Boisabi: A unique, beautiful festival of colours

by Alvee Khan

photos by Abdullah Apu

During mid-April each year, two or three days preceding and culminating in the Bengali New Year, the three districts of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh – Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachari- become a place of colourful festivity.
Boi-Sa-Bi festival is the largest and most significant indigenous cultural event on the CHT calendar. For three days, the region bursts into colour and celebration, commencing on April 12 and culminating on Pahela Baishakh (April 14). It is an opportunity to mark the year past, and to welcome a new one – filled with peace, prosperity and high agricultural yield.
The incredibly beautiful Chittagong Hill Tracts is home to more than ten different ethnic and indigenous groups with their own unique cultural traditions, rich history, costumes, music, dances, food, etc. They are Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Khumi, Mro, Lushai, Khiang, Bawm, Pankhu, Bangoj and Chak. This makes Chittagong Hill Tracts the most culturally diverse and rich region within Bangladesh.
Boi-Sa-Bi, which is the collective name given to the celebrations, is based on the combination of the first letters given to the event by the three main tribal groups in the region – ‘Boi’ from the Tripura Boisu, ‘Sa’ from the Marma Sangrai and ‘Bi’ from the Chakma’s Bizu celebrations.
Different communities bring their own unique flavour to the festivities. As part of the event the members of the Tripura community perform a popular dance known as Goraiadance that reflects day-to-day life and the steps of jhum cultivation, while the Marma form a procession to carry statues of Buddha down to the river for bathing, before reinstalling them in their shrines. Mro communities eat bitter food to prevent evil spirits from consuming their bodies, and the Khumi – the region’s smallest indigenous/tribal group – place specific crops aside especially for domestic animals.
Most people in the hills enjoy and participate in the various festivities that take place in mid-April each year, including Bengali settlers who observe the Bengali New Year and joins in the indigenous festivals. The festivals also provide an opportunity for the peoples of the region to collectively showcase the best of their cultures and traditions. Bengalis from rest of Bangladesh flock to the hill districts to experience the distinct cultural practices and expressions of the hill people. A few tourists and visitors from outside Bangladesh are also seen enjoying the very welcoming festivities.
The Chakmas celebrate Boisabi with a three day Biju Utsab: Phool Biju, Mul Biju and Gojjya Pojjya Din. During Phool Biju, young girls float flowers in water bodies on the penultimate morning of the outgoing year, seeking divine blessings. The following day of Mul Biju, they prepare a vast range of delicacies and offer these to the villagers. Their mixed vegetable curry called ‘Pachan’, and traditional pithas, served with ‘Chuani’ (locally brewed rice liquor) add to the celebrations. The first day of the New Year- Gojjya Pojjya Di- is the day to start anew and pray to Lord Buddha for yearlong peace and prosperity. Guests, irrespective of religion or ethnicity, are welcomed in people’s homes.
The Marma’s celebrate the Sangrain festival, welcoming the New Year. In the run up to the celebrations, they clean and decorate their houses, prepare traditional food and participate in rituals. Their biggest event is the water festival. People, mostly young boys and girls, participate in the festival splashing water on one other. The Marma’s, along with tourists and Bengalis, gather at different points to take part in Sangrain.
All the Rakhaines, especially young boys and girls, gather at the venue to celebrate the water festival. They sing, sway and dance to their traditional songs while splashing and spraying water on everyone. Local artistes perform music while the jubilant crowd immerses in fun and merriment. Like the Marma’s, the Rakhaines aim to wash away the sins and dilapidation of the past and seek the blessings of Lord Buddha for a refreshing start to the New Year. The water festival is the biggest and most exciting segment of the two communities’ Sangrain. It is an opportunity to make friends with strangers. Everyone is determined to start anew.
Apart from the celebrations by Chakmas and Marmas, other indigenous groups in the CHT including Tripura, Tangchangya, Bom, Mro, Khumi, Khiyang and Chak celebrate the festival in their traditional way.
Although some aspects of the cultures of the people of Chittagong Hill Tracts have shared elements with Bengali and Indian traditions, their cultures mainly have different roots, forms and expressions. From the point of view of dress, food, music, dance and religious / communal rituals the hill people have their own unique and very different ways of life, perhaps more common with people in South East Asia. Bengalis who flock there in great numbers during the festive season do so to witness and experience something very different their cultures and festivals, which is considered to be, in the Bangladesh context, uniquely beautiful.
Any Bangladeshi with a sense of pride towards his/her tradition and heritage should take time to visit the amazing hospitability and celebration of life by the indigenous people living in CHT. It makes you wonder, if people living in such turmoil and power-struggle could smile so beautifully, hoping for better days, what are we complaining about?

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