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Janni Shikar - When the Women Go to War

Every 12 years, the women of Chota Nagpur sharpen their weapons, dress in male attire and set out on a hunt. Thought the exact origins of the tradition are unknown, the many legends point to this festival symbolizing the quality of men and women.

Like the Mahakumbh, Janni shikar, a festival of tribal women of Chhota Nagpur region in Bihar, is celebrated every 12 years. Also known as Era Sendra, the celebrations of this festival continue for a month during the months of March and April. The literal meaning of Janni Shikar is, hunt by women.

Much before the actual period of the festival, the women start sharpening their weapons and getting the male clothing together. On the first day of the month long festival, they set out from their homes in male attire, with their weapons in the hand and hunt for cocks, goats, pigs etc. and cook them at night for their meal.

There is no precise evidence to indicate exactly how this festival originated. A number of different legends have grown around this festival due to lack of sufficient research and non-availability of literature on the subject and it is difficult to pinpoint the one authentic legend with any degree of certainty. We talked to many elderly tribesmen of both Munda and Oraon origin and were able to separate three significant historical legends which are most likely to explain the origins of the festival.

According to one, this festival commemorates an event which occurred in ancient times. The Munda tribesmen believe that when they were in the Indus valley near Mohen-jo-daro, they were attacked by the Aryans. When the women-folk saw their men beating a hasty retreat, they donned male attire, took weapons in their hands and successfully drove away the Aryan invaders. The tribal women celebrate their victory as Janni Shikar.

The Oraons, however, trace this event to the battle of Rohtas, a district in western Bihar. In medieval times they were invaded by Turks who forced them to take shelter in what is today Chhota Nagpur. But the women of the tribe had a significant part to play in the legendary battle.

The menfolk were either drunk, tired or simply not available at the time. So the women took up the challenge, changed into male attire, fought the invaders and repulsed them. The day reminds the tribal women that they are not inferior to the men and can give good account of themselves in an activity considered exclusive to men.

The close cultural, historical and geographical links of the Mundas and the Oraons with the region of ancient Kalinga (present Orissa) also leads to the speculation that the Janni Shikar may have some connection with the bloody Kalinga war, fought between Ashoka and the Kalinga kingdom. This battle, it may be recalled took a heavy toll of male soldiers and when Kalinga was on the brink of defeat, the women come to the fore, took arms and were ready for the battle. It is possible that Janni Shikar is celebrated to commemorate this event.

Whatever be the legend behind this festival, it has now become the most important festival of the tribal women. As it is celebrated after a gap of 12 years, the women wait for it with great eagerness. During the festival one can see hordes of tribal women, many of them from neighbouring villages, in male dress with traditional tribal weapons in their hands, looking for small animals. By convention, each family must send at least one member for the shikar, else they will be fined by the elders collectively.

Some of the elders in the tribe feel that today the ritual hunting has been perverted in many ways. While tradition strictly prohibits men from joining in the hunt, young men are seen to accompany the women. As in some Hindu festivals, the participants have now started collecting money from passing vehicles. There are also accusations that the women hunters are often scantily dressed.

There are many instances in Indian history where heroines like Chand Bibi and Rani Laxmi Bai have led men to fight against their foes. Janni Shikar celebrates a communal effort and symbolizes the equality of men and women.