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ETHNONYMS: Santhal, Saonta, Saonthal, Saunta


Identification. The Santal are the largest of the tribal populations in South Asia. Santals are found in the three adjoining Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal, and Orissa. Migrants work in the tea plantations of Assam, with smaller groups elsewhere in India. There are also Santal communities in northeastern Bangladesh and in the Nepal Terai. Traditionally mixed farmers with a recent past of hunting and gathering, Santals have found their way to employment in agriculture and industry all over eastern South Asia. "Santal" is the only term currently used by outsiders for the tribe. It is also recognized as an ethnic term by the Santals themselves. Ho hopon ko (human children) and Ho ko (men) are used by them in a more traditional or ritual context.

Location. The Santal heartland is the area known as the Chota Nagpur Plateau, a hilly area of crystalline Cambrian rocks, strewn with laterite and covered by deciduous forest. The area lies in northeastern India approximately between 22° and 24°30 N and stretches from 84° to 87° E. Elevation ranges from 200 to 500 meters with mountains over 1,000 meters. Rainfall, concentrated in the July monsoon, totals about 100 to 130 centimeters. Mean temperatures range from 15° to 21° C in January to 26° to 29° C in July.

Demography. The Indian census counted 3,640,946 Santals in 1971 (but did not count tea workers in Assam), and today the total number of Santals must be somewhat more than four million. It is difficult to say much about their population history, except that they are the largest tribal group in South Asia. The regions of the core Santal area seem to have been settled by different clans. Further migration led to a subdivision of land among subclans, still unevenly distributed over the area. In practice, however, each region today contains a number of clans, possibly the result of an ongoing process of migration.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Santal language, Santali, belongs to the North Mundari Group of languages, itself part of the Austroasiatic Language Family. Writing was introduced by Norwegian missionaries in the late nineteenth century, and so Santali literature uses Roman characters. More Recently, Santali has been written in Devanāgari.

History and Cultural Relations

The original home of the Santals is believed to have been the Champa Kingdom of northern Cambodia, which explains their affinities with the Mon-Khmer groups. Physical anthropologists usually classify them under the Austro-Mongoloid type. They probably entered India well before the Aryan invasions and came by way of Assam and Bengal, as their traditions indicate. They assume the existence of a Santal kingdom, a tradition which is supported by the collections of medieval Santal weapons at the Oslo Ethnographic Museum and by the remains of what may be identified as Santal hill forts from the medieval period. Little else is known of this kingdom to which Santal mythic traditions allude. Moreover, the mythic tradition recalls a war between the Santals and a part-Hindu prince, Mandho Singh, who was born of a Santal mother. Mandho Singh succeeded in recruiting followers among the Santals who followed him to the south of Nagpur, settled there, and became more Hinduized. Early contacts with the British led to the Santal rebellion of 1854-1856, in which some ten thousand Santals were killed. They became an important source of plantation labor, while missionary efforts introduced writing and had some influence on their culture. Only small numbers were actually converted to Christianity. Today, the Santals are among the main sources of support for the Jharkhand "tribalist" movement, in which they collaborate to some extent with other Mundari-speaking groups.


Santals typically live in their own villages, laid out on a street pattern, and numbering from 400 to 1,000 inhabitants each. While separate villages are preferred, various groups sometimes live more or less separately in the tribal or low-caste quarters of mixed villages or towns. Santals never live in Untouchable quarters. In the large industrial towns of the Indian coal and iron belt, there are separate Santal quarters.

