The Santal or Santhal, are a Munda ethnic group native to India. Santals are the largest tribe in the Jharkhand state of India in terms of population and are also found in the states of Assam, Tripura, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal. They are the largest ethnic minority in northern Bangladesh's Rajshahi Division and Rangpur Division. They have a sizeable population in Nepal and Bhutan. The Santals speak Santali, the most widely spoken of the Munda languages.
|c. 7.4 million|
|Regions with significant populations|
|India • Bangladesh • Nepal|
|Santali, Hindi, Bengali, Odia, Nepali|
Folk religions (Sarna Dharam) (31%)
Christianity (5%), Others (1%)
|Related ethnic groups|
|Mundas • Hos • Juangs • Kharias • Savaras • Korku • Bhumij|
Santal is most likely derived from a Bengali exonym. The term refers to inhabitants of Saontcode: ben promoted to code: bn , now in the Midnapore region of West Bengal, the traditional homeland of the Santals. Their ethnonym is Hor Hopon ("sons of mankind").
According to linguist Paul Sidwell, Austro-Asiatic language speakers probably arrived on coast of Odisha from Indochina about 4000–3500 years ago. The Austroasiatic speakers spread from Southeast Asia and mixed extensively with local Indian populations.
Due to the lack of significant archaeological records, the original homeland of the Santals is not known with certainty. The folklore of the Santals claims they came from Hihiri, which scholars have identified as Ahuri in Hazaribagh district. From there, they claim, they were pushed onto Chota Nagpur, then to Jhalda, Patkum and finally Saont, where they settled for good. This legend, which has been cited by several scholars, has been used as evidence that the Santals once had a significant presence in Hazaribagh. Colonial scholar Colonel Dalton claimed in Chai there was a fort formerly occupied by a Santal raja who was forced to flee when the Delhi Sultanate invaded the territory.
In the latter half of the 18th century, the Santals entered the historical record in 1795 when they are recorded as "Soontars." During the Bengal Famine of 1770, the drier western and southwestern parts of Bengal, especially the Jungle Mahals region, were some of the worst-hit areas and were significantly depopulated. This depopulation resulted in a significant loss of revenue for the East India Company. Therefore when the Permanent Settlement was enacted in 1790, the Company looked for agriculturalists to clear the lands. British officials turned their attention to Santals, who were being pushed out of their lands on the Chota Nagpur Plateau by newer immigrants and were ready to clear the forest for the practice of settled agriculture. Starting in 1790, large numbers of Santals from Ramgarh and Hazaribagh began to migrate into Permanent Settlement regions like the Jungle Mahals and the Rajmahal Hills, sponsored by landowners and the British who were desperate for labour. Under British direction, Santals took loans from non-Santal moneylenders to buy iron tools, seed grain and oxen as individuals and families, rather than groups as was their custom for working the land.
When they arrived in Damin-i-koh, the British provided no protection for the Santals against the preexisting Mal Paharias, who were known raiders of the plains areas and had only recently been partially "pacified." Eventually, the Santals, with their superior technology and ability to match the Paharia's guerrilla attacks, managed to drive them out. Their settlement took place between the 1830s and 1850s: in 1830, the area was home to only 3000 Santals, but by the 1850s, 83,000 Santals had settled in the land and had turned it into paddy fields. This resulted in a 22 times increase in Company revenue from the area.
However, as they became more agricultural, the Santals were exploited by the zamindars. Unlike the Santals, the British valued individual competition instead of cooperation, and had a rigid system of laws very different from the relatively relaxed norms of the village council, the highest form of government most Santals knew. Mahajans from Bengal and Baniyas from Bihar began selling goods from elsewhere, and many Santals, seeing them as exotic, were tricked into becoming in debt to buy them, usually with a mortgage on their land. When the Santals were unable to pay the moneylenders back, they became owners of the land and the Santals became peasants. The merchants and other outsiders also began to treat Santals as outcastes in a newly-imposed Brahminical system.
