Every year, the people of the Munda community come together to celebrate the Sukan Buru festival, where kite flying stands out as a major celebration. This year, the festival is set to be held from December 30, 2023, to January 2, 2024, in Jharkhand's Buradih Village. This unique celebration is that time of the year, when people from all age groups are in the grip of joy and festive cheer.
Twelve year old Konta (name changed) was up early that December morning. On other days, his mother had a tough time waking him up for school. But today he was up promptly. Because today he was going with his family to Sukan Buru to try out the new kites he had made with help from his grandfather. Dressed in his best clothes, he waited impatiently for his grandparents, parents and elder sister to finish their household chores and start the journey.
They reached the village nearest to Sukan Buru by car and then began to ascend the slope on foot. Konta was eager to fly his kite. So grandfather showed him how to catch the wind and make the kite soar. Meanwhile, Konta'grandmother, mother and sister joined a group of neighbours ascending the hill. They sang praises of the hill in a low tone. Konta, while flying his kite, had to be careful to not bump into anyone else, because a lot of people were climbing the hill that day. It was the day of the Sukan Buru festival.
An important annual festival for the Munda community, one of the oldest tribes of India who hail from the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, Sukan Buru festival takes its name from the eponymous sacred hill where it is held. In Mundari, buru means mountain. According to the writings of (late) Padmashree Ram Dayal Munda, a scholar and music exponent among other things, one of the key characteristics of the Munda culture is that all components of nature—air, water, hills, trees and forests, etc.—are acknowledged as places where the Supreme Being resides. Therefore, each component is endowed with a spirit which offers protection to the people. Bir Buru or Buru Bonga (the Spirit of the Hill) is venerated in the shape of Sukan Buru.
Apart from sacredness, another component related to nature is that of commons, write Gomati Bodra Hembrom and Mahadeo Munda, in their article titled "Structure, Symbols and Meaning Revisiting Munda Cultural Practices" (published in The Johar Journal, January-June 2021). For Mundas, the natural commons are the basis of livelihood, communal life, their egalitarian culture and bio-centric worldview. According to their beliefs, primordial commons were created by the Supreme Being in the form of the land.
Surrounded by three villages—Totada, Dulmi and Sukandih—Sukan Buru in the Khunti district of Jharkhand is about 70 km from state capital Ranchi. There are several trails starting from the surrounding villages which lead to the large table land on top but the one from Totada is most preferred because it is easier to climb.
The day-long festival is held as a post-harvest festival, in December-January, the date usually fixed by the pahan (priest) and village elders. On the appointed day, people ascend the hill to offer their thanks to Buru Bonga. As the pahans ascends the hill, they are joined by the first group of people. Gradually, more people begin to arrive from neighbouring towns and villages. Soon the slope of the hill is teeming with people. Meanwhile, the pahans conduct various rituals to propitiate the spirit of the hill.
"The powerful spirit is thanked for the natural bounty, including the flowing rivers, the crops, and for keeping the people safe and sound. After thanking for the past year's bounty, they also propitiate the spirit of the hill for the next year," explained Gunjal Ikir Munda, former assistant professor at Central University of Jharkhand,who is now researching on various aspects of Mundari language and also working for the preservation of Munda culture.
"In the past, these festivals were also the meeting ground of relatives and friends who lived in different villages," said Munda. In the ancient times, when communication and travel were difficult, family members scattered over various villages knew all would be attending the festival. "For example, a mother knew her married daughter staying in a distant village would come to the Sukan Buru to attend the festival. So they would meet and exchange news. The essence of togetherness still exists," he said.
But the most spectacular feature of the Sukan Buru festival is the flying of kites. These are no ordinary kites nor do they have any resemblance to the designer kites seen in festivals in other parts of the country. These kites have a unique shape, comparable to a glider or a butterfly, depending on the fancy of the viewer. Kite-making begins a few days before the day of the festival. Earlier, kite-making involved the use of natural materials, such as organic glue or ropes made of grass. But nowadays, most people use ready-made products from the markets. However, the kites are not available for sale according to Gunjal Ikir Munda, "Kite making is something which the villagers take pride in and it is deeply seated in their consciousness—if you want to own something then you have to make it yourself." Hence the kites are always made by the villagers.
On the appointed day, male members of all ages carry their kites to the hill top to fly them. Some fly the kite at the start of the journey and let it draw an aerial trail as they ascend the hill. While most people follow the traditional pattern, some of the kite-makers also love to experiment. "Each year people build something new upon the basic design," said Munda.
Although the genesis of flying kites and their shapes are yet to be ascertained, according to oral records, it has been part of the traditional rituals for ages. There is no competition or an attempt to capture or cut another kite. Instead, the kites are allowed to soar freely. As the day progresses, the sky over Sukan Buru is dotted with kites of many hues.
However, like many traditional rituals, the practice of kite flying was on the wane over the past few years. "With few stalwarts remaining who can make the kites, it became necessary to make the younger generation aware about this unique feature of our culture and also teach them how to make the kites," said Gunjal Ikir Munda. His words were reiterated by independent researcher Deep Lakshmi Munda, who also expressed concern about people&rsquos declining interest in their own culture. Therefore in December last year, Rumbul, a Ranchi-based organisation working for the protection and promotion of the tribal language, culture and traditions, held a kite-making workshop. Rumbul means &lsquoecho&rsquo in Mundari. The workshop was not only about making kites but also a place where traditional knowledge was exchanged, especially among the elders and the young participants, said Dubai-based photographer Anupam Purty, who always tries to visit his hometown during the annual festival.
As the day progresses, Sukan Buru takes on the look of a carnival. Kites flutter and swoop overhead. Music can be heard everywhere. The people travelling along the slopes raise their voice in songs many people come with their dhols, groups of young women dance merrily while the men sing and play traditional musical instruments. Many have their designated spots on the hill top. Nowadays, even established cultural groups from the nearby villages arrive to perform at the festival. A huge mela (fair), extending from the base of the hill and across the slope, is held in honour of the festival. Food stalls selling local delicacies such as buru lad and dhuska do brisk business.
As the sun begins to dip across the horizon, people start descending from the hill. Many head home while others explore the fair some turn up at various akhras for more singing and dancing.
The nearest airport to Khunti is the Birsa Munda Airport in Ranchi, which is approximately 35 km away. Khunti does not have its own railway station, the closest one being Hatia railway station. You can hail a private taxi from the station or airport to the village.