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'Phata Bihu' of Dhakuakhana: A unique folk tradition in nature's bounty

By Bibekananda Choudhury
Phata Bihu of Dhakuakhana: A unique folk tradition in natures bounty
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Photo: Kushal Dutta

Guwahati, April 14: Though not exactly learnt the Bihu festival celebrated since around sixteenth century A.D. on the banks of the Charikoria river in Dhakuakhana at the far east corner of Assam with its unique characteristics is known as 'Phata Bihu' (or Phaat Bihu). Presently this Bihu is celebrated regularly on the Mohghuli Chapari (sandbank) of Charikoria river for three consecutive days starting from Friday and continuing on Saturday and Sunday of the last week of 'Bohag' the first month of Assamese calendar (2nd week of May). Phata Bihu is the heritage of Dhakuakhana. It is cultural wealth of the area. Presently its appeal has crossed the boundary of the State and the country and reached places far and wide across the seas and oceans. Since the days of the Ahom reign, Phata Bihu has been considered an occasion of cultural union of various races and creeds in the Dhakuakhana region. Though there is visibly no great characteristic difference with other national culture and folk-culture, it has some special characteristics, some unique features – that has given Phata Bihu a special identity.

There is no authenticated history about Phata Bihu yet. Though it is believed to be some historical causes after its naming, but still no concrete decision in this regard could be arrived at.

Origin of the name 'Phata Bihu':

The meaning of the word 'Phata' from Tai language is 'A place where people congregate for trade and business, to collect tax and cess at a place adjacent to a river or other deep water body.

As per Ahom Lexicon the meaning of Phata is a place where traders assemble for trade and for payment of duty. Many used the word to mean market (haat) or a wharf (ghaat)

As per legend though several opinions are found, only the following one of them has been accorded credence. It runs thus~

There is a link with the royal celebration of Bihu alongwith the Bihu on the bank of Charikoria. Phata means a big market. It is a synonym to haat. The Ahom king used to send his officers to collect taxes from people of north bank coinciding with Bihu. The assigned moored their boats in the phaat of Charikoria just before Bihu. To welcome the regal envoy people from nearby villages congregated near the phaat. People from various ethnic groups performed Bihu dance in honour of the royal officer. This festival commenced on the following day of the new year and continued for seven days. This Bihu celebrated together with the royal representative by his subjects in the Phaat is known as Phaat Bihu.

There is hardly any tell-tale difference between the traditional Rongali Bihu and Phaat Bihu. It is just a community Bihu celebrated together by various ethnic groups under the open sky in the Phaat of Charikoria. This was the place where a community market was there, the traders, merchants and farmers from the plains and hills sat together to fulfil their needs and also where the royal envoy collected taxes. At the same time the youths, both boys and girls from the ethnic groups in the vicinity celebrated Bihu with soulful songs, enthralling drum beats, mesmerizing tune of pepa (horn) made of buffalo horn, and captivating dance.

Evolution of Phata Bihu:

Since sixteenth century, Phaata Bihu has been celebrated as usual on the bank of Charikoria river of Dhakuakhana (Habung). In the beginning this Bihu was limited among the tribal groups only.

In the year 1918 Phaata Bihu stopped. The misings overtly rebelled against the English Rule and convened a public meeting and resolved therein to launch an armed peasant revolution under the leadership of a powerful person named Mohan Gam. Instead of clashing directly with the British, they targeted the godown of the Rajasthani grocer there and plundered it. It happened during Bohag Bihu too. Those who arrived on the bank of Charikoria to perform Bihu till 1917 had to face police atrocities and repression. So they just stopped coming. As a result, Phaata Bihu stopped temporarily.

It, however, resumed in the sixties of twentieth century at the earnest effort of some local people. For few years starting 1976 Phaata Bihu was organized ceremoniously in an organized manner in the playground of Dhakuakhana Government Middle English School planting branches of various trees. In the following period Phaata Bihu was organized twice amidst the som cultivation of Muga Farm in Dhakuakhana. Since 1996 Phaata Bihu has been celebrated on a permanent stage that has been erected amidst the sisu plantation of Mahghuli Chapari on the bank of Charikoria river.

