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If you visit Assam during the joyous Magh Bihu festival, you are likely to see a tiny piece of London or Delhi, giant houses and buses, some cockfight scenes and more recently, even giant vaccines! How is that possible, you might ask? Well, that is the purpose of our story, one that primarily focuses on the significance of the famous ritual of Bhelaghar and Meji construction, in Assam, during the occasion of Magh Bihu.
From the world of Religion and Spirituality
It’s that time of the year again, the time of festivals, celebrating the end of a harvest cycle and the beginning of a new one. In Assam, the pleasant sounds of dheki and dhol and the aroma of pithas and larus are warming the hearts of people in the cold winter of January. Such is the appeal of Magh or Bhogali Bihu.
Magh Bihu is similar to many other harvest festivals celebrated across India during the month of January. This includes Pongal, Makar Sankranti and so on. Every region in India celebrates this festival in their own way. Magh Bihu is one of the three major ethnic festivals celebrated by the Assamese people. The festival of Magh Bihu has a unique set of traditions, upheld by the Assamese community proudly, generations after generation.
Craftsmanship reaches its peak during Magh Bihu as people try their hands on the construction of creative Bhelaghars and Mejis in the vast, open fields near their homes.
These are temporary structures, built out of straws, thatch and bamboo, often having complex designs, owing to the talented craftsmen.
The Mejis are relatively simpler in design, often conical in shape. However, it is the Bhelaghar that have managed to draw the attention of people and the media over the years because of its rich design, and a tint of symbolism.
On the eve of Magh Bihu i.e. Uruka, the families and friends of a community light up a bonfire and organize a big Bhuj (feast). Singing traditional folk songs like borgeets and lukogeets, they enjoy different, authentic dishes made of fish, meat etc., out in the open. But here comes the most interesting part.
After the feast is over, these people, mostly men, spend the night in the beautiful Bhelaghars they constructed with their own hands!
Indeed, the Bhelaghars act as community centres for people to mingle, even if it’s for only one night of the year.
The next morning, as soon as the sun comes up, the people burn the Mejis and Bhelaghars, as a symbolic way of bidding adieu to the old harvest season and heralding a new one. People surround the Mejis and Bhelaghars and offer their prayers to their ancestors and Gods.
The symbolic burning of the tall and beautiful Mejis/ Bhelaghars and the warmth emitting from the flames sure does wonders for the chilling bones during winter! After they are burned, the ashes are scattered across the paddy fields, perhaps, as a sign of good omen for the upcoming harvest season. This has been the ritual for many generations in the state of Assam.
Although this ritual of constructing straw buildings has been simply understood as a way of uniting the community on a traditional occasion, there is a more latent significance of these artistic structures. Over the last few years, the practice of Bhelaghar construction has become a powerful medium of expression of the Assamese people.
For a man who has travelled to a foreign country, the Bhelaghar becomes a way of bringing a piece of a far off land to his beloved community. This is the story of a man from the town of Nalbari, who once constructed the replica of the Tower Bridge because he wanted his people to share a glimpse of his beautiful experiences of London.
More recently, responding to the current Covid-19 pandemic situation of our country, the Assamese craftsmen have yet again used their remarkable skills to send a beautiful message. This year, 2022, some socially conscious people have constructed a Bhelaghar in the shape of a massive vaccine! This is a fine way of alerting people about the dire consequences of neglecting the Covid-19 vaccination.
People in remote areas, may not connect to the campaigns and schemes of the government, but they can definitely relate to art. And it is this idea that has led the Assamese community to come up with innovative designs each year on the occasion of Magh Bihu.
Visual culture is a powerful medium of expression, a medium that garners the attention of the masses to the pertinent issues of our society. Over the years, the Assamese people have made effective use of this medium, incorporating it within the joyous celebrations of the Magh Bihu festival.
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