Every 12 years, sometime between the months of March or June on a spring day, Adivasi women in hamlets (and now even towns and cities) of Jharkhand, parts of Chhattisgarh and Odisha wake up at the crack of dawn. They put on men’s clothing borrowed from their family members and head out of their houses armed with spears, axes and bows and arrows. They assemble at the local akhra, which is a place for social and religious gatherings, and are blessed by the pahan, a religious head. They then set out on their day’s mission: to hunt.
They are celebrating Jani Shikar which literally translates as women’s hunt in the Sadri language. The festival is a commemoration of a famous battle where women from the Oraon aka Kurukh tribe valiantly fought and protected their community from an invading army, defeating them in combat not once but twice.
The battle took place at Rohtasgarh fort, which lies in the Rohtas district of Bihar in the present day. Folk songs and historians state that Rohtas was once the seat of power for the tribe, an important fortified capital of the Oraon kingdom. There are alternating accounts as to who the enemy army was. Some claim that it was the Cheros, whereas others maintain that it was the Turkish general Bakhtiyar Khalji’s army, and yet others still believe that it was the Mughals.
Oral history maintains that a milk maid called Lundari from the Ahir caste had tipped off the enemy to attack on the night of Sarhul, an important festival for the Oraon tribe which marks the advent of spring. It was reasoned that after a whole day of rituals and merriment, people would most likely be inebriated with hariya (traditional rice beer) and be incapacitated to defend themselves.
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And so, while the men had fallen asleep it was the women who were awake and winding up for the night when the alarm was raised about an approaching enemy. They found themselves in a do or die situation for the men were deep in drunken slumber and could not be counted on to fight. Led by the Oraon princess Sinagi Dai and her friends Champai Dai and Kaili Dai, the women dressed themselves as men and geared up with weapons. Folk songs have preserved this valiant history and they continue to be sung even today. One of them goes as follows:
(O see the king’s daughter Sinagi Dai has come and along with her Champai and Kaili and all the ladies, with turbans tied on their head and bows and arrows in their hand, they become like men.)
In conventional Oraon society the consumption of alcohol is not restricted to men alone. At present, it makes one curious as to why only the men had fallen asleep and not the women. While one can only speculate, the possibilities are multiple. The most obvious one is that it was reproductive labour – domestic work such as cooking and cleaning – that kept the women up late at night. The more interesting supposition is that the women just handled their liquor better.
As Adivasi societies have traditionally been oral cultures, it is difficult to determine who exactly the invaders were and when these battles occurred. Nevertheless, whoever they were, it is remembered that the Oraon women fought bravely and forced them to retreat twice. They even used chillies in some form to blind and befuddle the enemy, who in turn were bewildered at how an army whom they expected to catch off-guard, was fighting back with such intensity. They caught hold of Lundari the informer and accused her of misinforming them. She then reasoned that it must be the women who fought off the enemy twice.
When the enemy troops went to take a closer look, they hid behind bushes and saw the Oraon women washing their faces at the riverbank. They noticed that the troops were using both their hands to do so, whereas men, it was said, would only be using one hand. And so, after verifying that they had indeed been defeated by women, the enemy grew chagrined and rounded their forces to attack once again. This time the Oraon women suffered defeat, but the leaders – Sinagi Dai, Champai Dai and Kailli Dai – saved many lives by escorting people to safety through a secret passage.
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It is said that those who were captured by the enemy were brutally tortured, this included being branded by hot iron rods on their bodies. On their foreheads, the enemy branded them with three dots in a row, signifying the three battles they fought including the last one they finally lost. Initially meant to be a symbol of humiliation, the three linear dots came to denote the courage and valour of those women warriors. In later generations women began to wear them with pride in the form of traditional tattoos.
The latest celebration of Jani Shikar was held in 2017. Over the years, the festival has also changed and evolved with the times. While it was women from the Oraon tribe who fought in the original events that the festival commemorates, it has also come to be embraced and celebrated by sister tribes such as the Munda, Santhal, Ho and Kharia.
During the hunt, women generally march from village to village in their neighbouring area looking for poultry and cattle such as ducks, hens, pigs and goats. In the past, women were free to hunt whatever they set their eyes on, but nowadays villagers prefer setting aside a select number of livestock to be hunted. Earlier women would wear the traditional men’s clothing, a karea, which is similar to a lungi, but these days they put on pants and shirts.
At the end of the day, the women return to the akhra with their game and are joined by the men. The leaders are welcomed back with garlands. In some villages, on return the women divide their share and return home jubilantly, in others a community dinner is cooked and eaten together and the celebration ends with singing and dancing late into the night.
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In contemporary times Adivasi women are largely represented as silent and passive victims, be it at the hands of land-grabbing corporations or military brutality perpetrated by their own state. A festival like Jani Shikar dedicated to Adivasi women is extremely significant today as it upends such narratives. As Adivasi activist and journalist Dayamani Barla reminds us, “The feminist movement might have actively surfaced in the 1960s but the hinterlands of Jharkhand experienced women power 500 years ago, when tribal women defeated Mughals in two consecutive battles.” The festival thus serves as a powerful reminder of the enduring bravery, strength and ingenuity of Adivasi women that continues to date.
Note: This article has been adapted from an academic paper written by Anju Toppo (2018) in the Journal of Adivasi and Indigenous Studies.
Anju Oseema Toppo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi. Her ongoing research is on feminism and forest management, focused on the empowerment of indigenous women in Jharkhand. She is also associated with on-going indigenous movements against the state’s imposition of its singular developmental agenda on the Adivasi population.
Nolina S. Minj is a writer and researcher currently doing an MPhil at TISS, Mumbai. You can find her on Twitter @knowleena.
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism in India