This article serves two purposes. First it provides an overview on extant winter festivals of Bastar, taking the reader on a cursory journey through the various winter festivals. It also attempts to contour it with how they have changed as they have interacted with the forces of modernity. Today almost all festivities are characterised by a common denomination of activities, arrangements, adornment which together paint the picture of a festivity. Commercial fairs, music, entertainment, stage shows of adivasi dance, fancy finger foods, joy rides constitute a big part of how festivities are popularly understood. Along with this, there exists in a crypted zone - cockfights, mela, mahua, sulphi and the sharing of tobbaco, buying of salt, soaps, sickle and baskets. The co-existence, although present is not exactly proportional. While one face exhibits flamboyance and exuberance the other survives only as a secretive, silent affair; often denied existence and termed a thing of the past, or illegal, deviant set of activities. Bastar’s festivities have been undergoing transformation for decades since colonial anthropologists discovered the existence of the Gond people in the south eastern corner of their central provinces. A curious rendition of traditional festivities have developed over the years, which, for lack of a better word, we will call ‘popular’. Through this article we take the reader through a thread which reveals traditional forms and juxtaposes existing and ‘popular’ renditions.
As the showers of monsoon bid adieu after replenishing the red soils and plush greens of Chhattisgarh, the season gives way to the autumn breeze. As seasons transition from the fall (or months of Kartik) to the pre-winter’s nippiness to the chilly winters ( from the month of Posh to the vibrant months of Falgun) – people of the state of Chhattisgarh prepare for a series of celebrations beginning from Devari, Posh Kolang, Pen Madhais, Chher-Chhera up till the Pooni mela in the month of Falgun. The Gondi almanac during this period of significant dates and days, new moons and full moons– and these days and dates are dedicated to the celebration of a festival that is either dedicated to the young children, youth of the community. The forest state and its people are overcome by a wave of festivities. These festivals may either be madhais- where the ancestral deities dance with the people, or new fruit eating ceremonies where ancestors and neighbours are offered grains of the fresh harvest as gratitude for the fruits of cultivation, or celebration of the first marriage that took place in the Gondi pantheon or the occasion of celebrating the labour of communities like those of shepherds. The festivities and celebrations form the cultural ethos of the communities and works to strengthen and foster the fabric of the rural community.
Right after the festivities of Dussehra in Bastar which celebrates Goddess Danteshwari’s role in Bastar- festivals of pre-winter and winter are particularly marked by few events such as Devari (celebrated right after the Bastaria Dussehra), Pen Madhias, popularly known as travelling fairs, Posh Kolang or the festival of dance rituals, Chher Chhera, and the Pooni Mela. This article sheds light on these festivals and provide an almanac of the people in Bastar. In focuses on the ritual significance of the festivals and why it is integral to understand the ethos behind the festivities to gain a deeper perspective of the life of communities of Gondwana.
The celebration of ‘Devari’ by the Gonds of Chhattisgarh coincides on the same day as Diwali. A prominent Gondi festival Devari like Deepawali falls on the same day i.e., the 15th day of Kartik month. However, the myth of origin for the two festivals differ significantly.
Celebrated over the course of three days, Devari celebrations mark the significance of the shepherding community, the offerings to king Narayan as well as the first marriage within the pantheon of Gond. Devari or Diyari is the auspicious occasion when the rural communities come together to worship the new crop and cattle. The farming communities take tillers (stem produced by rice plants) with rice seeds to the village and offer it in marriage to King Narayan. It is believed that the ritual ensures the safety of the crop and also assures the farmers of the prosperity of the grains.
