The main festival celebrated of the Santal community (December-January): Sorhae “thanksgiving” – West Bengal, Jharkhand, Assam, Nepal, and Bangladesh

Photo: Ludwig Pesch

Singing and Dancing, a Festivity of Unity

By Boro Baski | Translated by Joel Tudu

Sorhae is the biggest festival of the Santals. The Santals of Malda, Murshidabad, Dinajpur, Birbhum, Bardhaman district, together with the Santals of Jharkhand, Assam, Nepal, and Bangladesh, celebrate this festival with various rituals, singing and dancing towards the end of Bengali calendar month of Poush (i.e. between December and January according to the Gregorian Calendar).

In earlier times, this festival used to be celebrated during Kalipuja in the month of Ashwin-Karthik (i.e. from the middle of September to the middle of November). It is presumed that once their habitat was around the region of Hazaribagh; according to the geographical conditions of the area, the cultivational calendar was different – paddy was harvested within the month of Ashwin, then the festival was celebrated. But towards the beginning of the nineteenth century, they settled in the fertile low land of Santal Pargana; the nature of cultivation got changed – the Poush month entered even before harvesting the crop. After the 1855-Santal Revolution, the inhabitants of Santal Pargana were scattered all over, but they carried their cultural history with them. The Santals of Bankura, Purulia, Midnapur and Odisa still follow the old tradition of celebrating Sorhae during Kalipuja.

The term ‘Sorhae’ is derived from the root word ‘Sarhao’ which means ‘thanksgiving’. In this festival, thanksgiving is bestowed to the good spirits of the families and of the villages for having provided necessary food to keep them healthy throughout the whole year. The first day of the celebration is called ‘Um Hilok’ i.e. the day of bathing or cleaning. All the villagers clean their houses in preparation of the festival. With the instruction of the manjhi haram, the headman of the village, the godet, the messenger of the village, along with the children collects a one-fourth kilogram of rice, a handful of pulses, four to five potatoes, some cooking oil, salt, chilly, firewood and a chick from every family of the village. A got-tandi, altar is built outside the village in the field. There the naeke, the village priest sacrifices those chicks in commemoration of the spirits of their forefathers and of the spirits of the village. After the sacrificial ceremony, all those gathered, make hotchpotch with the rice-pulses and have there itself. In the evening, the village priest, having kept an egg in the field, asks the cowherds to usher their herds over that egg. The owner of the cow that touches the egg with its leg, is supposed to provide an earthen pot of rice beer in the next feast of the month of Magh. Touching the egg with the cow’s leg is considered as a sign of good omens to the family. Then all people enter into the village playing tumdak, drum behind the village priest.

The second day is the Bongan Hilok, a day of becoming spiritually infused with the good spirits. Members of the family spent most of the time among themselves. The head of the family fasts from the morning onwards and worships the family spirits with the best rice beer. Then he shares the rice beer with the family members and later with the neighbours. Meat and fish – a delicacy is prepared in every family. In the evening singing and dancing begin.

The third day is the Khuntao. It is the day dedicated to the domestic animals. Everybody from the morning itself clean their plough, spade, grubber, axe, sickle, etc. with water and applies oil on them, and keeps them arranged in the courtyard. Cows-buffaloes are also cleaned and oiled, they are tied to the pegs on the sides of the village streets. They are garlanded with paddy laddu, sweet around their horns and necks, and the people sing and dance in their honour.

The fourth day is the Jaley i.e. a day of strengthening relationships. All the villagers keep on dancing and singing in union along the streets of the villages. While singing and dancing if they enter the house of any family they are received with rice beer. Such singing and dancing goes on throughout the day-night. Dancing and singing together eradicates all forms of stifles and misunderstanding among friends and neighbours. Generally a day is preserved for rest after the fourth day of celebration. It is called Haku-Katkom i.e. a day of enjoying crabs and fish.

