Man, those Assamese know how to celebrate. It’s the spring festival of Rongali Bihu and when we arrived in the capital, after leaving Kaziranga, it was in throngs of energetic merrymaking; the city’s open spaces were full of stages of singing dance troupes, their hips swaying, spinning and arms aloft; there were thumping drum beats, horns and yelps; and everywhere there was the iconic red and white cloth of Assam, the gamusa.
Guwahati | Assam | North East India
We’re at mum’s in Guwahati, Assam’s big sprawling capital and gateway to the north east of India. The city is many things, sassy, self-centred, polluted, overcrowded, burgeoning and chockablock with traffic. It is fast and furious and makes no apologies to anyone.
Guwahati’s changed a lot over the years, the Instagram crowd now hang out in cool bars posing in designer shirts and miniskirts; showrooms for Harley Davidson, Nike and others here, people have money to spend.
It’s not all success though; it still has its pollution and grubby corners of plastic litter.
Yesterday we walked down an unlit lane at night; during the day it’s flanked by heaps of rubbish, but at night they are black like coal and tiny fireflies swarm there, little green lights, in random trajectories switching on an off.
It was perhaps an analogy of Guwahati, in ancient times called ‘the city of eastern lights’, banked by the red river, the Brahmaputra, and abode of the blue hill, Nilachal, one of the holiest places in Hindusim.
April thunderstorms and the confidence of Assam’s women
The pre-monsoon storms bring ear-deafening destruction now to Assam. They upend tin-roofs, fell branches and bend trees, smash plant pots and make people run to shelter, leaving puddles, swollen drains, a litany of sticks and leaves and the the air thick with humidity. Witnesses feel a sense of nature’s fury followed by a cleansing freshness only for it all to happen again.
The fury is feminine. In the west we have a phrase that ‘hell hath no fury like a women scorned’; the Assamese have these thunderstorms and the legend of the bordoisila.
The legend makes the thunderstorms anthropomorphic and they are transformed in to a mythical woman who returns to her mother’s home but has to return to her husband in April just before Rongali Bihu; she is hopping mad about this, her fury has no bounds, and she destroys everything in her returning path.
This is one of many legends interwoven in to the tapestry of the Assamese psyche, reminding all of the the power of women.
In Assamese society, there are strong women role models from business women, actors, elephant trainers to pilots like my mum. Any big function, from weddings to funerals or baby’s first rice eating ceremonies (onoh proxon) will be organised by women with men firmly seatbelted in to the backseat.
There are many reasons for Assam’s confident and progressive women; Assam’s heritage is filled with strong queens like the stoical Joymati, and fairytales of resilient women like Tejimola who refuse to bow to evil time and time again. There is no dowry system in Assam, so families don’t have to give money to the groom’s family when their daughter weds and sons and daughters are treated equally. Assamese women tend to be more confident and assertive and are also the biggest drinkers in India although there is still a long way to go for gender parity in booze, employment and many other areas.
A time of unbridled joy
Bihus were originally rural festivals celebrated in Assam’s villages, where 86% of the population live. The festival is non-religious and the biggest of the bihus, is the spring festival of Rongali Bihu, a time of unbridled joy, drums and buffaloes and swaying high tempo dances.
In the middle of the 20th century it was brought to a stage in Lotasil and became an urban spectacle, soon spreading. to Assamese communities abroad. Today they are slick, glitzy events, with large tents of gantry systems of complex lighting, huge speakers and a talent show feel.
We visited the Bihu stage at Japorigog just off the Zoo Road. A dance troupe from Moran kicked off the event and the men beat drums (dhol) creating a wicked and thumping high tempo backbeat; there were shouts and yelps; the main female dancer in silk-golden mekhala sador, Assam’s two piece sari, span fast, five, ten times in a bent posture, her palms pinned behind her back, and then she sang effortlessly, with full breath, then span the other way again.
It is an act of great energy and spectacle but the audience were strangely subdued.
The acts continued; next up was a group of young children dressed in white with synchronous dance moves; then a middle aged man in a man-bun and pot belly wearing all white came up to sing. It was a talent show to be judged like Pop Idol, but the adjudicators were respectful, a very important x factor in Assamese social intercourses. They gave their axirbad (blessings) to the contestants, not demeaning giggles and put-downs of Walsh and Cowell.
We passed the Ganeshguri market, full of noise and energy; this was Christmas Eve on Oxford street but madder in the functional chaos of India; add in a thousand revving motorbikes; headlights of cars; police whistles; stalls of chickens, fish and vegetables; crammed with thousands of last minute shoppers for the Bihu holiday. And it’s election time in the world’s largest democracy for that extra zest of craziness.
Guwahati is slightly more chaotic than usual. The storms have caused power outages, delaying the Bihu stages; we hang around for a while in the market to pick up some saris that Sarah’s getting stitched but they are late. Uber is hard to find because of the elections, and there is limited food home-delivery (here called Swiggy, which would probably have been a good name for booze home-delivery). We take an auto rickshaw (oto riksa) home instead but the driver has no change.
Some of my middle-aged grumpiness came back but it was short lived though, and I was wrong to be vexed at Swiggy not working when half of India’s children suffer from some form of malnutrition.
The city was full of unbridled joy for a few days and as always, its self-centred bustle.