Mundas: A product of Parashurama’s fury – I
by Jayasree Saranathan on 05 Apr 2014 24 Comments

Munda speaking people are perhaps a much discussed but less understood people of India. Though there were different opinions on their origins, recent genetics studies have shown that they were indeed autochthonous to India and not of South East Asian origin {1}. Their genetic markers are shared by many others in India thereby showing a shared origin within India many thousands of years ago. This makes them part of ancient Indian history which we will discuss in this article.


The Munda group of people are identified by their language and cultural similarities. They are known to have lived in seclusion for thousands of years in inaccessible regions of hills and forests of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Bangladesh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Seclusion and endogamy might have made their speech and habits unique to themselves, but a look at their cultural and religious beliefs show them as sub-tracts of Indian history who were forgotten for long due to the exigencies of circumstances that forced them to retreat to seclusion. 


Their belief system consists of worship of ancestors, spirits of ancestors, entities in Nature including rocks, mountains and trees and a God called Singbonga. Together these beliefs are called as “Sarna Dharma” in which Sarna is the sacred grove. The tenets of Sarna Dharma are similar to Hindu practices which have made researchers think that Hinduism had influenced these people. This has given rise to an opinion that Hinduism with its Vedic roots was a later formation or a later entrant to India and that Hindus and Mundari people were different from one another. With genetic studies showing that Mundas are of the same genetic stock as other Indians, the focus shifts to their cultural practices to ascertain whether there were cultural-inflows or they were a sub-set of larger Hindu customs.


To take the most popular belief of the Mundari people, their worship of Singbonga gives rise to interesting inter-connections. Singbonga is the Creator God or Sun God. In their language, it literally means Sun-spirit. By this we infer that they are Saura worshippers, but they are not. Though they orient their houses towards east and greet the rising Sun, “not one of them will ever aver that the Sun is his God or even that he dwells in it. The sun is for him the symbol of Singbonga’s power, majesty, splendour. It is not a divinity in any respect whatsoever” {2}. This means the Mundari conception of Singbonga did not exactly arise from Sun worship. This made researchers think that Mundas were perhaps influenced by their Hindu neighbours to worship the Sun. This implies that the so-called sun worship by the Munda people does not come with the expected tenets of sun worship. The reason for this is not to be traced to “Hindu influence” from outside but to the very creation story that they have about themselves.




According to Munda tribes, Singbonga was the one who created them. It was he who gave them the laws of life but did not project himself as the centre of their worship. This idea coupled with idea of the special rituals done to the Karam tree and the sacred grove rituals of Sarna gives a different story that fits with certain passages from the Mahabharata, past records of some places and the recordings done during the British period. According to the Mundas, the Karam trees saved their ancestors who were fleeing from an enemy. This means their ancestors hid themselves behind the trees or in the trees to escape detection from enemies. This happened at night time as they do the worship and rituals to the Karam tree at night with the Moon and the stars as witnesses. The excessive importance given to ancestors and spirits of ancestors reveals a story of a difficult time when their ancestors, the first generation of Mundas, were fleeing from death in the hands of an enemy. At that time Singbonga safeguarded them and paved the way for them to start a new life.


The name Singbonga sounds similar to the name of a popular place in Jharkhand / Chota Nagpur region where Mundas had been living for long. This is “Singhbhum” whose meaning is obvious as Simha bhumi – land of lions. Today there are no lions though the place has a thick forest cover to facilitate the presence of lions. There is no known association with lions to this place. The only association exists with Singbonga, worshiped by Munda people.


The name Singbonga is separated as Singa – bonga. Singa is a corrupt form of simha, the lion in many languages, including Tamil and Bengali.  Bongo is “Vanga” (Vanga desa) in Bengali, the language spoken in the vicinity of the Mundas. So the name is Singa-vanga, a native of Vanga desa who was valiant like a lion, who led them in their escape from an enemy, saved them from death and helped them to start a new life in the place(s) where they had fled – which were remote ones such as mountains or deep forests or inaccessible areas.


Indian history as found in the Mahabharata shows that Vangas were indeed a group of people who ran for shelter to escape from the fury of Parashurama! To avenge the death of his father, Parashurama went around and killed Kshatriyas 21 times. The Mahabharata lists many groups of people who escaped from him and started living incognito by shedding kshatriya-hood. “Vangasfind mention in the list of such escapees. An important group of Mundari tribes namely Savaras also find a mention in the Mahabharata as people who escaped from Parashurama.


Mahabharata 7-68 mentions the Vangas and others being vanquished by Parashurama:

“The Kashmiras, the Daradas, the Kuntis, the Kshudrakas, the Malavas, the Angas, the Vangas, the Kalingas, the Videhas, the Tamraliptakas, the Rakshovahas, the Vitahotras, the Trigartas, the Martikavatas were all vanquished by Bhargava Rama.”


