Rongali Bihu Festival: My Experience in Assam, India By Shannon Skinner
Photo Credits: Shannon Skinner
For travelers with busy schedules and limited time, one of the quickest and most efficient ways to experience the essence of a country’s culture – from food to fashion – is to attend a cultural festival. This April, I traveled to Assam, India to do just that.
India has captured my imagination since reading the classic, City of Joy, in a university sociology class. That fascination led to a zest for spicy Indian dishes and a passion for the eye-popping colours of India, and thirst to know more about this magical place. Finally, my dance card was up.
My journey took me to Guwahati, Assam to attend a 3-day cultural festival called Rongali Bihu, which is a special celebration of the Assamese New Year and coming of spring. It is a time when people focus on hopes of peace and prosperity.
Assam is India’s northeastern state that is located south of the eastern Himalayas. It has a number of wildlife sanctuaries, the Brahmaputra River, and is home to the one-horned rhinoceros, Royal Bengal Tiger, many tribes, and is a large tea-growing region and producer of silk. It is unexplored and its beauty beckons.
This year, the Assam community launched a platform to highlight the essence of Assam as a way of attracting tourists. Rongali (“colours”) is one of three Bihu festivals that take place throughout the year, with Rongali being Assam’s biggest. “Assam is one of the most beautiful destinations perhaps in the whole world,” says Rongali Festival organizer, Shyamkanu Mahanta. “Mainly under one platform we are focussing the entire facets of Assam and we are trying to get a lot of tourists from across the world.”
Running the first weekend in April, the Bihu festival highlights the arts and culture of the Assamese communities and tribes, including music, dance, crafts, fashion, textiles and food. Many tribes performed their colourful folk dances (more than 50 dance forms). There were several live musical performances including rock and Bollywood (including Bollywood star, Papon, and singer Mana Robin), and other Assamese stars and dignitaries attended.
Fashion shows of colourful, jaw-dropping saris by local designers inspired me. And there was a thrilling dance drama performance of the classic tale, Kaliya Daman, in the famous form called Ankia Bhaona, which has been performed in India for 500 years.
Educational exhibitions, such as how silk is derived and the history of the region, satisfied my heady need to learn; and vendors featured textiles such as the Assamese “Gamochas” traditional hand towel and fabric.
I participated in a traditional Assamese sport whereby I was blindfolded, given a stick, spun around a few times to disorient and had to guess the location of a metal pot on the ground. Then I was given one chance to hit it with the stick, which, I dare say, failed. Simple and silly, yes, but it got lots of laughs.
The festival was also a great way to try a variety of culinary delights, like freshly smoked meat and fish, from different communities. I discovered that Assamese cuisine is flavourful and the spice is somewhat tempered (I like it hot).
One thing I did not expect was the local interest in me as a foreigner – and I became somewhat of a celebrity. Some locals were not accustomed to seeing many foreigners and wanted their photos taken with me. What’s more, I did an impromptu Bihu dance with a tribal group (Meishing), which made for a rather entertaining photo that subsequently ran in several major Indian newspapers. I did TV interviews, too, about my festival experience. It was fun and humbling at the same time.
What I took away from attending Rongali Bihu is not only a sense of the Assamese people, customs and history, but also that festivals are a great way to experience the highlights of a country’s culture – especially when you have limited time.
Tips on getting the most from a festival:
- Research in advance – read as much as you can about the festival’s offerings before you leave so you fully benefit from the experience.
- Be curious – try a bit of everything and take time to learn from local artists.
- Respect local customs – remember that respect is a mutual thing.
Where to Stay: Hotel Dynasty (4 star) is situated on the banks of river Brahamputra and in the business centre of Guwahati, Assam, with facilities including a spa, health club, bar/restaurant and more. Rooms from $106 CDN and up.
For more information about Rongali Festival, visit www.rongaliassam.com
Ground transportation, accomodations and guide were provided by Vasco Travel, the industry leaders in travel to India.
Resources: India Tourism (www.IncredibleIndia.org) and Assam Tourism (www.AssamTourism.gov.in).Vasco Travel (www.vascotravel.net), industry leaders in travel to India, based in Delhi. For flights, visit Air India (www.airIndia.in), a Star Alliance Member (my route was Toronto-London-Delhi-Guwahati).