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Tribal Festival

The sal tree has great significance in the lives of the indigenous populace of the Chotanagpur plateau. It is the focal point of the festival of Sarhul which means the sal blossom festival.

Sarhul which means the sal-blossom festival is a semi-religious festival of the inhabitants of Chota Nagpur. This festival is celebrated by several tribes of the region such as the Oraons, Mundas and the Santhals, the Santhals call it Baha and celebrate it in end February-March whereas the Oraons celebrate it a little late in March-April.

The festival revolves around the sal tree. With much of the forest having been cleared for the purpose of cultivation, these tribals have spared a cluster of sal trees to serve as a place for worship. This protected area is known as the saran, the sacred grove. The festival of Sarhul is celebrated in the month of Baisakha and announces the onset of spring. No one in the community is allowed to use the sal tree, its flowers, or fruits in any manner till the Sarhul celebrations. Women cannot use the flowers to decorate themselves; the honey and the flowers cannot be eaten. It anyone breaks these rules, the village priest boycotts the house of the family for a year till the next Sarhul.

In early days, the festivities were spread over a period of three days though now in many townships the duration of the festivals has been cut down to two days and in some areas even to one, depending on the number of holidays declared by the state. In the remote village area, the celebrations still have the verve and vigour of earlier times and not much has changed.

Different tribes have a different significance attached to this festival. The tribes practicing cultivation for their livelihood such as the Oraons, celebrate this festival in the month of Baisakha (April) before the commencement of the sowing of paddy. The puja (prayer) is undertaken with the aim of securing the blessings of the gods and goddesses of nature for a good bumper crop.

Each Oraon family saves at least a handful of the rice blessed by their village priest during the previous Sarhul festival for the following sowing season. This rice is believed have special qualities after having been placed on the saran-sup which is a special winnowing basket and the seat of the ‘Goddess of the Grove’. This basket is ceremonially hung at the priest’s house. This sanctified rice (asirbadi) is mixed with a little cowdung and when the Oraon cultivator sows the paddy seed, this asirbadi is added to it, with the hope of a good yield.

Besides this, animal sacrifices are made for different reasons. If a piece of wasteland is to be reclaimed for cultivation purposes, a sacrifice has to be made to appease the spirits of such areas. These sacrifices are normally made on Tuesday and Fridays as these are considered to be two auspicious days in an Oraon calendar.

These days of festivities given everyone the opportunity to rejoice and make merry. Everybody gets together to eat, drink, sing and dance.

The hunter-gatherer tribes have a special meaning for this festival. They pray for the protection of the inmates of the jungle because of their direct dependency on them. For instance, every part of the sal tree has great importance in their lives. The root and the new leaves have medicinal properties; the leaves also serve as a good fertilizer; its timber is used for beams, posts and doors in their house-building; bowls and plates are made out of the leaves of sal; marriage invitations are given in the form of folded sal leaves with a little bit of turmeric and a few rice grains inside. A liquor is made out of the Mahua honey and the flowers are eaten.

The Santhals Baha is a three-day long festival which begins with the day of purification, when the young men of the village gather at the jaherthan (the Holy Grove) and make two huts there. One hut is reserved for the Santhal deity Gosan Era and the other hut is shared by Jaher Era, the deity of the grove, Monrenko and Maran Buru. These shrines are purified by spreading of cowdung by the priest. Thereafter the priest cleanses a winnowing fan, a basket, a pick-axe, a broom stick and daubs these with oil and methi (fenugreek). Later in the day, three young men impersonating the three deities enter the priests house. Jaher Era places the basket on his head and picks up the broom; Monrenko takes the bow and arrow and Maran Buru takes the pick-axe. Then all three followed by more men run to the holy grove and Jaher Era sweeps the shrine while the other two supervise. In the evening, the three return to the priests house for a meal and they are entertained with songs and rice beer.

The second day is spent in collection of the sal and mahua flowers by the three impersonating deities. Later these deities are enshrined in their huts and fowls are sacrificed in their honour by the priest. People assemble here and the priest offers them bunches of sal and mahua flowers. The priest washes the feet of the deities and water is sprinkled on all gathered there. Thereafter a procession is taken out and everyone joins in. All then return to the village singing and dancing. The priest and his wife remain at the grove.

The third day is solely devoted to merry making. Sometimes the festival takes the shape of a water festival – something similar to Holi. People indulge in pursuing their traditional games and sports like shooting and archery.

Though the modalities of the celebrations are changing over the years, one can still observe a large element of belief and faith persisting.

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