Mahabharata 14-29 mentions the Savaras having fled the fury of Parashurama:

“Then, some of the Kshatriyas, afflicted with the terror of Jamadagni’s son, entered mountain-fastnesses, like deer afflicted by the lion. Of them that were unable, through fear of Rama, to discharge the duties ordained for their order, the progeny became Vrishalas owing to their inability to find Brahmanas. In this way Dravidas and Abhiras and Pundras, together with the Savaras, became Vrishalas through those men who had Kshatriya duties assigned to them in consequence of their birth, falling away from those duties. Then the Kshatriyas that were begotten by the Brahmanas upon Kshatriya women that had lost their heroic children, were repeatedly destroyed by Jamadagni’s son. The slaughter proceeded one and twenty times.”


The above verse specifically states that the fleeing people took shelter in the mountains. It also says that they fled as though they were trying to escape from a lion! This description found in the context of Savaras’ escape to the mountains, obviously in the region around Singhbhum, gives another meaning to the name Singhbhum. Did Savaras call this place Simha Bhumi due to the kind of fear it caused to them from lion-like Parashurama? This is a probable explanation as this fits with the place and circumstance. The escape of ancestors of Mundari speaking people fits with the narration in Parashurama’s episode.


The Mundari story on Singbonga shows that one Singa of Vanga desa had led them in their escape. Many of their tribes were killed but others managed to escape by hiding themselves behind rocks and trees and inside groves and caves and that is why all these structures are considered worthy of worship. The biggest festival called Karam festival is related to this early story of the Munda people.


Karam festival


This festival is dedicated to Karam God who resides in the Karam tree. During this festival, the Karam sapling is procured from the forest and planted ritualistically. According to the Munda people, the Karam trees saved their forefathers who were fleeing from their enemies. They hid themselves behind the Karam trees and escaped notice from their enemies. The Karam tree is supposed to possess a spirit that had helped in their escape. The Karam puja is done with this belief to this day by all Munda groups. In the case of Mundas, this is done on the 11th day in the month of Bhadrapada once in three years. The striking correlation is that this date in Bhadrapada in a normal year (when lunar and solar years start close to each other), almost coincides with the first day of the Solar entry into Virgo (Kanya rashi) which is exactly the first day of the year in a time scale called “Parashurama Era”!


The book “Useful tables forming an appendix to the Journal of The Asiatic Society” published in 1834 makes a brief note on Parashurama Era under the caption “Years numbered by cycles” (Yuga or Era) . At the time of the recording done by the contributors to the Journal of the Asiatic society, this time scale of Parashurama was still in vogue in peninsular India starting from Mangalore through Malayalam speaking regions of “Malabar, Cotiote and Travancore, to cape Comorin”. It is stated that this era was in cycles of 1000 years. It was a solar cum sidereal year which started when the sun entered the sign Kanya (Virgo). The running era at that time of recording in the Journal was the 3rd cycle. The date of 977th year in the 3rd cycle is also given in this book as 14th September, AD 1800.  On checking it is found that it coincides with the solar entry date into Virgo. As per that record, Parashurama Yuga (era) had started in the 12th century BCE in this stretch along the West coast of India! The knowledge of solar sankramana (entry into a sign) and division of the zodiac into 12 signs and months had been there even at that time in this part of the country. Is it merely a coincidence that the start of the Parashurama year and time of Karam festival are the same?


The similarity is not only about the date. It is also found with reference to the tree. The Karam tree is known as Kadamba tree! But the Karam tree found in Munda regions in Chota Nagpur is the Sal tree which is indigenous to that place. Kadamba forests were in abundance in the west coast in Tulu speaking regions. The Kadamba dynasty existed in that region. Even before that, Nannan lineage had ruled the stretch including Konkan regions. There are references in Tamil Sangam texts to a king Nannan whose royal flower was the golden hued Kadamba flower. The very name Konkan was derived from a popular Tamil phrase in vogue at that time referring to this ruler as “Pon padu kon-kaana Nannan” (NaRRiNai 361) and “Ponnam kaNNI polam thEr Nannan” (PathiRRup patthu 40) in Sangam Tamil texts.  Pon padu “Kon-kaanam” literally meaning “forest having” gold referring to the golden coloured Kadamba flowers became the name of the place. Thus the Kadamba tree is an identity of the west coast of Konkan and Tuluva.


