The Sonowal Kacharis are the indigenous tribals residing in the upper Assam part of the greater Assam. Sonowal Kacharis are a branch of the Bodo Kacharis, mostly agrarian, practicing traditional means for cultivation of land. Their community is further divided into 14 family groups, each identified with their individual names. The contribution of the tribal group to the rich cultural resource of Assam is worth mentioning which have flourished through generations. Every Sonowal girl is an expert weaver and they are seen clad in their own weaved textiles. They inhabit in their stilt houses built of bamboo and straws. Ancestor worship is common among the group who perform it in various forms such as ‘Nadit pinda diya’ meaning offering of cakes in the river, ‘Pirdiya‘, ‘Marakdiya‘, ‘Burapooha‘ and ‘Chaulkhowa‘. They engage themselves in community worship and have their own local deities for performing the regular rites and rituals.
However, after the revival of vaishnavism in Assam under the patronage of Srimanta Sankardeva in the late 15th century, as a follower of the principle ek xaran naam dharma, an impact on the Sonowal kacharis cannot be ignored.
Historical account of the Sonowal Kacharis:
“It is said that during the reign of the Ahom king some of the Kacharis were engaged in washing gold particles from the sands of river and therefore the prefix ‘Sonowal’ (Gold washer), was added to signify them. According to an anecdote, the Kacharis of upper Assam who became the disciple of ‘Gossian’ (a religious head) named ‘Kechaideo’ were considered to have super-natural power of offering a certain quantity of gold in a bamboo tube while the Ahom king Godadhar Singha was on the throne and these people came to be known as Sonowal Kacharis.”
Bohua Nritya– the folk dance form of the Sonowal Kacharis:
Among its various folk dance forms, bohua nritya finds its own unique position and have successfully been able to establish the identity of the tribe through its form and representation. According to the Assamese calendar, Bohua Nritya is performed in the month of Bohag (April-May). The Sonawal Kacharis celebrate Xaat Bihu during the month of bohag, where, on the seventh day from the start of the bohag month Bohua Nritya is performed with great joy and enthusiasm. Different mythological stories hold account for the celebration of Bohua Nritya. The stories have been passed on and narrated from generation to generation, person to person; therefore a particular story cannot be ascertained. However, the tribal people believe that the dance performed once in a year purifies the tribe and eradicates the evil spirits. Every story is build around the evil spirit depicted in different forms which are finally being won upon by the holy being. Usually two or three males participate in the performance dressed up in 101 banana leaves, slit into thin strips, tied around their body in the form of a dress. The bohuas wear masks made of outer shell of the pumpkin or gourd, duly painted and decorated by the local artist. The masks represent Raja-Rani or the king and the queen. With the bohuas, in the troupe a number of people painted completely in black, wearing banana leaf made skirts participate in the performance, locally known as jokhs or demons/evils. Both male and female take part in the performance. At earlier times whether females used to take part in the performance is unknown. The performance begins with the emergence of the bohuas- the dancers from the jungle accompanied with musicians playing the traditional instruments like mridangam, dhol and cymbals. Locals as well people from neighbouring villages gather in huge numbers in the field to have a glimpse of the performance and be a part of the auspicious celebration. At the end of the dance, as a part of the celebration and the associated ritual the bohua nrityakars and accompanied performers walk to the nearby pond or river. They take a dip in the water and shed their dress made of banana leaves there and then. This act symbolizes the washing out of the bad fortunes and evil beings from the village and the lives of the tribal people. According to the ritual while walking back to the village from the river the bohua performers are not supposed to look back on their way. The accompanied group leaves behind thorns of berry trees and leaves on the way which they believe would block the way for the evil spirits, restricting it to enter the village, thus enabling the entire village to stay in peace and harmony. The Sonowal Kacharis mark the end of the celebration by merry making and dining together. Though the beginning of the celebration and the ritual cannot be traced to a particular time period, but according to the elders and scholars this has been following since the time kings ruled the Kamatapur kingdom and the upper Assam region.
With the passage of time its form and representation has undergone several changes, modifications in term of costumes and additions in presentation is noticeable. Though the performances held at present times differ compared to the original context of the performance described in articles and scriptures, yet, the effort undertaken to preserve this rare intangible art form, representing the tribal socio-cultural identity of the group is commendable.
Seen in the images are bohuas, clad in banana leaf made costumes and accompanied performers (painted in black and clad in banana leaf made skirts) depicting demons or evils. Both male and female are seen taking part in the performance.
(A descriptive summary from the chapter “Bibhinnojonor dristit Sonowal Kachari Xokolor Bohua Naas” written by Chakradhar Sonowal )