Introduction / History
The Santals are part of the Austro-Asiatic family, distantly related to Vietnamese and Khmer. The Proto Australoids can be identified with some facial characteristics such as low forehead, thick lips, wide jaw and wavy hair. Historians believe that they were the ancestors of the tribal community residing in the eastern part of India (excluding hill portions). The Santal language, Santali, belongs to the Munda (or Mundari) branch of the Austro-Asiatic language family. There are dialectical variations in Santali. The main dialectical distinction is between Northern Santali, which is spoken by the great majority of Santals, and Southern Santali. The latter is spoken in the southern part of Bihar and in Orissa, While Northern Santali is spoken in most of Bihar and in West Bengal.
Where Are they Located?
The Santals are one of the largest ethnic groups in India. They occupy primarily the Chotanagpur Plateau, with their settlements distributed over an area of 350 miles, from the Ganges to the Baitarani. The Santal Parganas district is considered to be the heart of the Santal area. Beyond this region, the Santals have spread widely in India as agricultural and industrial laborers.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Prior to the nineteenth century, the basic Santal subsistence pattern was hunting, but with an ever-increasing population and the rapidly decreasing game supply, the Santals have since turned to agriculture. Today, the Santals are predominantly cereal agriculturists, growing rice as their chief crop, and further supplementing this with millet, sorghum, maize, and some vegetable crops. Cotton is grown for textile use. Santal agricultural methods are primarily of the slash-and-burn variety, with little knowledge or application of crop rotation, irrigation, or fertilizers. Hunting, fishing, and gathering are of little economic importance today, although the annual "dehiri" hunt is an event enjoyed by most of the male population. Cattle are raised to some extent, as well as sheep, goats, pigs, oxen, buffaloes, cows, cats, and dogs. These animals are used as supplementary sources of protein in the diet, as well as for other purposes (e.g., rodent control). The Santals trade extensively with neighboring Hindu peoples for the bulk of their everyday goods except for food stuffs and a few forest products.
What Are Their Beliefs?
Santal social organization is characterized by a lack of the caste separations so prominent in Hindu society, a patrilineal kinship system, and a relatively low level of political integration. The basic family unit is the extended patrilocal family. Each village is usually composed of a number of lineages. The village is evidently the key political unit, but the largest formally organized territorial unit is the pargana, a loose confederation of approximately a dozen villages bound together to settle certain judicial questions and headed by an official called a parganath. The Santali culture has attracted many scholars and anthropologists for decades. The first attempt to study the Santali culture was done by the Christian missionaries. The most famous of them was the Norwegian-born Reverend Paul Olaf Bodding.
The Santal people love music and dance. Like other Indian people groups, their culture has been influenced by mainstream Indian culture and by Western culture, but traditional music and dance still remain. Santal music differs from Hindustani classical music in significant ways. The Santal traditionally accompany many of their dances with two drums: the Tamak' and the Tumdak'. The flute was considered the most important Santal traditional instrument and still evokes feelings of nostalgia for many Santal. Santal dance and music traditionally revolved around Santal religious celebrations. This is still true to a degree although traditional religious beliefs have been significantly altered by Hindu belief and Christian mission work.
Traditionally, Santal religion was characterized by a belief in a pantheon of supernatural beings represented at the top by the supreme god Maran Buru (Chando, Chando Bonga, Sing Bongo, or Kando) and including six other major gods and a host of nature and ancestral spirits. Although the Santals had no idols or temples, the Sacred Grove or Spring represented to them the place of residence of the supernatural powers, and it was there that prayers and sacrifices were made, usually by a priest called "Naeke", to avert the ill will of the gods and to bring upon themselves, their crops, and their animals the blessings of the supernaturals. In addition, each family had two gods of its own, the orakbonga (household god) and the abgebonga (secret god), whose name was never divulged to anyone except the eldest son in the family. The bongas or spirits were generally friendly toward man, but at times could inflict misery and trouble. Hinduism has had only nominal influence on Santal religious practices as has Christianity, despite the fact that Christian missionaries have been functioning among the Santals since 1862.
Although magic and witchcraft have also figured prominently in Santal religious practices, the Santals strongly believed in the existence of witches in the society, who, motivated by envy and operating through the medium of the "evil eye" or other magical practices, visited sickness, death, and other calamities upon members of the village community. By means of divinatory practices exercised through the offices of the witch-finder and the Ojha (a kind of exorcist), the causative agents of the disease were determined and ritually removed, and the identity of the witch revealed. Once the name of the witch was known, that person was often beaten, fined, driven from the community, and not infrequently killed. Witches in Santal society were inevitably female, while the Ojha and the witch-finders were male. The Santal community is devoid of any caste system and there is no distinction made on the basis of birth. They believe in supernatural beings and ancestral spirits. Santali rituals are mainly comprised of sacrificial offerings and invocations to the spirits, or bongas. The Santal system of governance, known as Manjhi Paragana, may be compared to what is often called Local Self Governance. This body is responsible for making decisions to deal with the village's socio-economic condition.