The Karma Puja is a festival of agriculture and is very sacred to the tribal people of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Assam. Tribal groups like Baiga, Oraon, Binjhwari, Munda, Majhwar, Ho, Khortha, Korba and many more tribal communities celebrate this festival. This festival is associated with harvest, which is symbolised through a Karam tree. It symbolised fertility, prosperity and all that is auspicious.
Karma Puja is a spiritual and religious festival and it really calls for a celebration as the tribal community believes that due to Karam Devta they have a good harvest. This festival falls in the month of August/September (11th moon of the Hindu month of Bhadrapad).
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). The branch of the Karam tree is carried by the Karma dancers and is passed among them with singing and dancing. This branch is washed with milk and rice beer locally known as Handia. Then it is raised in the middle of the dancing arena. All worshipers dance for whole night in the praise of the “Karam”. The ritual starts with the planting of the trees. The dancers form a circle and dance with their arms around each other dancer’s waists.
On this day people go in the forest to collect fruits and flowers, and they worship Karma Devi, a goddess who is represented with a branch of karam tree. The branches are garlanded on the next day. Offerings of flowers, rice and curd are made to them. Red colored baskets filled with grains are placed before the branches. Barley seedlings are distributed among the young people, who wear it on their heads. The branches are worshiped and their blessings sought. As per the legends of Karam Devi, she is believed to be the goddess of wealth and children.
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.
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 (1972, as cited in JharkhandStateNews 2012), 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.
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 tribes of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and other regions of the country. This tribal dance is performed during the autumnal festival of Karma Puja in front of Karam tree that symbolises the Karam Devta.
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.
Karma dance is not only associated with the worship, but also has different forms in different regions of the country. In Madhya Pradesh, it is a traditional folk dance and is a part of their entertainment. One thing is common among all the forms are that they are centred around the trees.
Girls also pray for the safety of their brothers during the Karma Puja. Girls seeking blessings for their brothers is believed to be an extended version of the Hindu customs — “Bhai Dooj/Bhratri Dwitiya”
Happy Karma to everyone! Long live Karma festival! 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.