Karam Parab And The Rise Of “Adivasi Ecological Ethnicism”

With the looming climate change crisis, the concept of ‘ecological ethnicity‘ has gained immense significance in environmental philosophy, which basically refers to the interconnectedness of community’s identity, culture and economy with their immediate ecology. Ecological ethnicism can be understood as the politics that defines human relationships with their surrounding natural resources. Ecological ethnicism has been mostly discussed in elite academic circles, but for laypersons, it can be simply understood as a way of living for certain groups and communities who consider land, water, forests and other natural resources as an inseparable part of their lives, just like most of us treat our beloved, family, relatives, friends or even our house, property or bank balances as a core to our own survival. 

In India, the philosophy of ecological ethnicism has been collectively articulated and carried forward by different Adivasi communities. In fact, Adivasis have successfully nurtured EE as a hallmark of their modern identities, which is the driving force behind our conservation wisdom. There are numerous customs and rituals being actively practised by Adivasis, which hold the key to combating the modern-day crisis of climate change. All these day-to-day practices, which hold the codes to environmentally sustainable living, are deeply embedded and driven by ecological ethnicism. To understand this, let’s take the example of Karam Parab which now has become an important yearly ritual across the tribal belt of central India.

The festival of Karam, which has been traditionally celebrated in Adivasi regions of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, has gained significant popularity and is now celebrated in almost all of central India by the Adivasi communities, with grandeur and publicity. There is some confusion about its exact nature, as many Adivasi groups have associated their own version of folk knowledge and myths about Karam festival. For some communities, the Karam is considered as socio-religious festival while for others it means celebration of the agricultural harvest. Some tribes link it with tribal religious tradition while others have included Karam with Hindu ritual practices. So what is Karam Parab all about, really?

Girls and boys, young and old, Adivasi villagers jubilantly performing dance on the occasion of Karam festival. | Picture by Sunil Minz.

The festival of Karam originated as an important community ritual of Oraon tribes in Chota Nagpur region, which refreshes the memory of the “great escape” after fighting with enemies from the Rohtasgarh fort in Shahbad district of present Bihar state, and their subsequent arrival in various regions of present Jharkhand. The festival is usually celebrated during the seasonal calendar of Bhado, which is in the month of August/ September every year, marked by offering prayers to Dharmes, considered as Supreme God by Oraon Adivasis, for fertility and productivity of their crops and community.

The Dharmes, according to Oraon belief, resides on the Karam tree (Nauclea Parvifolia). Hence, it is a sacred motif and unmarried Oraon girls carry a branch of the tree and place it at a central place of the village for ritual worship by the tribal priest. Another important ritual which follows is the sowing of barley seeds in Oraon homes a week before, which germinate into beautiful yellowish-green saplings symbolising the interconnectedness of fertility between earth and human beings. 

On the day of Karam Parab,  the Adivasi girls wear bright ethnic dresses, prepare sweets and rice beer, gather around the Karam branch to offer customary prayers, sing beautiful Karam songs and then perform the special Karam dance.

Adivasi traditional attire on display at Karam dance. | Picture by Sunil Minz.
Traditional songs related to Karam Raja are sung with beautiful synchronised collective dance on display. | Picture by Sunil Minz.

Over the years, several other Adivasi groups have adopted Karam Parab as part of their own tradition and linked it with their folk stories and beliefs. In the central part of India, it is amazing how this ritual festival of the Oraons has melted the ethnic, geopolitical and religious boundaries to bring forth ecological wisdom of Adivasis and initiating a shared identity through the festival of Karam

Most importantly, the philosophy of ecological ethnicism is shared with the ritual practices of Karam Parab, affirming the deep-rooted relationship with their natural resources, building a strong tradition of community-based conservation and building solidarity between small and big Adivasi groups.

About the author: Dr Abhay Xaxa has a PhD in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University and recipient of Ford Foundation International Fellowship Programme. He works with National Campaign for Adivasi Rights and writes on issues of Indigenous Peoples in India. 

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