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The Bwisagu Festival of the indigenous Bodos of Assam

The ‘Bwisagu’ festival is celebrated by the indigenous Bodos of Assam. It is a seasonal celebration.

ETYMOLOGY:

The Bodo term ‘Bwisagu’ is derived from two other Bodo words – ‘Bwisa’ and ‘Agu’.
‘Bwisa’ connotes ‘age’ or ‘year’ while ‘Agu’ means ‘start’ or ‘commence’.
Hence, the meaning of the combo Bodo word ‘Bwisagu’ is the ‘commencement’ (start) of a new year.

TIME:

The Bodos celebrate the popular seasonal festival of ‘Bwisagu’ around the middle part of April.
Significantly, ‘Bwisagu’ is observed at the commencement of the first month of the Boro lunar calendar.

BAISAKH:

The first day of socio-cultural and religious festival of ‘Bwisagu’ marks the beginning of ‘Baisakh’ – the first month of the 12 month lunar calendar of the Bodos.

THE CONTINENTAL CONNECTION:

The annual socio-cultural and religious festival of ‘Bwisagu’ has connections with similar celebrating across Asia and southeast Asia.

Various aboriginals in the nations there too celebrate their new year according to the solar calendar. These celebrations also have similar rites.

CHARACTERISTICS:

The prime characteristics of ‘Bwisagu’ are merry making, singing and dancing to the rhythm of Bodo folk music.

THE BODO ETHNIC MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS:

Bwisagu Festival Bodo girls dance

Notably, during these ‘Bwisagu’ celebrations, the Bodos play their ethnic musical instruments.

The ethnic musical instruments played during ‘Bwisagu’ of the Bodos are the ‘Sifung (flute), Serja (the four-stringed musical instrument, ‘Tharkha’ (made from split bamboo piece), and the ‘kham’ (drum).

The Bodo males play various rhythmic beats on the ‘kham’, and the ‘Tharkha’. Similarly, the Bodo youth also plays folk tunes on the ‘sifung’.

The Bodo girls dance to the beats and times played during the annual seasonal ‘Bwisagu’ festivities.

THE BODOS & BWISAGU:

The Bodos welcome their new year according to the sola-lunar calendar by celebrating ‘Bwisagu’.

ANNUAL FESTIVAL:

The ‘Bwisagu’ is a seasonal and annual socio-cultural religious festivity of the ethnic Bodo tribe of north-eastern region of India.

BWISAGU & THE BODO GIRLS:

During the ‘Bwisagu’ celebration, the Bodo girls dance together in bands.

THE BWISAGU MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS OF BODO GIRLS:

They play the ‘Gongonã’ and the ‘Jotha’.
The ‘Gongona’ is
somewhat akin to the Jewish harp
and the ‘Jotha’ refers to the small-sized Bodo ethnic cymbals.

THE BWISAGU RITES:

The Bodos perform a number of rites while celebrating ‘Bwisagu’.

BWISAGU CHARACTERISTICS:

Scholars have classified the festivals linked with Bwisagu into five patterns. These are stated below:
‘Gwkha-Gwkhwi Janai’; ‘Mwsou thukhwinai’; worshipping of deities and also of ancestors, and last but not the least merry making.

Merrymaking is an integral part of the ‘Baisagu’ festival of the Bodos.

‘GWKHA-GWKHWI JANAI’:

The ‘Bwisagu’ pattern of ‘Gwkha-gwkhwi janai’ refers to the eating of sour-tasting and bitter wild vegetables especially on the day prior to the first day of the Bodo new year (also known as ‘Sankranti).

‘Sankranti’ holds significance for the Bodo-Kacharis.

‘MWSOU THUKHWINAI’:

‘Mwsou thukhwinai’ refers to the rituals connected to the bathing of cattle during Bwisagu.

The Kacharis celebrate the ‘Bwisagu’ festival in fixed patterns over a period of several days. These are known as ‘Makhau’, ‘Mansi’, ‘Saima’, ‘Oma’, ‘Dao’

MAKHAU:

The first day of the Bwisagu’ festivities is dedicated for cattle (also known as the ‘Mashau’ or ‘Makhau’. On this first day of the Bathow celebrations, the Bodo-Kacharis bathe their cattle in the river.

MANSI:

The second day is meant for man (known as ‘Mansi’ in Bodo-Kachari language.
Mentionably, the occasion commences with the worshiping of their deities.

SAIMA:

Similarly, the Bodos dedicate the third day of the ‘Bwisagu’ festivities for the dogs (called ‘Saima’).

