It is impossible to understand the Hindu festivals of India without a knowledge of the lactate cultures of South Asia during the third millennium BC which developed the socio-religious systems that in the middle of the first millennium with the Guptas and the first law-giver Manu created the Hindu worship as a religion, and infact the first Hindu temples only appeared in the eleventh century, great examples being the Hoysala temples of Karnataka. Cattle –keeping was the earliest base for these protohistoric lactate cultures and these had a profound effect on the development of Indian civilization and in turn affected the civilizations of Egypt and West Asia upto the Mediterranean regions of Crete and Mycenae where bull cults developed, and influenced the lactate Danubian proto-cultures, and the development of earliest cultures in the basins and river valleys of central Europe. The first animals we find in Indian rock-art are deer and wild cattle. Later on around 4-3000 BCE we find domestic cattle in the rock paintings of India and this was the early period of agriculture and the beginning of river valley civilizationas. Agriculture with its food surpluses gave us the very first civilization in the Indus valley and its manifestation in the visual arts, of which the present tribal art of Hazaribagh in Jharkhand is a continuing example, although we are confused about the exact authenticity of dates for the similar wall murals of Catal-Huyuk to which European scholars have ascribed dates several thousand years earlier ?
I will give the description which I gave in my book Harvest Icons (1999) : “ The villagers of Jharkhand do not celebrate the Diwali or ‘Festival of Lights’as it is celebrated by the Hindus in the towns and cities of India. Here no rows and rows of fired clay oil-lamps with factory-made oil and commercial wick are used, and even candles lighting the housetops. Here instead the village folk make their own very different lamps which are in fact “everlasters” in that they are not cups containing oil but instead made with a kind of “wax substitute” as I will describe, and these lamps with a twined cloth wick of the simplest kind burn longer that oil lamps or candles, singly or in pairs over doorways and arches through which the courtyard of a house is entered, or in small , empty idol-less alcoves as tribute to the eternal who creates and keeps the creation going – of which the cattle are the greatest manifestation in a plough agriculture society. The night before the Hindu Diwali in the towns the Sohrai lamps are lit and will burn every night for three days. The Sohrai diyas or lights are made separately for each of the three nights. For this first night on the eve of the Hindu Diwali clay mixed with cowdung and Ghee ( clarified butter-fat) is lit, the braided cloth wick burning steadily for several hours until the oil-lamp itself is consumed. The second night (Diwali in towns) clay mixed with rice flour and Ghee diya is made and lit. Finally on the third night, the night of the Sohrai harvest festival in the village the third diya, made with opnly rice flour and Ghee is lit. This is the light of the Sohrai. The Sohrai is a day after the Hindu Diwali. “
And wherever we find a Hindu festival we shall find its earlier village counterpart celebration taking place the day after. For those who have discovered this the two Indias come out in clear perspective. The word Sohrai itself is a Mundaric word for the stick which is used to drive cattle as well as close the gate of the cattle pen (Soro). In the ancient Indian evidences of this festival we find in the Ramayana of Valmiki the reference that the Diwali or festival of lights was first celebrated when Lord Ram returned from his fourteen year forest exile to his capital of Ayodhya with his wife Sita and his brother Laxman. On the day of his return with his army of vanaras or forest tribes the night was celebrated with a display of lights. The story is the first mention in a text. But in the villages of India the festival of lights has a different meaning as it is strictly associated with the harvest of rice in November and the celebration of the cattle which have brought food to the village, and so far as to the point of a “bull-fight” which is called Khuta Bandhana the day after Sohrai, which means “tying to the stake” that is symbolic of the domestication of cattle and not as simple as the British ethnographers thought as being a replacement of the human sacrifice called Meriah. Here the bulls are tied to stakes in a large field where groups of men go to them and “play” with them, throwing clothes at them or exciting them wit the skin of a jackal. Three men usually play mandar drums singing to the bull about what a nice animal it is. This custom was the origin of the Spanish bullfight when the gypsies carried these traditions to Europe. How different is this from the Hindu Diwali!!
In the Hindu calendar the festival of Diwali begins with a festival called Dhanteras in which the Hindu financial year starts. This is five days before Diwali.The second day is NarakaChaturdani) marking the slaying of the demon by Lord Krishna. The third day (as in ancient Egyptian bull cults) is the moonless night of Amasya
Aqnd marks the worship of the goddess of wealth Lakshmi who is often symbolized by the cow. The fourth day is marking Vishnu’s banishment of Bali to the patala (underworld). All this is heavy Hindu mythology which has little to do with existing village traditions. On the fifth day sisters invite brothers to eat sweets in a display of affection and the hindus say mountains of sweets are necessary to represent Mount Meru of the Krishna legend.
However, we see that in the archaic traditions of the village the word Diwali comes from the simple word for an oil light called diya. In its sanskritized form it begins to change its meaning in Deepawali which in Sanskrit means “a row of lights”, which is substantially different in meaning seen in context. Sanskritization etymologically means the change of cultural traditions. Its mythology is different and old significances are dressed up to fit a new form of worship. It is thus a weapon of colonial conquest.
