During the full moon of the Baisakh month (in May), Adivasis from the Santhal community in Hazaribagh, erstwhile Manbhum, and the larger Santhal Pargana areas in Jharkhand, gather at the base of Marang Buru or the hill deity. Here, by the stump of an otherwise towering Sal tree, with five stones dug into the mountain rock, they stand, with bows, arrows, and tangis (broad axes) in hand. They will spend the next three days in the jungle.
The annual custom, dating back generations, begins with a night-long hunt by the Santhal men in the forested hills along the eastern side of the Chota Nagpur Plateau. It culminates in a two-day tribal session to discuss community problems and resolutions.
Marang Buru, where the ritual is conducted, is located on the slopes of the Parasnath Hills, in present-day Jharkhand’s Giridih district, also home to Sammed Shikharji, its highest peak at 1,350 metres, and one of the holiest pilgrimage sites of the Jain community. Here, followers believe 20 of the 24 Tirthankaras (enlightened beings) attained nirvana.
Jains from across the country undertake the 27-km trek to the summit and back, where 20 Tonks (pinnacles), one for each Tirthankara, are located. The pilgrimage takes them through the hills, including the site from where the Santhals’ sacred hunt begins. Jain pilgrims are bound by their scripture not to hurt any living creature. There are no lights on the hill, as these attract insects, which the Jains are then in danger of stepping on.
Saving Marang Buru, saving Shikharji
The last few weeks have seen protests from the Jain community across India against the Jharkhand government’s December 2022 proposal to turn it into a religious tourism spot, in line with the Union government’s 2019 plans to turn the hills into an eco-tourism hub. Succumbing to the “Save Shikharji” protests, the Environment Ministry issued an Office Memorandum earlier this month, suspending all plans for tourism activities on the Parasnath Hills and the surrounding wildlife sanctuary, noting that “The Government recognizes its sanctity and significance for the Jain community…”.
Neither directive mentioned the significance of the hills for Santhals. This has triggered a centuries-old conflict between local Adivasis and the Jain community over worshiping rights on the slopes of the Parasnath Hills, widening the rift of mistrust between the two communities.
Sikandar Hembrom, 33, a local activist and social worker from the Giridih district, has been hearing stories of his Santhal forefathers going on the Baisakh hunt for as long as he can remember. Though it has been over a decade that he himself has joined in, he has never made a kill. “The ritual’s importance is not in the kill; it is in the act of going into the forest for the hunt,” he says. “It is our way of being one with the forest, the hill, and worshiping it. Sometimes we deliberately just join the chase and don’t go for the kill.” In fact, each village sends two men with nagadas to scare the animals away.
Just a week after the Jharkhand government’s proposal for religious tourism became public, Digambar Jain monk Pulak Sagar is on the YouTube channel of Jinsharnam Media that has 5.95 lakh subscribers.
“Sammed Shikharji is hurting. All of us know how Sammed Shikharji is being misbehaved with. The Central and State governments are playing with our faith,” he says in an angry voice on the channel in Hindi.
“When the Ram Temple is built in Ayodhya, Jains rejoice; when [Narendra] Modi forms the government, Jains rejoice. Jains have given votes, notes, and support, and gave the country a PM as strong as Modi. Whenever the nation needed Hindutva to be saved, the Jain community came forward. We have always supported RSS’s efforts. Where is that Hindu today when the Jain community is under attack, and their faith is being made fun of?” The video was posted on December 29, with a logo on the top left saying, “Save Shikharji”. It has, as of January 19 evening, 2.85 lakh views.
“A site as pure as this... people are eating meat there, they are drinking liquor.... We cannot let this site become a tourist spot, a place for picnics,” Mr. Pulak Sagar says in the video titled, ‘ Mala chhodo, bhala pakado (Let go of the prayer beads; take up the spear)’.
Mr. Hembrom asks, “Who does he want to save Shikharji from? The only people who go there are Jain tourists, local residents, and Adivasis in the area.”
The tourist trail
The Parasnath Hills see unprecedented crowds between December and March, especially during Makar Sankranti. The entire 9-km stretch to Sammed Shikharji and Parasnath Temple (a Shiva temple on the next hill) is lined with trash along both sides of the path. Wild monkeys play with plastic bottles and wrappers, and most shopkeepers along the way burn plastic garbage for warmth. There are long stretches without a dustbin in sight. People smoke; some play music on portable bluetooth speakers. Business is booming at the shops.
“Tourism has been going on here for a while now and there is only so much we can do to keep trash out of the hills,” says an official of the Bharatvarshiya Digambar Jain Tirth Kshetra Committee, who has been managing a guest house in Madhuban, at the base of the hills, for about two decades now.
But activists like Mr. Hembrom say that speeches like the one Mr. Pulak Sagar has been delivering have led to Jains from across the country visiting the pilgrimage site and even those who have not, blaming local Adivasis and their annual Marang Buru ritual for ‘polluting’ their religious site.
