The Karma or Karam festival is widely prevalent among the tribal people of Sundargarh, Mayurbhanj, Sambalpur, Bolangir, Dhenkanal and Keonjhar. It is also observed by the low-caste Hindus of the areas. This festival is also observed by the aboriginal people of Bihar and Madaya Pradesh. The tribes in Odisha who observe it with great devotion are Ho, Kisan, Kol, Bhumij, Oraon, Bhuiyan and Binjhals.
In this festival the presiding deity is either ‘Karam’, a God or ‘Karamsani’, a Goddess who is represented with a branch of Karam tree. Its celebration takes place in the bright half of the month of Bhadrab (August-September) during the rainy season. Mostly it is held on the eleventh day of the bright fortnight.
In the ritual, people go the jungle accompanied by groups of drummers and cut one or more branches of Karam tree. The branches are mostely carried by unmarried young girls who sing in praise of the deity. Then the branches are brought to the village and planted in the centre of a ground which is plastered with cow-dung and decorated with flowers. Then the tribal-priest (Jhankar or Dehuri) offers germinated grams and liquor in propitiation to the deity who grants wealth and children. A fowl is also killed and the blood is offered to the branch. Then, he narrates a legend to the villagers about the efficacy of Karam puja. The legends vary from tribe to tribe.
Among the Bhumij, Ho and Orans the legend prevalent is that there were seven brothers living together. The six elders used to work in the field and and the youngest was staying at home. He was indulging in dance and songs round a karam tree in the courtyard with his six sisters-in-law. One day they were so engrossed that the morning meal of the brothers could not be carried to the field by their respective wives. When they arrived home, they got agitated and threw away the karam tree to a river. The youngest brother left home in anger. Then evil days fell on the brothers. Their house was damaged, the crops failed and virtually they starved. While wandering, the youngest brother found the karam tree floating in the river. Then he proptiated the godling who restored everything. Thereafter he came home, called his brothers and told them that because they insulted Karam Devta they had to fall on evil days. Since then the Karam Devta is being worshipped.
After narration of the legend all men and women drink liquor and spend the whole night singing and dancing, which are essential parts of the festival.
Another legend prevalent among the Pauri Bhuiyans is that a merchant returned home after a very prosperous voyage. His vessel was loaded with precious metals and other valuables, which he had brought from distant lands. He waited in the vessel to be ceremoniously received by his wife and relatives as was the custom. As it was the day of Karama festival and all the women were engrossed with dancing and the men playing the drums, none went to receive him. The merchant became furious with them. He uprooted the karam tree and threw it away. Then the wrath of Karam Devta fell on him. His vessel immediately sank in the sea. Then he consulted astrologers who told him to propitiate Karam Devta. Again in another vessel he set out in search of the deity and found him floating in the sea, He propitiated him with great devotion and was restored with all wealth. From that day on the annual festival of Karam puja is being held. After spending the whole night with dance and songs, the people uproot the branches and carry them to nearby rivers or rivulets for immersion.
The festival is observed in two ways. Firstly, it is commonly held by the villagers on the village street and the expenses on liquor etc. are commonly borne. Alternatively, it is celebrated by a man in his courtyard under his patronage to which he invites all. Even people who come uninvited listening to the sound of drums are also entertained with liquor.