Santal houses are mud structures, but they are sturdily built and often decorated with floral designs. Roofs are tiled and slope toward all four sides. Houses have verandas and at least two rooms; the "inner room" (chitar ) contains the ancestors and the granary protected by them. The main post (khunti ), located at the center of the house, to which sacrifices are made on building the house, is of considerable ritual importance.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. It is probable that Santals originally were hunters and gatherers, as their near relatives and neighbors, the Birhors, still are. Their knowledge of plants and animals is reflected in their pharmacopoeia (see below). In hunting technology, their past is evidenced by the use of some eighty varieties of traps. Later, their main economic base shifted to slash-and-burn agriculture and husbandry. Today, wet rice is grown in terraced fields; on the plains, irrigation by canals and ditches is used. Several varieties of rice are grown along with some sixteen varieties of millet. Leguminous vegetables, fruit, mustard, groundnut (in Orissa), cotton, and tobacco are important crops. The Santals keep cattle, goats, and poultry and are nonvegetarian. Fishing is important whenever they have access to rivers and ponds. The economy of the Santals is biased toward consumption, but they sell or barter (in Bihar) goats, poultry, fish, rice and rice beer, millet, groundnut, mustard seed, vegetables, and fruits when a surplus is available.

Migrant labor plays an important role; many Santals have migrated to work in plantations, mines, and industries. In Bengal, some are gardeners or domestic servants. A small educated elite includes politicians, lawyers, doctors, and engineers, while considerable numbers of Santal women work as nurses. Seasonal or temporary migration is particularly important for women, who are working in construction or mining.

Industrial Arts. Santals are expert at wood carving, but this craft, like ironwork, is declining both in quality and importance. Such products were mainly made for their own ceremonial use. Basketwork, weaving of mats, and manufacture of dishes and cups from sal leaves (Shorea robusta ) are crafts still of commercial importance, as are rope making and the manufacture of string beds (charpay ). Santal woodwork formerly included the building of impressive carts and advanced wooden utensils. They still make a large number of musical instruments. While industrial arts have declined, beautiful artifacts are still found, cherished as private heirlooms. Santal women also brew rice beer and alcohol, made from mohua flowers (Madhuca indica ).

Trade. Santals sell their products for cash or barter at tribal markets; rice money was still in use in Bihar in the 1970s. Some trade is also done with Hindu villages and towns, mainly the marketing of agricultural and craft products. Women dominate this trade, while the main male preserve is the sale of goats and cattle.

Division of Labor. Hunting was always a male activity, gathering activities being dominated by women. In agriculture, men plow and sow, while women transplant and weed; division of labor by gender extends through most agricultural work. Boys and young men herd the cattle; women do the milking, collect the dung, and collect fuel in general. Poultry is tended by women, who also catch freshwater crabs, shrimps, etc. in the ponds; fishing by boat or with large land nets is done by the men. Women, as noted, dominate most trade. Ironwork, woodworking, and rope making are male activities; basketwork, weaving, and leafwork are done by women. Ritual specialists are traditionally male; women are formally excluded from such activities.

Land Tenure. Traditionally land was held by usufruct, for slash-and-burn agriculture. With the introduction of wet rice cultivation, local descent groups descended from the clans of the original settlers divided village lands between themselves. The village priest got an additional allotment. The British introduced individual holdings (ryotwari ). Members of subclans, not represented among the village founders, were originally landless and are still accorded inferior status.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Santals are divided into 12 clans and 164 subclans. They are patrilineal and strictly endogamous; their principal function is ceremonial and referential. The clans (paris ) are ranked according to old functional divisions: the Kisku were kings, the Murmu priests, etc. There is an allusion to mythical wars between clans, ending in a ban on intermarriage. The ranking of clans is reflected in a slight tendency to hypergamy. Subclan hierarchy is expressed in terms of senior/junior distinctions as well as pure/impure; subclan identities focus on modes of sacrifice. On the village level, the local descent group is of major organizational importance. Here genealogical knowledge extends backward for only three to four generations. In some areas, there is a tendency for certain clans to intermarry unilaterally over several generations, forming a marriage alliance, but this practice never assumes the form of prescriptive marriage. Of greater importance, however, is the principle of alternate generations, which explains a whole range of joking and avoidance relationships. Politically, kinship is overshadowed by the functions of local chiefs and priests.

