Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu is the harvest festival of Assam celebrated on January 14th, a celebration that coincides with Lohri, Thai Pongal, and Makar Sankranti celebrated in other parts of India.
Traditionally, boys built a hut called the bhela ghar with bamboo and hay left over after the harvest. The night before Magh Bihu is called Uruka, and a large communal feast is held in the bhela ghar. There’s an unusual activity the night before this Bihu. Since this is harvest season, the gardens are full of vegetables. The village boys would steal vegetables from the gardens. Of course, families post guards, but this is all done in sport. When the kids bring back whatever vegetables they manage to ‘steal,’ they get to roast these on the open fire for snacks.
Everyone wakes up early the following morning, takes a bath, and then lights a bonfire. The bonfire made of bamboo, haystacks, and wood is called meji. Families throw betelnut, black gram, and rice cakes as auspicious offerings, are thankful for a good harvest, and pray for prosperity.
Our friend Geetali shared that her father built a smaller meji for the kids so that they could light it on the night of the Uruka. He knew that it would be hard for little kids to wake up very early and bathe to be there for the actual meji in the early hours of Bihu. She also shares how the food for Magh Bihu had a lot of fresh fish and other meat dishes. But her favourite was the pitha made with rice. Isn’t it interesting how the harvest festivals all over India have so many special foods associated with them?
Magh Bihu-The Great Vegetable Robbery
“Hey! Hey! Over here!” Abhi da pointed to the bamboo sticks on the ground. The four boys ran to him. Abhi da was the guide. He knew how to build a bhela ghar as he’d helped his dad last year for Magh Bihu.
Neerab and Pranab start digging holes.” Abhi da told the younger boys. “We’ll get the strongest sticks ready.” All five boys worked, stopping only to stretch their backs. When the holes looked big enough, the bigger boys put the thick bamboo stems in to see if they fit. “This one has to be deeper,” shouted Rashid. They kept digging until they were satisfied. Soon, all the poles were up, and it was time to build the walls and the roof.
Pranab noticed her first. “Neerab, your shadow is on her way here.” All heads turned to look. Yes, that was Indrani, Neerab’s little sister.
“Dada, I want to help too…” she called out as she neared them.
Neerab was red-faced. “Indu, this is for us, big kids. Go home, and I’ll play ball with you later.”
“Dada…” “Indu, go home,” Neerab stood firm, his arms covered in mud and stray bits of hay clinging to his hair. No one would look at him, but he knew they were grinning.
“Here, Indu, you can help me this evening after we finish the ghar!” Rashid knelt by her. “You promise?” Indu could be stubborn, too.
“Yes, I promise!” Rashid told the little girl. “Come, I’ll see you home,” he held her hand and walked her back.
“Thank you, Rashid. If I had to take her, she would have never let me come back,” Neerab thanked his friend.
By the time they stacked the hay around the bamboo to finish the walls and roof, it was sunset. The Bhela ghar was ready, with plenty of firewood for the cooking. The boys went home and washed the itchy hay off their bodies.
That evening, all the families on the street trickled into the Bela ghar. “Come on! It’s time to plan the Great Vegetable Robbery! What is Magh Bihu without vegetables from everyone’s gardens?” Rashid whispered without moving his lips. One by one, the five boys moved to a corner of the bamboo hut. They put some music on and pretended to talk about their favourite songs. “Whose farm garden shall we raid first?”
“Boys, what’s for dinner, eh?” One of the uncles walked over to the boys.
“Ask them, Borta.” Abhi da pointed towards the table where his pehis were hard at work. Tuk-Tuk-Tuk…someone was busy chopping there.
Borta shielded the boys from the others and dropped his voice. “Come on, boys, you are planning to rob Bijoy’s vegetable garden, aren’t you?”
How did you….” Abhi covered Pranab’s mouth with his hand. “Borta, thank you, but you’ll have to wait and see like everyone else.”
“I’m only trying to help. I remember the days when I was a kid like you and got ready to steal vegetables on Uruka.” Borta sounded very friendly.
“And now you are an adult, trying to find out when we will steal your vegetables. Thank you, but we will manage.” Rashid and Abhi da stepped between the other boys and Borta.
Borta put his hands up, “Okay, Okay. I get the hint.” He turned and walked away. Umesh Uncle was watching the exchange curiously.
