The Karma Puja is a festival of agriculture and is very sacred to the indigenous peoples in the Indian states of Jharkhand and nearby states: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam. Tribes like Baiga, Oraon, Binjhwari, Munda, Majhwar, Ho, Khortha, Korba, Santhal, Nagpuri and many more tribal communities celebrate this festival.
Karma Puja is a spiritual and religious festival associated with harvest, which is symbolised through a Karam tree. As per the legends, Karam Devta is believed to be the god of wealth and fertility. This festival falls in the month of August/September (11th moon of the Hindu month of Bhadrapad). It is so popular in Jharkhand that the Government of the state has declared the day as a public holiday.
The indigenous people worship trees during this festival and pray to the Mother Nature to keep their farmlands green and ensure a rich harvest. It is believed that the worship for good germination increases the fertility of grain crops. This tree is the symbol of Karma Devta who is worshipped on the day of the auspicious festival. The name Karma is drawn from the name of a tree “Karam” (Mitragyna parvifolia).
- On this day, people go in the forest to collect branches of Karam tree, which are carried back to the village by the young girls. The branches are then placed on the ground called ‘akhara’ which is meant for ceremonial dance.
- They sing the traditional songs that praise the deity.
- They worship Karma Devi represented with a branch of Karam tree.
- They also collect fruits and flowers which are essential for the Karma puja.
- The branches are garlanded on the next day.
- Planting the branch of Karma initiates the process of Karma Puja. The branch of Karma tree is washed with milk and handia, the rice beer and then raised at the center of the dancing arena.
- The branches are decorated with garlands and curd, rice and flowers are offered by the devotees.
- Grains are filled in the red coloured baskets and offered to the branches.
- The young devotees wear barley seedlings on their head which are distributed among them.
- The dancers dance throughout the night forming a circle with their hands around each others’ waists.
- They pass the branch to each other while dancing. This is the famous Karma dance which is typical to the tribal festival of Jharkhand.
- The story behind the festival is narrated by the elders.
During the dance they pass the branch of the tree, the men leap forward to a rapid roll of drums, while women dance with their feet moving in perfect rhythm to and fro. People seek the blessings of Karam Devta as the entire economy of the tribes is highly dependent on the nature and karma tree symbolise the nature.
The history of the festival is not much known. But local historians aver that it’s being celebrated since time immemorial. The legend behind the festival, according to anthropologist Harimohan is:
“Once upon a time there were seven brothers. They were busy in agriculture work. They had no time even for lunch and as such their wives used to carry lunch to the field daily. Once it so happened that their wives did not bring the lunch for them. They were hungry. In the evening they returned home without food and found that their wives were dancing and singing near a branch of the karam tree in the court-yard. This made them angry and one of them lost temper. He snatched the karam branch and threw it into the river. The Karam deity was thus insulted as a result of which the economic condition of their family went on deteriorating. They were starving. One day a Brahman (priest) came to them. The seven brothers narrated the whole story. On hearing it, the Brahman told them that the Karam Rani was angry and she must be appeased. If it was not done their condition would further deteriorate, the Brahman told them. The seven brothers then left the village in search of the Karam Rani. They kept on moving from place to place and one day they found the tree. Subsequently, they worshiped the it. Thereafter their economic condition started improving.”
There are multiple versions of the story behind the origin of Karam Puja.
“Among the Bhumij, Ho and Oraon the legend is that there were seven brothers living together. The six elders used to work in the field and the youngest stayed at home. He was indulging in dance and songs round a karam tree in the courtyard with his six sisters-in-law. One day, they were so engrossed in dance and song that the morning meal of the brothers was not carried to the field by the wives. When the brothers arrived home, they became agitated and threw the karam tree into a river. The youngest brother left home in anger. Then evil days fell on the remaining brothers. Their house was damaged, the crops failed and they virtually starved. While wandering, the youngest brother found the karam tree floating in the river. Then he propitiated the god, who restored everything. Thereafter he came home, he called his brothers and told them that because they insulted Karam Devta, they fell on evil days. Since then the Karam Devta has been worshipped.”
Another legend prevalent among the Pauri Bhuiyans:
“A merchant returned home after a very prosperous voyage. His vessel was loaded with precious metals and other valuables, which he had brought from distant lands. He waited in the vessel to be ceremoniously received by his wife and relatives, as was the custom. As it was the day of the Karama festival, all the women were engrossed with dancing and the men with playing the drums, so no one went to receive him. The merchant became furious with them. He uprooted the karam tree and threw it away. Then the wrath of Karam Devta fell on him. His vessel immediately sank in the sea. The merchant consulted astrologers who told him to propitiate Karam Devta. He launched another vessel, set out in search of the deity, and found him floating in the sea. He propitiated him with great devotion and was restored with all wealth. From that day on, the annual festival of Karam Puja has been held. After spending the whole night with dance and songs, the people uproot the branches and carry them to nearby rivers or rivulets for immersion.”
The message is simple: since the entire economy of the Adivasis was dependent on land, water and forest, trees that sustain the environment must be worshiped.
THE KARMA DANCE
Karma Dance is also one of the oldest dance form in India. Karma dance, which is also popularly known as Karma Naach, is performed by the indigenous peoples of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and other regions of the country. The dancers hold each others’ waists and dance in the rhythm of music welcoming the spring and forming a circle through their movements around a tree that is venerated as Karma.
Men and women dance to the tunes of the instruments like Thumki, Chhalla, Payri and Jhumki. The drum locally known as ‘timki’ is used as the main musical instrument and the dancers dance enthusiastically on the beats of timki. The dancers move their feet in perfect rhythm and in to and fro style. They form a circle and put their arms around the waist of the next the dancer and continue dancing in a rhythmic manner, bending towards the ground and leaping forward. The dancers wear the ethnic costume and jewellery. There are many sub-varieties of Karma dance that includes the Jhumar, Ektaria, Lahaki, Sirki, etc.
The dance performance full of vigor and energy combined with charm of the youth decked with colorful costumes in exuberance of red cloth, set in bird feathers skillfully designed ornaments made of small conch shells, brings the onlookers as well as the performers to a mood of trance and ecstasy. Karma dance is not only associated with the worship, but also has different forms in different regions of the country.
Happy Karma to everyone! At a time when cutting and uprooting of trees have become a normal daily affair in the name of business and development, Karma festival reminds us of the importance of our environment — trees and nature in our life.