Kinship Terminology. The two main principles of the terminology are the distinctions between consanguine relatives and between affines. In address, there is a merging of all cousins into the sibling category. Despite the lack of a clear prescriptive alliance system, there is a tendency to marry the classificatory mother's brother daughter. The most distinctive Munda feature of the system is the alternation of generation (which recalls very clearly the Australian tribes). There is a slight tendency to have clan hypergamypossibly a result of Hindu influence.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Ideologically, the reasons given for marriage are to place offspring under the ancestor spirit (boNAga ) of the husband's clan and to secure labor for the land. Marriage may be of several types. William Archer notes fourteen forms, but the most important are bride-price and bride-service variants. Other alternatives are marriage by capture or elopement. The variations in form reflect the relative positions of spouses: bride-price leads to virilocal residence and is seen as the ideal form, but poor grooms performing bride-service reside uxorilocally. The openness of the system is reflected in the relative ease of divorce by mutual agreement, the provision for taking a second wife, the remarriage of widows, and the special arrangement of purchasing a groom for an unmarried mother.

Domestic Unit. Household units tend toward extended rather than nuclear families, with sons and their wives remaining in the paternal household. It is, however, common for sons to separate before the death of the father, sometimes at the latter's initiative. It is also common to extend nuclear households by the unmarried sister of the wife or through other arrangements. Nuclear households are an ever-present, though numerically relatively unimportant, alternative. Levirate and sororate are not uncommon in the case of the death of either spouse.

Inheritance. Inheritance rules are complex among the Santals, but land is usually divided among the brothers, with smaller portions going to daughters as dowry. In certain cases, unmarried girls may inherit land, but their land reverts to brothers on marriage.

Socialization. The most striking feature of socialization among Santals is the role of grandparents of both sexes. It is through them that children receive their cultural education, even sometimes to the extent of grandmothers initiating their grandsons sexually. Children are disciplined by teasing rather than punishment; while breast-feeding is prolonged, toilet training is achieved at an early age. Children have to work early; otherwise education is very liberal, with much emphasis on cleanliness.

Boys are initiated at the age of 8 or 10, when the five tribal marks are branded on their forearms by a maternal uncle. Girls are tattooed by Hindu or Muslim specialists at the age of 14, following the first menstruation ceremony, which shows Hindu features. At this age, girls are considered to be sexually mature.

Modern education is still a problem, because of a lack of teachers in outlying areas. There is, however, less difference in school attendance between boys and girls than among the nontribals. Christian children receive more and better education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although, as noted, there is a traditional hierarchy of clans, the Santals are basically egalitarian, thus contrasting strongly with their Hindu neighbors. Economically, however, there are considerable differences in wealth and status. The clans and subclans, on the one hand, and the villages and regions, on the other, are the most important internal divisions. The senior male member of the local descent group enjoys a certain authority and prestige derived from ritual functions, as do the religious specialists (priests and lojhas ) and the chiefs. Proficient hunters and orators likewise acquire prestige. Political leaders in the modern arena, like the charismatic leaders of the past, become sources of authority. District chiefs (parganas and désmanjhis ) may enjoy a considerable status when successful in the settlement of disputes. Differences of wealth are expressed in the ability to employ servants. The well-to-do Santal families employ laborers on a contract basis and sometimes grant them land.

Political Organization. In general, authority tends toward a charismatic rather than a traditional pattern. At the village level, the most important political institution is the village assembly, which has no head. This institution directly confronts the "council of the five elders," who represent the "five brothers" of the Santal tradition and are the village chief, the messenger of the village, the one responsible for young people's morals, the village priest, and his assistant.

At the intervillage level, the pargana (chief of twelve villages), who is sometimes enthroned as a petty king, presides over the tribal court. He also leads intervillage ceremonial hunting, with the "hunting priest" at his side. The hunt is the occasion for a court. Likewise, the pargana is assisted by the "country chief and the messenger who both carry out his orders.

