views updated


ALTERNATE NAMES: Santhal; Hor ko; Hor hopon ko; Manjhi
LOCATION: India; Bangladesh; Nepal
POPULATION: Over 6 million (estimate)
RELIGION: Native Santal religion with influences of Hinduism


The Santals form the third largest tribal group in India. Their ancestral homeland is believed to lie in Southeast Asia, where they are associated with the old Champa Kingdom of northern Cambodia. The Santals are thought to have migrated to the Indian subcontinent long before the Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent around 1500 bc. They most likely reached their homeland, the Chota Nagpur Plateau of east-central India, through Assam and Bengal.

According to Santal traditions, following the famine of ad 1770, large numbers of Santals migrated from the Chota Nagpur Plateau and the plains south of the Damodar River and established a colony (Damin-i-koh) in what was later to become the Santal Parganas District, now in eastern Jharkhand. In June 1855, Santals in Damin-i-koh began protesting their mis-treatment 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. The uprising was quelled by British troops at the cost of hundreds (some say thousands) of Santal lives. Although unsuccessful, the rebellion eventually led to administrative reforms that saw the creation of Santal Parganas District. This has always remained at the center of Santal tradition and activities.

The Santals accept the designation "Santal," which is a term used by outsiders, but they call themselves Hor ko ("Man") or Horhopon ko ("sons of Man"). They are also known as Manjhi. In Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal, the Santals are classed as a Scheduled Tribe, but not in Assam.


With a population of over 6 million the Santals are surpassed in number only by the Gonds and the Bhils among the tribes of India. The Santal heartland lies on the Chota Nagpur Plateau in Jharkhand, with large Santal populations also found in neighboring areas of West Bengal. This area of concentration extends southwards into the Mayurbhanj District of northeastern Orissa. Migrant communities are found working in the tea plantations of Assam and Tripura. Some 65,000 live in northeastern Bangladesh and a few thousand are found in the terai (low-lying swampy plains along the Himalayan foothills) of Nepal.

In 2000, as a result of popular pressure to create a state which reflected the aspirations of tribals in the region, the new state of Jharkhand was formed by the Government of India out of 18 districts of southern Bihar and became the 28th state of the Indian Union. Although the modern movement to create a state of Jharkhand dates to the 1900s, according to some historians, there was already a distinct geo-political, cultural entity called Jharkhand even before the period of the Magadha Empire (c. 6th century BC). In ancient times the northern portion of Jharkhand state was a tributary to the Magadhan (ancient Bihar) Empire and southern part was a tributary of the Kalingan (ancient Orissa) Empire. Subsequently, much of the area came under the Munda Rajas. During the Mughal period, the Jharkhand area was known as Kukara. After 1765 the region came under the control of the British and became formally known under its present title, "Jharkhand"—the Land of "Jungles" (forests) and "Jharis" (bushes).

The Santals occupy the easternmost segment of the Chota Nagpur Plateau, where the uplands jut out into the Gangetic plain. There is a great bend in the Ganges River as it skirts the edge of the uplands before swinging southeastwards towards the Bay of Bengal. Chota Nagpur lies on ancient, hard, crystalline rocks that have eroded into hills and undulating plateaus. In the Santal areas, these lie at elevations between 400 and 600 m (approximately 1,300–2,000 ft), with isolated peaks rising to 850 m (approximately 2,800 ft). In the northeast, along the Ganges River, the Rajmahal Hills rise steeply from the alluvial plains. At one time the whole area was extensively forested, though much of the forest cover has been cleared for cultivation. To the south, the land falls away towards the basin of the Damodar River Valley and the low-lying plains of West Bengal. The climate experienced is typical for this part of India—hot summers (maximum temperatures in May average over 35°c or 95°F), with three or four months of heavy rain associated with the summer monsoon (June–September) and cooler and drier winters.


The language of the Santals is Santali, 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 Orissa, and the Devanagari script in Bihar. Recently, in an attempt to generate a sense of tribal identity, some Santals have begun advocating the exclusive use of a script called Olchiki for writing. The Olchiki script, also known as Olcemet ("language of writing") or simply as the Santali alphabet, was created in 1925 by Pandit Raghunath Murmu for the Santali language. Ol Chiki, which is written from left to right, has 30 letters, the forms of which are intended to evoke natural shapes. The Latin alphabet is better at representing some Santali stops, but vowels are still problematic. Unlike most Indic scripts, which are derived from Brahmi, like the Latin alphabet, Ol Chiki is a true alphabet, with vowels given equal representation with consonants. Additionally, because it was designed specifically for the Santali language, one letter could be assigned to each Santali phoneme (i.e. the smallest structural unit that distinguishes meaning).


One of the legendary figures of the Santals is Kamruguru, who figures in many of their folk songs and myths. The details of his exploits differ from region to region, but all Santals believe Kamruguru was a great medicine man and sorcerer in ancient Santal society. A popular legend is told about Kamruguru's death. At the end of his life, according to this story, Kamrurguru became seriously ill. Confined to his bed, he called his two disciples and ordered them to bring some herbs from the jungle of a distant hill. Only these herbs could effect a cure. While crossing a river on the way to the hill, they met an old woman who informed them that Kamruguru was already dead. They abandoned their search and returned, only to find their master alive. Kamruguru sent them out again to fetch some special fish from the river to make a medicine. At the river they met the old woman catching fish and she told them to go back as their master was no longer alive. This time, the disciples returned to find Kamruguru dead. Some Santals say that Kamruguru was killed by a witch and that the songs and dances of the Dansae festival are symbols of lamentation for his death.

