A Festival of the Orao Community
On my way back from Golap Pur's Chowdhury Fair in Ghoraghat Thana of Dinajpur District, I happened to enter the Orao's habitat in Barokandi Village of Joypurhat District. I was accompanying my poet friend Masudar Rahman on his motorbike.
There I had the privilege of talking with Bhupen Lakhra, Amal Barowar and Babulchondro Shingho Barowar. I got to learn that although the indigenous people around the entire country have converted to Christianity, the people of the Orao community in Barokandi village have converted to Buddhism. Amazed by this, I asked them- do the Oraos of Barokandi village still perform their original Orao religious rituals? They answered that after becoming Buddhists; they have given up all original Orao religious rituals including their main event, the Karam Festival. Ever since they converted to Buddhism, they only follow Buddhist rituals. Now their main festival is the Buddhist festival of Baishakhi Purnima, instead of Karam Festival of Bhadro Purnima.
Babul Barowar, a son of Barok-andi's Orao Community, is currently doing higher studies in a local college. He tells us. “Oraos in general speak in kurukh and sharodi languages. But the Oraos in Barokandi converse in sharodi.”
The Karam Festival:
Guruba-nar called out in a high voice as soon as Orao Surendronath reached the Sardar's Khoiyran (meeting place), “Aware ubpabashi miamane.” Meaning, come out all you aborigine girls. In the middle of the Khoiyran, a branch full of green leaves of a tree has been sown. Later, I got to find out that the branch belongs to a Karam tree. An Orao also tells me that the male Oraos, after a song-dance ceremony, have sown the jhurfu (branch) in the middle of the Khoiyran during the evening. When the girls come here, the festival will unfold with story-telling and flowers will be mashed to pulp. He then says, “at the end of the festival, those flowers will be given to you, to me, and they will greet us by bowing down. Even then guruba-nar has been calling on-“Aware ubpabashi miamane.” One by one, karamati girls start to come out in a line from the surrounding huts wearing multi-coloured saris. They are all carrying a small wooden tool in one hand; and a glittering plate made of bell metal in the other. They raise their hands up so that the plates are at the shoulder-level of the karamatias. Different kinds of flowers, bread, dry paddy, and grass have been arranged on the plate with great care. All these have been covered with a leaf from a wild Manokchur tree. At the base of the leaf, there is a lit-up lamp, and it creates an atmosphere where the flame kept reminding us of fireflies and stars in the sky. At times I felt as if the karamatia girls had invited stars from the faraway sky to come down on this night and join their line to light up the darkness. The stars have come down to the Karam festival, and are moving towards the Khoiyran in a neatly arranged line.
On reaching the Khoiyran, the karamatia girls start to circle the branch, or jhurfu. After revolving around it thrice, they sit in a circle around the jhurfu, keeping it at the center. After everyone has taken their seats, a young baby karamatia girl is brought to the scene wearing a sari. Her face and eyes are covered by the sari. She is made to bow to the jhurfu in the bondage condition. After bowing, her restrains are removed from her face. We learn that, this young girl is a new member of the aborigines at this year's Karam festival. This is how the Oraos introduce new members into their community.
The Karam festival is held in the Krishnopokkho (waning cycle) of the month of Bhadra (a month in the middle of the bengali calendar). The deity of the festival is the very Karam tree itself. Gurubanar says that there are three types of Karam Festivals: (1) The Raj Karam, (2) The Dash Karam, (3) The Nij Karam. Orao communities of all regions perform The Raj Karam at one specified date, the neighbouring Oraos of a certain region congregate together and perform The Dash Karam, and The Nij Karam is performed and organized by a single wealthy family. The festival we witnessed was a Dash Karam.
All the aborigine karamatia girls of the neighbourhood sit in a circle around the jhurfu during this Karam festival. And now Guruba-nar starts story telling. The story was being told in their own language kurukh. Since it is impossible for a regular Bengali to understand the kurukh language, I heard the whole story in Bengali from Guruba-nar. Guruba-nar told me, “Karam-Dharam were seven brothers. Instead of staying at home, the seven brothers decided to go to foreign lands for opportunities of trade. A few days later, on their return home, they decided to set camp close to their home since night had already falen. They decided to reach home the next day in daylight though. The eldest brother then thinks, 'Since we are so close by, why not send one of my brothers home to see if everything is all right?' He sends one of his brothers home. The brother went home to find the seven wives of the seven brothers along with other village members all so entranced in singing and dancing, that no one even noticed that one of the brothers came home. No one looked or even talked to him. On hearing this, the eldest brother sent all the seven brothers one by one to check out what was really happening. All of them reported the same thing. Then the eldest brother came himself, 'Lets see what exactly are they so happy about… that they are not even raising their eyebrows at our return.' The eldest brother became angry with the housewives since they didn't even take notice of their husbands' return after so many days. He became so angry that he grabbed a branch out of the Karam tree around which everyone was having fun, and starting hitting the jhurfu with the branch. After all the leaves of the tree came off due to the beating, he took the rest of the Karam and threw it into cow dung. After the whole ordeal, when they entered into their homes, they found that the riches and wealth that they had left home before their journey are all missing! Nothing was left. Whichever room they enter into, they find everything gone vanished into thin air, as if they all got lost with the loss of the Karam. Then they became tense and dismayed and cried out, 'Hye Karam, Hye Karam!' in an attempt to bring the Karam back. When they tried to bring back Karam, they found a dumur (a fruit bearing plant) tree. When they found the dumur tree after seven days and seven nights of fasting, they wanted to eat its fruit. But all they found after breaking it open were worms. Seeing no other alternative, they tried to eat other fruits- but all with the same result- they were all full of worms. Then they went to a lake to quench their thirst, but as soon as they leaned in to drink, the water turned to blood. They then met a milkman who was milking a cow, and asked for some milk to drink. But when the milkman tried to give them milk, the cow's breast started to bleed. The milkman thought them to be evil men who have committed sins, and sent them away.
