A personal account of how Baha is celebrated in the Santal community.
Also known as the Flower Festival or the Spring Festival, Baha is celebrated at the beginning of the spring where the rituals revolve around an individual’s communion with nature and celebration of beauty. Every household in the village receives a Sal flower from the Naike (Santal priest) and other villagers. After applying oil to his feet and washing them, a Santal woman gets flowers in the folds of her sari from the priest. An unmarried guy carries the water on his shoulder and sprinkles it on the lady after greeting her. During the festival, women put flowers in their hair and males put flowers behind their ears. The remaining flowers are stored in the thatched roof's ceiling or tiled roof.
It is that time of the year again with the onset of the season of spring and the festival, much-awaited for the year.
My mother used to start preparing plates from Sal leaves and make Handi(the rice beer) before the festival. The inner excitement in me grew as the preparation for Baha started in my home. I used to wake up early in the morning and help my mother with the household chores. Leto, a traditional dish made from rice powder and chicken or mutton, was the common recipe for the day. My father used to do Handi Bonga(offering Handi to our ancestors before consuming it) with my mother and I used to sit with them, a dedicated onlooker to the chants and proceedings of the prayer.
The evenings were mostly reserved for a trip to the Jaher, the Santal place of gathering and worship; everyone dressed up in traditional attire to celebrate Baha. The celebration starts with men and women offering prayers to our ancestors and collecting the Sal flowers from the Naike. Everyone used to dance and sing the Songs of Baha or the Baha Sereng.
The whole experience changed with my visit to my maternal grandparents’ place one year, during the month of March.
The women in the village woke up early in the morning, cleaned their surroundings with cow dung and started preparing the dishes, meanwhile the children assisted their parents in the household chores. The men of the village had the Bonga at the Jaher, with the rest of the village folk dressed up in traditional dresses going to the Jaher to collect the Sal flowers. Something that I don’t see in an urban space is the spiritual possession of men during such Bongas, made clear by the shaking of their heads, incessant chanting and sprinting from one corner of the Jaher to another. It is believed that our ancestors come in the form of spirits and possess men. As terrifying as it may sound for any person who has never left the cityscape, this is considered a common ritual during the festival. The women would start dancing and singing Baha songs and kept going around in concentric circles.
The next day was the Dah Dul ceremony where the Santal men and women assembled on the village road, rejoicing themselves by sprinkling water on each other just like the Holi festival of the Hindus. Still, this would be considerably different, they don’t use coloured material as done in Holi. The day is filled with similar fun and excitement as the first day of Baha, keeping the whole rhythm of the festivity.
I haven’t been able to celebrate Baha post-pandemic and after shifting to a place far away from the vicinity of my tribal culture, it seems difficult to have such an experience again.
The Santals have a strong belief in supernatural beings and powers that exist in nature in the form of Bongas. They are convinced that their material life is protected and guarded by the Bongas and for this, they perform appropriate rites and rituals during the festivals to appease them. Baha is one of the most important festivals of the Santals, which is celebrated to welcome the spring season, the season of the Sal flower. The Sal tree has a great cultural value in the life of Santals. The new year of the Santals starts with the Baha festival. They start every new work after the emergence of the spring season or celebration of Baha when Sal starts to flower. The festival is celebrated in a collective way by gathering all community members at a sacred grove called Jaherthan.
The collective worship during the Baha festival stimulates the community feeling to strengthen their social solidarity, and also helps them to be in touch with the spirits upon whom they depend. Further, it helps to forget the daily stresses in their life by means of different entertainments like liquor drinking and making dance and songs during the festival time. Baha has, thus, helped to keep intact the cultural identity of the Santals by minimising the huge pressure of different forces to disintegrate their solitary, making that one day of the year memorable and rejoiceful.
Phulmani Murmu is an undergraduate student studying commerce at Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. She loves having discussions on social issues, casteism, gender discrimination and politics.