For Indian Santals, villages and districts are subjects of panchayati raj (local government), sometimes overlapping and sometimes in competition with the traditional institutions.

Social Control. The sources of conflict among Santals can be summarized as: sexual offenses, land disputes, conflicts over money, cases of evil eye, jealousy, and witchcraft. Many cases are settled by compensation, usually through tribal assemblies, which still function parallel to, and sometimes in competition with, the Indian courts. The most general of these traditional assemblies is the Santal Lo bir Sendera, "the judgment of the burnt forest," which is convened at the time of the traditional intervillage hunts. Village assemblies Likewise play an important role in the settlement of disputes. Witchcraft accusations are common. The witch is identified by ritual specialists, either a janguru or an ojha. Traditionally this naming led to the death of the witch.

While some sexual offenses, including rape, are usually settled by compensation through the mediation of the village assembly, the major offenses of incest and breach of tribal endogamy are primarily the responsibility of the local kin group, which excommunicates andat least traditionallykills the offenders. Excommunicates, like witches, are ostracized by their relatives. Land disputes may be cited as the main example of conflicts that are settled by Indian courts.

Conflict. The Santals have a long tradition of suspicion in regard to the diku, "foreigners," above all toward the dominant Hindu population of the area. This is clear not only from history (e.g., the Santal rebellion) but even more from the content of their myths and folklore, where the foreigner is the source of death, sickness, and other calamities. In practice, there has certainly been a history of exploitation by Hindu merchants, moneylenders, and labor brokers. Today this conflict continues mainly within the framework of the Indian political system, where Santals tend to support either the Jharkhand "tribalist" movement, working for a semiindependent state, or the Maoist Communist party, working for land reform and control of the means of producing, especially mines and plantations.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Santal pantheon includes about 150 spirit deities, generally called boNAgas. These deities include a large number of separate classes, impossible to enumerate here. Some relate to the subclan, but even here we must distinguish between the boNAga of the place of origin of the clan and its ancestral boNAga. Each village has a sacred grove, where we find represented the boNAgas common to the Santal tradition. They are generally benevolent. The forest bongas, however, are malevolent, and include the souls of people who died an unnatural death.

Hindu influence is particularly notable in the appearance of Hindu goddesses as tutelary deities of Santal ojhas. On the one hand, these goddesses patronize Santal witches and introduce disease; on the other hand, their patronage is necessary to combat the same evils. Hindu symbols, such as the trident, have become potent ritual paraphernalia of the Santal ojha.

Religious Practitioners. The village priest (naeke ) is identified, with his wife, as representative of the original Santal couple. Their functions are mainly related to festivals and recurrent annual ceremonies. He consecrates the animals offered to the sacred grove deities. He often compares himself with the Brahman of the encompassing society.

The Santal ojha, a healer and diviner, has several functions. He drives away the malevolent deities, divines the causes of disease, administers remedies according to considerable medical knowledge, and expels pain from the body. He learns his basic magical formulas (mantras) from his master, but he also adds to them from his own experience. An important element in his repertoire is the sacrifice of his own blood (conceived as menstrual blood) to the boNAgas, for which he receives a fee. In the rationalization of his practice he employs several Hindu concepts, yet remains fundamentally within the Santal cultural framework. This position between two Cultures enables him to interpret his own culture and society.

Ceremonies. Life-cycle rituals, such as initiation, marriage, and burial are celebrated individually. But after burial, the final ceremony of gathering the bones and immersing them in water becomes a collective rite. Other collective rites are related to the agricultural cycle: sowing, transplanting, consecration of the crops, and harvest festivals, as well as the annual festival of the cattle. Another cycle concerns the old hunting and gathering traditions, notably the seasonal hunts. The most important, however, of the festivals related to the old hunting and gathering society is the flower festival, which is also the festival of the ancestors and related to the fertility of women. Rainmaking rituals, held in the spring, involve the ritual participation of the village priest, who has the power to produce rain.

