Jharkhand's Sarhul Festival Is An Ode To A Tree

Sarhul is usually held in spring each year on the fortnight of the month of chaitra
Sarhul festival in Ranchi          Photo credit Gurpreet Singh / Wiki Commons
Sarhul festival in Ranchi Photo credit Gurpreet Singh / Wiki Commons

The sal&nbsptree assumes great significance in a number of tribal communities scattered across eastern India. Many tribes hold festivals in honour of the tree and worship it. A case in point is Sarhul, one of the most popular and widely observed tribal celebrations in Jharkhand. The sal&nbsptree (and nature in general) is the object of veneration of tribes such as Oraon, Munda, Ho and Santal. 

The word &lsquosarhul&rsquo roughly translates to the &lsquoworship of sal&rsquo.There are over 30 tribal groups in Jharkhand and all of them observe this centuries-old festival, paying their obeisance to the sal tree for providing them with food, drink, shade, shelter, livelihood, prediction of harvest and weather, and even protection from the evil eye.

The Origins

Sarhul is usually held in spring each year on the fortnight of the month of chaitra, coinciding with the beginning of the new year in these regions. It is usually a three-day event however, some groups worship it for a month-long period till the time jyeshtha (or jeth) arrives. Legend has it that villagers in these areas from a long time ago prayed to their gods and protectors during this time of the year.

The Sal Tree 

The sal tree is the most important source of timber in Jharkhand and its leaves are used to make bowls in which offerings are made to deities during festivals. The leaves are also used to make paan (sal leaf filled with sweeteners and spices, and used as a mouth freshner). The resin is used as an astringent in Ayurvedic medicines while sal seeds are used for making lamp oil. Forest dwellers also wrap tobacco in sal leaves to make chutta (cigarettes).

The Festival

As trees and nature&rsquos gifts were and are still considered sacred, the festival is held in a grove of trees (sal&nbspones in particular) called sarna, which is protected by a deity called sarna burhi (meaning, woman of the grove), who is associated with spirits, rain and plants. The cutting of trees in a sarna&nbspis strictly prohibited.

During the festival, people make offerings of fruits, flowers, sal&nbspleaves, and sometimes, animals and birds to invoke the blessings of sarna burhi&nbspand other protective deities in designated groves (sarna sthals). This is accompanied by lively processions and traditional dances to the beats of local folk tunes. 

The festival sees the ritual consumption of handia, a locally prepared beer brewed by hand using a mixture of rice, water and some tree leaves.&nbspThen there is khaddi, a popular dish, and fish sukha, a preparation of dried fish. Many varieties of mushrooms, like bhardo, bihidien, and rugda, are also available during this time.

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