Perhaps, modern civilization began when the first humans took up a tool and cut down the first crops they had planted. That act must have triggered a celebration that has continued till today. Every year, throughout the Indian subcontinent, the second week of January is celebrated as a time of harvest festivities with different names such as Poush Songkranti in West Bengal, Magh Bihu in Assam, Thai Pongal in Tamil Nadu etc.. We, people of Tripura, are no exception. We celebrate our harvest festival called “Hangrai” with much joy and reverence.
One of the most interesting parts about Hangrai celebration is that it is a time for communal picnics. In villages, teams are formed on the basis of age group and thereafter each team builds a small straw hut and organize a cookout.
The preparation for Hangrai begins almost a week before the festival day. By then, all the paddy from the field has been collected and brought home. Both girls and boys put in their labour in building the hangrai nok. The girls gather and cut the rice straw for the roof and the boys cut the bamboo required to build the hut. These village youths raise contributory amounts of money, and also commonly collect a decent quantity of newly harvested rice. The menu is then finalised and the required ingredients bought, wherein fish, chicken, pork- all are favourites. The feast is not only about flavourful meals but also singing and dancing until twilight, next to the Hangrai Nok, which is usually constructed near a pond or a lake.
While the young people conduct picnics all night, the mothers stay at home to prepare dishes made of a special variety of sticky rice called Awang Mairung. They spend the entire day in the kitchen making “Awang Bwthai” or “Awang Bangwi” where the sticky rice is wrapped in “Lairu” leaves (Zingiberaceae family) or banana leaves and steamed. There are also other homemade treats made in surplus for the guests who will visit the next day.
Meanwhile at the picnic site, when the night is almost over and the birds are yet to start chirping, the makeshift hut is burnt down and the participants of the festival take a cleansing bath. It is believed that taking a dip before the first cock crows cleanses one of the sins accumulated over the past year. The water is very cold during this time of the year and the shivering crowd of early bathers use the burning hut as a fireplace to warm them up. Then with the arrival of dawn, with a burning incense in hand, everyone goes around the locality or village to seek blessings from the elders. Old people who are bed-ridden are also paid a visit and offered the traditional fare. The elders give their blessings along with the delicacies prepared for the guests in advance. People also invite each other to partake in meals that day.
There is another aspect to Hangrai wherein those who have lost a parent that year spend it differently from others. As per the Hindu beliefs, it is considered auspicious to immerse the ashes of the deceased on this day in lakes like Dumbur and Rudrasagar. Chakma Ghat and Unakoti are some other such sites. This ritual is said to be liberating for the soul of the departed. Those who can afford it, opt to travel to places like Gaya, Kashi, Haridwar, etc where the ashes are immersed into the Ganges. Either before the journey or on returning, a “Keertan” is organised in which musical devotional chants are performed and the elders get together to have a meal.
One can make a donation to a priest in memory of the parent. The donation can range from as little as a blanket to sometimes even a cow. During the “Teerth” or the holy journey, it’s usual to be accompanied by other family members. An entire night is spent with an ignited oil lamp and the ashes. Then at day-break, a priest shaves the head of the kin, following which the kin takes a bath with three dips in the holy river. He then immerses the ashes in the water and in order to always remember the perished, dedicates a pledge to never consume any one dish or dessert that he enjoys. Whether it is a “Teerth” or regional fairs, there are committees that are available to help in arranging them. In Tripura where such local events are organised or fairs are held, people participate in various cultural acts including singing, dancing, Keertan or plays, and even food-stalls are set up.
This festival is testament to the unbreakable link that humans have with nature and its various elements. It comes as a reminder every year to appreciate what our ancestors have left behind for us to relish, that when food is brought to the table and shared, along with it comes the sense of community and cultural identity.
This article has been created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.