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Published: April 19th 2008
Assamese dancers at the All Assam Students Union pavilion
There are some scenes you need to see, to get a feel for a culture. Some beautiful, some challenging.... (check back here often, because I'll be adding a lot here after my initial publishing...)
Bihu Festival , a moment of fame, and a small world.
When I headed for Assam, I had a vague knowledge that a festival would be happening around the time of my arrival. I didn't stop to consider the likely side-effects: lack of accommodation.
Eventually accommodation was found, at an inflated price (for India) - but such problems were a minor inconvenience to pay for the unexpected experience of the festival.
Rongali Bihu festival is essentially a spring festival - celebrating happiness, and fertility etc with lots of song and dance. In Guwahati numerous committees erect big pavilions of bamboo and plastic and clothe, and celebrate into the night for several days.
These days the events seem to have a major role preserving/promoting indigenous Assamese culture in the face of globalisation and the media dominance of mainstream Hindi culture.
In our first morning in Guwahati, we stopped at one of the many little shops that provide photocopy and phone services to make a phone call.
The proprietor rushed up and gave us three invitations to a Bihu tent - turns out he is on the organising committee.
Everyone was incredibly friendly and keen for us to experience Bihu.
That afternoon we visited our first of many Bihu performances - this one was organised, we soon discovered, by the All-Assam Students Union.
What a spectacle!..including nationally famous singers and TV stars from Assam. But best of all was the traditional dancing/singing/drumming.
Embarrassingly (but also conveniently, given the crowd size) we were soon spotted by one of the student organisers and ushered to top seats in tha pavilion with all the dignitaries. We even got an intro to the beautiful TV star. That was followed by interviews with the local TV, where at least we had a bit of a chance to express our gratitude. ( our moment of fame )
Then, in what was the first of repeating occurrences, we were invited to take food with the students, back at the union offices. Interesting sweet confections were shared, and we were introduced to their president, who presented us with Bihu scarves - a traditional honour.
The next evening when we attended the Bihu
tent that we had the original invitations for, we had an almost identical experience, sitting with dignitaries, receiving scarves, eating, seeing great cultural performances, and being interviewed for TV (which we were assured, was being beamed live to 22 countries around the world!!) We avoided making anti-globalisation speeches, and just said what a great time we were having, and how alive and vibrant Assamese culture was.
That said, we could still see, as could some local commentators, how the commercial world was appropriating Bihu for its own ends - with production of Happy Bihu cards, and sponsorship of many pavilions by well-known softdrink manufacturers.
What was celebrated as a local village festival with singing and dancing by locals under the village tree could be rapidly progressing towards a glitzy marketable city-based affair. Happily though, the performances are genuine, as is the community involvement, so perhaps commercialisation will lose in the end.
I discovered just how small a world it is when we went looking for a bar where we could have a quiet drink. When we finally did find one, we were hardly settled in when two other backpackers (the only ones we met in all of Guwahati) strolled
in. Within a few minutes I discovered not only were they from Australia, but they live in the town where I work! A small world indeed, and good cause to celebrate a little bit more!
Some confronting scenes
While in Guwahati, we visited the Kamakhya Mandir. We soon discovered that this is one of those sites where animal sacrifices are carried out regularly as part of puja. Goats were being sacrificed regularly, but we happened along at a time when a buffalo was being sacrificed. Whilst the beheadings of the goats happened rapidly, and thus with not much pain, the same could not be said for the buffalo, due to the way in which the animal's neck must be stretched tightly before the decapitating blow is struck.
We didn't get any photos of the buffalo sacrifice - not only did it seem inappropriate, but we noticed that when a visiting Indian national tried to take a photo with his 'phone camera, he was shouted at severely, and prevented, by the priests. It is perhaps a sensitive subject - but also a part of India...
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