The moment you set eyes on these structures made of bamboo and paddy straw coming up you are sure that Assam’s festival for feasting and merrymaking Bhogalee Bihu is not far behind. An integral component of Magh Bihu, Meiji ( Bhela Ghar) these days are hardly to be found or been made in cities and more so in capital Guwahati. To introduce the traditional Meiji to a generation bred on Starbucks and shopping malls, Babul Chetia, former Mr Assam is now selling portable Meijis on the capital street of Guwahati.
“When I see the people form the Bihari community living in Assam celebrate Chaat Puja with all religious fervour along the banks of Guwahati I feel so proud. This also makes me think that why my people living in the metro city be bereft of the traditional Meiji during Magh Bihu. Why should they hear about these customs from their parents and grandparents who’s conversations on these subjects often initiates either from back in our village or when we were young? Though it’s difficult to find hay or bamboo in the city but it’s not impossible. I make these myself and have started selling them from last year when Magh Bihu celebration was limited due to the Covid-19 restrictions”, says Babul Chetia.
Native to Demow in Sibsagar in the erstwhile Ahom kingdom of Upper Assam, Babul back in the 1960s made Guwahati his home when he started work in several city hotels. Later on he took to body building and went on to win the title of Mr Assam in 1989. He was also adjudged Mr Guwahati around the same time. After this Babul turned coach in several city gymnasiums to make a living. Still sturdy and though, Babul is of the opinion that one who takes these Meijis should show proper respect to it as it signifies Assamese culture.
“You cannot just carry them in the carrier of your bicycles, it’s an object of respect and reverence. The prices vary according to the sizes. A standard one will come for one thousand rupees. The meijis are made of bamboo and hay and one needs to put logs of wood inside it at their home. I want all in Assam irrespective of him being a Bihari or Bengali to have one such Meijis at their courtyard of flats to be burnt on the day of Bihu as mark of reverence. We need to make the young generation a part of our rich tradition and the portable Meijis is one small effort in fulfilling this,” added Chetia.
Preparation for the Bhogalee Bihu starts a fortnight earlier almost right after the paddy fields are harvested. Villagers of several villages together start building two structures in fields, Meji and Bhelaghar. Meji is a cone-shaped structure, usually several feet tall made from bamboo, straw left in paddy fields, dried banana and beetle nut leaves etc.
Bhela Ghar is basically a hut made of mainly bamboo and straw. On the Uruka night of the Bihu eve, people gather for a community feast near the Bhela Ghar and Meji, where a bonfire is arranged. It’s also customary that on the day before the Uruka feast for people to go for community fishing in the nearby lake to arrange the fish for the feast. After the feast is over, the youths stay back in the Bhela Ghar and in the next morning, the Meji and the Bhela Ghar is offered to the god of fire by lighting it up. Bihu pithas (delicacies) are offered to the fire, along with obeisance for a bountiful harvest and pray to a successful agricultural season ahead. A tika from the ashes of the Meiji is regarded as auspicious.
A decade back the Bhela Ghars used to be traditional simple rectangular huts, hurriedly made in a day or two. But then, pits metamorphosed creatively and evolved into a piece of art. It began when people started making multi storied huts, and then experimented with structures of monuments and other shapes. Some even have themes associated with strong messages of socio political developments.
Bhogali Bihu (of eating Bhog) or Maghar Domahi is a harvest festival celebrated in Assam, North-East India, which marks the end of harvesting season in the month of Magh. The festival is developed by the Tibeto-Burman, Austroasiatic and Indo-aryan cultures and festivals Magan of Kachari.
The celebrations also feature traditional Assamese games such as tekeli bhonga (pot-breaking) and buffalo fighting. Magh Bihu celebrations start on the last day of the previous month, the month of “Pooh”, usually the 29th of Pooh is 14 January, and is the only day of Magh Bihu in modern times (earlier, the festival would last for the whole month of Magh, and so the name Magh Bihu).The night before is “Uruka” (28th of Pooh), when people gather around a bonfire, cook dinner and make merry.
The first day of Magh Bihu is known as Uruka or the Bihu Eve. The word Uruka is originally derived from the Deori-Chutia word Urukuwa which means “to end”, signifying the end of the harvesting season as well the Pausha month. On this day, womenfolk get ready for the next day with food items like- Chira, Pitha, Laru, Curd. A feast is organised at night known as Bhuj (derived from the Sanskrit word “Bhojana”). Various indigenous communities prepare their rice beers usually undistilled like Chuji by Chutiyas, Nam-Lao by Tai-Ahom, Zou by Bodos, Aapong by Missing Tribe. Uruka feasting may be a family affair or communal. After the feasting, the Uruka is over on day of Magh Bihu (celebration).
The day of the Bihu starts at early dawn by a post-harvesting ceremony called “Meji”. In this, bonfires are burned in the fields and people pray to their ancestral gods for blessings. The word Meji is originally derived from the Deori-Chutia word Midi-ye-ji where “Midi” denotes “Ancestral gods”, “Ye” means “Fire” and “Ji” means “Fly away”, signifying the worship of ancestral spirits which fly away with the fire. The bonfires are usually made with fireword, green bamboo, hay and dried Banana leaves. People take bath before setting up the bonfire, as a tradition. The ritual of Meji Jwaluwa (Firing the Meji) is very enjoyable. Worshipping the Bhoral and Meji is done by offering Chicken, Rice cakes, Rice beers, Chira, Pitha, Akhoi, Horoom, Curd, and other eatables. At the end, the Bhelaghar is also burned and people consume a special preparation known as Mah-Karai, which is a roasted mixture of rice, black gram. The ashes of the bonfire Meji and Bhelaghar are used in the trees and crops to increase the fertility of the gardens or fields.
With revised curfew timing now being from 10pm to 6am, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has requested his people to retire from the community’s Uruka festivities before time and burn the Meijis after 6am moving away from the traditional break of the dawn custom. This also implies that there won’t be gathering of more than 200 people at the community feasting and restriction in staying back in the Bhela Gahar overnight.