Study of Sohrai and Kohvar art of Jharkhand, India in comparison with Dogon rock paintings of Mali, Africa

Sohrai art originates from the tribal communities of Jharkhand, India, particularly among the Santhal, Oraon, Munda, Sadan, and Ho tribes. This artistic tradition is closely linked to the Sohrai festival, a significant event celebrated by tribal communities to mark the conclusion of the harvest season and the commencement of the New Year. During this festival, tribals express gratitude to their deities and ancestors for the abundance of crops, livestock, and agricultural tools that have facilitated their harvest. Lasting for five days, the Sohrai festival involves various rituals, cultural performances, and artistic expressions. Notably, on the second day of the festival, male members of the tribe lead their cattle to the fields for grazing. In their absence, women adorn their huts with paintings as a gesture of seeking blessings from Bongas, the tribal deities, for their homes.


Sohrai art


 At its core, Sohrai art celebrates themes related to agriculture, fertility, and communal harmony. The paintings often incorporate scenes like ploughing fields, sowing seeds, tending to livestock, and communal relations. Common motifs found in Sohrai art include bulls, horses with riders, wild animals, trees, lotuses, snakes, peacocks, and horned deities, alongside geometric patterns. Women utilize their fingers, twigs, or grass brushes to create these vibrant designs on the walls of their homes. The colors are sourced from natural materials like clay, charcoal, rice paste, and leaves. Notably, varieties of clay such as Kali matti, Charak matti, Dudhi matti, Lal matti, and pili matti are employed to add hues to their designs. These paintings are believed to bring prosperity and provide protection to both the family and the crops.


The Sohrai painting

The Sohrai painting.


There is another traditional form of mural painting practiced in this region by the tribal communities, called Khovar art. While Sohrai art is related to the harvest festival, Khovar art holds significance in wedding rituals, symbolizing fertility and the relation between male and female. This art form is used to decorate the bridal chambers of the bride and groom by women of the bride’s family. They apply multiple layers of clay onto the walls of the chamber. Once the initial layers of dark-colored clay have dried, women overlay lighter cream-colored layers and then proceed to scrape them off using a comb or their fingers while the clay is still wet. The common motifs that they carve out during the process feature elements from nature like lotus flowers or animals such as elephants, turtles, and peacocks. 


Khovar painting.

Khovar painting.


The Sohrai and Khovar art forms are recognized as among the oldest mural paintings globally, tracing their origins back to the Paleolithic period, where similar designs were discovered in caves. It is remarkable that present-day ethnic groups still maintain a connection to this rock art, viewing it as part of their ancestral heritage and imbued with supernatural beliefs. Paintings found at the lower portion of Isko rock shelters in Jharkhand's Hazaribagh district bear striking resemblances to Sohrai and Khovar art. Local villagers refer to the rock shelter containing such art as Khovar-gufa. Geometric designs, particularly the Godhani motif, are prevalent in these paintings, symbolizing fertility. Hand stencils are also a recurring motif in Sohrai and Khovar murals among indigenous tribes like the Mundas and Oraons. 

The local community holds varied beliefs and interpretations regarding these rock paintings. Some consider hand stencils as devil's hand stencils, while others perceive clusters of geometric designs as codes to open cave doors. Nevertheless, as a collective, they acknowledge the presence of sacred symbols and ancestral spirits within the rock art. They venerate figures like Devi Mai or Chala-Pachcho/Sarna-Burhia, represented through symbols such as the moon, concentric circles, and three, five, or seven concentric rhombi or vulvas symbolizing female fertility. Additionally, anthropomorphic figures depicting a mother giving birth to a child are also present.


Rock art, Jharkhand and their parallel in Sohrai ethnic art.

Rock art, Jharkhand and their parallel in Sohrai ethnic art.


In a parallel setting, there exists an art form known as Dogon art, practiced by the Dogon tribe of Southern Mali in West Africa. Thriving amidst the challenging terrain of the arid region, the Dogon people uphold beliefs in spiritual intervention and engage in various rituals to secure their livelihood. Dogon art is deeply intertwined with these ritualistic customs, serving as a medium through which they offer prayers and seek blessings from their ancestors and deities. The rock art site near the village of Songo is a prominent example of Dogon rock paintings, featuring motifs portraying animals, and masks that hold significant connections to Dogon cosmology. Studies conducted by scholars like Marcel Griaule shed light on the remarkably rich and intricate culture of the Dogon tribe. Their artworks, encompassing subjects, techniques, and materials, are all intricately linked to their ritualistic practices and spiritual beliefs.


