Santhal people

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Total population
Regions with significant populations
              Jharkhand 2,410,509[1]
              West Bengal 2,280,540[2]
              Bihar 367,612[3]
              Odisha 629,782
              Nepal 42,698[4]
              Jhapa District 23,172
              Morang District 16,387
Sariism -Sari Dharam  • Sarnaism  • Hinduism  • Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Mundas  • Hos  • Kols

The Santhal (also spelled as Santal, and formerly also spelt as Sontal or Sonthal) are one of the Tribal peoples who live mainly in the states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, and Assam. There is also a significant Santhal minority in neighboring Bangladesh, and a small population in Nepal (known as Satar in Nepal). The Santhals speak the Santali language, one of the Tribal languages. They are one of the largest tribal community in India.

Santali Language[edit]

The Santhals have been more tenacious of their language than many of the other people to whom they are racially allied. They are the largest tribe in India to retain a good language to the present day. The Santali Language is part of the Austroasiatic family, distantly related to Vietnamese and Khmer. It is closely related to Mundri as well as to Ho, Korku, Savara and Gadaba, languages spoken by smaller tribes. The relationship of the Santhals with these tribes is racial and cultural as well as linguistic, and as they live in neighboring territories it is very likely that they have a common origin. They have nevertheless been separate long enough to develop their individual languages and to possess distinct though allied cultures.

The Santali script is a relatively recent innovation. Santali did not have a written language until the twentieth century and used Latin/Roman, Devnagri, Oriya and Bangla writing systems.

The Reverend J. Phillips published 'An Introduction to the Santal Language' in 1852, printed at the Calcutta School - Book Society's Press.

Lars Olsen Skrefsrud, a Norwegian missionary and a language researcher, published 'A Grammar of Santali Language' in 1873.

Paul Olaf Bodding (born Gjøvik, Norway on 2 November 1865, died Odense, Denmark on 25 September 1938) was a Norwegian missionary, linguist and folklorist. He served in India for 44 years (1889–1933), and operated mainly from the town Dumka in the Santal Parganas-district. Bodding created the first alphabet and wrote the first grammar for the Santali-speaking native people in eastern India. In 1914 he also completed the translation of the Bible into the Santali Language.

In 1925 akilman Raghunath Murmu created Ol Chiki script for the Santali Language.


One of the most studied tribal religions in India, Santhal religion worships Marang buru or Bonga as supreme deity. The weight of belief, however, falls on a court of spirits (bonga), who handle different aspects of the world and who must be placated with prayers and offerings in order to ward off evil influences. These spirits operate at the village, household, ancestor, and sub-clan level, along with evil spirits that cause disease, and can inhabit village boundaries, mountains, water, tigers, and the forest. A characteristic feature of the Santhal village is a sacred grove(known as the "Jaher"[5] or "Santal Sthal") on the edge of the settlement where many spirits live and where a series of annual festivals take place.[6]

The most important spirit is Marang Buru (Great Mountain), who is invoked whenever offerings are made and who instructed the first Santhals in the brewing of Hañdi. Maran Buru's consort is the benevolent Jaher Era (Lady of the Grove).

A yearly round of rituals connected with the agricultural cycle, along with life-cycle rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death, involves 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. Similar beliefs are common among other tribes of northeast and central India such as the Kharia, Munda, and Oraon.[6]

Smaller and more isolated tribes often demonstrate less articulated classification systems of the spiritual hierarchy, described as animism or a generalized 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 Santhal 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 coordinating rituals.[6]


The Santhals are an agricultural tribe, from time immemorial they have cleared forests, toiled the land, and produced food for subsistence. Santhal laborers were considered very efficient and they easily found employment in coal mines. Beside agriculture they also domesticate animals like cows, buffaloes and pigs. Apart from these the Santhals also are well versed in the art of hunting, where their exceptional skills with bow and arrows is noticeable. After the ban on hunting by the Government of India, the Santhals do not get chance to practice their archery skill but recently a new venture of organizing village level archery competitions during festive seasons has given a chance to culture this unique legacy. Those adopted and educated by the Christian missionaries were in a better position. There were a few Santhals in Government jobs holding high posts. The Santhal Deputy Commissioner, the village Heads, the Darogas, musicians and the teachers.

Santhals have taken up profession in every field. There are good number of Santhal doctors, engineers, governments servants, the opening up of new avenues after the arrival of the Christian missionaries, and the English education have changed their lifestyle and made it typically urban.