Eventually, these acts of exploitation, combined with British tax policies and corrupt tax collectors, deteriorated to the point where Santals grew discontented. In 1855, they revolted in the Santal rebellion, better known as the Santal Hul. 30,000 Santals, led by Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, attacked the zamindars and other outsiders (dikkus) who had made their lives so miserable, as well as the British authorities. Eventually, around 10,000 British troops managed to suppress the rebellion. Although the rebellion's impact was largely overshadowed by that of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the impact of the Santhal Rebellion lives on as a turning point in Santhal pride and identity. This was reaffirmed, over a century and a half later with the creation of the first tribal province in the Republic of India, Jharkhand. Afterwards the British satisfied all their demands due to their importance as a tax-paying group. The British created a 5000 km2 area, called Santal Parganas, where the normal procedures of British India did not apply. Administration of the community was primarily made the responsibility of the village headman, or pradhan, who was also given the power to collect taxes. In addition, it was made illegal for Santals to transfer land to non-Santals, allowing them to have legal rights over their land.
After the British government formally took control over India in 1858, the Santals continued their system of government and traditions. Newly-established Christian missions brought secular education, and many Santals moved to the tea plantations in Assam, where they still remain today. However most continued with their old life, but were still not prosperous. In addition, secular education did not become widespread until after Indian independence.
After independence, the Santals were made one of the Scheduled Tribes. After Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in 2000, the Santal Parganas was made a separate division of the state. These Santals have also agitated for recognition of their traditions in the census as a separate religion, sarna dharam, for which Jharkhand assembly passed a resolution in 2020. Many still face poverty and exploitation, and in Bangladesh, theft of their lands is common. Although spread out over a large area, they now consider the Santal Parganas as their cultural heartland.
The base of Santal society is a division between "brother" (boeha) and "guest" (pera), a divide found in many other tribal societies of central and eastern India. Children of the same father (sometimes grandfather), known as nij boeha, often live next to each other and own adjacent pieces of land. Those in the closest form of brotherhood, called mit orak hor ("people of one house") in Singhbhum, cannot marry each other and propitiate the same deity, since the house refers to a common ancestor from which all the families are believed to descend. Only mit orak hor marriages are severely stigmatised. Another brotherhood is membership of a clan, which are exogamous. The last form of brotherhood is phul, a ritual friendship with members of other ethnic groups. Children of phul brothers consider themselves as brothers, and they attend each other's main lifecycle events, such as weddings or funerals, as pera. They also give help in times of hardship.
Those who do not have brotherhood are referred to as pera, or guests. Members of other communities, especially those not speaking Santali, are excluded from this grouping, except for communities such as the Karmakar, Mahali or Lohar, who are enmeshed in Santal society. Those with this relationship can marry, and attend major festivals as guests. People related by marriage, although pera, have special roles in life-cycle events. Women perform special welcome rituals for pera when they visit. Those related by marriage can have one of two relationships. They can be bala, a relationship exemplified by the couple's parents, or sangat, between cross-siblings of a couple.
Santal society has much less stratification and is more egalitarian than neighbouring caste Hindu society, but still has some status differences. The most important marker of a person when interacting with others in Santal society is their standing as marang ("senior") or hudin ("junior"). This standing is evaluated by relation: for example, is someone is greeting their father's elder brother's son, they would be the junior irrespective of age. Similarly, when someone greets their elder brother's wife, the wife would be marang. However for strangers or guests with no clear kin connections, the question of marang or hudin is decided by age. The ritual greeting (god in Santali) of someone is given much importance and is done in the courtyard of a house when a pera visits. The greeting differs by gender, and whether the person is junior or senior to the one being greeted. The greeting rituals given by a hudin involve an "offering" (dobok' johar) of respect, while a marang "receives" this respect. This greeting should not be done hastily, and correct practice of it is encouraged in children from a young age. However the hudin-marang distinction does not apply to phul or bala, who instead greet each other as if greeting a marang.
The Santals also have totemistic clans, known as pari. These 12 clans are divided into two ranks: 7 senior and 5 junior. The senior clans are believed to originate from the 7 sons and daughters of the first man and woman, and in order of seniority they are: Hansda (goose), Murmu (Nilgae), Marndi (Ischaemum rugosum), Kisku (kingfisher), Soren (Pleiades), Hembrom (betel palm) and Tudu (owl). The junior clans are Baskey (stale rice), Besra (falcon), Caure (lizard), Pauria (pigeon) and Donker. Members of a senior clan do not marry members of a junior clan, and there are some forbidden marriages as well, such as between Marndi and Kisku. In addition, Besras are sometimes treated differently due to their perceived low status, but other than the context of marriage, they play no role in social life. The clans also avoid harming their clan totem, lest evil befall them.
