The Rituals of Sohrai

The first day of Sohrai is Oom mahah. It begins with a ritual cleansing. Everybody bathes and every article in each home is cleaned thoroughly. The inaugural rituals are led by the priest (Naike) and attended only by the men of the village. Prior to the rituals, the assistant (Gudit) goes from house to house collecting a chicken, some rice, salt and turmeric. After a ceremonial bathing, and at a paddy field away from the village,  the priest purifies the space with cow dung and then marks out a long rectangular grids comprising 7 or 9 squares with rice powder. He then places vermillion in the middle of each grid. Invoking the bongas (gods) including Thakur Jiu, Jaher Era, Marang Buru and Gosain Era, he seeks their blessings for the welfare of the villagers.  The hens are then ritually sacrificed. The heads are cooked separately with some rice for the village council alone, the Manjhi being the first to be served.  The rest of the meat is then cooked with rice into a hash (khichri), for the consumption of the villagers. Handia is consumed and the Manjhi then addresses the villagers and counsels them on their code of conduct for the next five days and nights.  Thus the festival formally commences.

As part of the rituals of the first day, the cows of the village are then herded to the field and allowed to trample on the magic grid. The cow which stamps on this egg is bathed and her horns anointed with oil and sindoor (vermillion). In some regions, the owner of this cow is expected to treat the villagers to rice beer because it is seen as a sign of a good harvest. (In many villages, the younger lot are not interested in learning the rituals and once the elders die, these traditions will probably be forgotten.) Everybody now returns home, with the young men singing, dancing and beating their drums as they go along. They are invited to the homes of the village council, starting with that of the Manjhi where  Handia is served.  

Later in the night, the festivities resume in full earnest. The young men dance down the village street, going from door to door, awakening the cattle with their singing and their drumming.  This could continue till dawn. In an earlier time, the girls too move from one cow shed to the next, blessing the cattle and strewing sun dried paddy, dhubi grass and rice towards each shed and the cows. But generally speaking, Santal girls do not take part in the singing and dancing until the end of the third day. The cattle are garlanded and their horns anointed with oil and vermillion.

The morning of the 2nd day (Bonga Mahah - also referred to by some as Daaka ) begins with the cleaning of cattle sheds, yokes and other agricultural implements. These are then decorated with rice flour and sindoor. Cattle are cleaned and their horns anointed with oil and vermilion. On this day, the bongas and ancestors are invoked in individual homes by the head of each family. On this day, the women of each household have to remain simple and unadorned, until the puja is complete. Thus, while due to acculturation, many aspects of Bengali feminine ornamentation like sindoor, shankha (conch shell bangles), alta (an organic red dye used to adorn hands and feet) etc have been adopted  by many Santal women, all these signs have to be wiped  clean until the bongas have been worshipped. Offerings for worship on this day, include generally a chicken, rice, stalks of paddy and rice beer. Using dung, the place for the worship is again purified and usually three small heaps of rice smeared with sindur, topped by a patara pitha, arranged on it. The chicken sacrificed is killed by a blow to its head and its blood poured over a heap of uncooked rice placed on a leaf, as an offering to the spirits. This rice is then boiled into a "Sorey " ("khichri - Beng.") along with the chicken heads and prepared as an offering to the bongas.  A meal separately prepared in a similar way with the rest of the chicken is offered to the family. The head of the family who has performed the rituals gets the chicken head as his/her special share. Unconsumed is buried near the sacrificial area. On this day, visitors are not allowed inside their homes. 

The 3rd day is the day of Khuntou Dangra (commonly referred to as Goru Khunta). With much fanfare, the villagers gather around the village headman`s house and seek his permission for the customary "teasing" of the bullocks. Wooden posts are driven into the ground in front of each cowshed, starting with those of the five members of the village council. In the middle of the afternoon, the cattle are returned to their cowshed by the cowherds and each bullock`s horn is decorated with stalks of paddy and anointed with sindoor and oil. Each bullock is tied to a post  To the sound of drums (tumdak and tamak) and flutes (tirio), and accompanied by a song, the men of the village then proceed to tease the bullock by waving a sheet of dry leather or cloth at it. The agitated animal chases the players around the pole, trying to butt them until it is tired out. This is done three times and repeated for all the bullocks tied to the posts. The bullocks are then returned to their sheds and the men, armed with sticks and small shields " Phiri", now dance the Natua (not to be confused with the other Natua dance of Purulia). Finally, it is the turn of the women who, dressed in all their finery, dance down the lanes  to the tune of Sohrai and Lagre songs. They are accompanied by the men on the drums. Visiting relatives are entertained and the merriment continues through  the night, outside the Manjhi`s house.  

Different songs are sung for different days. Unlike earlier times, the songs sung on the first three days are sung by the men only and the songs that the men sing are different from those of the women. The songs and dances for this festival are a mix of Lagre and Sohrai and Jharumjha, the last of which is performed only when the dancers reach the crossing at the end of the village.

The 4th and 5th days too are filled with song and dance, especially in the evenings. However the celebrations vary from region to region, depending upon the dates chosen. In some areas in Birbhum and Purulia, Sohrai dates are chosen to lead in to their Sakhrat festival  - which coincides with Poush Sankranti (the festival on the last day of Poush). Thus these villages get to enjoy six consecutive days  of festivities. 

In some regions, the fourth day is Goi Jaga. The young folks go from home to home singing songs and dancing at each cowshed, "blessing" the cattle. In some villages, the Goi Jaga celebrations used to take place in Kartik, while the rest of the Sohrai celebrations would happen in Poush. On the 5th day, the girls go around collecting vegetables from all the homes and deliver it to the Jog Manjhi`s home. This day is called Jaale.  

In other regions, the 4th day of Jaale is reserved for more merriment as well as collecting paddy, split peas, salt and rice beer from each home. They sing and dance in front of each home and mingle with their neighbours. At night , they deliver this to the Jog Manjhi`s home. They eat, drink, sing and dance and spend the night at his home. On the final day, the young men and the women are fed by the Jog Manjhi after they have cleaned his home and threshed the paddy collected by them over the course of the last few days. The paddy is distributed equally among the women to be made into rice and the Sohrai festival comes to an end.  The women bring this rice back to the Manjhi who brews beer from it. At a village gathering some ten days later, this beer is given to the young men and women, and in so doing, they are socially cleansed, their festival "liberties" withdrawn and brought back into normal society again.  

In villages where Sohrai ends with Sakhrat, the 6th day is Sakhrat. On this morning, the men go hunting -  Sendra. The men partake of a little food at each of the homes of the five members of the village council, the Morehor  - Manjhi Haram, Jog Manjhi, Gudit, Paranik and Jog Paranik and then they all set out. Meanwhile at home, the women abstain from combing their hair or wearing sindoor (again an adopted tradition from their Hindu neighbours). When  the men return in the afternoon, the women wash their feet  - and only then do they comb and oil their hair. The men then fetch sal leaves which are shaped into cups for everybody to  drink rice beer (handia) from. This is also the day of Poush Sankranti. The merriment continues : the men organize archery games in a nearby field, using as their  target a Dul Pitha (a  special kind of sweet made from rice powder and gur, fried in oil) hung on a tree, specially made for the purpose. Later at night, the spoils of the hunt is cooked at the Jog Manjhi`s home. This is distributed equally among the villagers and eaten and washed down with generous quantities of handia. The singing and dancing continues until the Jog Manjhi declares the celebrations ended.