Beyond their practical uses, few trees are as central to the cultures and traditions of communities and societies in India as the sal tree. It is one of the major sources of hardwood timber in India, but it boasts of a greater importance due to its frequent mention in Indian mythology. Among Hindus, it is widely believed that the tree is favoured by Vishnu, while Jains and Buddhists believe that the tree is associated with enlightenment. Mahavira, the 24th Jain tirthankara, is believed to have attained enlightenment under a sal tree. Buddhists, on the other hand, believe that queen Mahamaya of Sakya gave birth to the Buddha while holding a sal tree, and the Buddha’s life came full-circle when he died, presumably, underneath two sal trees. Quite understandably, then, in Buddhism, the brief flowering of the sal tree is considered to be a symbol of impermanence.
The sal also assumes great significance in a number of tribal communities scattered across eastern India. This should not come as a surprise especially as these tribes hold festivals in honour of the tree and to worship it. A case in point is the Sarhul Festival, one of the most popular and widely observed tribal celebrations in Jharkhand. Sarhul essentially translates to ‘a worship of trees’, but it is particularly the sal tree (and nature in general) that is the object of veneration of tribes such as Oraon, Munda, Ho and Santal.
The Sarhul Festival 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. As trees and nature’s gifts were and are still considered sacred, the festival is held in a grove of trees (sal ones 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 is strictly prohibited—and it is believed that doing such a sinful act invites misfortune and the wrath of the spirits residing in the grove.
During Sarhul Festival, the people make offerings of fruits, flowers, sal leaves, and sometimes, animals and birds to invoke the blessings of sarna burhi and other protective deities in designated groves (sarna sthals). This is accompanied by lively processions and much festivity in which children, women and adults all participate. This is also the time when the people of the celebrating tribes are decked up in their newest, most colourful attires (called karia, in the case of men, and khanria, for women). They then perform traditional dances to the beats of the popular, local folk tunes of the region. This event, called the Bai Porob, is a standout feature of this festival. The festival also sees the ritual consumption of handia, a locally prepared beer brewed by hand using a mixture of rice, water and some tree leaves.
According to media reports, the Sarhul Festival this year commenced on April 4 in Ranchi. It was inaugurated by a tribal priest placing two earthen, water-filled pots under a sal tree in a sarna sthal in Ranchi’s Hatma area. As it is celebrated with much pomp, the entry of vehicles into the city on April 4 has been prohibited in the period between 6 am and midnight, while the movement of private vehicles within the city will remain banned from 1 pm onwards. Additionally, strict COVID-19 protocols have been imposed on the observance of the festival. Individual processions can have a maximum of 100 people in attendance, whereas in places where processions meet each other and gather, there can be no more than 1,000 people at one time. Furthermore, no processions will be allowed to continue after 6 pm, while the use of pre-recorded and DJ music after 6 in the evening also remains banned.