International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2023: Festivals are the life and soul of India’s tribal communities

Sarhul and Karam are two major festivals celebrated by the indigenous peoples of Jharkhand. There is considerable folklore related with these two festivals that is passed down orally from generation to generation

By Anand Raj , Deeksha Dave
Published: Wednesday 09 August 2023

The Karam festival of Jharkhand. Photo: Deeksha DaveThe Karam festival of Jharkhand. Photo: Anand Raj

Festival celebration is an integral aspect of the life of the tribal communities, reflecting their culture and traditions. Festivals not only are a reason to express joy and appreciate the colours of life but also establish relationships with nature, ancestors and the gods.

Indigenous peoples live in close proximity to nature; hence their festivals are also intimately connected to nature and revolve around growing crops, rearing livestock, hunting, and worshipping the Panchbhutas or five elements — Prithvi, Jal, Agni, Vayu, and Aakash (Earth, water, fire, wind and sky).

Sarhul and Karam are two major festivals celebrated by the indigenous peoples of Jharkhand. There is considerable folklore related with these two festivals that is passed down orally from generation to generation.

The Karam festival relates to the plantation of the Karam tree (Adina Cordifolia). It is celebrated on the 11th moon of the Hindu month of Bhadrapada (August/September). The celebration is extremely auspicious and represents fertility and prosperity.

Indigenous people believe that the Karam tree was the first to grow on Earth. Its three branches signify those who have given birth, those who guard, and those who care.

One of the most well-known folktales about this festival is that there were seven brothers who were farmers and worked extremely hard in the field. They rarely had time for lunch, so their wives used to carry their meal on the field.

One day, when their wives did not come to the field, the brothers got very furious. They went home in the evening and saw their wives singing and dancing around the Karam tree. They uprooted the tree and threw it in the water.

It is believed that as a result of this, they had to suffer and lost everything including their home and crops. The youngest brother looked for a remedy and visited the priest, who told him about Karam devta’s power.

The youngest brother brought home a Karam tree and worshipped it with devotion and respect. The brothers regained all of their lost wealth.

Since then, indigenous people celebrate the Karam festival every year, with brothers bringing branches of the Karma tree to place in the courtyard on the day of the festival. Karma — the god of the Karam tree — is represented by these branches. Throughout the entire festival celebration, people sing and dance in groups.

Likewise, the Sarhul festival marks the flowering of the Sal tree (Shorea Robusta). The festival is celebrated during the Hindu month of Chaitra (March/April).

The Sarhul festival of Jharkhand. Photo: Anand Raj

It is believed that people should not go into the forest until the ‘Sal’ trees start sprouting flowers. This signifies keeping nature in its pure state, free from human interference and killing wild animals is not permitted at this time.

One fable most associated with this festival is story of Bindi, the daughter of Mother Earth. Bindi failed to return home one day after bathing in the pond. Mother Earth sent messengers all around in search of Bindi, but she was nowhere to be found.

Mother Earth started crying out of distress and despair. As a result, the leaves started to fall off and it was gloomy everywhere. After a long search, it was discovered that Bindi is in the realm of darkness with the god of death.

The messengers explained to the god of death that Bindi is Mother Earth’s only daughter and requested to let her go. But the god refused to listen, claiming that no one can return once they arrive.

However, when the messengers grieved that if Bindi did not return to her, Mother Earth would die, and creation would perish. The god of death was in a dilemma but then agreed to a compromise that Bindi would spend the first half of her life on Earth and the other half in the realm of darkness.

Since then, whenever Bindi returns, Mother Earth has been filled with joy and greenery. Bindi denotes the flowering of the Sal tree in the above story. Sarhul rejoices with Bindi’s return.

These festivals convey the message that our customs and traditions are linked with nature and the celebration of these implies recognising their importance for fortune and prosperity.

Deeksha Dave is Assistant Professor (Environmental Studies) at School of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Studies (SOITS), Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) Delhi

Anand Raj is Research Scholar, SOITS

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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