Home > Tribes > Santals
Santals

The Santals, a proto-Austroloid racial group, are the largest tribe in West Bengal accounting  for more than 50% of the state`s tribal population.   Other than West Bengal, their major concentration is in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Tripura.  In Assam, they are not classified separately as a tribe and their lot is clubbed with the generic "Tea Tribes of Assam." There is also a sizeable Santal community in neighboring Bangladesh, and a smaller group in Nepal.

Although they reside in several districts of West Bengal, the majority of Santals are found in Paschim Medinipur District.  Their primary occupation today is daily agricultural and manual labour, though there is an increasing move among the youth towards better education and self sustenance.   

The origin of the Santals is a matter of some dispute. Referred to as the Kherwar tribe in ancient times, some believe that they migrated to the Indian subcontinent from South East Asia around 1500 BC long before the Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent and most likely reached their homeland, the Chhota Nagpur Plateau through Assam and Bengal. What is accepted is that they came from an area which was extremely hilly and forest covered; and that they had practised shifting cultivation well before their move to their heartland - the Chhota Nagpur plateau. Their traditional occupation was cultivation along with hunting, gathering and fishing. Santals prefer to call themselves Hor, meaning man. 

From the end of the 18th century however, following the Great Famine of 1770, and due to the pressure of population and deforestation, waves of Santal migration began to occur from 1790 onwards. They began to be pushed further and further north,  and finally settled in a region called Damin-i-koh (which was to later become part of the Santal Parganas) along the Rajmahal Hills  from about 1820 onwards. Damin-i-koh in Persian means skirt of the hills. In 1832 the government set apart a large area in Damin-i-Koh for the settlement of the Santal.  
They were encouraged by the British administration to clear forests and start cultivation here for the landlords in exchange for a rent, the intention of the British being to reclaim the dense forested region with the help of the industrious Santal. They settled, as was their wont, in clusters, as a communal society led by a headman. But the Santals often had to borrow money to pay their rent. Never having been involved in cash transactions, the tribals soon found themselves at the mercy of the local landlords and moneylenders and invariably got trapped into deep debt. Their land was confiscated and they were forced to become bonded labour for life which was made hereditary.  They were cheated in the marketplace as well by the Hindu merchant, where they were required to sell their produce. Understandably, a deep hatred began to develop. This also sent fresh migratory waves of Santals further into Bengal and Odisha.  Others became easy prey to the recruiters of tribal labour for the tea gardens of North Bengal and Assam. Yet, Santals kept flooding into the area until the 1850s, in spite of continued exploitation by the Dikus (the non tribal, often Bengali, money lenders or the outsider).

In 1854, construction on a railway line from Calcutta to Patna started. Santals, known for their honesty and hard work, were employed in large numbers by the British contractors. They would work for a few months on the railway and return cash rich. This often encouraged the bonded labourer to run away to the construction site, risking strict punishment by the Hindu master. 

In June 1855, Santals in Damin-i-koh began protesting their mistreatment by landlords, moneylenders, and traders. Failing to get any redress from government officials (the settlement was located in territory administered by the East India Company), the protest turned into a full-scale rebellion - known as the Santal Hul, under the leadership of four brothers, Sidhu, Kanu, Chand and Bhoirab Murmu. The uprising was brutally quelled by British troops at the cost of tens of thousands of Santal lives. Although unsuccessful, the rebellion eventually led to administrative reforms that saw the creation of Santal Parganas District, which till then was administratively under Birbhum district but is now in Jharkhand state. The rebellion instilled in the Santals a sense of solidarity and a renewed sense of identity - which has always been central to Santal tradition and activities.

Santals have a rich cultural heritage and Santal dance and music traditionally revolved around Santal religious celebrations. They have been able to preserve this, in the most part, over the centuries, despite waves of migrations, invasions by the Mughals and the British, influence of Hinduism and Christian missionaries on traditional animist beliefs and later,  urbanization.  But in spite of these assimilative influences, Santals continue to maintain much of their traditional patriarchal way of life, each village under the village headman - the Manjhi Haram and his council, Jog Manjhi (the Manjhi`s deputy), Paranik (assistant headman), Jog Paranik (deputy to Paranik), Naike (village priest), Kudum Naike (assistant to the priest) and Gudit (assistant to the Manjhi). They have also tenaciously  preserved their Santali  language,  which belongs to the North Mundari group of the Austro-Asiatic language family. 

The Santals had no written form of the language until Christian missionaries introduced the Roman script during the late 19th century. As a consequence, many Santali works are written in the Roman script. Many Santals are bilingual, speaking the predominant regional language as well as their mother tongue and using the regional script for writing purposes. Thus the Bengali script is used in West Bengal, the Oriya script in Odisha, and the Devanagari script in Bihar. A script called Olchiki  was introduced in 1920.  

Santal religion worships Marang Buru or Bonga as the supreme deity. Their rituals and festivals through the year are related to the agricultural cycle, the life cycle and marriages and involve offerings, sacrifices, dance and song in honour of Marang Buru and other divine spirits or Bongas.  Some of the major festivals they celebrate are Sohrai (Sohrae), Sakrat, Karam, Baha and Dassain. They also celebrate a hunting festival called Disum Sendra on Buddha Purnima. However, after the ban on hunting by the Government of India, the Santals do not always get chance to practise their archery skill but village level archery competitions during festive seasons have given a chance to nurture this unique legacy. 

The names of the Santal dances and songs are derived from the ritual itself. For instance, during the Sohrai harvest festival - the Sohrai dance and songs are performed; similarly festivals like Baha and Karam too have their own specific music and dance. The typical dance of the Santals is a swaying group of women with interlocked hands forming a semicircle, encircling a relatively smaller group of male percussionists at the centre. The only dances that are not associated with any specific ritual or festival are the Lagre and the Dong. The Lagre has many forms and variations according to the occasion, be it a marriage, a festival or social gathering. Generally singing is accompanied with dancing but there are some songs which do not include dancing. There is also a kind of song sung during the sowing of paddy.  

The Santal traditionally accompany many of their dances with two drums: the Tamak and the Tumdah or Tumdak. The flute (Tiriao) was considered the most important Santal traditional instrument and is still considered important by most. Ankle bells (Junko) and various kinds of fiddles (Banam) are also used as accompaniment. 

The Santals are spontaneous singers and dancers par excellence. Music is in their blood and all their dances reflect their collective nature, community feeling and social awareness. Santali culture is also depicted in the paintings and bas-relief in the walls of their houses.

Their traditional mythology includes the stories of their ancestors Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Budhi. The twelve clans of  the Santals -  Hansdak, Murmu, Hembrom, Soren, Kisku, Tudu, Marndi, Baske, Besra, Chonre, Puria and Bedea, trace their origins to these mythical ancestors.