The Santals have another social organisation important for rituals, called khunti, or gusti in south Chota Nagpur. The term refers to descendants of a common ancestor, no more than a few generations back, that live nearby. The khunti is identified by some distinguishing feature of the ancestor, such as poeta, people who wear a thread on their chest in worship. In many cases, all the people of a gusti live in their ancestral village, but some members may have migrated to neighbouring villages.
In the Santal religion, the majority of reverence falls on a court of spirits (bonga), who handle different aspects of the world and who are placated with prayers and offerings. These benevolent spirits operate at the village, household, ancestor, and sub-clan level, along with evil spirits that cause disease and can inhabit village boundaries, mountains, waterand many types of flower, tigers, and the forest. The bonga are intermediaries between noa puri (visible world) and hana puri (the invisible reality), the abode of a Creator. This creator is variously called Marang Buru (Supreme Deity or literally The Great Mountain) or Thakur Jiu (life giver), and is the "cause of all causes," making the Santal religion, in a deep sense, monotheistic as well as pantheistic.
There are several ranks of bongas: the most important are associated intimately with Marang Buru and are worshipped by all Santals. These include Maran Buru bonga, Jaher Era bonga and Gosae Era. Other bongas, who are held to be less powerful, are the spirits of important people of the village who have since been deified. There is also another class of bongas who are feared as bringers of evil. These spirits are not placated by a priest but by a medicine-man called ojha. In the present-day, belief in these malignant bongas is eroding due to the penetration of modern medical science. The lack of a separate name for malignant bongas caused many early colonial scholars to present Santal religion as wholly focused on the appeasement of evil spirits or as representing bongas as exclusively harmful. However bonga in itself simply means a supernatural force in the world and has no specific connotation with good or evil. Moreover these bongas do not refer to specific objects but to the invisible force that governs or is associated with those objects.
The Santal creation story holds that originally the world was water, and Marang Buru and some lesser deities were the only inhabitants. When some spirits requested permission to make humans, Marang Buru asked Malan Budhi to create the human bodies. When she had finally succeeded, she was told by Marang Buru to use the human spirits that were high on the rafters of his hut. She could not reach the human spirit, and took the bird spirit instead. When Marang Buru integrated the spirits with the bodies, they flew away and asked for a place to build a nest. Marang Buru could not get anyone else to bring land to the surface, and so the tortoise volunteered and pushed the Earth onto his back. The birds then gave birth to a boy and a girl called Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Budhi. These two had seven sons and seven daughters, but the couple soon had a quarrel and separated. Pilchu Haram and his sons became great hunters, and on a time came upon the daughters, who had become maidens and were unrecognisable. They became introduced and made love. Looking for his sons, Pilchu Haram discovered an old woman and asked for fire, and upon talking to her more, he discovered his wife and reconciled with her. Another version tells how Pilchu Budhi was in fact in tears at her daughters' disappearance, but Marang Buru reassured her that they were all safe and brought her to reconcile with her husband. When their sons found out they had married their sisters, they were very angry and would have killed their parents if Marang Buru had not hidden them in a cave, where they stayed for the rest of their days. The children of these seven couples became the progenitors of the Santal clans.
A characteristic feature of a Santal village is a sacred grove (known as the Jaher or Santal Sthal) on the edge of the village where many spirits live and where a series of annual festivals take place. This grove is set aside in the founding of the village and left undisturbed except at times of festival. Inside is set a series of natural (uncut) stones which represent the bongas, but are not substitutes except during festival. The Majhi Than, a raised mound of earth covered with a thatched roof outside the headman's house, is where the Majhi's ancestors' spirits live. During the summer, a jug of water is placed there so the spirits can drink. Here the most important decisions of the village are made, including judgements.