Devari is popularly celebrated across Bastar’s rural communities as the shepherd’s day. In Bastar the shepherd community comprises of the Mahra (weaver) community and in north Chhattisgarh they belong to Yadav ( cattle rearing ) community. Both are from the so called lower caste communities, now designated scheduled caste and other backward caste respectively. The shepherd is the focus of this festival with cattle and the cattle owners forming an integral part of the rituals. On the first day, the shepherd invites the cattle owners for a meal out of gratitude and respect for supporting his livelihood. The meal is his way to express his gratitude for work and food that he receives as remuneration for the services he provides. The feast hosted by the shepherd is a reciprocal gesture to the cattle owners. Towards the evening, the members of the shepherding community accompanied by orchestra, visit each cattle-owner’s house while dancing and singing songs. They go around to the space where cattle are tied and garland them with the garlands made of roots of the Palash (Butea monosperma) tree, handcrafted by the shepherd himself.
The first Gond marriage took place between Ishar and Gaura. Shambhu was the leader of the Gondwana land, and their teacher/advisor (raj-guru). The first Shambhu Sheikh lived with Gabra (daughter of King Bijasur of Kuyva state), his second wife. Gabra took birth in every generation and married Shambhu. These tales relate Ishar as one of the Shambhus and Gaura to be a reincarnation of Gabra. Ishar and Gaura are therefore believed to be the first couple who adhered to the formal institution of marriage after lord Lingo developed the gotra system. Therefore the first marriage is believed to have taken place on the new moon night of Devari.
Pen Madaimarks the occasion when members of various communities come together to organize and participate in an elaborate fair across the length and breadth of Chhattisgarh— a celebration that is complete with elaborate rituals, processions and fairs. Pen Madai (pen means ancestral deities) is an event where the deities of different clans, households and rural communities come together and organize pen jatras (processions with deities). A fair is also organized in the honour of ancestral and guardian deities; deities belonging to different villages are brought out to greet each other and together enjoy the festivities of the fair. The fair, also known as pen mela or pen bazaar are popularly known as the travelling fairs of Bastar and is an integral economic event in the Gondi almanac. As one travels through Chhattisgarh between the last week of November and April, one can experience the intensity of excitement among the people. The Madai begins from Jagdalpur, and travels from one block to another till its culmination in Geedam.
The first madais of the season are organized as the Raj Madai of Jagdalpur in southern Chhattisgarh. Raj Madai, as the name suggests, was started by the kings in the honour of the guardian deities of Bastar. Raj Madai requires the presence of all deities from across the region. The pens and dangs in Raj Madai return to their respective villages after a month of festivities at Jagdalpur. After the culmination of festivities and celebrations, as the deities prepare to return to their respective villages, their sevaks back in the village begin to be possessed by the divine power of the deity which indicates the return of the ancestral gods and goddesses. It is only then, that the Madais begin to get planned and organized across the villages and towns, travelling their way through the regions of Narayanpur, Antagarh, Bhanupratappur, Kondagaon, Keshkal, Bhopalpattanam and Dantewada, and culminating in the month of April at Geedam.
A Madai offers a site of an interesting confluence where spirituality meets merriment, culture meets commerce and trade, traditional rituals meet modern rituals of entertainment and local sweets and savouries meet urban fast food. One comes across Chhattisgarhi dance performances and talent shows, black magic shows, cock fighting contests, story-telling performances, circus acts and other stunt shows, rides of various kinds, and an extensive commerce of goods.
People coming to the fair have shared how the festival, which was celebrated essentially as a post-harvest spiritual event in villages, has today gained a new scale of grandeur, particularly when it is organized in towns and cities, such as Narayanpur, Geedam, Dantewada, Bhanupratappur, Kanker, Jagdalpur and Antagarh. One can experience the transition and transformation in the scale at which the Madai is organized, especially when one compares the experience of the fair organized at the level of the village and the ones organized in the urban centres. The change in scale can also be attributed to the fact that the state administration shares the responsibility to organize Madais in nagar municipalities that sees a huge crowd thronging the fair. The Madais, thus, are not just travelling fairs, rather it is an occasion of festivities—a celebration of coming together- it becomes an occasion where relationships are either created or renewed not only between the deities, but also between mortals who meet and greet each other across regions and communities, and between the human and the divine.
