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A rakhi for trees

By Moushumi Basu

The Taru Bandhan ritual being practised in the tribal heartland of Jharkhand has helped restore and conserve hundreds of acres of forestland in the state

Mahadev Mahato

The tribal heartland of Jharkhand in eastern India has evolved a unique tradition of forest conservation -- tying rakhis to trees. Rakhi is an Indian festival for siblings where the sister ties an auspicious thread of love on her brother’s wrist, amidst great revelry and feasting. The latter, in turn, promises her protection throughout his life.

Jharkhand’s indigenous people harbour such strong feelings towards the forests and trees that villagers tie the same auspicious rakhi thread around the trunks of trees. The ritual, called Taru Bandhan or Vriksh Raksha Bandhan, is aimed at preserving trees from the axe and the saw. In return, the forest offers people a sustainable way of life.

Hundreds of villages in Jharkhand practise this unique ritual on the eve of the state’s foundation day fortnight, starting November 15. And, thanks to the villagers’ enthusiasm, the celebrations continue right up to the New Year.

In the tradition of the Rakhi festival, this ritual too starts on an elaborate note as the women of the village, dressed in their colourful best, gather in the forest. A bedi (altar) is erected on an elevated patch of land, at the forest entrance. It is decked with flowers and embellished with motifs created out of coloured rice paste and other grains. It is here that the Van Devi (Goddess of the Forest) is invoked with offerings of fruit, incense sticks and holy threads that are later wound around the trees.

“For them (the villagers) the event is also an occasion to celebrate and rejoice,” says Amarnath Bhagat, Ranger, Hazaribagh. Amidst the sounding of the nagara, dhol and mandar (tribal musical instruments), vermillion is applied on the trunk of the tree. A garland of hibiscus or marigold is suspended from the tree and an aarti (ceremony done with incense sticks and earthen lamps)performed in much the same way as that which takes place during the Rakhi festival.

The festival is incomplete without children who take part in large numbers, not only for the continuance of the tradition but also to spread awareness. They enact small plays at the venue, and design posters and banners that are displayed at the site.

Taru Bandhan festival

The ritual is most commonly practised on a sal or sakhua tree (Shorea robusta) or the mahua (Madhuca latifolia), karaunj (Pongamia pinnata), kathal (Hallocarpus indicus), neem (Azadiracta indica), etc. “Sal is regarded as the ‘king of the forest’. It greatly promotes conservation and proliferation of various types of plant species, thereby improving biodiversity and conservation of nature,” says Kanhai Mahato from Tuktuko village, Bagodar block in Giridih. “Our village forest management and protection committee has restored 800 acres of forestland,” he adds with pride.

The villagers choose a patch in the forest where the rakhis will be tied to trees. “Once a tree is ‘ritualised’ we do not pluck even a leaf from it,” says Anju Devi from Mangro village, Vishugarh block, Hazaribagh.

The credit for initiating the Taru Bandhan festival, nearly a decade ago, goes to a local villager by the name of Mahadev Mahato from Dudhmatia village in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district. A schoolteacher by profession, Mahato has helped restore nearly 25,000 acres of forestland. “For the natives of Jharkhand, the forest is an inseparable part of their life; why not include trees as part of our family and rituals,” he asks. Mahato expresses satisfaction that his passion has not only spread to his fellow villagers but also to the forest department that has acknowledged his efforts. Palamau, Dhanbad, Chatra, Koderma and Hazaribagh are some of the districts that have taken the initiative in propagating this unique “green tradition”.

Chief Conservator of Forests B R Rallan, from Hazaribagh where the practice is most common, says: “The concept is basically the brainchild of Mahato, which we are carrying forward in other districts too.” It has proved very effective in bringing about villagers’ participation in forest conservation, which forms the basis of joint forestry management.

Mahendra Prasad, DFO, Hazaribagh, says the practice has proved extremely effective in protecting the forests. “We have already covered 62 villages, and the enthusiasm of the villagers is high. So much so that even international students from Jadavpur University came here to witness and participate in the festival.”

(Moushumi Basu is a journalist based in Jharkhand)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2008