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Baha

Baha is the flower festival of the Santals. The largest festival after Sohrai, it takes place in the beginning of spring, in the month of Chait (February-March), around the time of Holi, when flowers like the sarjom (Shorea robusta - sal) and the matkom (Bassia latifolia - mohua) begin to blossom. Baha means flower in the Santali language and the festival is a thanksgiving to nature and a celebration of their harmony with it. The exact dates of the festival vary from village to village. The festival is associated with a specific set of tunes like the Baha, Jatur and Dahar, though non-specific tunes like Lagre are also sung.



Baha is the flower festival of the Santals. The largest festival after Sohrai, it takes place in the beginning of spring, in the month of Chait (February-March), around the time of Holi, when flowers like the sarjom (Shorea robusta - sal) and the matkom (Bassia latifolia - mohua) begin to blossom. Baha means flower in the Santali language and the festival is a thanksgiving to nature and a celebration of their harmony with it. The exact dates of the festival vary from village to village. The festival is associated with a specific set of tunes like the Baha, Jatur and Dahar, though non-specific tunes like Lagre are also sung. 

Spring is the time when nature rejuvenates and trees blossom. According to Santal belief, Marang Buru, their supreme deity sowed the first seeds on earth and nurtured by Jaher Era, his sister, nature flourished. Thus, this is a time when nature should be undisturbed, when no one should pluck or cut buds, flowers, leaves or branches, without first paying respect to nature. This is the purpose of Baha: nurturing nature. The community prays for new flowers and fruits and a good monsoon during this festival.

Thus as part of their traditional knowledge, Santals never pluck or taste the newly blossomed flowers or eat the fruits of Mango trees, never tear off the leaves of Peepal and Neem trees before offering the first flowers of the new year to their deities during Baha. Women do not pluck Sal flowers to decorate their hair and trees are not cut for firewood at this time. If it does happen, the firewood is not brought to the village but is kept outside. As per tradition, any family who breaks these rules will be shunned by the naike (village priest) who normally enters every family’s home during the Baha rituals. 

The duration of the festival varies from region to region, mostly two or three days, sometimes four. Rituals also vary somewhat from region to region. Earlier traditions like ritual hunts have been abandoned in many regions. The first day of the festival, or Um Mahah, is a day of purification and preparation.  Um means bath. The naike prepares himself with a ritual bath, new clothes and fasting. As part of the preparation, for several night leading up to Um Mahah and including it, the naike also spends the night alone, on a mat laid on the floor, away from his wife. 

Later in the day, the naike leads the village elders and the male members of the village to the Jaher Thaan or sacred grove near the village. Here several small thatched altars for their chief bongas (deities/spirits) and other tutelary spirits are erected around the individual stones that represent them in the grove. The space is purified and prepared for the worship on the following day. The number of altars vary, but mandatory is an altar for Marang Buru, Jaher Era and Moreko Turuiko. Baha songs are sung during this time, commenting on the different ritual steps that have taken place. Some men also get “possessed” by the spirits of these three deities and there are some rituals that follow here and again at the Jaher Thaan.  The night of Um Mahah ends with singing and dancing in the naike’s courtyard.  

The second day is Bonga or Sardi Mahah. On this day, the naike takes a bath early in the morning, The naike bathes, wears a new panchi and refrains from eating until the sacrificial mela is prepared. Meanwhile led by the Gudit Hor (who as village messenger, assists the village chief or Manjhi Haram), the men go from door to door, collecting rice and a small brown or white chicken from the villagers. (In some villages, this is done the previous day). Each household is expected to contribute these for the sacrificial meal and the sacrifice as part of the worship. Young men are also sent off to pluck fresh flowers, particularly Sal and Mohua.  

The naike, the village elders and the villagers then proceed to the Jaher Thaan where their ancestral spirits (Bonga Buru) will be invoked by the naike and the chickens and flowers offered. As the naike recites the ritual invocations and conducts the worship and the sacrifice of the chickens, assisted by his deputy, the Kudum Naike, the men dance to a slow-paced, reverential kind of music known as Jatur. The ritual ends with a preparation of a hash (“khichdi”) with the sacrificed chicken heads and rice by the naike and his deputy. This is consumed only by them and the village elders. The rest of the chickens are prepared separately with the rice into a khichdi for the consumption of the others present. Baha is the only festival when women are allowed to enter the sacred grove. 

The men then head back to the village, with the Naike carrying in a Kula (winnowing fan) or basket, Matkom (mohua) and Sarjom (sal) flowers used during the worship. More flowers are carried in a basket by a member of his group. Accompanying them from the Jaher Thaan is a group of men and women singing and dancing to the Dahar (meaning road, a song that is quicker paced than the Jatur) along the way and a young unmarried boy carrying a small pitcher of sanctified water on his shoulders. The woman (or the man) of each household awaits the naike at her doorstep.  She ceremonially bathes his feet and then accepts a flower in the folds of her sari and receives his blessings. The naike sprinkles water from his pitcher on her roof. All along, the men and women continue to sing and dance to the beat of the tumda and tamak. 

This ritual goes on till flowers have been distributed to all the households in the village. Finally, the dancers accompany the Naike to his home, where they dance the Lagre and Dahar. The merriment now begins in full swing – villagers throw water on each other, mindful however of the relationship they share with the other person – usually only those with whom they share a friendly, relaxed relationship, like grandmothers and affinal relatives. This water play is known as Baha-da(k) (flower water) – symbolizing the sprinkling of water on flowers for their sustenance. 

The third day is Baskey Mahah or Jaley Maha. Relatives arrive to join in the celebrations and there is music, dancing and merrymaking everywhere. Baha dak too continues. The auspicious clay pitcher which was carried by the young boy is also ceremonially examined by the village women at the naike’s home. The level of water is said to predict the rainfall for the coming agricultural season.

The third day was traditionally the day of the hunt, the first hunt in the Santal ritual year. In villages where this is observed, the day is known as Baha Sendra (hunt).  

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