Ram kumar and Panchu Potai live in Banoli and they both have a few cocks whom they have painstaking trained to fight. Both Ramkumar and Panchu wait throughout the year to take their cocks to Tarandul Madai for a fight. Tarandul is about 8 kilometers from Banoli. One has to continue on the road that runs through Banoli and then the road climbs a steep hill and winds its way into Tarandul; a sleepy rustic village known for its mahua and sulphi. But on the day of the Madai, Tarandul is evidently different. The road from Banoli gets busy with traffic; trucks carrying goods, poultry, sugar and salt which have come a long way; tractors carrying men, women, children and cattle all were headed to Tarandul. The sleepy village throbs with life. Processions of 'deos' being carried on their palanquins are a common sight. Alongside the deos come traders who would buy and exchange salt, sugar and spices for lac, chironjee, sal beeja (seeds). Ramkumar and Panchu accompanied me to Tarandul. While Panchu was carrying a basket full of scrapped lac along with his champion cock, Ramkumar carried a sack full of mariya (fox tail millet).
On the day of the Madai the village transforms into a market (bazar) and the raud (sacred spaces) of the village become a place where ancestral gods meet men. The word 'madhai' literally translates into a meeting. A meeting of ancestral gods of the adivasis and their kins; meeting of the vedantic goddess and their syncretistic adaptations; meeting of men and women with their kins and their friends; finally- a place where gods meet men through the vehicles of the human body and the anga, dang and doli. The carriers of anga, dang and doli are often possessed and it is believed that are driven by the divine energy of the ancestors or the devi. The possession of individuals by an ancestral god is a common sight in a pen madhai. The body is possessed when the sevaks pick up the doli, dang or the anga of their respective ancestors. Once possessed it is believed that the ancestors will communicate through the gestures and their bodily movements and will warn or appreciate certain decisions that the adivasi samaj is taking. The pen karsar is also seen as a ritual which is necessary for the well being (furman) of the village and of the region.
The pen madhai of Tarandul coincides with the cherchera festival, Described below. At that time people offer mariya, a coarse millet, to their ancestors before they start consuming it. Mariya pej is a common gruel that Gonds, Marar, Ganda and other communities consume during the summer.
The madhai entails confluence of various realms and within this confluence also resides the 'bazaar'. A bazaar which will allow an exchange of necessary materials in a space which is spiritual and auspicious.
Gondi Scholar Sarita Uike (2016) while discussing the significance of the festival almanac- shares an origin myth. The festival is believed to be a celebration of a tradition that began with Pandri Dai and Pungar Dai– sisters of Kunwara Bhimal Pen Nayak who had attained mastery over tedari vidya. The sisters wished every village to have a granary. These granaries were to assist the people of the village during the season of monsoon, when farmers were at the end of their stocks of grains– and sometimes face shortage. The granaries would assist farmers facing shortage during monsoon. The rule was that after the harvest, the farmer was required to return grain 1.25 times over. According to Uike (2016) this principle continues to elaborate that this granary worked on trust within the community and was called kothi. Thus, chher-chera is celebrated to mark the collective effort to support one another by contributing grains in times of surplus, so that it could be used during periods of shortage. In this manner chher-chhera is celebrated to commemorate collective efforts of mitigating periods of shortage of grains. Pandr-Pungar dai presides over this ritual is also revered as Annapoorna Mata.
On the full moon of Posh women and children divide themselves in groups. They sing the following song, as they move from one house to another in the village, imploring the family of farmers to come out and share the fruits of their harvest.