Dogon rock art

 Dogon rock art.


Dogon culture is depicted as an interconnected web where human creations, natural elements, daily activities, and beliefs are intricately interwoven through the profound influence of Dogon mythology. In essence, Dogon art is predominantly crafted for religious significance, intended for placement in shrines or utilization in ceremonial practices. According to Dogon cosmology, ancestral spirits hold a revered status as sources of spiritual authority. Central to this phenomenon are cosmological beliefs that explain the origins of the universe, the creation of the world, and the role of humanity within it. They believe in the supreme deity, Amma, who created this world and released two cosmic twins to populate the world and bring order. According to the legend, Nommo appeared on Earth from Sirius (the brightest star) and shared information about cosmology and the solar system with the Dogon people. The rituals and offerings are made to honor them along with other ancestors and seek their blessings for prosperity, fertility, and protection.


Dogon rock painting

Dogon rock painting.


The Dogon are the sole agriculturalist group in Africa known to persist in the tradition of creating rock art, a practice that endures to this day. Typically, Dogon rock paintings are crafted by the men of the Dogon tribe, often as part of the boys' initiation ceremony. During the circumcision ceremony, held every three years, existing figures are refreshed, and new motifs are incorporated into the existing rocks. While certain designs allude to masquerade forms and various flora and fauna, others possess a more mysterious quality, potentially containing symbolic motifs inherent in Dogon culture. These paintings are predominantly colored in earthy tones, with black, red, and white being the three most commonly utilized colors. Hematite rock, soot black, and clay are widely recognized pigments, although some sources suggest that urine from animals like snakes, lizards, or birds could have been used as a white pigment. The symbolism of the art remains closely guarded, shrouded in secrecy from outsiders.

However, there are multiple motifs evident in these paintings like snakes, fish, and masks with the potential to be interpreted based on the available data. According to Dogon’s belief, the masks worn by Dogon people during rituals represent and embody the strength and wisdom of Dogon’s ancestors or spiritual forces. These ritual masks are significant as they are believed to evoke the presence of ancestral spirits and seek their blessings. Similarly, the depiction of snakes or fishes could be related to the Dogon spirit Nommo who is believed to have descended from heaven/Sirius (brightest star) in the form of a serpent or fish. The Dogon venerate Nommo through rituals, ceremonies, and sacred symbols, seeking his guidance and protection.

Overall, Dogon art serves as a reflection of the profound cultural and mythological heritage of the Dogon people. Their deep reverence for celestial entities, ancestral spirits, and the natural world has not only guided their way of life but also shaped their cultural identity over generations. Examining Dogon painting alongside Sohrai and Khovar art practiced by distinct tribal communities in disparate geographical settings provides valuable insights into the myths, beliefs, and traditions of both groups. In one instance, Sohrai and Khovar paintings adorn the walls of individual homes, while Dogon paintings are discovered on cliffs and rocks in the region. Intriguingly, both art forms share connections with ancient caves and sacred sites at some point in their histories. Moreover, both utilize natural materials like clay and minerals to create their pigments. However, while Sohrai and Khovar art involves treating mud walls of huts, Dogon paintings are directly executed on rock surfaces.

There are numerous differences and similarities in both the art forms as the painting of Sohrai and Khovar tradition is maintained by the women of tribal communities, while Dogon rock paintings are typically created by men. The former art forms tend to be simpler, celebrating agricultural lifestyles and the union of males and females, while Dogon art is intricately intertwined with the tribe's cosmology, religious rituals, and spiritual beliefs in a mysterious and complex manner. Nonetheless, the motifs depicted in both art forms are meant to serve as protective talismans and mark rituals and celebrations. One notable similarity lies in their use of similar earthly colors, with bold white, black, and red hues predominating. Additionally, the linear designs of geometrical patterns, flora, fauna, and animals depicted in the paintings bear resemblance to each other. In essence, both Sohrai and Dogon paintings are deeply rooted in the cultural and spiritual traditions of their respective communities reflecting their unique heritage and spiritual beliefs and offering a glimpse into the rich diversity of indigenous art forms across the globe.




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