As we have seen the simple origins of this festival in the villages of India, and here specifically referring to the forest villages of which Jharkhand has perhaps the largest remaining share in India, the festival is celebrated among the Scheduled Castes which are described officially as “Semi-Hinduized Aborigines”. These people are exactly the same as the tribals (Adivasi first settlers) who are indigenous peoples of a similar lactate forest culture, and in this festival we find the ancient root-culture being practiced in its proto-historic form. It is of interest that on the moonless night called Amasya (the third day of the Hindu Diwali) the Santal tribals of Jharkhand mark the day by cleaning the cowsheds, washing the cattle, putting oil on the hooves and horns of their cattle, and some vermilion is put on the oiled horns and foreheads of the animals. This is called their Bandhana Porob which is similar to the Bandhan or staking of cattle referred to practiced by their Scheduled Caste neighbours such as the Kurmis. The Kurmis also on the Sohrai day wash the cattle and anoint them with oil and vermilion, and tie a sheaf of green rice on their foreheads between the horns. They also put “spots” on the cattle which are produced by dipping the clay cups of Diwali in red blue or other colors. It is of note that in the rockart of Hazaribagh such circles on the body of a wheeled animal have been found (Isco rock-art, Panel 3, 3500 BCE)Similar forms found in the village mural paintings in the Hazaribagh villages lend credence to a continuing tradition, and such continuity of a cattle cult have been brought to light between the rock-art of Bhimbetka (a World Heritage site near Bhopal) and the villages of Smardha near them. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the village tradition of lighting oil lamps in cattle sheds continues in rural Bengal and Bangladesh on this festival. Another important fact is that firecrackers are never used during Diwali or Sohrai in the villages nor have I noted any such tradition. They would obviously also frighten the cattle. Firecrackers are obviously a modern urban custom.
Among the Kurmis of Hazaribagh the cattle are taken to the nearby forest for grazing on the morning of the Sohrai dayand brought home before noon when they come into the houses over a special welcome path called an aripan which is made by dripping rice-flour gruel into a string of circles which resemble cattle hooves at the head of which a bunch of a forest grass (Latlatiya) is placed in a clay cone. Such strings of circles are commonly found in the rock paintings associated with cattle and it is an old tradition of five thousand years or more. The mud houses of our forest villages have been repaired after the rainy monsoon season and their walls are now readied for painting with large murals covering almost all the wall spaces bothg inside and outside, displaying the fantastic art of Sohrai done by the village women in a continuing matriarchal tradition handed down from mother to daughter and called Ma-Beti Parampara. Among the Kurmis, Ganjus and Oraons of certain villages it is a painted art, among others it is a comb cut sgraffito art. In the painted Sohrai red, black and white earth colors are used mixed with water and painted on the walls using a crushed stem called datwan. In the comb cut version first a black surface is laid on with black manganese color found in the fields near the jungle, then a white layer of kaolin or brilliant white earth dug out from chalk deposits in the jungle, are laid over this. When the white is cut with combs by the women the black underground appears in exquite forms. The painted Sohrai is either cattle forms with the figure of the animal creator deity Pashupati (Lord of Animals) standing on the back, or intersecting circles making a lotus (Kamalban) so common in the Indus valley painted pottery, or the anthropomorphic Pipal (Ficus religiosa) and other zoomorphic forms, but no Hindu deity is ever found. The comb cut art is called Khovar (for its association withy the decoration of bridal rooms)which is largely decorative plant motifs in the valley villages and wild animal forms in the hill villages, while the Ganju tribals in the forests paint the Sohrai with wild animal forms and the Oraons paint huge floral forms on their mud houses.
The day after the cattle welcome on Sohrai Puja is the day devoted especially to the Bulls. The bulls are staked in different places in a big field and groups of men go and tease them by waving cloths or skins of jackals, and a few men carrying drums approach them singing special songs in their praise. The Khuta means the post to which the bull is tied, and Bandhan means “to tie”. This is the remnant of a five thousand year old event when the first cattle were domesticated! One is reminded that the bull cults of Europe, in Crete and Mycenae, were since earliest times similar in their worship of cattle.
When all is said and done we are painfully aware of how ancient traditions are destroyed by dominant cultures to propagate a new faith and new way of life in the interests of a dominant culture. Here in Jharkhand we have been witness to the destruction of the tribal way of life – especially in the forest villages – to make way for huge opencast coal and iron ore mining projects, big dams, railways and highways to export mine produce, and the systematic dispossession and brutalization of tribes to give economic benefits of which the tribals are not themselves the beneficiaries because the wealth is appropriated by the state and its middle-men and the big corporations. In Jharkhand we see the obliteration of cultures which are the last flowering of an ancient world, and such places are increasingly rare in our modern industrialized world. We are replacing these self-sufficient systems with no sustainable options and which languish as the agricultural fields and forests are mined and watch helplessly as the cattle and agricultural way of life which Sohrai represents is cruelly and mercilessly destroyed forever and then they will be homeless migrants who will have to go in search of sustenance to the towns and big cities…