Sohrai is a winter harvest festival and one of the most important festivals of santhals in Jharkhand and West Bengal. It is mainly celebrated at the beginning of winter harvest, when the paddy has ripened, on the new moon day of the Bengali month of Kartik, coinciding with Diwali or Kali puja, in the month of October-November. In some regions, celebrations take place at the end of the winter harvesting mid January (around the end of Bengali month Poush), after they have reaped and threshed their paddy. Santhals pay homage to their gods and their ancestors as a thanksgiving for their crops, their cattle, their ploughs, and everything that has helped them to attain the harvest. The name Sohrai is said to have derived from a paleolithic age word — soro, meaning to drive with a stick.
Sohrai is traditionally a five-day festival, though in some areas it is shortened to three. The date of the festival is usually decided by the Manjhi, the village headman in consultation with the elders of the village. There is no fixed date marked off, thus celebrations are often staggered across villages, within the traditional time frame. The purpose is to enable the villagers to celebrate Sohrai in their own villages as well as in their relatives, especially married sisters and daughters.
The five-days of the festival is accompanied by variety of rituals, consumption of handia in copious quantities, dancing, singing and merry making. Different songs are sung for different days.
On the first day, rituals and sacrifice hens are conducted by the village priest (Naike) in an open space as an invocation of their gods (bongas). It is only attended by men of the villages. After a feast of rice boiled with the hen, the village headman (Manjhi) announces start of the festival.
The second day is devoted to invoking blessings from Bongas for individual homes. The cattle are sent to the fields in the morning to graze, while in their absence, the womenfolks of the house decorate the huts by painting them. Meanwhile, food is prepared which would later serve as prasad after the puja. In night, they light earthen lamps (diyas) in the cattle-sheds.
Upon returning, the cattle are warmly welcomed, their horns anointed with oil and vermillion. Garlands made by strewing paddy strands are tied across their foreheads. When the puja gets over, the prasad is distributed among the household members and neighbours. The cattle then rest for the day.
Next day, sohrai people worship their cattle-shed. They bring some paddy strands from their paddy field, which they use in the worship. After worship they tie those plants to animal’s horns. In the afternoon, amid the loud sound of drums, the cattle are taken to an open field where they are let loose for games and recreational purposes.
On the fourth day, the women also join the menfolk and on the final day, the Manjhi brings the festivities to a close.
According to an ancient Santhal mythology, Marang Buru (God of mountain), Jaher ayo (Goddess of forest) and the elder sister of the santhals, would descend on earth from heaven to pay a visit to their brothers and to commemorate this event, the harvest festival is celebrated at this time and women decorate their walls with murals of sohrai arts. These paintings are believed to bring good luck. It’s from here that Sohrai art originated, adding to the culture and traditions of India.
In preparation of the festival, the women of the community repair their mud walls, floors and decorate the walls with their stunning traditional art. The decoration has to be completed by the eve of the festival. This art form is monochromatic as well extremely colourful.
The distinctive Sohrai art painted on the mud walls is a matriarchal tradition handed down from mother to daughter. These colourful paintings are done totally by using natural pigments mixed in mud — Kali matti, Charak matti, Dudhi matti, Lal matti (Geru), and Pila matti. Artists use datoon (teeth cleaning twig) or cloth swabs daubed in different earth colours to paint on the walls — bulls, horses with riders, wild animals, trees, lotuses, peacocks, and horned deities. Sohrai paintings are considered to be good luck paintings.
Sohrai art form is said to be following upon the similar patterns and styles once used to create Isko and other rock arts in the region like Satpahar in Hazaribagh district. This art form was prevalent mostly in caves but now has been primarily shifted to houses with mud walls.
Isko cave contains Lower Palaeolithic deposits and deep underground caves inhabited by humans during the ice ages, leaving one of the richest collections of the Middle Palaeolithic stone tool industry in South Asia. The rock art has been dated by leading experts to the meso-chalcolithic period, so it is anywhere between 7000 and 4000 BCE. There is an earlier level of rock art that could be much older. This art form has thus been continuing since ancient times.
It’s good to see that Jharkhand government has taken initiatives and have painted the government boundary walls in the capital city of Ranchi with Sohrai art to give encouragement and publicity to this ancient tribal art form. A tribute to a dying art could not have gotten any better.