They came, they conquered, and they returned with their prize. The fog-covered morning of January 13 transformed Assam into a virtual battlefield for fish hunters and their prey. On this very day of Uruka, or the eve of Magh Bihu (Makar Sankranti), treating oneself to the best and biggest fish is customary.
Amid growing anticipation about the Covid-19 vaccine and the upcoming assembly elections, and the shadow of bird flu, the people of Assam took to the annual event of feasting and festivities with great gusto. The price tag attached to a fish on this day is the least concern. All that matters is to get a big fish, catch it by its 'ear', and dangle it home with a victorious gait.
In rural Assam, on the eve of Bihu, 'community fishing' is a key tradition. People from all walks of life converge at water bodies, preferably beels (lakes or ponds). Accompanied with traditional songs and merrymaking, they wade through the water, trying their luck. For the fortunate one who manages to catch a big catfish, it not only means a sumptuous meal in the evening feast but also a place of pride among his fellow men in the pool.
“It is one particular day of the year when the very term 'community' lives up to its true meaning in the state. A person's ability to catch fish hardly counts on this day; it is Lady Luck and a person's agility that matter the most,” says Bhaskar Deka, who lives near Bamuni Beel and managed to catch a huge borali (catfish) for the evening.
Fishes and water creatures like borali, chiton, rou and bhokuwa are the favourites. On Wednesday, their prices in Guwahati ranged from rupees 500 a kilogram to 1,300 a kilogram. For the sellers too, it’s like a carnival, as their stocks vanished in no time. In the evening, communities gather around bonfires and feast together (bhoj), where a fish and its size becomes the topic of discussion for the entire night.
“Last year, Uruka was a sombre and a low-key affair in the state owing to the anti CAA protests and the uprising in Assam. The Bohag Bihu or the Assamese New Year was marred by the pandemic lockdown. It’s the first major community gathering that we are observing after a long time. We need to be cautious and obey all the protocols, but the feasting shall be there,” says Amol Chakraborty, a resident of Guwahati.