Mahghuli Chapari and Phaata Bihu:

The sandbars lying on both the banks of Charikoria river starting from Dhakuakhana Square (Chariali) and extending towards West-Southern direction is called Mohghuli Chapori. Formerly there existed a stream that emerged from Charikoria some 400 metres west of Dhakuakhana square and then again merged with the mother river after running downstream for about 2.5 kilometres. The eastern portion of river island created by this dead stream is the present venue of Phaata Bihu celebration. Till the end of nineties (1988-89) the local unit of State Forest Department has created the present breathtaking ambience by planting many exotic species including sisu.

Renowned litterateur, famed son of Dhakuakhana Homen Bargohain has mentioned the present spot where Phaata Bihu is celebrated as 'Maohghuli Chapari' in his much discussed short story 'Garakhiya' (the cowherd). The natural beauty of this sandbars pulled him immensely from his very childhood and so it found copious mention in many of his short stories-novels and other essays.

The fact that Phaata Bihu that has been recognized as an invaluable property of Assamese folk-culture is now permanently celebrated in this sandbar has rendered this spot as a point of tourist attraction.

Characteristics of Phaata Bihu:

Though it is also just an expression of Bihu fervour, one cannot directly compare Phaata Bihu with the Bihu celebrated with other regions. The opulence of natural bounty of the location, heritage of the place, the dance performed to the Bihu songs emanating from the core of the heart, Jaat naam, the husori, plethora of colours in the traditional dresses of the performers as well the viewers, participation of various ethnic groups is characteristic, diversified and significant. Phaata Bihu can be termed as a just example of 'Unity in diversity'. It is a symbol of co-ordination. It is the spontaneous natural expression of artistic mind of local rural populace.

The social contribution and unique feature of Phaata Bihu that need mention are:

 There had not been any fratricidal clash on the bank of Charikoria as a result of mutual misunderstanding, suspicion incited by racial, linguistic or cultural emotion and feelings.

 The strict enforcement of the rule of allowing into the stage only people in ethnic attire is a valiant example of cultural responsibility.

 Phaata Bihu is still free from sponsorship. It still remains a festival of the people and is celebrated with public contribution.

 Phaata Bihu always upholds 'respect' over 'money power'.

 Phaata Bihu is a public institution. This Bihu is above all narrowness.

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Phata Bihu of Dhakuakhana: A unique folk tradition in natures bounty

Guwahati, April 14: Though not exactly learnt the Bihu festival celebrated since around sixteenth century A.D. on the banks of the Charikoria river in Dhakuakhana at the far east corner of Assam with its unique characteristics is known as 'Phata Bihu' (or Phaat Bihu). Presently this Bihu is celebrated regularly on the Mohghuli Chapari (sandbank) of Charikoria river for three consecutive days starting from Friday and continuing on Saturday and Sunday of the last week of 'Bohag' the first month of Assamese calendar (2nd week of May). Phata Bihu is the heritage of Dhakuakhana. It is cultural wealth of the area. Presently its appeal has crossed the boundary of the State and the country and reached places far and wide across the seas and oceans. Since the days of the Ahom reign, Phata Bihu has been considered an occasion of cultural union of various races and creeds in the Dhakuakhana region. Though there is visibly no great characteristic difference with other national culture and folk-culture, it has some special characteristics, some unique features – that has given Phata Bihu a special identity.

There is no authenticated history about Phata Bihu yet. Though it is believed to be some historical causes after its naming, but still no concrete decision in this regard could be arrived at.

Origin of the name 'Phata Bihu':

The meaning of the word 'Phata' from Tai language is 'A place where people congregate for trade and business, to collect tax and cess at a place adjacent to a river or other deep water body.

As per Ahom Lexicon the meaning of Phata is a place where traders assemble for trade and for payment of duty. Many used the word to mean market (haat) or a wharf (ghaat)

As per legend though several opinions are found, only the following one of them has been accorded credence. It runs thus~

There is a link with the royal celebration of Bihu alongwith the Bihu on the bank of Charikoria. Phata means a big market. It is a synonym to haat. The Ahom king used to send his officers to collect taxes from people of north bank coinciding with Bihu. The assigned moored their boats in the phaat of Charikoria just before Bihu. To welcome the regal envoy people from nearby villages congregated near the phaat. People from various ethnic groups performed Bihu dance in honour of the royal officer. This festival commenced on the following day of the new year and continued for seven days. This Bihu celebrated together with the royal representative by his subjects in the Phaat is known as Phaat Bihu.