The Tuluva people were known to have celebrated the Kadamba festival of the same kind as Karam festival of the Mundas in the same month of Bhadrapada (to be precise, on the 11th lunar day of Bhadrapada, the date of Karam festival of Mundas of Chota Nagpur). {3} It was celebrated by them as an agricultural festival. The kadamba twigs were brought and worshiped in the courtyard in all houses in the Tulu speaking regions. This seems to be an old practice, perhaps coming from the time of the start of the Parashurama Yuga. Similar practice of use of twigs is seen in the New Year day of Vishu in Kerala. Use of twigs of importance to a place is a common feature on the New Year day.


Before jumping to a conclusion that this practice could have influenced the Mundas, in other words before concluding that this Hindu practice entered the culture of Mundas who were not originally Hindus, let us see some other variations of this festival.


The same festival is celebrated in the coastal region of Udupi as a harvest festival - “Koral Parba” or “Pudvar”. This is celebrated on the day after the sun’s entry into Virgo – that is, on the day after the New Year in Parashurama Era. The choice of the plant depends on the main product produced in the region, so corn is the product that is brought home with religious fervour on this day of Pudvar.


In the Kadamba festival, Kadamba twigs were brought and worshiped. Today Kadamba festival is officially celebrated in Karnataka in January as Kadambotsava in honour of the Kadamba dynasty which ruled Kannara and Konkan regions, i.e., the date had been changed from September / Bhadrapada to January to a date that occurs soon after Makara sankramana. It is believed that this date was the time the Kadamba kings celebrated as Spring festival. Going through all these developments in Kadamba festival, one can see that the Karam festival of the Mundas was different and not an agricultural festival. The semblance of an agricultural festival or a sacred grove festival must have come after Kurukhs started mingling with them. 


Kurukh, also called Oraon, are one of the Mundari speaking people found in Chota Nagpur. According to The Indian anthropological Society, the Kurukhs were of Konkan origin. {4} The Kurukhs had migrated to Chota Nagpur regions and started to co-exist with the already existing Munda groups. They too follow Sarna Dharma. There is scope to believe that the kadamba festival at the start of Parashurama year was perhaps brought by Kurukhs to Mundari people. The date and methods of the festival perhaps signify a cultural inflow in to Mundari life – not from “Aryans” or Brahmins but from a similar kind of people of Hindu stock.


But this line of thought rebels with the idea that Mundas were chased by Parashurama. Doubts may arise that it does not sound logical for a people who managed to escape from Parashurama to celebrate the Karam festival on the start of Parashurama year. But the fact of the matter is that the Mundas have a memory of an enemy encountered by their first generation ancestors, but not the identity of that enemy. The Kurukhs carried a cultural festival which was originally a harvest festival. But the Munda’s Karam festival is not a harvest festival. It is a festival to remember and thank the Karam God enshrined in the karam tree for having saved their ancestors. {5}. This difference is crucial in ascertaining the origin of the festival which however has become more like a harvest festival of the Konkan region thanks to the influence by Kurukhs.


When we analyse the Karam festival of Mundas further, we can see relics of Vedic practices. The Mundas celebrate it on the 11th lunar day in the waxing period of Bhadrapada, one of the Pitru-tarpan days in Vedic society, the Shukla paksha Ekadashi or Tamasa-Manvadhi day when offerings (tarpan) are made to ancestors. The month of Bhadrapada is dedicated to worship of ancestors. The waning phase of Bhadrapada is known as Pitru paksha dedicated to the worship of ancestors. Similarly the corresponding solar month of Kanya is dedicated to Pitru-worship. The very first day of Sun in Virgo / Kanya when the Parashurama Year started was actually a special time called Shadasheethi punya kala when pitru-tarpan is done in the Vedic society. The Munda’s Karam puja meant for ancestral worship coming on the day of pitru tarpan in Vedic society cannot be dismissed as coincidence. It is because the Mundas do not observe Karam puja every year, but only once in three years.


Only once in three years the 11th lunar day of Bhadra pada (waxing phase) either coincides with Solar entry into Virgo or occurs after the sun had entered Virgo. In the intervening two years, the 11th lunar day and Sun’s position do not occur in Virgo or in Kanya month, but will be in Leo, as can be seen from a random look at the position of Sun for a few years starting from 2012 AD.


11th lunar day in Bhadrapada

 Sun’s position.


Sep 25, 2012

9th day in Virgo

Karam Puja

Sep 15, 2013

29th day in Leo


Sep 5, 2014

19th day in Leo


Sep 24, 2015

7th day in Virgo

Karam Puja

Sep 12, 2016

26th day in Leo


Sep 1, 2017

15th day in Leo


Sep 20, 2018

4th day in Virgo

Karam Puja

Sep 9, 2019

23rd day in Leo


Sep 28, 2020

12th  day in Leo


Sep 16, 2021

1st day in Virgo

Karam Puja


{Today, however, Karam festival is celebrated every year as a worship of the sacred grove and as a harvest festival; other tribes of the Mundari group of languages celebrate on slightly different dates.}


It is obvious that the Karam Puja of the Mundas was timed to coincide with the solar month of Virgo that is special for ancestral worship. Either they had knowingly followed a pre-existing custom of pitru tarpan on the 11th day in Bhadrapada falling in Virgo, or that was the actual date when their ancestors had taken shelter behind the Karam tress.


