Spring finally seems to be around the corner; not in a great rush to settle in, though, with the occasional shower bringing the temperatures down. But with the unusually cold days that we have seen recently, any little heat and sunshine is a blessing, and I am not complaining.
It’s been the kids’ spring break since the last two weeks ( although it did seem more like an extension of the winter break, most of the time), and things go back to the routine from next week. The days have gone by rather quickly, and lazily, I must admit.
The seeds sown a while ago have germinated and tiny plants are now peeking out.
Back in Assam, a North Eastern state of India , where I come from, it is time to usher in a New Year. Rongali or Bohag Bihu is a spring festival, welcoming the spring and the advent of the Assamese New Year. Needless to say,there is a general sense of merriment and feasting.
When I was young, Rongali Bihu meant savouring the delicacies, paying our respects to our elders, new clothes and visiting the Bihutolis (temporary stages) set up at various places where cultural functions were held. The sound of the dhol, pepa and bihu songs reverberated late into the night as the beautiful Bihu dancers, clad in traditional muga silk attire (muga mekhela sador) and jewellery, entertained the audience with their sensual moves.
All the main festivals in Assam have an agricultural theme. The real essence of Rongali Bihu can be found in the villages where on the first day, known as ‘goru bihu’, with ‘goru’ , meaning ‘cow’, the cows are given a special cleanse and are worshipped, as they form a central element in the farming process. Living in the city, we rarely got to see this. But, of course, the next day, being ‘manuh bihu’ ( literally translates to the ‘people’ bihu), we could take part in it, although, for most of us, as children, the clothes and the food was what we mostly participated in, and of course, the visits to the relatives’ and hanging out with the cousins.
It is Rongali Bihu in a couple of days and the heart fondly remembers those blissful days of childhood when the contagious merriment would get a grip on one and all as we looked forward to the days of celebrations ahead.
We have a growing community of fellow Assamese here in the UK, in fact I’ve known some of them since childhood. Of course, we are spread far and wide and apart from a few, it is not possible to meet everyone very often. But, the community does come together once in a while to celebrate our dear festivals, for as Marcus Gravey says- ” A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without its roots”.
Mum and daughter decked up in traditional finery for a round of Bihu dance (2012)
To celebrate the Assamese New Year, here’s something sweet – narikolor laru (sweetened coconut balls).
You can probably call my version as the cheat’s version, but it tastes delicious and is especially helpful for those of us who do not have the luxury, or rather, the access to fresh coconuts at our beck and call. Back in Assam, they are always made with freshly scraped coconut and cooked with sugar for quite a while, before being rolled into balls. I still remember how quickly ma would spread the mixture and herself, me and my sister had to work through the hot coconut mixture before they hardened. There was always a sort of competition as to who could roll the most larus, so they were swiftly made, considering the mountain of coconut mixture that we go through. The larus I made today do have their distinguishing coconut flavour and rates high enough on the taste scale, but have a slightly fudgy texture inside. And the best part is that they can be whipped up in minutes. Also, you do not need to hurry through the hot mixture and can take your time. Here’s how I made them-
1 and a 1/2 C dessicated coconut
1 and a 1/2 tsp of cardamom powder
1/2 C + 4 tblsp of sweetened condensed milk
- Place the coconut in a thick bottomed pan and very lightly roast it, do not let it colour much.
- Mix in the cardamom powder, followed by the condensed milk. Make sure to stir vigorously all the time. The mixture will be quite thick, keep stirring till the mixture sort of clumps together. It took me about 3 minutes. Make sure the heat is very low to avoid burning.
- Transfer the mixture into a bowl and let it cool for a few minutes.
- Cover a plate with some plastic wrap.
- Shape the mixture into 12-13 equal sized balls and place on the plate.
- Enjoy warm or cold.
- If using later, let them come to room temperature and store them in an airtight container in the fridge.
Rongali Bihur xubheshyare,