The three Bihus observed by the people of Assam at three different phases of agricultural operation during a year may constitute a festival complex. The Bohag bihu or Rongali bihu, a part of the annual Bihu festival, has been causing the largest amount of stir among the people of this region irrespective of caste-creed, colour, religion and language since time immemorial.
The Rangali Bihu coincides with Vaisakhi in north India observed by Sikhs and Hindus, and Hindu festivals with similar significance are known by many other names in different parts of India, such as Vishu in Kerala, Poila Boishakh in Bengal.
Bohag or Rongali Bihu, the most important, is celebrated in the middle of April. It marks the Assamese New Year and coincides with the advent of spring and seeding time. At Bohag Bihu (which also marks the Assamese new year) and Magh Bihu (the harvest festival) young women dressed in colourful traditional festive costumes woven out of pure muga (silk) dance and are accompanied with wild and lusty beats from the men dressed in dhoti (baggy white pants) with gamuchas (traditional scarves) tied round their foreheads playing the dhol and pepa.
The dhol is an essential part of Bihu. It maintains the rhythm and is similar to an Indian drum, played with two sticks and made out of a wooden barrel. The two open ends are covered with animal skin. Tightening or loosening the skin with ropes or nuts and bolts adjusts the pitch. The dhol dates back to the 15 th century when it was played during wartime.
The pepa , a chunky flute-like instrument, is also played during Bihu. It is made from buffalo horn with a short tapering stem of bamboo, cane or reed as the mouthpiece. The first phase of Bohag Bihu is dedicated to cattle. They are smeared with mustard oil and then taken to the nearest pond or river for a ceremonial bath. The people, too, take a bath in the river. The first part of the dance consists of Husari Kirtans (religious songs). One man sets the refrain, which is soon picked up by the rest and young men only perform the dance in a circle.
Both young men and women take place in all the other Bihu dances where the songs are often love ditties which are sung in couplets and often performed in the fields and under trees. Both men and women play clappers called taka and the dancers form circles, rows and figures of eight (representing the motif of intertwined serpents).
During the second phase of Bohag Bihu villagers don new clothes, exchange gifts and visit relatives and friends in groups and perform Bihu dances in the open.