Sarhul; the festival of spontaneity and fervor

In today’s world, with customs and traditions disappearing faster than one can blink his (or her) eyes, festivals have an abiding significance. India is a land of myriad festivals, and one of these, which is celebrated with particular joy and fervor in the state of Jharkhand, especially in the Chhotanagpur area, is the tribal festival of Sarhul.

Sarhul, the spring festival, celebrated widely among the Santhals and the Oraons, marks the beginning of the New Year, when men, women and children alike spill over into the streets and enjoy with gay abandon. It also marks the beginning of the wedding season.

Being new to the state of Jharkhand, I was kind of taken aback when, while driving back from work, I saw this wild procession of people travelling  on the road,  obstructing the road partially. A tempo with giant speakers blared out songs in the local dialect, and then there came the procession of people dancing with gay abandon.  In a nearby field, I observed a similar kind of festivity going on. Music blared and people danced to the tunes. I parked my car and went over. All around, I could see masses of people dancing – the men boisterously, and the women rhythmically. It was all I could do to prevent myself from joining in to the beats.

The atmosphere was electric. And the air was ripe with the smell of Handi (locally brewed beer), consumption of which is a key part of the festivities.Sarhul is a festival to worship the local village deity, who is supposed to bless the villagers. The tribals also worship trees, environment and other elements of nature during the festival. And sure enough, I could see that the revellers ( men and women alike) had adorned their heads with a whitish flower, on closer inspection which I found out to be the Sal flower , known as Shalony or Shalai. These flowers are considered auspicious, and are distributed to the villagers by the priest ( Pahan ) during the festival.

The women danced rhythmically and gracefully. Men, true to nature, danced boisterously. And added to this, among the crowd, there were” minders” wielding sticks, to discourage too much of proximity to the women folk. It was amusing to note that some amount of moral policing goes about amongst tribals too, who are known for their comparatively relaxed social norms! And then there were some revellers who eagerly posed for photographs. Kids with wild  and colourful wigs. The red and white striped banner of Sarhul fluttered all around.

As I left the venue, which was now engulfed in swathes of dust thrown up by the dancers. what I really enjoyed and appreciated was the spontaneity and lack of inhibitions. Imagine septaugenarian and octogenarian women dancing with gaiety and abandon, and you would know what I mean. Far away from the claustrophobic and schizophrenic metropolitan life, here was proof that the spirit of India truly resided in her villages. And where better to witness this than the tribal state of Jharkhand, during the annual festival of Sarhul.

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