A state that is home to innumerable tribes, languages, castes and cultures, Assam boasts about its beauty and elegance with its rich heritage and ancient practices. The state is a part of ‘Seven Sisters’ Northeastern states
WORDS: SHIFA MEYAJI
THE Assamese are noted for the assimilation of various cultures and ethnicities. Their festivals, clothing and food preparation are inspired by various past dynasties such as the Pala, Koch, Kachari, Chutiya, Ahom and even the British. However, the Kamarupa kingdom played a crucial role in carving much of the culture, as they were settled in Assam for nearly 700 years.
Assam is a place where the cultural elements of the tribals and others have been absorbed intimately. It is also a collection of various religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, and there isn’t much distinction among the people and their way of life.
There are, however, two important cultural and religious institutions that influence Assam: the Satras, who have been in existence for over 400 years and the Naamghar, the house of prayers.
Villagers generally associate on the basis of membership of a local centre of devotional worship called Naamghar. Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims represent the largest minorities, followed by Nepalis.
From the linguistic point of view, Assam fosters more than 14 languages. It has proved to be one of the greatest examples of unity in diversity where every ethnic group practices its own culture with pride and fervour.
The most prominent languages in the state are Assamese (an Indo-Aryan language, which is the official language of the state), Tibeto-Burman languages and Khasi.
A mysterious land, Assam has a lot of ancient cultural practices and rituals that have formed the basis of its modern culture.
One gets mesmerised by the rites and rituals of the people and their determination to stick to them.
Perhaps the way the people still adhere to these customs has helped in the success of the flourishing Assamese culture. They have beautiful customs relating to marriages, births, celebration of festivals, or even for the simplest of things like eating together or decorating their homes.
Let’s take a look at some of the most incredulous customs:
Bhekuli-Biya: It is an old ritual of marrying two frogs during the monsoon to please the rain god and bring in more rains and bless the crops. Bhekuli means ‘frog’ and Biya is ‘marriage;’ it is a ritual where people catch two frogs, decorate them and then perform their wedding.
They invite guests, arrange a feast, chant the Shlokas and sing the Assamese wedding songs and enjoy themselves.
After the frogs are married, they put them in a rafter and float them in a river.
Me-Dam-Me-Phi: Me means ‘offering, Dam or Dum means ‘ancestors’ and Phi means ‘God’. The name clearly signifies that it is sacrificial ritual in which offerings are made to the dead and to gods. It started during the time when Ahom kings prayed to the dead after victories in wars.
It is a socio-religious festival of the Tai-Ahom and its significance goes deeper than its literal sense. It’s not merely an offering to the dead but a way of remembering ancestors and their contributions and shedding light on the ideas of life beyond earthly desires.
It started some 2,000 years ago when Lengdon, known as the lord of heaven and also the first progenitor of Tai–Ahom, sent down two of his grandsons to worship him and keep the idea of their rule alive among the masses.
In the modern era, this festival is celebrated on January 31 every year by the Ahoms; it is observed as a public holiday in the state.
Assamese Biya: The wedding ceremony is one the most vivid and beautiful. It has various rituals and practices. The wedding ceremony involves rituals like Daiyan–Diya and Nau-Purush Shardha.
The former is a traditional ceremony wherein a bowl of curd is sent to the bride’s home from the groom’s side on the morning of the wedding day. The bride eats half of it and sends it back to the groom.
Nau–Purush Shardha is a ceremony in which the groom’s father and mother send invitations for the wedding. The arrival of the groom is a pompous ceremony and their side is not given entry to the bride’s home till they pay a heavy price.
The bride is carried to the Mandap (the place of the main wedding ceremony) on the shoulders of her brother. Conch shells are blown by the ladies and Biya songs are sung along with a tune made by the ladies by rolling their tongues.
The marriage is consummated by the bride and groom taking their vows in front of the sacred fire and moving together into the groom’s house where the mother performs the traditional aarti and welcomes the couple.
Bihu: It is the most popular and oldest folk dance of Assam. The dance is joyously performed by young boys and girls during the Bihu festivities which represent youthful passion.
It is characterised by brisk dance steps and elegant hand movements and is accompanied by musical instruments like dhol (dholak), penpa, gagana and banhi (flute).
The dance outfits are colourful Assamese clothing with elaborate decorations. The first Bihu dance was when Ahom king Rudra Singha invited dancers to perform at the Ranghar fields in 1694 on the occasion of Rongali Bihu.
There are some vivid and noteworthy traditions and ancient practices prevalent in Assam and these add to its beauty by making it an attraction for people from all over the world.