OMA:

The term ‘Oma’ refers to swine. While celebrating ‘Bwisagu’, the Bodos dedicate the fourth day for the ‘Oma’.

‘DAO’:

The Bodos delicate the fifth day of Bwisagu for the ‘Dao’.
The Bodo term ‘Dao’ refers to fowl; and the sixth day for various species of birds including the duck.
On the seventh day of ‘Bwisagu’ celebrations, the Bodos meet and receive friends and relatives. They clean their houses, perform various rites linked with cattle.
The Bodos also worship the Bathow and offer food to their ancestors.
‘Bathow’ is the supreme fiery of the Bodo-Kacharis.

‘CEREMO’:

The Bodos further observe the Bathow pattern known as ‘ceremo’.
It connotes the process of cooking and eating cooked fowl with ‘Khungkha’ (a locally available bitter herb or other wild vegetables. They use varied flavours in the cooking process.
On this day of ‘Bwisagu’, the Bodos also offer this dish to their visitors.

The Bodos are one of the indigenous tribes of the north-eastern Indian state of Assam.

LANGUAGE:

Most of the Bodos generally speak Assamese besides their own language.
Hence, the majority (over two-thirds) of the Bodo-Kachari community are bilingual ie., they speak two languages. They speak Assamese as a second language

PROFESSION:

The general profession of the larger Bodo tribesman is agriculture.

LARGEST PLAINS ETHNIC GROUP:

On the other hand, the Bodo ethnic community is also the largest dominant plain tribe group of the north-eastern Indian State of Assam.

THE BODO-KACHARIS & THE ASSAMESE CULTURE:

The Bodos are also deemed to be one of the roots of the versatile and rich present-day Assamese culture.

WHERE CONCENTRATED:

The Bodo-Kacharis belong to the Indo-Mongoloid stock.
They are mostly concentrated on the northern bank of river Brahmaputra.
Some of the Bodo-Kacharis also dwell on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra River.

LINEAGE:

The Bodos follow the patriarchal lineage.

EARLIEST IMMIGRANTS:

The Bodos are one of the earliest immigrant tribes to arrive in undivided Assam

TRACING THE ROOTS:

The Bodo-Kacharis are prehistoric settlers in Assam.

MIGRATION ROUTE:

Scholars opine that the earlier forefathers of the Bodos arrived in Assam from Tibet. Their migration route was via the passes of the Himalayan country of Bhutan.

THE LAST KING OF BODO KACHARIS:

The last of the Kachari Kings, Raja Gobin Chandra was the last king of Bodo-Kacharis.
Some rebellious people assassinated Raja Gobin Chandra at Haritikar in Cachar on April 24, 1830.
They killed some of his attendants too.
Raja Gobin Chandra did not have natural heirs.
Therefore, according to the terms of an agreement executed in 1826, Raja Gobin Chandra’s kingdom lapsed to the British raj.

THE LAST CAPITAL OF THE BODO-KACHARI KINGDOM: SILCHAR:

Khaspur in the present-day Silchar was the last capital of the Bodo-Kachari kingdom in the 19th century.
The ruins of the kingdom at Khaspur are tourist destination spots today.

The Bodos perform certain rites (rituals) during the BwisAgu festival. These are cited below:

THE ‘SANTRAVALI’ TUNE & SNAKES:

Since the Bodos perform the festival of Bwisagu for the welfare of the people of their village, they ensure that snakes are annihilated.
They do this by performing a musical ritual.
The Bodos believe that snakes are foes of all living beings, particularly creatures.
So, they perform this particular ritual by playing the flute during Bwisagu.
The Bodos produce a particular tune on their flute. This tune is known as ‘Santravali’.
They strongly believe that playing this tune during Bwisagu destroys the eggs of snakes and thereby limits the number of snakes.

THE OTHER BWISAGU RITES:

The other rites performed during Bwisagu are paying obeisance to and seeking blessings from their deities as well as from their ancestors.
During the Bwisagu festival, the Bodos further pay respects to their teachers and elderly persons. Besides they exchange love and affection among themselves.

A major aspect of the celebrations during Bwisagu is merry making.
Hence during Bwisagu, the Bodos sing their folk songs and dance to their folk tunes played on their ethnic musical instruments.