It is preposterous to think that the memory of the day of escape stayed on with them for thousands of years. But the importance given to the Moon and the stars in the Karam puja as witnesses at the time of the escape of their ancestors gives credence to the belief that they indeed remembered the lunar thithi of the day of escape. This date must have occurred in the solar month of Virgo, prompting them to stick to luni-solar basis for this festival.


Another probability is that after settling down to a new life, apparently under the guidance of Singbonga, they started doing annual pitru-worship in the solar month of Virgo. The start of the Parashurama New Year comes with such a connection. Why the solar sankramana day in Virgo was chosen for Parashurama New Year is something of a surprise, given that Parashurama Jayanti is observed in the month of Margashira. The month of Virgo does not seem to have any connection with Parashurama. It was in fact the time of Tamasa Manu’s beginnings.


Tamasa Manu was the period of 4th Manvanthra which was followed by Raivata Manu whose sons were headed by Arjuna, Bali and Vindhya. The people living in the region of Vindhyas were perhaps denoted by this. This gives credence to a thought that the people living in the Vindhyas perhaps remembered the previous Manvadhi of Tamasa Manu and offered oblations for Tamasa Manvadhi day. This is to say that the inhabitants of Vindhya, Narmada and the surrounding regions where Parashurama lived, could have held this day (Tamasa Manvadhi / Virgo sankramana) as special for pitru tarpan. Otherwise why was this date chosen for Parashurama year? There is another explanation too. Parashurama was known to have made a terrible offering of blood of the people slain by him in Samanta Panchaka, to his ancestors. In keeping with that, the Year by his name was started on a day that is special for making offerings to ancestors.


It must be noted that even the Tamil New Year day that starts on the sun’s entry into Aries was originally ‘celebrated’ by doing sacrifices and making offerings to the departed pitrus {6}. Any sankramana day is reserved for pitru tarpan. In the case of Chandramana, the New Year or new month is started on the day after pitru tarpan (done on every New Moon day).


In the light of these rules, the Karam puja falling on the day of Kadamba festival in the regions that followed Parashurama Era is truly for the purpose of remembering ancestors and not for celebrating harvest. The similarity in date with Kadamba festival coinciding with Parashurama New Year must be to do with a much older practice coming from pre- Parashurama days, of remembrance of ancestors on the first day of the solar month of Virgo. That day being Tamasa Manvadhi day of importance to people of the Vindhya range supports the origin of Mundas from that region.


The Mundas’ Karam puja coming on a date known for pitru-worship seems to be a conscious choice of date by the early Mundas as a continuing practice from their previous tradition. Even if this idea is rejected, it is still seen that the choice of the date once in three years in the month known for ancestor worship shows that they were previously following Vedic tradition that accord importance to worship of ancestors.


In the present context we can see a Vedic connection in another myth of Karam festival – the myth of two brothers called Karma and Dharma. Dharma had a dream in which Karam God appeared and told him to celebrate and arrange for a puja in his honour in return for which he will have many crops, livestock and riches. When Dharma told this dream to Karma, Karma ignored it. A few years later, Dharma became rich and Karma became poor. Karma understood his folly and started celebrating Karam God along with Dharma. They became rich and this formed the basis for the celebration of Karam festival.


This story is a symbolism of the need to do one’s work in rightful ways. Such work pays well. The work in the context of the Mundas is to raise food (crops and livestock) in the forested and hilly tracts. This requires hard work but if they do that, it will pay. The name Karam and Dharma and the idea of doing karma and getting fruits of it when done in dharmic ways are all ideas of Vedic culture. The Karam puja is an indigenous one and no one brought it to them. Even the Kadamba/Karam details show that Mundas had an independent and original reason to celebrate it as seen from the time and cause of the festival. A pre-existing idea among them was preserved as a myth and they stuck to it as it induced them to do hard work in unfriendly terrains.


To be continued...




{2} Ponette P. Foot note in “Social water management among Munda people in the Sundarban” Part  3, Page 32



{5} “Social water management among Munda people in the Sundarban” Part 3, Page 35

{6} “Madras Journal of Literature and Science” Vol 1, page 42.


The author is an independent scholar; she blogs at Non-Random Thoughts

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