The last day is the Sakrat. Those spirits who were worshipped and brought into the village on the first day, it is the day for keeping them back to their respective places. The priest, in the morning, leads the male members into the forest for hunting. While returning in the evening, all gather at the field near the village. There the wife of the village priest attaches three breads made up of rice flour on the pole of banana plant, and these are shot down with the arrows from a distance. This means, if any evil spirit who has entered the village, has been intimidated and chased away in such a manner. Then the pole is cut into a few pieces and the one who has first shot the bread down carries them over his shoulder and thereby he would be mounted on the shoulder of a bachelor to enter the village. During this time, the children of the village display their different kinds of acrobatic feats, skills, etc. then all go to the house of the village headman, priest and other elected members while singing; and having taken rice beer they return to their respective houses.

Seemingly it is just a feast of having rice beer and singing and dancing, but there is a glimpse of Santal Philosophy found within it. This is the example of the cultural life of the community. The community life is the power that has helped them remain independently with their own cultural milieu amidst diversity of cultures for centuries.


Post-published addition by the author based on readers’ feedback:

Another interpretation of the root word Sorhae: Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Budhi, the first man and women had eight daughters and seven sons. One day when the boys went to Khanderae jungle for hunting and the girls to Surukuc jungle for collecting vegetables they got physically attracted to each other while playing under a banyan tree and paired themselves. Youngest sister paired up with her youngest brother and her elder sister with her elder brother and so on. At the end the eldest sister whose name was Sorhae had nobody to pair up with, so they decided to build her a house and promised to invite her to their home every year after the harvesting of crop and celebrate the day with her. Till now before the festival begins the girls who are married off are invited to celebrate Sorhae in their parents’ home with their kin. When Sorhai is about to come even now people say, Marang dai e seteroh kana which means Elder sister is arriving.

Source: Essay on Sorhae for the Bengali Newspaper ‘Anandabazar Patrika’ by Dr. Boro Baski (translation by email: 11 February 2018)

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

“Rural communities certainly need education, but their life is interwoven with many social and cultural issues that must all be taken into account. UNESCO is right to argue that an integrated approach with a holistic view is appropriate.” – Dr. Boro Baski >>

Dr. Boro Baski works for the community-based organisation Ghosaldanga Adibasi Seva Sangha in West Bengal. The NGO is supported by the German NGO Freundeskreis Ghosaldanga und Bishnubati. He was the first person from his village to go to college as well as the first to earn a PhD (in social work) at Viswa-Bharati. This university was founded by Rabindranath Tagore to foster integrated rural development with respect for cultural diversity. The cooperation he inspired helps local communities to improve agriculture, economical and environmental conditions locally, besides facilitating education and health care based on modern science.

He authored Santali translations of two major works by Rabindranath Tagore, the essay “Vidyasagar-Charit” and the drama Raktakarabi (English “Red Oleanders”), jointly published by the Asiatic Society & Sahitya Akademi (India’s National Academy of Letters) in 2020.

Other posts contributed by Dr. Boro Baski >>

Ghosaldanga Bishnubati Adibasi Trust
Registration under Trust Registration Act 1982
P.O. Sattore, Dist. Birbhum
West Bengal-731 236

For inquiries on Santal cultural and educational programs, please contact:
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The Santals have no primordial books on their religion written by themselves. Their religion is based on oral traditions | Learn more >>

“The practice of religious rituals, ceremonies and sanctions by specific cultural groups allow such sacred landscapes to be maintained, emphasizing that humans are intrinsically part of the ecosystem. Taboos, codes and customs specific to activities and community members restrict access to most sacred groves. […] The inclusion of local people’s needs and interests in conservation planning is increasingly accepted as essential, both to promote the well-being of human populations, and to ensure that biodiversity and conservation needs are met in the long-term.” – Nazir A. Pala, Ajeet K. Neg and N.P. Todaria in “The Religious, Social and Cultural Significance of Forest Landscapes in Uttarakhand Himalaya, India” (International Journal of Conservation Science, Vol. 5, Issue 2, April-June 2014) | Sacred groves | Biodiversity and development – Himalaya >>

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