BURAH BATHOU MAHARAJA:

During the Bwisagu celebrations, the Bodo-Kacharis worship their supreme deity – the fiery BurAh BAthou MahArAjA).
They seek blessings from Burah Bathou Maharaja for a bountiful harvest.
On the seventh day of the Bathow celebrations, the Bodos finally bid farewell to the festival of Bwisagu.
The Bodos perform elaborate cattle rites during BwisAgu.

CATTLE RITES PERFORMED DURING BWISAGU:

During BwisAgu, the Bodos perform certain elaborate rites for the well-being of their cattle. These rituals are performed on the last day of the ‘Chaitra’ month. The Bodos call these rituals ‘Bwisâgu’ for their cattle and cows.

On this day, the Bodos take their cattle to the river or the tank for bathing. However, prior to leading their cattle to the river or tank, the Bodo people offer paddy to their cattle. Then, they smear the hooves and horns of their cattle with mustard oil. On the same occasion of Bwisagu, the Bodos route the Bodos the cow is routed with black marking. The ingredients of the black coloured mixture are mustard oil and black ashes. The Bodos mark their cattle with this blackish mixture. While doing this essential mandatory act during Bwisagu, the Bodos use stems of the Eri tree as the marker.

The cows are also decked up with garlands made of cut brinjals and gourd. The cattle owner pays respects to them prior to leading them from the cow shed to a tank or the river. While taking the cattle to the water reservoir or the river for bathing, the cowherds beat them lightly with branches having leaves of the ‘Dighalati’ plant. Simultaneously, they sing songs. Before taking the cattle to the river or tank, the cattle owner offers them paddy and smear their hooves and horns with mustard oil.

The cow’s body is marked with a blackish mixture prepared from mustard oil and black ashes. While doing this, the cowherds use the stem of Eri tree as the marker. The cows are also decked up with garlands made of sliced and unsliced brinjals and gourd. The cattle owner pays respects to them prior to taking them from the cowshed to the river or water tank for bathing.

While leading the cows to the river for bathing, the cowherds beat them lightly with the “Dighalati” plant. They also sing Bodo folk songs. The cattle owner clears the cowshed of the dunk cakes after the cattle are taken away from the cow shed. They throw away the dunk cakes and clean the cowshed. The cattle owner also replaces the old ‘phaga’ (ropes). These are essential rites or rituals connected with cattle during the Chaitra phase of Bwisagu.

During the celebration of ‘Bwisagu’, the Bodo community offers prayers to their deities according to the rituals of ‘Bathouism’ (also known as ‘Bathou’).

ETYMOLOGY:

The term ‘Bathouism’ has been derived from the Bodo (word ‘Bathow’ or ‘Bathou’). The supreme god of the Bodos is ‘Bathow’ ‘Bathou Brai’ or ‘Sibrai’.

TYPES OF KACHARIS:

The Kachari group is the largest plains tribe of northeast India. There are some small pockets of the Bodo-Kacharis in Nepal as well. The Kachari ethnic group of Assam includes the Bodos, the Dimasas, and also the Sonowal Kacharis. It may be mentioned that former Chief Minister of Assam – Sarbananda Sonowal belongs to the Sonowal Kachari community.

THE BODOS:

The Bodos belong to the ethnic Bodo-Kachari Indo-Mongoloid group of the north-eastern State of Assam.

TRACING THE ROOTS OF ‘BATHOW’:

The roots of the word ‘Bathou have been traced to the two Bodo words ‘Ba’ and ‘Thou’ or ‘thow’ ‘Ba’ means ‘five’; while ‘thou’ or ‘thow’ connotes ‘deep’ or ‘principles’. Therefore, ‘Bathow’ or ‘Bathou’ refers to the five principles of ‘Bathouism’.

THE FIVE PRINCIPLES OF ‘BATHOW’:

The five principles of ‘Bathow’ or ‘Bathouism’ are air (called ‘bar’ in Bodo language), fire (‘orr’ in Bodo), earth (‘ha’), water (‘dwi’) and ether (‘okhrang’ in the Bodo language).

BODOS, BWISAGU & ‘BATHOUBWRAI’:

During the socio-cultural and religious ceremonies of ‘Bwisagu’, the indigenous tribe of Bodo-Kacharis offer prayers to their deities.

The supreme God in ‘Bathouism’ is ‘Bathoubwrai’.

‘BATHOUBWRAI’:

The Bodo nomenclature ‘Bathoubwrai’ is a combination of two other Bodo terms – ‘Bathou’ and ‘bwarai’.
Hence, the nomenclature ‘Bathoubwrai’ refers to ‘Bathoubwrai’ – the omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent.
The Bodo-Kacharis believe that ‘Bathoubwrai’ is the supreme deity. Mentionably, Bathoubwrai remains invisible.
The Bodos – whose vocation is basically agriculture – consider ‘Bathoubwrai’ as the protector of paddy fields”.