They fled and found some girls making chira (beaten rice), and wanted to eat some. The girls said that they would give some when the chira comes out well, but alas! All that they made turned to be bad. The girls sent them away as well. They fled away, crying out 'Hye Karam, Hye Karam!' Then finally they found a nice leafy plant and thought maybe this is our Karam tree. But the tree spoke out and said, 'I am not your Karam; your Karam is at the banks of seven seas where it landed after you tossed it. Many birds have excreted on your Karam and it has become white. Go find the whitened branch, and worship it. If you can resuscitate it, then it will live again and bear leaves, then take it home with you.
Then the brothers went to the banks of the seven seas and resuscitated the dying branch. After it became healthy, they started their journey back home with it. On the way the Karam said, “Didn't you ask for chira from those girls? What happened?" In reply the brothers said, "they didn't give us any because all they made turned bad and they almost beat us away." The Karam tree asked them to go there again. This time the girls glanced at them once and exclaimed that these are bad people, and of course we will only give them the bad chira. But as soon as they started making it again, it all turned out to be edible. On their way back, one by one, they got good milk from the milkman, fresh clean water from the lake, and fantastic fruits from the kul (fruit) and dumur trees. The seven brothers reached home on Krishnopokkho's (waning cycle) 10th of Bhadra and that's when the Karam announced, 'If you take care of me… then you will get everything. The earth shall live as long as I live… why did you throw me away? Your children and family members will all survive as long as I am here… worship me.”
After the end of the story, Guruba-nar added a few personal comments. He said, “Trees bless us with fruits… and what is under the soil? Do its roots not bear potatoes? Our people can survive on potatoes. The Karam God has told us, if we worship the tree… we will never face scarcity of food. We will survive because of the survival of the tree.”
After the story telling session, the Karamatia girls start to make garland out of Shapla flowers and decorate the Karam branch. And in the middle of the story when Guruba-nar was saying that the brothers were being bestowed with good water, milk and fruits, the karamatia girls were showering the jhurfu with flowers and petals from their plates.
After the end of the story telling session and after decorating the jhurfu with garlands, the girls mash the flowers into pulp. In this session, all the girls exchange the flowers, grass leaves freely amongst each other and bow to each other. They all touch each other's feet in reverence. There is no distinction here in regard to age. After exchanging flowers and greeting amongst themselves, the girls come to the row of audience and present them with flowers. They even touch the feet of everyone in the audience while bowing to them. Even me. Receiving flowers and salutations from all the girls present at the festival that night was quite a thrill for me. It was because I felt as if I was a part of the Orao community, as if they had made me one of their own… why else would they bow to me as well?
After the end of the formal sessions, a night long festival of singing and dancing commencing surrounding the Karam. Sound of madol*, jhajhor*, and dhol* fill the atmosphere. The music starts off slow. Every hour the, rhythm, lyrics and dances keep changing. In an attempt to learn the translations of the songs in kurukh, I entered into the crowd and tried talking to the singer. But he was so lost in the moment, and his senses were so heightened that he couldn't even sing the words of the song properly. But the same lines kept ringing in my ear in a tribal rhythm, “Radhe radhe radhe… O bela shoy ja…. Aam dhore thoka thoka, tetul dhore byaka re.”
The singing and dancing continues up to ten in the morning the next day. There is no inequality or discrimination between men or women or of people of different ages. Older Oraos take as much part in the ceremony as much as the younger people. After the end of the festival, the Karam is uprooted and taken to every household. It is embraced by every house with a drop of paste made of dhup (incense), shindur and powdered rice. This is done for the well-being of the house. The residents of the house worship the Karam and ask for blessings. After the blessings, the Karam is sacrificed in the lake. Later on, I learnt that this was because there were no lakes near Satbaria.
*Traditional Musical Instruments of Bangladesh.
The words in italics have not been translated to English because appropriate words do not exist.
Translated by Zahidul Naim Zakaria
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