19-year-old Geeta was slowly humming the song “he yo sarna yayyo” while cooking for us. I went close to her to listen to the song. She continued the song with happiness. The song sounded as melodious as she was. It was time for Sarhul festival. The festival of ancestor worship, nature, of flowers, of colours. And Geeta would be with her family wearing her favourite “sada" (white) saree and dancing all night.
Geeta was our house help at Ranchi, while she was studying at a government college. She was a Sarna, an Oroan tribal, who belonged to Khunti district. Like Geeta, there are lakhs of followers of the Sarna religion.
Tribals form 27 percent of Jharkhand’s population. The believers of Sarna have been aboriginals of the land much before the creation of Bihar or the Jharkhand state. Their history is as old as the Mahabharata. I have always been in awe of this beautiful religious practice.
I first got to know about the Sarna belief during my sociology and anthropology classes at school. Whenever my favourite teacher talked about the beautiful tribes of India, I found her eyes were lit with excitement. She always said that we need to learn a lot from our tribal community. And rightly so. But this was all in theory.
I got introduced to this beautiful religion through my friends when I was doing my masters in Ranchi. I must confess that like most Indians, I didn’t have much interaction with our indigenous population. Indian movies had painted all false and hopeless images of the tribes of Asia and Africa. And like others, I too got carried away.
It took me some days to understand the ethnic composition of Jharkhand. While some of my friends spoke Mundari language, some others spoke the beautiful Santhali language. We had summer camps in our management institute where we got to spend 10 days at a stretch at our assigned villages. And those camps proved to be a turning point in my life. I was actually living with the tribals of Jharkhand, eating their food and learning each day.
My stay at Khunti district brought me very close to the Munda tribe. Their culture, religious practice, their eating habits were very similar to most of the Indian households. But what set them apart was their innocence, straight out of the heart conversations and respect for elders.
Hadia (local fermented rice drink) had always been a part of their ritual. So much so that it’s openly offered to guests on their arrival. They, too, consider their guests as God. Their closeness to nature, worshiping land as their deity, worshiping mountains, forests, protection of trees and everything natural have been part of a tribal life. Their fetish for cleanliness is something to be appreciated by one and all. They eat and depend on everything local and produced locally.
Practitioners of Sarna belief are neither Hindus nor Christians. While some tribal still continue to practice Sarna religion, most of them have either converted to Christianity or practice Hinduism. The reason being that Sarna belief does not have a religious code. They have always demanded a recognition as a distinct religion.
At present a person following this religion has to identify himself/herself as one of the six religions specified by the Constitution or as “others". Inspite of their regular demand for a separate religious code for the practice of Sarna, the Constitution has failed to provide one.
The present Chief Minister of Jharkhand, who too follows Sarna, like many others, has been wanting a special religious status for the Sarna people.
When I am writing this piece and I get transported to the world of greenery in the absolutely stunning plateau of Chota Nagpur region with thatched roof houses and Hadia, I pray and hope that Sarna gets its due and Geeta, who is now a mother of two kids, does not have to confuse her children with their identity.
An ex banker, Kaveri Mishra works as a rural development professional.