As the Dibrugarh Town Rajdhani leaves New Delhi, it is chilly and foggy outside. Most of my copassengers are trying to settle. My compartment is packed with men, women, young and old — all home-bound as Bhogali Bihu is around the corner.
As the train chugs through Moradabad and Bareilly, many around me have already dozed off. I too try to take a nap, but anticipation of going home for the festival after a long time keeps me awake. Nostalgia sweeps me over and I am reminded of my childhood days of the grand Bhogali celebrations at home with family and friends.
Makar Sankranti in Assam is celebrated as Bhogali Bihu. It is a post-harvest festival of feast, marked by two events — uruka bhoj (community feast) and meji (bonfire). Preparations for uruka bhoj starts well in advance, just after the harvest (when winter vacation begins) so we get ample time to collect haystacks and bamboo for the bhelaghar (hut-like temporary structure) and firewood for cooking, bonfire and meji.
Bhelaghar, below the giant outenga (elephant apple) tree may not be an architectural masterpiece, but it is certainly a lot of effort from us youngsters. On the day of bhoj, it turns into a makeshift kitchen, hub of feast and games, bonfire and most importantly, a safe place to stay awake all night, with traditional Bihu and Bollywood numbers playing in the background.
Our menu for the feast is simple; masor tenga (tangy fish curry with tomatoes or elephant apples), hahor mankho (duck curry) served with joha chawl (aromatic Assamese rice). However, for many of my friends, kukura (chicken) and gahori (pork) are still indispensable. There are also many who opt for fancy stuff like masor pitika (mashed fish
with lemon, chillies and mustard oil), khorisa gahori/kukura (pork/chicken cooked with bamboo shoots), patot diya maas (baked/steamed fish wrapped in banana leaf) and khorikat diya mankho (assorted meat roasted in bamboo stick). The most enjoyable part of the bhoj is after the dinner. It is customary to steal vegetables and bamboo fences from neighbours at midnight. But, it is the roasted kath aloo (yam) and sweet potato that many are partial to.
The next morning, after taking bath, we gather near the meji. After the naam kirtan (traditional prayer) near the meji or namghar (Vaishnavite temple), we wait eagerly for the nutritious maha-prasad, which consists of soaked
chickpea and moong, mixed with tiny ginger and coconut slices, and assorted seasonal fruits as accompaniments.
After the traditional ceremonies are over, the feasting starts again with visits to neighbours and friends. In contrast to the bhoj, the food served on the meji (Makar Sankranti) day is totally vegetarian, with a lot of sweets. In the
evening, we gather for a special dish called sunga sawl or bamboo rice, which is served with doi, hot milk and jaggery. After a tedious process of roasting soft-soaked bora sawl (sticky Assamese rice), we get a yummy snack
with a smokey flavour.
Suddenly, I feel the train pull up and I realise that we have reached Dibrugarh. My memories of Bhogali Bihu made my 45-hour journey appear so short. Itʼs a foggy morning, and I am all set to put on some calories in the next few days. After all, life is all about good food!
Written by Bhaskar Mahanta