Arts. Santal oral literature is rich and includes folktales, myths, riddles, and village stories, and much of it has been recorded or written. Publication began in 1870 with the work of the Norwegian missionaries, who also left large archives of texts written by the Santals themselves. There is also a certain amount of literature in Santali: newspapers, Christian books, and schoolbooks.

Traditional songs are many and various, including ritual texts, dances in homage to the boNAgas, obscene songs sometimes related to hunting or the punishment of offenders, etc. They are classified according to tunes that in turn relate to content. Christian songs have been composed to the same pattern. Each type of song is accompanied by a particular type of traditional dance. The sexes dance separately except when love songs are performed.

More recently, a tradition of folk theater, often with Political overtones, has developed. The main plays have been written by cultural reformers like Ragunath Murmu, and together they present a message of modernization and tribal uplift for the Santal tribe as a whole. Among the visual arts, we may mention the designs decorating houses, the traditional wood carving, and the traditional jewelery, sometimes made of iron and silver.

Medicine. Traditional medicine is highly developed among the Santals and implies a surprising range of botanical and zoological knowledge; more than 300 species each of plants and of animals are identified and used in the pharmacopoeia. There is even, in the organization of botanical knowledge, a hierarchization based on the morphology of plants. The making of remedies implies again a considerable practical knowledge of chemistry.

This medical knowledge is described in a Santal text from the turn of the century, which establishes a complete pathology defining and ranking symptoms and disease according to consistent criteria. Recent fieldwork data corroborates the value of this work, though there is a tendency nowadays to replace such remedies by ritual invocations.

For the Santals, modern medicine sometimes provides an alternative for healing without in any way replacing or superseding traditional medicine.

Death and Afterlife. Santal souls become boNAgas three generations after death, provided that the correct rituals have been performed. At cremation, some bones are collected by the main mourner (usually the eldest son) and kept for awhile under the rafters of the house. They are washed and fed ritually by female mourners with milk, rice beer, and sacred water. Thus, the mourning ritual displays the central Santal symbolism of flower and bone. The feeding of bones that are crowned by flowers expresses the complementarity of the principle of descent (bone) and the principle of affinity (flower = uterus). The chief mourner is possessed by and impersonates the dead and is questioned by the village priest. This dialogue aims at providing the deceased with the wherewithal of the other world. A year later, the bones are immersed in water, a ritual involving sacrifice of a goat. The dead now becomes an ancestor known by name; one month later the recitation of a ritual text releases him from identity to become a nameless ancestor. He now joins other ancestors in the ancestral room of the house and partakes in the offering of rice beer to the ancestors. Now his shadow, which was roaming between the worlds, goes to Hanapuri, the abode of the dead. Here Jom Raja, king of the dead, rules; the passage from there to the state of becoming a boNAga is never made explicit.

The land of the dead is conceptualized as a place where certain individuals acquire the source of magic powers, while others are simply rewarded according to the way they have acted during their life. While the yogi returns to the world and achieves immortality, simple men endure the justice of Jom Raja. The idea of afterlife shows both Hindu and Christian influence.

See also Kol; Munda


Archer, William G. (1974). The Hill of Flutes: Life, Love, and Poetry in Tribal India; A Portrait of the Santals. London: Allen & Unwin.

Archer, William G. (1984). Tribal Law and Justice: A Report on the Santal. New Delhi: Concept.

Bodding, P. O. (1927). Santal Folk-Tales. Vols. 1-3. Oslo: Aschehoug.

Bodding, P. O. (1932-1936). A Santal Dictionary. Vols. 1-4. Oslo: Det Norske Videnskaps Akademi.

Bouez, Serge (1985). L 'alliance chez les Ho et les Santal de l'Inde. Paris: Société d'Ethnographie.

Carrin-Bouez, Marine (1986). La Fleur et l'Os: Symbolisme et rituel chez les Santal Paris: École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.


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