“Let’s go to Umesh uncle’s house first. His vegetable garden is quite big, and we can steal a lot from there.” Rashid suggested. But before the other schemers could answer, there was another interruption. This time, it was Bijoy Uncle.
“Ha, Boys! Take Chandan with you. He is still a kid.” The boys were sure that Chandan was an adult; he just looked small, like a teenager.
“Chandan, you are quite strong, aren’t you? Can you get us a big basket to carry all the vegetables we steal? No one will suspect you if you go around looking for the basket,” Abhi da asked him.
“Oh sure, when do you want it? In the morning?” Chandan’s face glowed that he’d tricked them so easily.
“If you do it now, no one will notice you’re gone.” Abhi da smiled cunningly. Chandan left the Bela Ghar to look for the basket.
“Ha! Still a kid, indeed. I know he turned 21 last month.” “Wait, you mean Uncle Bijoy was trying to trick us?” Neerab looked startled. “Yeeees. He’s an adult and is spying on us to find out where we plan to attack.”
“These grown-ups are sly. Have they forgotten what it was like to steal on Uruka when they were kids? They are not playing fair!” Neerab complained.
“Ha, they can try all they want. We can see through their tricks.” Prashu declared loudly.
“Let’s just focus on our planning. There’s no need to get so worked up.” Abhi da swatted Prashu on the head. Then he turned up the volume on the player. After Fifteen minutes of hoarse whispering, the boys got up to get tea and pitha.
Chandan returned, carrying a big basket. Behind him trailed Indrani.
“Dada, you said I can help you,” Indu stopped and stared at the boys.
“Yes, yes, boys! You must include Indu in your thefts. Don’t leave her out of the games,” Borta said with a twinkle in his eye. The grown-ups had that knowing look in their eyes. With little Indu tagging along, it would be easy to spot the boys as they go about stealing the vegetables. Neerab let out a little gasp, but Abhi da didn’t look too bothered.
“Oh yes, we promised Indu,” He pulled her braid gently. “We’ll take you with us.”
The Bela ghar started filling up early the following day. Aunties were in one corner, cutting and preparing the sauces. Someone made tea, and the pithas came out. An uncle started the fire, putting a big pot on. As the day wore on, the men took turns cooking one dish after another. Today was their day to shine.
The uncles talked loudly about the guards posted around people’s homes, but the boys didn’t seem too bothered by it. They just huddled around the small coal fires, keeping themselves warm and chatting.
It was dusk when Indu began, “I want to get my doll,” she whined. “Oh, alright, I’ll take you to your home,” Neerab got up. He led her out through the path to the house. Borta peered at the boys from the cooking area. They weren’t moving! Ten minutes later, Rashid and Indu walked in, holding a doll.
They just sat down when Indu began again, “I’m cold. I want my sweater.” “Rashid, you take her now. You promised to watch her,” Abhi da ordered. Five minutes later, the boys snuck out of the ghar and went to Uncle Bijoy’s house. It was bad luck that the guards stopped them before they could climb over the fence. There was so much clatter that the other guards came running, happy that they had caught the thieves red-handed. It was another ten minutes before they all returned to the ghar empty-handed.
“Oh, nothing to show, I see! What a pity you didn’t let me guide you. I was a master thief in my days,” Borta grinned. The other grown-ups groaned. “You could have taken Chandan! He would have shown you how!” Uncle Bijoy could hardly hide his glee. “It’s okay, boys. You will do better next Magh Bihu. You just have to be sneakier.” Uncle Umesh consoled them.
Is this sneaky enough for you?” Rashid and Indu walked in, holding a bag full of fresh vegetables. It had potatoes from Umesh Uncle’s garden, peas from Borta’s, cauliflower from Bijoy Uncle’s house, brinjal from Dipa Pehi’s garden, and sweet potatoes from Rupa Pehi’s house.
For a minute, all you could hear was the crackle of the wood fire. The grown-ups looked stunned and then let out a howl of laughter.
“Oh, you men thought that you’d have to teach these boys, but they showed you, didn’t they?” Grandmother teased the uncles.
“Indrani is the real star here! No one thought we’d take her to steal the vegetables, and they kept following us. While your guards were chasing us, Rashid and Indu collected the vegetables from everyone’s garden.” The boys circled the little girl and did a little jig.
It was time to eat dinner and go to sleep. Everyone had to wake up early, bathe, and light the Meji. Tomorrow, when they lit the Meji, everyone would have another laugh!
That, my friends, is the end of this Magh Bihu story!
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