There is hardly any tell-tale difference between the traditional Rongali Bihu and Phaat Bihu. It is just a community Bihu celebrated together by various ethnic groups under the open sky in the Phaat of Charikoria. This was the place where a community market was there, the traders, merchants and farmers from the plains and hills sat together to fulfil their needs and also where the royal envoy collected taxes. At the same time the youths, both boys and girls from the ethnic groups in the vicinity celebrated Bihu with soulful songs, enthralling drum beats, mesmerizing tune of pepa (horn) made of buffalo horn, and captivating dance.

Evolution of Phata Bihu:

Since sixteenth century, Phaata Bihu has been celebrated as usual on the bank of Charikoria river of Dhakuakhana (Habung). In the beginning this Bihu was limited among the tribal groups only.

In the year 1918 Phaata Bihu stopped. The misings overtly rebelled against the English Rule and convened a public meeting and resolved therein to launch an armed peasant revolution under the leadership of a powerful person named Mohan Gam. Instead of clashing directly with the British, they targeted the godown of the Rajasthani grocer there and plundered it. It happened during Bohag Bihu too. Those who arrived on the bank of Charikoria to perform Bihu till 1917 had to face police atrocities and repression. So they just stopped coming. As a result, Phaata Bihu stopped temporarily.

It, however, resumed in the sixties of twentieth century at the earnest effort of some local people. For few years starting 1976 Phaata Bihu was organized ceremoniously in an organized manner in the playground of Dhakuakhana Government Middle English School planting branches of various trees. In the following period Phaata Bihu was organized twice amidst the som cultivation of Muga Farm in Dhakuakhana. Since 1996 Phaata Bihu has been celebrated on a permanent stage that has been erected amidst the sisu plantation of Mahghuli Chapari on the bank of Charikoria river.

Mahghuli Chapari and Phaata Bihu:

The sandbars lying on both the banks of Charikoria river starting from Dhakuakhana Square (Chariali) and extending towards West-Southern direction is called Mohghuli Chapori. Formerly there existed a stream that emerged from Charikoria some 400 metres west of Dhakuakhana square and then again merged with the mother river after running downstream for about 2.5 kilometres. The eastern portion of river island created by this dead stream is the present venue of Phaata Bihu celebration. Till the end of nineties (1988-89) the local unit of State Forest Department has created the present breathtaking ambience by planting many exotic species including sisu.

Renowned litterateur, famed son of Dhakuakhana Homen Bargohain has mentioned the present spot where Phaata Bihu is celebrated as 'Maohghuli Chapari' in his much discussed short story 'Garakhiya' (the cowherd). The natural beauty of this sandbars pulled him immensely from his very childhood and so it found copious mention in many of his short stories-novels and other essays.

The fact that Phaata Bihu that has been recognized as an invaluable property of Assamese folk-culture is now permanently celebrated in this sandbar has rendered this spot as a point of tourist attraction.

Characteristics of Phaata Bihu:

Though it is also just an expression of Bihu fervour, one cannot directly compare Phaata Bihu with the Bihu celebrated with other regions. The opulence of natural bounty of the location, heritage of the place, the dance performed to the Bihu songs emanating from the core of the heart, Jaat naam, the husori, plethora of colours in the traditional dresses of the performers as well the viewers, participation of various ethnic groups is characteristic, diversified and significant. Phaata Bihu can be termed as a just example of 'Unity in diversity'. It is a symbol of co-ordination. It is the spontaneous natural expression of artistic mind of local rural populace.

The social contribution and unique feature of Phaata Bihu that need mention are:

 There had not been any fratricidal clash on the bank of Charikoria as a result of mutual misunderstanding, suspicion incited by racial, linguistic or cultural emotion and feelings.

 The strict enforcement of the rule of allowing into the stage only people in ethnic attire is a valiant example of cultural responsibility.

 Phaata Bihu is still free from sponsorship. It still remains a festival of the people and is celebrated with public contribution.

 Phaata Bihu always upholds 'respect' over 'money power'.

 Phaata Bihu is a public institution. This Bihu is above all narrowness.