Where the sal flowers bloom...

Updated - November 01, 2016 08:29 pm IST

Published - September 24, 2016 04:00 pm IST

‘Growing up in a forest village of Jharkhand, I remember mother wrapping crabs in turmeric leaves and burying them under hot charcoal for a smoky flavour’

It was the time of year that marked the end of spring and the beginning of summer. As usual, we woke up really early, thanks to our roosters which would not shut up till they were taken outside. But we were excited. It was the time of the Sarhul festival.

In the hills and forests of Jharkhand, Sarhul marks the beginning of the New Year. It is celebrated by the Oraon, the Munda, the Ho, the Santhal, and by us, the Birjia. Falling on the third day of the moon in the month of Chaitra, Sarhul marks the advent of spring, and the word means the worship of the sal tree.

I grew up in Arahans, a village near Netarhat in Jharkhand. I remember dressing up in a new sari and wearing freshly bloomed, cream-coloured sal (locally called sakhua) flowers in my hair. Boys with dhol, dhak, mandar and nagara (musical instruments) accompanied us to participate in Sarhul, which honoured the return of Mother Nature’s daughter Bindi to earth.

Soon, the villagers would gather in large numbers to drink a local beverage made of a concoction of dried mahua fruit, jaggery and water.

We would also drink a mix of rice and water fermented in clay pots covered with leaves (called handia ) and served in sal leaf bowls along with spicy dry papaya, cooked with freshly ground mustard.

During summer and, in fact, during all seasons, our drinking water was stored in clay pots. Our food was mostly cooked rice, stored in a clay pot overnight with water, served with smoked potatoes roasted under hot charcoal, and green mango and mint chutney. Alternatively, we would eat millets with a curry of dried bamboo shoots and small fish or shrimp and jackfruit seeds.

In the winters, during Kartik Puja, my parents pounded newly collected corn from the field with a traditional pounder called dheki to separate the husks. Then, they ground the corn in the janta , a stone grinder.

Finally, it was cooked into a porridge-like consistency that was served with aloo bouris (made of ash gourd and black gram), dried in the sun. Or we would have a spicy meat or fowl curry, using freshly plucked turmeric ground with whole spices in a silvat (stone grinder)

Centella leaves were cooked along with baby potatoes and tomatoes. These leaves are also called beng shak because they were a home to small tadpoles. To celebrate Kartik Puja, my mother would take oil in a clay bowl while my father carried a big basket of boiled corn. I would follow them with a lantern towards the cow shed.

My mother would oil the horns of every single cow and then feed them with boiled corn.

Winters always remind me of our traditional marriage festivities. How the bride’s brother would come out of the house with his sister riding piggy-back. He would carry her six or seven times around the mandap , dancing and singing a traditional tribal song. Finally, the groom would place a drop of oil on the bride’s forehead with a peepal leaf to complete the ceremony.

The food was mainly vegetarian and was always served on sal leaf plates.

When the monsoon started, I would go into the forest with my parents to collect wild fern shoots, wild colourful edible mushrooms and phooto , pearl-like mushrooms that grow under the soil. Meanwhile, my father would catch small fish and crabs from the streams. Mother prepared these with fern shoots and wild mushrooms, or stir-fried them with dried shrimps.

Sometimes, she would wrap the fish and crabs in turmeric or sal leaves and then bury them under the hot charcoal for a smoky flavour. These were then added to a spicy curry made with freshly-ground whole spices. We ate the curry with millets or with a khichuri made of broken corn and toordal .

This was the time when men and women would participate in the sowing of paddy, covering themselves with traditional raincoats made of leaves and singing rain songs.

I remember arguing with my mother and not wearing the coat because I thought it was embarrassing. Instead, I would insist on carrying an umbrella. But when the heavy rains with cold winds swept by, I grit my teeth in the cold, and soon ended up wearing my mother’s leaf-coat to warm myself.

At the end of the day, according to custom, the woman who owned the field would distribute sindoor and kusum oil to all the women to thank them for the sowing.

Kharagpur-based Amrita Besra writes short stories for magazines.

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