Santhali culture[edit]

A Drummer Playing Tamak

The Santhali culture has attracted many scholars and anthropologists for decades. Some studies of the Santhali culture were done by the Christian missionaries. The most famous of them was the Norwegian-born Reverend Paul Olaf Bodding. Unlike many other tribal groups of the Indian subcontinent, the Santhals have preserved their native language despite waves of migrations and invasions such as Aryan, Hun, Mughals, Europeans, and others.

Santhali culture is depicted in the paintings and artworks in the walls of their houses. Local mythology includes the stories of the Santhal ancestors Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Bhudi. The Santhals mainly prefer group performance than solo, which is an important feature of tribal art form in India. Group dancing and singing is the most important medium to express their joy and happiness. The Santhali dance and music is tuned with the nature of occasion whether it is social or ceremonial. The three most quintessential instruments in Santhali music are two kinds of drums one Tumdak and the other Tamak, and Tiriao or flute. The Tumdak is a double headed drum having the shape of a frustum, the drum skins at left and right are made of animal skins. The one at the left has bigger circumference than the right. The Tamak has a hemispherical shape, with a wider circumference and played by two drum sticks. Tiriao or basically a bansuri is a bamboo made musical instrument with five holes.

A Santhal drummer playing Tumda

The most well known dance form of the Santhals is a group of women with interlocked hands forming a semicircle, encircling a relatively smaller group of male percussionists at the centre. The dance steps and movements are in accordance with the beats which is relatively simple. The dance forms, countenance, and beats differ from region to region. The Santhali Dance have a wide variety and types and is tuned with ceremony and social celebrations. The Dasai dance is performed only by males of the community on festive occasions. Langre, Guluri, and Humti is danced all round the year, whereas Baha and Sohorai are only for festive seasons. In social ceremonies like marriage Dong is danced. Along with these popular dances some other rare forms like Rinjha and Jhika also exist and performed only in few regions.

Santhali dance

The Santhal songs also have a variety similar to their dance, the Santali word for song is "Sereng". 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 "Gam Sereng" is another type of song which is sung in hot summer evening.

Chadar Badar, a form of puppetry known also as Santhal puppetry, is a folk show involving wooden puppets placed in a small cage which acts as the stage.[7]

The Santhal Rebellion[edit]


The insurrection of the Santhals was mainly against the British and their supporters like moneylenders, bangali zamindars and their operatives. Before the advent of the British in India the Santhals resided peacefully in the hilly districts of Mayurbhanj Chhotanagpur, Palamau, Hazaribagh, Midnapur, Bankura and Birbhum. Their agrarian way of life was based on clearing the forest; they also engaged themselves in hunting for subsistence. But, as the agents of the new colonial rule claimed their rights on the lands of the Santhals, they peacefully went to reside in the hills of Rajmahal. After a brief period of peace the British operatives with their native counterparts jointly started claiming their rights in this new land as well. The simple and honest Santhals were cheated and turned into slaves by the mazumdars and the money lenders who first appeared to them as business men and lured them into debt, first by goods lent to them on loans. However hard the Santhals tried to repay these loans, they never ended. Through corrupt measures of the money lenders, the debts multiplied to an amount for which a generation of the Santhal family had to work as slaves. Furthermore, the Santhal women who worked under labour contractors were disgraced and abused.


On 30 June 1855 the Santhal rebel leaders Sidhu Murmu and Kanu Murmu mobilized 30 thousand Santhals and declared a rebellion against the British Raj.

Soon after the declaration the Santhals took up arms. In many villages the zamindar tax collectors and their operatives were put to death. The open rebellion caught the British administration by surprise. Initially a small contingent was sent to suppress the rebels but it met no success and this further fueled the spirit of the revolt. When the law and order situation was getting out of hand the British Government finally took a major step and sent in large number of troops assisted by the local zamindars and the Nawab of Murshidabad to quell the Rebellion.

A number of skirmishes occurred after this which resulted in large number of casualties for the Santhals. The primitive weapons of the Santhals weren't a match against the musket and cannon of the British. Troop detachments from the 7th Native Infantry Regiment, 40th Native Infantry and others were called into action. Major skirmishes occurred from July 1855 to January 1856, in places like Kahalgaon, Suri, Raghunathpur, and Munkatora.

