Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Annals from the past

When the idea behind Daricha first occurred to me a couple of years ago, I consulted the eminent historian, the late Dr Barun De, one of the first advisors of Daricha Foundation. His first piece of advice to our initiative was "Read the District Gazetteers, without fail!". 

British Indian Empire 1909
Thus began our process of discovery of the land we live in through the remarkable Gazetteers. Being somewhat restricted in funds, we chose to begin with the editions available on the extremely useful digital repository of the West Bengal Public Library Network. And what a journey it was! 

Most of the catalogues were compiled initially in the late 19th Century although many have since been reissued or edited in recent times. Barun De himself had been the  honorary state editor for the West Bengal District Gazetteers and had edited a few volumes before his passing.

The preparation of district, provincial and Imperial gazetteers was part of a tradition set up by the Raj. The Gazetteers are a systematic, comprehensive geographical, economic, social and cultural catalogue of the Indian subcontinent catalogued by the British Viceroy during their conquest of India. British civilians in India undertook the preparation of these enormously useful projects under their supervision. District Officers or Deputy Commissioners assisted in the collection of material and often wrote entire reports themselves.

The purpose of these gazetteers compiled by the British was to acquaint themselves with an alien land and its people. It was to be a kind of manual or handbook for the administration and went on to become a Bible for every British field officer. The British certainly took their work very seriously for the depth and scope of the research in these magnificent tomes is absolutely overwhelming. The gazetteer is a treasure house of data.

Fifty years after the Battle of Plassey,  the East India Company saw the need to learn about the land it had acquired in the subcontinent of Asia. In a Despatch of 1807 are these words: "We are of opinion that a Statistical Survey of the country would be attended with much utility; we therefore recommend proper steps to be taken for the execution of the same." This was the beginning of a series of gazetteers, which, valuable they may have been for officials of the East India Company and subsequently the Crown Colony of India, have also proven of immense value to scholars to this day. Some gazetteers were commercially published while others were governmental or quasi-governmental documents. Sir W W Hunter, Father of the Gazetteers of India, brought out the first Imperial Gazetteer in 1881 - which was published in nine volumes. 

William Wilson Hunter (1840-1900), who was educated at Glasgow University (BA 1860), Paris and Bonn, studied Sanskrit before passing first in the final examination for the Indian Civil Service in 1862. He reached Bengal Presidency in November 1862 and was appointed assistant magistrate and collector of Birbhum, where he began collecting local traditions and records, which formed the material for his publication, entitled The Annals of Rural Bengal, published in 1868, which influenced among others, the historical romance Durgeshnandini of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

In Appendix I of his book, Hunter listed out ten Santal festivals that he observed during his stay at "Beerbhoom". These were :

1. Johorai: after gathering in the December rice-harvest; lasts five days in each village, but is generally protracted to a month, by fixing different days for it in neighbouring villages. The ceremony is simple. An egg is placed on the ground; all the cows of the village are driven near to it, and the animal that first smells at the egg is honoured by having its horns rubbed with oil.

2. Sakrat: a few days after the Johorai; lasts two days. It consists of practising with  bows and arrows, performing the sword dance, and similar sports.

3. Jatra: about February; last two days. Eight men sit on chairs; are swung round the two posts placed outside of every Santal village. The same sort of revolving swing as is set up for the children in English fairs.

4. Baha (‘flower’): about March; lasts two days. Every house washes the Naikki’s (priest’s) feet, and he distributes flowers in return. Ceremonies take place in the grove of trees outside each village. Four chickens are offered to Marang Buru (the great god of the Santals); one coloured chicken to Jahir-era (the primeval-mother of the race); one black chicken to Gosain-era (a female divinity residing, like Jahir-era, in the Sal grove); and a goat or chicken to Manjhi Haram (the late head of the village).

5. Pota (hook-swinging): now stopped by Government, but still practised (1865) among the northern Santals in April or May. Lasted about one month. Young men used to swing with hooks through their back, as in the Charak Puja of the Hindus. The swingers used to fast the day preceding and the day following the operation, and sleep the intermediate night on thorns.

6. Ero-sim (sowing chicken): offered in each house at seed sowing time.

7. Hariar-sim (green chicken): offered by the Naikki (priest) when the dhanhas somewhat grown.

8. Chhata (‘umbrella’): about August; lasts five days. The Naikki (priest) offers a goat, and the people all dance round a bamboo umbrella erected on a high pole.

9. Iri-gundli (two kinds of grain): the Naikki (priest) offers these with milk in the Jahir-than (Sal grove), and calls upon the poor to come and eat.

10. Horo (rice): when the rice is ripening. The first-fruits of the rice are offered to the Pargana Bongal (district deities), along with a pig, which the men of the village afterwards eat in the Sal grove.

In all these festivals there is a great quantity of rice-beer drunk.

Santals in celebration
The actual  names may have changed - or are pronounced differently. For instance, we know that Johorai is actually Sohrai. And Sohrai is celebrated in October-November (month of Kartik) in regions like Purulia but in December-January (month of Poush) in Birbhum. But we'll be back!

No comments:

Post a Comment