A yearly round of rituals connected with the agricultural cycle, along with life-cycle rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death, involve petitions to the spirits and offerings that include the sacrifice of animals, usually birds. Religious leaders are male specialists in medical cures who practice divination and witchcraft (the socio-historic meaning of the term, used here, refers to the ritual practice of magic and is not pejorative). Similar beliefs are common among other tribes on the Chota Nagpur Plateau like the Kharia, Munda, and Oraon.
Smaller and more isolated tribes often demonstrate articulated classification systems of the spiritual hierarchy less well documented, described as animism or a generalised worship of spiritual energies connected with locations, activities, and social groups. Religious concepts are intricately entwined with ideas about nature and interaction with local ecological systems. As in Santal religion, religious specialists are drawn from the village or family and serve a wide range of spiritual functions that focus on placating potentially dangerous spirits and co-ordinating rituals. These rituals include animal sacrifice, including cows, very unlike Brahminical Hinduism.
According to the 2011 Indian Census, for combined Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar, 63% recorded their religion as 'Hinduism', while 31% practice other religions and persuasions (mainly Sarna dharam), and 5% practice Christianity. Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism are followed by less than 1% of the population.
There are seven kinds of marriage recognized in the Santal community, each with its own degree of social acceptance. The most elaborate kind of marriage is the hapramko balpa, or ancestor's marriage, but the most widely practiced is kesimek'. In this form of marriage, a boy and girl who wish to marry decide to go to the groom's house and stay there a while. When the girl's family are made aware of their situation, the jog majhi of the girl's village arrives at the house of the headman of the boy's village to discover the couple's intentions. The couple are summoned to the village headman and the bride is asked whether she wishes to set a date for kesimek'. If she replies 'no', the boy's family will have to pay a small fine to the jog majhi of the girl's village, who would take the girl back to her father. If she assents, the boy's family is consulted for the best day for the kesimek'. The bride and groom are not bound by any obligation to marry. During this time, the jog majhi stays in the village to give all the information he can to the bride's father: both in determining what would be a good bride price to demand and whether the marriage might end in a short time.
On the day of the kesimek' ceremony, a group of men from the bride's village, including the jog majhi, headman, village elders, and the bride's father and some relations, arrives at the bride's village. They are seated at the headman's house with respect and organized by marang or hudin status. Meanwhile, the groom's family gathers to discuss the bride price the groom's father should pay. The two parties then meet and the fathers negotiate the bride price to be paid. The groom is first asked whether he wishes the marriage to continue. As a symbolic marriage contract, the groom's father gives a small amount of cash and gives handi (rice-beer) to the guests. The negotiations for bride-price continue between the fathers exclusively until an amount is reached. Although this is nowadays in cash, livestock or other goods are not uncommon. The bride price is generally light and it is seen wrong to stop two young people from marrying because of a disagreement about bride price. After an agreement is reached, celebrations ensue and festive drinking continues into the night.
A short time afterwards, a relative of the groom along with the jog majhi of the groom's village hand over the bride price to the bride's family. Afterwards the couple arrive in the bride's natal village. The bride arriving first carrying a pot with white clay, the symbol of a woman returning to her natal village as a guest. The bride greets her mother first and neighbours are invited to share handi reserved for pera (pera hor handi), while getting acquainted with the husband. When the couple leaves the bride's village, the bride pays her respects to the headman in his courtyard. At the Majhi Than, the bride thanks the headman for all he has done and gives a symbolic gift. The headman then blesses the couple and wishes the bride strength, good luck and many strong sons. The couple then leaves for the groom's village to start their new life.
Marriages done by kesimek' involve very little ritual: Santal society has clearly defined roles for marriage, and the choice of the couple is respected. Decisions by the families are done in a spirit of consensus rather than adversarially, and marriage is seen just as important for the entire village as for the couple.
Sohrai is the principal festival of Santal community. Besides that Baha, Karam, Dansai, Sakrat, Mahmore, Rundo and Magsim are important festivals. They traditionally accompany many of their dances during these festivals with two drums: the Tamak‘ and the Tumdak’.
Santal art is noticeable for its intricate carving style. The walls of traditional Santal homes are ornamented with carved designs of animals, hunting scenes, dancing scenes, geometric patterns, and more. Santal-styled palanquins were also finely carved and designed.
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