Sarhul is one of the grand festivals of tribals in Jharkhand. This festival is celebrated on Chaitra Shukla Tritiya, the third day of bright half in Chaitra month. Tribals celebrate ‘Sarhul’, a festival marking the beginning of New Year, by worshiping trees. This annual festival is celebrated during the spring season when trees and other elements of nature are worshiped. Sarhul literally means ‘Worship of Sal’. Sarhul festival is dedicated to Dharti mata — Mother Earth. The mother nature is worshiped during the festival. Sarhul is celebrated for several days during which the main traditional dance Sarhul dance is performed.
Sarhul is celebrated during spring season and the Sal (Shorea robusta) trees get new flowers on their branches. Tribals believe that they can use new crop mainly paddy, leaves of the trees, flowers and fruits of the season only after this festival is celebrated.
The history of the Sarhul festival dates back to the period of Mahabharata as per several legends of Sarhul festival. When Mahabharata battle was going then the Munda tribal people helped the Kaurava army and they sacrificed their lives for it also. In the battle, there were many Munda fighters who died fighting the Pandavas. So, to recognise their corpses, their body had been covered with the leaves of Sal tree and the branches of the same tree. The bodies which where covered with the leaves and branches of the Sal tree remained safe, undistorted, while the other corpses, which were not covered by the Sal tree got distorted and rotted within short time. This depicts their faith on Sal tree which is strongly related with Sarhul festival.
The popular folklore is a story of Bindi, daughter of Mother Earth.
Bindi, the only daughter of Mother Earth, one day didn’t return home from bathing in the pond. Mother Earth sent her messengers all around in search of Bindi, but she couldn’t be found anywhere. Distressed and in grief, she started crying. She was gravely saddened. Leaves started falling off in empathy. It was gloomy everywhere.
After a long search, news came that Bindi is with the God of Death in the underworld. The messengers informed the God of Death that Bindi is the only daughter of the Mother Earth and they appealed for her return. But the God of Death was not willing to listen He argued that nobody can return once they reach there.
However when the messengers lamented that Mother Earth would die if Bindi didn’t return to her and the whole creation would come to an end. The God of Death was in a dilemma then. He then agreed for a compromise to save the creation and Mother Earth. He said that Bindi would spend first half of her time on Earth and the other half in the underworld. Ever since then, when Bindi comes back, Mother Earth is full of happiness and there is greenery everywhere. Sarhul is celebrated for Bindi’s return.
During the festival Sal flowers are brought to the sarna (sacred grove) and the priest propitiates all the gods of the tribes. A sarna is a cluster of trees where the adivasis would worship in various occasions. Such a grove among many others must house at least five sal trees also known as sorjum, held very sacred by the tribals. It is a worship of the village deity who is considered to be the protector of the tribes. People sing and dance a lot when the new flowers appear. The deities are worshiped with saal flowers.
After worshiping trees, the village priest locally known as Pahaan puts a few rice grains on the head of a hen. Locals believe that prosperity for the people is predicted if the hen eats the rice grains after they fall to the ground, but if the hen does not eat, disaster awaits the community. Also, pahaan predicts the rainfall in the coming season watching a pair of twigs in water. These are age-old traditions, coming down through generations since time immemorial.
Tribes all across Jharkhand celebrate this festival with great fervor and joy. Tribal men, women and children dress up in colorful and ethnic attires and perform traditional dances. They also drink a locally made rice-beer, called Handia, brewed out of a concoction of rice, water and some tree leaves and then dance around the tree.
Although being a tribal festival, Sarhul is not restricted to a particular section of Indian society. People from other faith and community like the Hindus, the Muslims, the Christians take part in greeting the dancing crowd. Sarhul presents a perfect example of collective celebration, where everyone is a participant. It’s a state holiday in Jharkhand.