Chher chartan! Chartan
Kothi ke dhan la her hera
Chheer jeeti cheer leeti pakri mara leeti
Aa jekri dokra jhagda holi naach diya leeti
Roti la kaay karbe bade baap ke beti
Sumelaa ke ghamela gay garu doohaa
Doodh harhi phutge saaraa bahu rukge
Aamaa kasi kasi leem kasi kasi
Jaldi jaldi bidaa karo mai hum pardeshi
Chheri ke chherachher baratnin chher chhera
Chheri ke chherachher baratnin chher chhera
Dhanni re punni re
Tamak naache duaa duaa
Andaa ke ghar banaae, pathra ke
Chher chher motiyarin naache
Baadhaa van budhi budhi
Chheri ke chherachher baratnin chher chhera (Uike, 2016)
According to tradition cher chera parties reach the courtyard of the farmers house and place the basket of grains in the centre. Accompanied by drums, they dance around the basket while singing songs calling out to the farmer asking him to donate some of his freshly harvested grains. As the farmer and his family members listen to the songs, the family donates a part of their harvest and pour it into the basket. The party then moves onto the next houses. This ritual of collecting grains began in the evening, and go on late into the night, till the time all houses of the farmers have made their contribution – which then were to be stored in the collective granary or Kothi. Part of the grains that were collected were also used for a communal feast for the entire village, where everyone came together to share the fruits of harvest of the farmers’ labour. The farming communities believed that if donations are made on the auspicious day of Chher-Chhera the granaries of the farmers will never run empty.
While the villages today have stopped maintaining granaries at the level of the community, the ritual of seeking and donating grains right after the harvest continues. However, today in addition to the groups of young children and women, older men have also partaken in the ritual of seeking grains. Thus, the groups move with their acoustics instruments, and on the day of Chher-Chhera they move from one house to another, seeking donations and performing in the courtyard while family fetches the grains. Since the Kothis have ceased to exist – the troupes in turn then sell the grains and share the proceedings amongst each other. Part of the proceedings are also saved for the communal feast.
Mariya is the local name for finger millet; Pandum is a festival which is celebrated when the first harvest of grains and seasonal fruits are offered to the ancestors. Members of the Gond community do not consume new grains from a harvest or a fruit till they have been offered to the deities. The season of winter sees the navakhani (the first meal of the freshly harvested grains) of finger millet. The Gaita along with the members of village community offers chickens, goats and mahua spirit to their ancestors.
Whatever we collect from the forest and whatever we produce on our lands we offer them first to our ancestors, our deos! They all live with us...
said Singh Rai, the gaita of Banoli village. On 2nd February this year Banoli had quite a few visitors from the neighboring villages, it was the day to offer Mariya grains of the harvest to their ancestors. Singh Rai accompanied me and took me across the vast expanse of the paddy fields towards the hills that border Banoli. At the base of the hill was a small shed hidden inside a grove of Sahjha, Kusum, Peepal and Mahua trees. As we approached the grove, Singh Rai asked me to take off my shoes. He pointed to the hut and said that it is the Raur (residence) of the deo of Banoli, his name is Maran marri; the eldest son of their great ancestor Lingo pen. As I entered the grove with my bare feet, I noticed a couple of men worshiping the Shajha tree that stood beside the raur. They had placed finger millets, rice grains, lemons and had sacrificed a couple of chickens to the tree. I silently sat through the rituals that went on for about an hour. Singh Rai explained each of the rituals and their significance.
Shajha is essential for sustenance and Mahua signifies life itself. Singh Rai said that they call themselves 'Koyaturs'. Mahua is called 'Koya' in Gondi and 'tur' means people. He went on: “Shajha and Mahua are totemic trees. They symbolize the species which a certain group of Gonds (differentiated by their surnames) protect”. I learnt that the groups are referred to as gotras. Each gotra had the duty to save guard at least three specific species: one bird, one animal and one plant. Alongside Singh Rai, that morning a few other important men from the Gond Samaj were present. I met Mangu Ram Darro, the Manjhi of Maran Marri. Mangu Ram Darro explained how all Gonds are divided into 750 gotras; a system of classification started by their ancestor Lingo pen to optimize resource usage. Each gotra is entrusted to save three species. In doing so, over 2250 species are collectively conserved and preserved by Gonds. The ethic of saving such totemic species are so strong amongst Gonds that they neither harm or hunt these species nor do they give away the location of these species even if someone close wants to hunt or harm them.