Erasing a shared symbol
Chandrakant Jain, 58, and his sister had started climbing up Sammed Shikharji the day after Makar Sankranti. Having attended a meeting of the local Digambar Jain society in Mumbai, they signed a “Save Shikharji” petition and made their way to the plateaus of Jharkhand. “Tourism has no place here,” he said, on the way down, adding, “Even Adivasis worship here…”
Before he could finish, Mr. Jain’s sister cut him off. “We have 20 Tonks on these hills; the Adivasis just have a few spots. Of course, it is our religious site.” Even as pilgrims who were visiting the site for the first time said they found local Adivasis to be helpful along their trek, several who were on their third or fourth trip insisted it was only “their” hill.
Mr. Hembrom, who also runs the Marang Buru Sanvta Susaar Baisi, a tribal welfare association, says, “We have never claimed the hill just for us. We have respected the Jains’ faith and even restricted our rituals as a mark of respect. We have a custom to sacrifice a male goat on the hill during Sarhul (when the Sal tree breaks into flower, this year on February 20, 21) but for the last 22 years we have done away with the sacrifice.” He adds that it was only last year when he saw the first signs of an “organised effort” to erase their historical claim to worship at Marang Buru.
As Jain communities rose in protest across India towards the end of 2022, Mr. Pulak Sagar posted videos with titles like, ‘ Jaan de denge lekin Shikharji nahi denge (We’ll give our lives but we won’t give up Shikharji)’.
Through the Right to Information Act, Mr. Hembrom accessed the list of complaints on the Pradhan Mantri Jan Shikayat Portal between mid 2021 and mid 2022. He found 1,068 complaints filed by Jains from across the country, with similarly worded ones, scores filed on the same dates. Nearly all the complaints argued that the Marang Buru ritual never existed and that “non-Jains” had “illegally” established worship customs on ‘their’ sacred hill, hurting their sentiments.
“See where the complaints are coming from: Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat. Most would never have even visited Parasnath,” Mr. Hembrom claims, adding he has written to the Jharkhand government and the Union government about his concerns, but has received no response.
According to records in the district office of the Dumri sub-division, the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) has been clearing the complaints one by one, noting that the custom has existed from time immemorial, has been in the knowledge of the authorities, and is not illegal.
This is not a new argument from the Jain societies that oversee the management of the pilgrimage. The 1911 Census first recorded the dispute between Adivasis and the Jain society in the form of a suit filed by Swetambar Jains, denying the existence of the Santhal hunting ritual. The suit was dismissed by the Judicial Commissioner, defeated in appeal at the High Court, with the Privy Council finally holding that Santhals had the customary right to hunt on the Parasnath Hills, according to Gazette records.
On a precipice
With mistrust deepening between the two communities, Chief Minister Hemant Soren, also from a tribal community, facing his next Assembly election in 2024, for the first time since the controversy broke out again, appeared to have picked a side. At a public meeting in Giridih district on January 18, Mr. Soren exclaimed in Santhali, “Marang Buru is ours and will remain so,” adding that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was trying to “divide” people in the State.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hembrom, himself a member of the BJP, is desperately trying to reason with the party leadership at the State and Centre, to build support for their cause, as he gathers together as many Adivasi organisations as possible to join an all-Jharkhand bandh on January 24.
The support is coming along, with 102 Santhal associations from multiple States and other tribal societies pledging to participate. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has publicly thrown its weight behind the Jain community.
Praveen Murmu, 35, of the Adivasi Chhatra Sangh’s Giridih chapter, says, “Parasnath is home to Hindu gods like Shiva. Hindus in the area celebrate Durga Puja and Jains worship their gods there. Why then is the Santhal religious hunt being erased this way?”
“Our fight is with the Centre and the State government. All we are seeking is that they recognise the significance of the hill for the Santhal community and amend official notifications acknowledging our historical claim to the hill. Even the Monitoring Committee that is supposed to be formed makes room for just one Adivasi member against two Jain community members (one from the Digambar sect and one from Shwetambar sect),” Mr. Hembrom says, adding that it would only be fair to have two Adivasi members on the committee and at least one non-Adivasi local of the area.
Amidst this, Mr. Hembrom’s outfit is also trying to ensure that this year’s hunt and Sarhul celebrations go smoothly, but tempers are running high and many members told The Hindu that they are not sure if they can prevent the sacrifice on Sarhul this year. “Local Adivasis are looking forward to a productive hunt on Marang Buru and the sacrifice this Sarhul, in a bid to reclaim their traditional rituals,” Praveen Kumar, an activist working with Mr. Hembrom, says.
In anticipation of the protest next week, the Jharkhand Armed Police, local police, and the Central Reserve Police Force have stationed extra battalions near the base of the hills at Madhuban. The Parasnath trails maintain a façade of normalcy, but those dependent on tourism for their livelihoods are anxious.
Ram Prasad Turi, 42, who has been carrying palanquins to take pilgrims up and down the slopes for over two decades, says, “Wherever we go, we try to find some work and earn something. We were confident that the hill would always have something for us.” Already losing out to teenagers on motorcycles who offer pilgrims a much faster and considerably more comfortable ride to the top, Mr. Turi says of the renewed conflict between Adivasis and the Jains, “Now, if we are pushed from both sides, of course we will feel the pressure. For the first time, I feel we might no longer have work on the hill.”