MAINAO:

Mainao is the daughter Bathoubwrai. The Bodos consider Mainao as the protector of paddy fields.

GODS, GODDESSES AND GURUS:

During Bwisago, the Bodos offer prayers to several other god and goddesses as well as gurus.
The prominent household deities are Bathoubwrai, Mainao, Bura Bagh Raja and Song Bwrai/Burai.

THE SIJOU TREE:

The sijou tree holds special significance in Bathowism, and hence also during the celebration of ‘Bathow’ .
The Bodo-Kachari community revers the sijou tree as they believe that it represents their supreme god –Bathoubwrai. This practice is common among the Mech Boros living in the Goalpara region.
However, this practice is not so common among the Bodo-Kachari community in Darrang.

SONG RAJA:

The Bodo-Kachari womenfolk offers their devotion to Song Raja. The deity is usually placed inside the house. An altar is constructed specifically for Song Raja. This altar is known as ‘dham’.
The Bodo-Kachari womenfolk specifically offers prayers and offerings to Song Raja during their menses.
The gods-goddesses in Bathowism are listed below in an alphabetic manner.

  • Agrang Bwrai-Agrang Burwi
  • Aham Bwrai-Aham Burwi
  • Bwlli Bwrai-Bwlli Burwi
  • Deva Bwrai-Devi Burwi
  • Eheo Bwrai-Eheo Burwi
  • Emao Bwrai-Emao Burwi
  • Gongar Bwrai-Gongar Burwi
  • Hasung Bwrai-Hasung Burwi
  • Hafao Bwrai-Hafao Burwi
  • Hazw Bwrai-Hazw Burwi
  • Joumwn Bwrai-Joumwn Burwi
  • Khuria Bwrai-Khuria Burwi
  • Mainao Bwrai-Mainao-Burwi
  • Mohela Bwrai-Mohela Burwi
  • Mwnsinsin bwrai-Mwnsinsin burwi
  • Rajong Bwrai-Rajong burwi
  • Si Bwrai-Si Burwi Song Raja-Song Rani

The ‘sijou’ plant is a woody species of (Euphorbia). It is deemed the living embodiment of the Bodo supreme deity ‘Bathoubwrai’.

Hence, during the annual socio-religious and cultural celebration of ‘Bwisagu’, the Bodo families that follow ‘Bathouism’ have this tradition.

They plant a sijou shrub at their courtyard. It is kept in a ‘sijousali’ (the Bodo equivalent of altar).

BWISAGU, BATHOW, SIJOU & THE BODO COMMUNITIES:

The indigenous people of the Bodo-Kachari communities on Assam and certain pockets in Nepal plant a Sijou plant at Aland that specifically belongs to the respective communities.

These Bodo-Kachari communities following ‘Bathouism’ generally plant a sijou shrub at a community land.

Then they fence that spot where the Sijou shrub is planted.

The fence the spot of the Sijou shrub with pairs of eighteen bamboo strips. The pairs of bamboo strips are joined with five fastenings.

Each pair stands (symbolizez) a pair of god-goddess. These five pair of deities are minor ones in the pantheon of ‘Bathouism’.

THE SIJOU SHRUB & ITS FENCE FASTENING RITUALS:

The five fastenings that keep together the eighteen bamboo strips symbolize (from bottom) five significant stages or/and feelings.

These five stages of life or/and feelings (in ascending order) are birth, pain, marriage and peace/pleasure followed by death.

Significantly, the three fastenings at the bottom are known as ‘Bando’ in the Bodo language.
The three ‘Bandos’ at the bottom of those fastenings represent those life-stages that are inevitable in a man’s lifespan.

In other words, they are those stages of life or/and feelings that a person cannot get rid of them in her/his life.

On the other hand, one can control or tackle the remaining two stages of life or/and feelings.
These are represented by the two fastenings at the bottom at the top portion of each of the fastenings.

The annually organised ‘Bwisagu’ festival of the indigenous Bodo-Kachari community of the northeastern Indian State of Assam and also at certain pockets in Nepal has witnessed continuous phases of revivalism.

