India’s Largest Tribal Fest in Telangana Awaits National Status

Since Telangana became its own state in June 2014, the state government has been asking the central government to recognize Sammakka Saralamma Jatara as a national festival.

India's Largest Tribal Fest in Telangana Awaits National Status

A Grand Gathering of Tribals

India’s largest tribal festival, the Sammakka Saralamma Jatara, is set to take place in the small tribal village of Medaram in Telangana’s Mulug district in February. There’s a possibility that it may receive the esteemed “national festival” status if the Central government approves the state government’s long-standing request.

The “jatara” or fair, often called the Kumbh Mela of the South, is a remarkable event that sees the largest gathering of more than 10 million tribal people from all across India. In 2022, the festival took place from February 16 to 18 and drew an astonishing crowd of around 13 million, as per the official records of the state tribal welfare department.

A Long-Awaited Recognition

Ever since Telangana became an independent state in June 2014, the state government has been urging the Central government to grant the Sammakka Saralamma Jatara the status of a national festival. They believe this recognition is well-deserved due to the festival’s unique nature and the gathering of millions of tribal people from every corner of the country.

“This time as well, we have written to the Centre, requesting that the festival be honored with the status of a national festival,” said V Sarveshwar Reddy, additional director of tribal welfare and director of the tribal cultural research and training institute.

While the response from the Central government to the state’s request has been quiet over the years, this time, they have asked the state tribal welfare department for more information regarding the biennial fair. They want details about the fair itself, the necessary arrangements, and the estimated expenses.

“There hasn’t been a definite commitment to recognize the Sammakka Saralamma Jatara as a national festival. The Central government has requested specific information about the fair, and we are providing that,” explained Reddy.

Potential Relief for State Funds

If the Central government does grant the Sammakka Saralamma Jatara national festival status, similar to the Kumbh Mela and Durga Puja, it would cover the entire cost of organizing the event. “Last year, the state government spent over ₹75 crore on Sammakka Saralamma Jatara, while the Centre allocated only ₹7 crore for certain infrastructure improvements. If the Centre takes on the entire expense, it would be a significant relief for the state,” noted the official.

Another high-ranking official, who prefers to remain anonymous, mentioned that the state government is actively working to secure UNESCO recognition for the Sammakka Saralamma Jatara. Such recognition would not only place the event on the global tourism map but also create significant employment opportunities for the local population.

The tribal fair is a celebration dedicated to the worship of two tribal women, Sammakka and her daughter Saralamma, who lived in the 13th century and are revered as deities. It takes place on “Magha Suddha Pournami,” which is the full-moon day of the month of Magha. This event attracts devotees from Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. Notably, non-tribal devotees also attend this fair in large numbers.

According to tribal beliefs, Sammakka and Saralamma sacrificed their lives while defending their little tribal village against the powerful emperors of the Kakatiya dynasty, who had demanded royalties and sought to erode their way of life and culture.

Unlike other religious gatherings, the Sammakka-Saralamma Jatara doesn’t have a temple dedicated to these deities. Instead, two special poles, one from a neighboring hillock called Chilakalagutta and the other from Kannepalli village, are brought in a procession following traditional tribal customs. These poles are erected on platforms, and for the next two days, they are worshipped.

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Unique Rituals and Offerings

Millions of tribal devotees from different states in India, including Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and parts of Jharkhand, participate in the Jatara. Devotees offer Bangaram (gold) in the form of jaggery, equivalent to their weight, to the goddesses and take a sacred bath in the local stream, Jampanna vagu. Sacrificing goats, sheep, and fowls as offerings to the deities is an integral part of the worship.

According to Siddaboina Jagga Rao, the president of the Sammakka Saralamma Jatara tribal priests’ association, the legend of this tribal festival dates back to the 13th century. Some Koya tribal leaders discovered a newborn baby girl being protected by tigers deep within the dense forests of Tadwai. They brought her to their tribal hamlet and named her Sammakka.

The tribal chief adopted Sammakka, raised her as a leader, and trained her in tribal warfare. When she came of age, she married Pagididda Raju, a tribal chief under the Kakatiya rulers (who governed Andhra from Warangal between 1000 AD and 1380 AD). Sammakka and Pagididda Raju had two daughters, Sarakka and Nagulamma, and a son named Jampanna.

The Tragic Tale of Sammakka and Her Family

One year, due to a drought, Pagididda Raju couldn’t pay the taxes imposed by the Kakatiya emperor Pratap Rudra. In response, the emperor declared war on the Koya tribe and killed Pagididda Raju in battle.

Sammakka, devastated by grief, joined the battle with her children. She fought bravely against the Kakatiya army, but tragically, both of her children, Saralamma and Jampanna, were also killed. Jampanna, with severe wounds, leaped into the nearby Sampangi stream, which was later named Jampanna vagu.

Sammakka later went to a nearby hill called Chilakalagutta all alone and transformed into a vermilion casket. The Koya tribes believed that Sammakka and Saralamma were incarnations of the goddess Durga and began worshipping them as deities every year.

The thrones of all four figures, Samakka, Saralamma, Pagididda Raju, and Jampanna, are adorned with new clothes and jewelry two weeks before the festival to symbolize their greatness.

The festival unfolds over three days. The first day celebrates the traditional arrival of Saralamma on the ‘Medaram Gadde’ (platform), while the second day marks the arrival of Sammakka. The Jatara concludes with the ‘Vana Pravesham’ ritual, which involves sending off the deities back into the forests, on the third day.

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