The annual ritual of sendra and temporary 'widowhood' among tribal women of Jharkhand

Tribal men in East Singhbhum district make an annual pilgrimage into the Dalma forests to gather forest produce. Their women practise temporary 'widowhood' and pray to Singhbhonga, their deity. Sendra, say villagers, is a way of sharing knowledge of forest produce and rare herbs with their younger generation.

Manoj ChoudharyManoj Choudhary   10 May 2022 7:59 AM GMT

The annual ritual of sendra and temporary widowhood among tribal women of Jharkhand

Tribal men remove bangles from the wrists of their wives so that they practise 'temporary' widowhood while they are away hunting. All photos: Manoj Choudhary

Gadra (East Singhbhum), Jharkhand

Before Rakesh Hembrom left for sendra (hunting), he removed the bangles from the wrists of his wife, Radha. For the next couple of days when Rakesh is away in the forest collecting forest produce and medicinal herbs, his wife will practise 'temporary' widowhood.

Sendra is an age-old practice, maybe more than 100 years old, claim tribal villagers who inhabit East Singhbhum district in Jharkhand. Tribals, who practice sendra and the temporary widowhood, are residents of the tribal Gadra village in East Singhbhum district, about 200 kilometres from the state capital Ranchi.

On May 7, early this month, Rakesh embarked on his hunting trip to Damda forest in the neighbouring district of Seraikela-Kharsawan. While he is away, his 35-year-old wife Radha will eschew any signs of being married. She will not apply sindoor, wear no bangles, will leave her hair uncombed and live the life of a widow. Once her husband returns home, he will return the bangles he had taken away and Radha will go back to being his wife.

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"Tribal women practise widowhood willingly and pray to Singhbhonga (their deity) for the safe return of their husbands," Lal Singh Gagrai, an 85-year-old resident of Sarjamda village, told Gaon Connection. According to him, if a married woman refused to follow the ritual of widowhood when her husband left to hunt, he invariably faced a threat to his life.

"The widowhood rituals ensure a healthy and safe life to their husbands during the sendra," the grand old man said and added that he has been going off to sendra since he was 15 years old. According to him, the tribal inhabitants of Mayurbhanj (Odisha), Purulia (West Bengal) and Kolhan (Jharkhand) also followed this practice and have been doing so for a hundred years.

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Tribal women practise widowhood willingly and pray to Singhbhonga (their deity) for the safe return of their husbands.

What is the sendra ritual?

Sendra happens once a year in the month of May when the men folk go into the forests to gather herbs and medicinal plants that keep their families safe all year through.

Before leaving for sendra, the tribal men in traditional attire of dhotis and gamchha , worship at home and offer prayers to ensure their safe return. Their wives hand them their bow and arrow and other traditional tools for their protection and to gather the forest produce. They carry dry ingredients with them to cook in the forest.

The sendra veers then set off towards the Dalma forest playing traditional musical instruments like the dhamsa, charchari, jhumar and sakua.

Once inside the forest when it starts to get dark, the sendra veers pick a safe spot away from caves where wild animals may be, to spend the night in. They clean the area, offer prayers and settle down for the night. Several groups of tribals from 10 years to over 80 years of age, sleep in the forest.

Tribal men from different parts of the border areas of Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal congregate at the spot. They worship Singhbonga, their local deity, sacrifice a goat and a cock to appease the gods and entreat his help to keep them safe.

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The sendra is a ritual that ensures knowledge of traditional herbs and forest produce is passed down the generations, claim the tribal communities. According to Rakesh Hembrom, a king of yore, Gobarghusi Raja had given the tribals patta in Dalma covering large tracts of land, before the Britishers came to India. And, they were still practising sendra in those parts of the land.

"It is a matter of our survival, it gives us produce that we use for medicinal purposes and it is an educational trip for young tribals to learn about traditional medicinal herbs and other forest produce that help human beings and their livestock," Rakesh Hembrom explained.

Tribal people march towards hills beating drums so that animals move away from them.

Sendra and temporary widowhood

Radha Hembrom had no problem being a temporary widow, she said. "Our husbands go to sendra in order to ensure their families and livestock back home live well. Our elders have taught us that practising widowhood is necessary for the protection of our husbands from wild animals when they are on a hunt," she told Gaon Connection.

Radha disagreed that this was mere superstition. "Our prayers are directly accepted by Singhbonga and our husbands return home safe. We can live without the sindoor for a couple of days," she said.

Tribal youth have been going into the forests for sendra, to not just hunt but also gather herbs, fruits, and medicinal plants. "They go into the deep forests once a year putting their lives at risk for the families back home. What they bring back from the forest looks after the family for an entire year," Sukurmani Purti, a 60-yeaar-old, told Gaon Connection. "Our widowhood ensures their safety during sendra," she reiterated.

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This year, several hundred tribal youths from border areas of Jharkhand participated in this annual tradition.

Sendra and hunting

Tribal inhabitants say that the sendra tradition has been misrepresented and defamed by some people from the forest department and others who do not understand it.

"Sendra has nothing to do with animal hunting, in fact it is in the interest of the animals," Dhano Mardi, a resident of Ghagidih told Gaon Connection.

"When we march towards Damla hills, we beat drums and the animals move away from us. We are not animal-flesh lovers, rather we pet them at home. Tribals are nature lovers and sendra should not be called as hunting for animals," Mardi said.

"In fact we pray to Singhbonga to keep the wild animals away from us as we look for forest produce," added Dano. He said that there were certain areas in the forests where the animals frequented that were out of bounds for them. "The sendra veers are strictly prohibited from entering into such areas," he said.

In fact, at the end of their sojourn in the forest, a sutam tandi or court is held where tribal people are punished if they have violated the jungle laws or indulged in wanton hunting. They kill animals only if they are attacked by them, they said.

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A sutam tandi or court is held where tribal people are punished if they have violated the jungle laws or indulged in wanton hunting.

"We believe in a natural ecosystem. We attack animals during sendra only if they attack us first. Tribal economy depends on forest and animals, hence we practise sendra for the safety of both," Lita Ban Singh, a 39-year-old resident of Ghagidih, told Gaon Connection.

There was no sendra for the past two years due to the pandemic and this year the sendra is back. Sadhan Dibru Sidhu of Tupudang village can't wait to go into the forest for the celebrations.

"After marriage, my wife will practise widowhood during sendra as it is auspicious for tribal life," the 20-year-old Sadhan Dibru Sidhu of Tupudang village said as he prepared to leave for the Dalma forest, beating a drum. This year, several hundred tribal youths from border areas of Jharkhand participated in this annual tradition and collected forest products from Dalma.

Meanwhile, the forest department had conducted a meeting with local villagers in Dalma to keep a close watch on the sendra veers. "People will not be allowed to kill animals in the name of tribal tradition," Vishwanath Sah, chief forest conservator, Jamshedpur, had said at a meeting held before sendra.

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