TRADITIONAL BATHOUISM:

  • In the days of yore, while performing various modes of worship, the Bodo-Kacharis did not follow any written scriptures or religious books.
  • Nor did they possess any particular place(s) of worshipping (temples).
  • Worship in the traditional form of ‘Bathouism’ was performed at the ‘sijousali’.
  • The modes of worship also involved the practice of offering rice beer as well as fowls and animals.
  • Therefore, the ethnically performed old format of worship in ‘Bathouism’ did not follow any written tenets.
  • Hence, the worshipping modes did not have any single systematic pattern.
  • These ceremonies were performed by the Bodo-Kachari priests traditionaly known as the ‘Douri’ (male priest) and the ‘Doudini’ (female priest).
  • Mentionably, the age-old practices of ‘Bathouism’ varied from one Bodo-Kachari village to another.

PROMINENT RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS:

Two of the prominent socio-cultural and religious festivals of the largest ethnic community of Assam – the Bodo-Kacharis are the ‘Kherai’ – the biggest festival, and ‘Bwisagu’.

REVIVALISM & REFORMATION OF ‘BATHOUISM’:

These revival attempts are concentrated at reformation of the ethnically believed ‘Bathouism’.
Such revivalism are aimed at bringing about reformation in the ‘Bathouism’ keeping in tact its basic tenets.
The revivalism and/or reformation efforts have been on for several years now in tune with present times.

TRACING THE ROOTS:

The roots of such revivalism and/or reformation of ‘Bathouism’ can be traced to 1990s.
The effects of these modern thoughts are clearly reflected in the observance of ‘Bwisagu’ these days.

THE PIONEER:

The pioneer of ‘Bathouism’ faith is the ABRU (All Bathou Religious Union).
The organization –ABRU — was formed in 1992.

Since it’s formation, the ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ has been dedicatedly bring in steps to revive and reform their traditional religion of ‘Bathouism’.

THE MODERN FORM OF ‘BATHOUISM’:

The modern form of ‘Bathouism’ as initiated by the ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ has been accepted by the new generation of the Bodo-Kachari community.

THE REFORMS IN ‘BATHOUISM’:

The reforms in ‘Bathouism’ are particularly marked in five significant areas.
The reforms are evidently witnessed during the celebration of the annually held socio-cultural and religious ethnic festival of ‘Bwisagu’.

GWTHARI ASARI:

The socio-cultural and religious organization of ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ has introduced the religious institution of ‘Gwthari Asari’.

‘Gwthari Asari’ has replaced the role of the traditional Bodo-Kachari religious institutions known as the ‘Douri’ (male priest) and ‘Doudin’ (male priest).

The ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ appoints the newly introduced socio-cultural and religious institution of ‘Gwthari Asari’.

‘BATHOU AROJ’:

The ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ also introduced a musical form known as the ‘Bathou aroj’.
The ‘Bathou aroj’ is the nomenclature of a practice that is rendered by a band of Bodo-Kachari singers.

‘THANSALI’:

Significantly enough, the ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ has brought about reformation even in the traditional Bodo-Kachari religious venues. Owing to the concerned initiatives of the ABRU, the been introduced in the Bodo-Kachari society.

WHAT IS THANSALI:

The term ‘Thansali’ refers to an indigenously envisaged culturally representative place of worshipping in the age-old system of ‘Bathouism’.
The ‘Thansali’ refers to the architectural design of such places of worship.
The design and construction of ‘Thansali’ – the present-day Bodo-Kachari worshipping venues resemble that of the churches, mosques and temples.
The ‘Bathou aroj’ practice is carried out in the ‘Thansali’.

NEW MODE OF SACRIFICES:

The ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ has brought about significant reforms in the ethically observed practice of sacrifices.
Since the days of yore, the ethnic tribe of Bodo-Kacharis have been sacrificing birds like fowls and animals.

RICE BEER:

The Bodo-Kachari community were also offering rice beer as part of ‘Bathouism’.
However, the ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ stopped these age-old sacrificing modes.
In its place, the socio-cultural and religious organization of ABRU introduced the offering practice of fruits and flowers

INCENSE BURNING:

Simultaneously, the ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ introduced the practice of incense burning an important and indispensable mode of worship.

PRASAD:

The ‘All Bathou Religious Union’ further brought about about far-reaching transformations in the practice of partaking during the socio-cultural and religious festivals of modern-day ‘Bathouism’. It introduced ‘prasad’.

The writer — Nilutpal Gogoi is an entrepreneur, senior journalist, writer, translator (from Assamese to English & vice versa), avid traveller, British English Accent & grammar trainer, educationist, and martial arts (Taekwondo) practitioner.

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