The revolt was brutally crushed, and the two celebrated leaders Sidhu and Kanu were killed. Elephants supplied by the Nawab of Murshidabad were used to demolish Santhal huts and likewise atrocities were committed by the British army and its allies in squelching the Rebellion. Although the rebellion was crushed with a heavy hand, some British army officers like Major Jervis who observed:

It was not war; they did not understand yielding. As long as their national drum beat, the whole party would stand, and allow themselves to be shot down. Their arrows often killed our men, and so we had to fire on them as long as they stood. When their drum ceased, they would move off a quarter of a mile; then their drums beat again, and they calmly stood till we came up and poured a few volleys into them. There was not a sepoy in the war who did not feel ashamed of himself.[8]

Charles Dickens in Household Words wrote:

There seems also to be a sentiment of honor among them (Santhals); for it is said that they use poisoned arrows in hunting, but never against their foes. If this be the case - and we hear nothing of the poisoned arrows in the recent conflicts - they are infinitely more respectable than our civilised enemy the Russians, who would most likely consider such forbearance as foolish, and declare that is not war."[9]

Although its impact was largely shadowed by that of the other rebellion, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the legend 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 independent India, Jharkhand.


  1. ^ "Jharkhand: Data Highlights the Scheduled Tribes" (PDF). Census of India 2001. Census Commission of India. Retrieved 2010-01-10. 
  2. ^ "West Bengal: Data Highlights the Scheduled Tribes" (PDF). Census of India 2001. Census Commission of India. Retrieved 2010-01-10. 
  3. ^ "Bihar: Data Highlights the Scheduled Tribes" (PDF). Census of India 2001. Census Commission of India. Retrieved 2010-01-10. 
  4. ^ "Santali: Also spoken in Nepal". Retrieved 2011-04-01. 
  5. ^ "Jaher Worshiping Place of Santals". Retrieved 27 September 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c "Library of Congress Country Studies". U.S. Library of Congress (released in public domain). Retrieved 2007-10-06. 
  7. ^ "Chadar Badar". Telegraph. 2015. Retrieved March 22, 2015. 
  8. ^ L.S.S O Malley, Bengal District Gazetteers Santal Parganas.
  9. ^ Charles Dickens, Household words, Volume 35.


  • Archer, W. G. The Hill of Flutes: Life, Love, and Poetry in Tribal India: A Portrait of the Santals. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974.
  • Bodding, P. O. Santal Folk Tales. Cambridge, Mass.: H. Aschehoug; Harvard University Press, 1925.
  • Bodding, P. O. Santal Riddles and Witchcraft among the Santals. Oslo: A. W. Brøggers, 1940.
  • Bodding, P. O. A Santal Dictionary (5 volumes), 1933-36 Oslo: J. Dybwad, 1929.
  • Bodding, P. O. Materials for a Santali Grammar I, Dumka 1922
  • Bodding, P. O. Studies in Santal Medicine and Connected Folklore (3 volumes), 1925–40
  • Bompas, Cecil Henry, and Bodding, P. O. Folklore of the Santal Parganas. London: D. Nutt, 1909. Full text at Project Gutenberg.
  • Chakrabarti, Dr. Byomkes, A Comparative Study of Santali and Bengali, KP Bagchi, Calcutta, 1994
  • Chaudhuri, A. B. State Formation among Tribals: A Quest for Santal Identity. New Delhi: Gyan Pub. House, 1993.
  • Culshaw, W. J. Tribal Heritage; a Study of the Santals. London: Lutterworth Press, 1949.
  • Edward Duyker Tribal Guerrillas: The Santals of West Bengal and the Naxalite Movement, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1987, pp. 201, SBN 19 561938 2.
  • Hembrom, T. The Santals: Anthropological-Theological Reflections on Santali & Biblical Creation Traditions. 1st ed. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1996.
  • Orans, Martin. "The Santal; a Tribe in Search of a Great Tradition." Based on thesis, University of Chicago., Wayne State University Press, 1965.
  • Prasad, Onkar. Santal Music: A Study in Pattern and Process of Cultural Persistence, Tribal Studies of India Series; T 115. New Delhi: Inter-India Publications, 1985.
  • Roy Chaudhury, Indu. Folk Tales of the Santals. 1st ed. Folk Tales of India Series, 13. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1973.
  • Troisi, J. The Santals: A Classified and Annotated Bibliography. New Delhi: Manohar Book Service, 1976.
  • ———. Tribal Religion: Religious Beliefs and Practices among the Santals. New Delhi: Manohar, 2000.

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