In the land of Gods, the passing seasons play a significant role in their deep-rooted traditions. Living in a little home perched atop Jagatsukh village for half a year now, I had a chance to explore the lives of the Himachali community closely. I learned that their traditions are deeply rooted in nature. Worshipping the five elements and deities in varied forms has been their way of life. Each village has a resident deity who is assigned a specific role in the lives of the community. Whether it’s asking for good rains or snowfall or neither, they look up to the designated deities for significant decisions and guidance for the community as a whole. The deities are as alive as the people; engaging with them through a ‘Gur‘ – a shaman. The ‘Gur‘ takes on the purpose of channeling the Devtas and communicating their messages to the community. Just like us, the deities as living entities meet and greet other deities on special occasions. For deities, these occasions are a way to personally engage with other deities in the valley and the community. Together, they dance and feast away, in a spirit of joy. This itself is a reflection of a Pahadi’s deep connection with nature and its deities.
As spring sets in the month of Phalguni from mid-February to mid-March , celebrations begin in full swing across villages to thank the designated deities of every village for the beginning of the fertile season. The spring marks the sowing of seeds. The beautifully adorned palanquins – ‘paalkhis‘ of Devtas begin their journey to several villages to greet and honour each other. They dance away to celebrate the spring after the evil months of winters. The sun and rain gods grace the earth with fertility. The valleys begin to deck themselves in greens and vivid flowers. This gathering of the people across villages is known as the ‘Mela‘. Each village along with their respective deities host the Mela and feast away in the months of summers till the rains take charge. In the months of August and September. The locals get busy plucking the apples and walnuts to welcome the Sairu.
Gradually as the rain gods curb their showers in the month of Bhadra, it’s the time to reap the goodness of the harvest. As per their local almanac, the festival of Sairu Sajja falls on the day after the end of Bhadra month and the beginning of Ashwini month. It’s the day of when the fresh harvest from all the homes is offered to the deities. It’s a tradition to first offer the season’s harvest to their deities and receive their blessings.
On the last night of the Bhadra, a special altar is set up for the deities. The local home-grown produce such as apples, apricots, rice, black gram, cucumbers, cereals, and grains are arranged in a brass bowl with an adorned corn stalk to honor the Devtas. On the day of Sairu, the young and old ones wake up early in the morning and head straight to a water body. Cupping water in their hands, they pray to the deities and let it go. The sacred herb of Bethar (Juniper) is smudged, followed by a set of rituals to honour the symbolic deity at the altar. After the rituals, the Devta’s edifice is immersed into a river. The offering of the season’s harvest symbolizes sharing of co-existing resources of nature. It represents paying homage to the creator for the harvest and abundance in their lives.
A special feast is prepared as an offering to the Devtas. Traditional delicacies such as ‘Bhaturo‘ – a fried yeast bread, ‘Mash ke Bhalle‘ – fried black gram patty, Childa – a pan-fried rice bread, Patrodu – fried Colocasia leaves pinwheel, Gulgule – a fried sweet balls and Kheer are served.
The loved ones visit each other to gift each other stems of the Sartaj plant, popularly known as Genda in other parts of India. Locally, it is called the Jhoonu. Every village has their own customs and some even gift the ‘Dhurva‘ grass. The type of stem offered varies depending on its availability in their village. In Jagatsukh and its neighbouring villages, the Sartaj plant is abundant hence it is considered to be auspicious for all religious events. Living in this village for half a year now, I was invited by my neighbours to be a part of these celebrations. I am deeply humbled to receive a lot of ‘jhoonus‘ and local treats as blessings. I hope to live longer to tell these tales.
The young and the old ones exchange ‘jhoonus‘ with each other as blessings for fertility and longevity. There’s a story to why this custom became a part of their traditions. In the olden days, the number of deaths during summers were significantly higher due to a host of diseases and epidemics in the mountains. So the ones who survived the summers were honoured and celebrated by gathering to exchange ‘jhoonus‘ as it was the only sacred plant available in the mountains’. This was also a sign that they are still alive as the winter sets in. They believe that serious illnesses are never caught once the winter sets in. Also, this was an occasion to reconnect with family and friends scattered far away in the mountains. Thus, the valley prepares for the onset of the winter festivities. It’s a time when the gods and goddesses arrive at the heavenly land of Himachal. The days of summer surrender to the chill. The Sun gods will sleep early; while moon gods reign the skies. The mountains will be cloaked in snow. The fireplaces come alive in every home. Its people are enwrapped in the warmth of wool. Steaming cups of ‘Chais‘ will become a ritual. And the Himachalis will embrace their transition into the mighty winters. Sairu Sajja in all essence is a celebration of home-coming of gods into their heavenly abode. “Sairu Sajja mubarakan Himachal vaasiyon“.