kumar Sarma
( Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial farm and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )