Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature

The Santal tribe's Baha (flower) festival in eastern India marks the onset of spring, celebrating fertility and the symbiotic relationship between society and nature. Through rituals emphasising the forest's importance and women's vital role, it underscores the Santal worldview of interconnectedness and ecological harmony

Published: May 11, 2024 10:15:00 AM IST
Updated: May 10, 2024 07:55:24 PM IST

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with natureAll images by Subrata Biswas

The Santal tribe, dispersed across eastern India, intertwines sacred festivals with the seasonal cycle, celebrated in sacred groves (Jaher Than) to preserve local biodiversity. Their rituals reflect deep ecological understanding, promoting harmony with nature. Despite minimal formal environmental education, their cultural values foster stewardship, showing indigenous environmental wisdom. Believed to have migrated from Southeast Asia around 1500 BC, the Santals entered the Indian subcontinent long before the Aryans. They primarily settled amidst the forest areas of the Chota Nagpur Plateau in eastern India. They are ethnically Proto-Australoid and speak Santali (an Austro-Asiatic language). With a population of around 7.5 million, they are prominent among India's indigenous groups, contributing richly to Indian culture through music, dance, and crafts, reflecting their resilience and unique identity.

The Baha festival, held annually in the forested Santal villages, marks the advent of spring with Sal (Shorea Robusta) and Mahua (Madhuca Longifolia) trees blooming vibrantly. "Baha" in Santali means flower, embodying the festival's essence. Its rituals symbolise fertility, uniting male and female elements through Sal and Mahua flowers and straw puppets. Women play a crucial role in invoking blessings from forest deities, emphasising their importance in village prosperity. Santal men and women gather in the sacred grove, invoking gods through songs, some entering trance as Marang Buru, the forest deity. Marang Buru, meaning "great mountain," is revered with Sal flowers. The festival underscores society's interdependence with the environment. Rituals such as hunting and predicting rainfall from a clay pitcher highlight the forest's significance to agriculture and village life.

Santal's Baha festival takes place in the month of Phagun (February/March), but the day of celebration is not specified. It varies from Phagun new moon to Phagun full moon. The festival occurs on varying dates across villages, allowing relatives to join each other's celebrations, engage in lively activities, and share rice beer, fostering joyous camaraderie. The festival's focus on fertility extends to human reproduction, with married women symbolising fecundity. Women, likened to flowers, represent human and natural fertility's interconnection. Santal culture sees human and natural realms as intertwined, comparing life stages to trees.

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
Santals reside in hilly, forested areas, distancing themselves from urban centres and prioritising a close bond with nature. Believed to have migrated from Southeast Asia around 1500 BC, they primarily settled amidst the forest areas of the Chota Nagpur Plateau in eastern India.

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
In a remote forested Santal village in West Bengal's Chota Nagpur plateau region, Santal women busily prepare for the Baha (flower) festival. During the festival, nearly every house in Santal villages transforms into a dressing room for Santal women, fostering a sense of community and celebration.

Also read: Turkey's whirling dancers celebrate mystic Rumi's tolerance

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
The Sal tree grove, revered as "Jaher Than" by the Santals, embodies their religious beliefs, where nature symbolises deities. Animism, expressing gratitude for nature's provisions, defines their worship at this sacred site devoid of deity images. The Santals preserve trees, never cutting their branches in this sacred grove.

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
The festival embodies the concept of new growth, as the first Sal (Shorea Robusta) flowers are offered to deities. Prayers seek rain to irrigate fields and nurture newly sown rice seeds. The Sal tree holds significant socio-economic and socio-cultural importance in Santal life. They refrain from plucking newly blossomed flowers before the festival.

Also read: In Photos: UNESCO's list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity for 2023

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
During the festival, a priest, known as 'Naike', conducts traditional rituals. As the village's religious leader, the 'Naike' invokes the spirits of ancestors, seeking their protection for villagers, children, youth, and animals venturing into fields, forests, and rivers.

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
Each village household offers a chicken as a sacrifice to the grove deities, performed at the base of Sal trees. Marang Buru, the principal deity, is also adorned with Sal flowers.

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
Santal women adorned in traditional Santali attire gather at the sacred grove nestled within a forest. Accompanied by the beat of their traditional drums, 'dhamsa' and 'madol', along with flutes, Santal men and women perform the 'Baha' dance and sing 'Baha' songs.

Also read: A joyous swirl: UNESCO tags Gujarat's Garba an intangible cultural heritage

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
Santal women's symbolic embrace of trees reflects their ancient custom of safeguarding and nurturing forests, reinforcing the sacred bond between nature and humanity.

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
Women's central role in the festival is pivotal. Their singing and dancing summon the gods, which is essential for the ritual's progression. Santal women's invocation prompts trance possessions, vital for communion with sacred spirits.

Also read: From Dhordo in India to Pozuzo in Peru, villages to visit to understand the respect for local culture

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
A Santal man, possessed by the main deity "Marang Buru," wields a poleaxe in a trance. Entranced Santals embody specific gods and inspect the sacred grove's preparations.

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
After grove rituals, the Naike and companions distribute Sal flowers. After tending to the priest's feet, women receive flowers in their sarees. Unmarried men sprinkle water on women's shoulders. Flowers adorn women's hair and men's ears; extras signify celebration, later hung above doorways as auspicious symbols.

Santal's Baha Festival: Celebrating fertility and innate union with nature
In a forested Santal village in West Bengal's Chota Nagpur plateau, Santal boys partake in the celebrations.