After a couple of hours of discussion, we all shared the finger millet and the sacrificed meat. Everything got cooked and shared. I learnt and felt the intensity of the relationship that the community had with the trees and the animals that reside with them.
The month of Pus is one amongst the two winter months in Uttar Bastar- Kanker. The winters in north Bastar are generally cool and pleasant in the mornings and gradually gets nippy after sun down. The month of Pus starts around the end of December and continues till the third week of January. With winter transforming into Pus and the harvesting season of paddy wrapping up; the young men of the Gond villages of north Bastar organize groups of dancers who ceremoniously travel to their neighbouring villages and perform dances while singing ‘rela’ songs dedicated to their cult leader ‘Lingo Pen’. They consider these songs to be charged with strong spiritual purpose and hence associate strict discipline and austerity with the performance. By the full moon of the month of ‘Pus’ the dancing party of men are expected to return to their own village and perform through the night singing and dancing for hours at a stretch to celebrate the spiritual endeavors of their ‘pen purkha’ (cult leader and ancestral deities) especially Lingo. Verrier Elwin called this event which lasted for over a fortnight as a ‘Ghotul expeditions’ undertaken by the youth of the Ghotuls. Today the Ghotuls have almost disappeared from the Muria villages of Uttar Bastar but the ‘Pus Kolang’ is still celebrated.
These days the expeditions have merely become token celebrations. The Gond samaj celebrates Pus Kolang as a reduced event which they call Kolang Mahotsav. The ‘Kolang Layor’ (the Kolang dance party) these days only travel to those villages who host them or formally invite them. ‘The Gond Samaj’ a para-political body has also moved on with time and has modernised at various levels. The operations of the samaj are very similar to that of the state bureaucracy as most of the important positions are held by a small population of token bureaucrats who have emerged out of the Gond community as a result of affirmative action policies.
In most villages today the Kolang has become a ‘dance competition’ being organized by the local ‘Gond Samaj’ and neighbouring villages are invited to send in their dancing teams to compete. Prizes are also given out to the best performing teams. Many of these dancing teams perform dances which are not essentially Kolang dance forms. Only in a few villages which are relatively far away from the road side do we find some extant performances specific to Kolang. However, such experiences are rare and would probably give way to more stage like performance in the coming years.
Modernity, Popular Culture and the Festivities
The manifestation of the festivities in their modern renditions; that is, dance during Pen Kolang and treat it as a dance competition or the performance of the dancing groups on the stage of Narayanpur madhai reflect a silent hegemony of modernity. State plays its role but the modern adivasi subject with her feet caught in between a disavowed past and a fantastic future communicates in a language which we call popular. Where we see the totemic presence of the symbols, artefact and rituals of tradition, yet the hermeneutic process (meaning making of these practices) of these rituals often rearticulated in the language of the dominant modernity; which is often moral, alluring with its commercial incentives and obviously painted with a promise of power.
Hall, S. Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular'. In John Storey(ed), Cultural theory and popular culture: A Reader. Harlow: Pearson Education. 2009.
Hupendi, K. Lingo na Daka. Uttar Bastar-Kanker: Janjatiya Sahitya Sadan, 2014
Jagdalpuri, L. Adhyay 7. In Bastar Itihas evam Sanstriti. Bhopal, India: Madhya Pradesh Granth Academy. 2016
Uike, S. Chher-Chhera. Uttar Bastar- Kanker: Kupar Lingo Sewa Prabandha Samiti, 2016
This content has been created as part of a project commissioned by the Directorate of Culture and archaeology, Government of Chhattisgarh to document the cultural and natural heritage of the state of Chhattisgarh.