One ritual of the Dansae festival requires that young men participate in the dancing and singing dressed as women. They place peacock feathers in their headgear and carry peacock feathers in their hands (in Santal belief, peacock feathers give protection from evil spirits and black magic). According to a Santal legend, a great Santal warrior named Hodor-Durga met a white-complexioned woman in battle. After a prolonged struggle, the woman killed Hodor-Durga. As was the custom of the time, the victor took the name of the vanquished warrior and became known to all as the Goddess Durga. Her warriors plundered every Santal village, killing all the men. To save their lives, the men disguised themselves as women and fled into the hills and jungles. The Dansae dancers dress as women in emulation of their ancestors.


The Santal universe is inhabited by supernatural beings and powers, both good and evil, which influence every aspect of Santal life. The Santal religion revolves around maintaining the correct relationship with this supernatural world through the appropriate rituals and magical practices.

Preeminent in the Santal pantheon is Thakur Jiu (also called Sin Bonga or Dharam), the Creator and Preserver of the universe. The Thakur (this is not a Santal word and is probably adopted from the Hindus) is a benevolent deity who receives no specific worship but is remembered at all religious festivals and important social occasions. He is invoked particularly at the time of famines and drought, when white fowl are sacrificed to him.

In addition to Thakur Jiu, the Santal recognize a host of spirits or bongas, estimated to be between 150 and 180 in number. The bongas are to be revered, feared, called upon to intercede for the welfare of the Santal, and propitiated with blood-sacrifice and other offerings. They must be worshiped at regular intervals, but also at religious festivals, at times of major life events, and during important economic undertakings. Bongas fall into several categories: village spirits, hill spirits, ancestor spirits, the deity of agriculture, mischievous spirits such as Baghut Bonga (the tiger spirit), household deities, and the secret deity of the family or subclan. Maran Buru, for example, is the most powerful of the Santal Bongas. He is identified with both good and evil spirits and is worshiped with the sacrifice of a white fowl or a white goat and offerings of rice-beer. He taught the first Santal couple how to engage in sex and how to brew rice-beer. Maran Baru (literally "Bonga of the Great Mountain") is propitiated at all festivals. He resides in the village's sacred grove of sal trees (Shorea robusta), along with other important bongas. The Santals have no temples but perform many of their religious ceremonies in this sacred grove, the Jahirstan.

Like the Oraon and Munda tribes, with whom they have much in common, the Santals have a number of individuals who perform specific roles in their religious and ritual life. The village priest (naeke), along with his assistant (kudam naeke), is responsible for rituals at festivals and religious ceremonies. He consecrates offerings to be made to the spirits and performs sacrifices. The medicine man or shaman (ojha), however, drives away malevolent spirits; he also diagnoses and cures diseases, either by magical incantations, exorcism, or administering medicines. An ojha, not the village priest, is selected to preside at the annual Dansae festival. The witch-finder (Janguru) divines which evil bonga or witch is responsible for diseases that no one else can cure. The annual hunt festival is led by the dihru or hunt-priest.

As with other tribal peoples who have been exposed to Hindu culture, the Santals have been influenced by Hinduism. They have adopted Hindu deities such as Shiva, Rama, Kali, and Durga in their pantheon of spirits and worship them along with their own deities. Festivals such as Pata, Chata, and Jatra are festivals borrowed from the Hindus, but they are celebrated in the Santal manner with sacrifice, drinking rice-beer, singing, and dancing. Santals may also participate in Hindu festivals such as Durga Puja. In the past, Hindu reformist movements such as the Kharwar movement gained some following among the Santals.

Christian missionary efforts among the Santals began during the 19th century and just under 3% of Santals are now Christian.


The most important of the Santals' festivals is the Sohrae festival, a harvest festival held in December or January after the winter rice crop is harvested. The festival usually lasts five days. On the first day, after fowl are sacrificed, the village cattle are driven over a hen's egg. The animal that treads on it is caught, washed, and its horns are decorated. The owner of the cow, it is believed, will have good luck. On the second day, each family in the village performs a puja (worship ceremony) in its cow shed, sacrificing chickens and a pig to Maran Buru, the household gods, and the ancestor spirits. The third day, a wooden pole with straw tied to the top is erected in the village. A bull is washed, its horns are anointed with oil and vermilion, and the animal is tied to the post. The bachelors and young boys of the village then proceed to bait the bull, drumming, dancing, and screaming to get it excited and make it buck. The remaining days of the festival are given over to feasting, dancing, and singing. Traditionally this a period of sexual license, although taboos against adultery and liaisons between members of the same clan are strictly followed.

Other important festivals celebrated through the year are Baha (the Flower Blossom Festival), Magh Sim, Erok Sim, Hariar Sim, Iri-Gundhi Nawai, and Janthar. These are all festivals connected to agriculture. Festivals such as Jom Sim and Mak Mor are dedicated to specific deities. Karam is celebrated to ensure increased wealth and progeny and to drive out evil spirits. The Dansae festival is held in the fall and corresponds to the Hindu Durga Puja. The annual hunting festival, Disom Sendra, is an important event for the Santals.


A pregnant woman is subject to certain taboos to avoid harm from malevolent spirits or witches. Birth is attended only by female relatives and a midwife. After a birth, both the house and village are considered polluted. On the fifth day after birth (or third day if the baby is female), ceremonies are performed to remove this pollution and also to name the child. A male child takes the name of his father's father; a second son, that of the mother's father; a third son, that of a brother of the father's father; and so on. Girls take the names of their female relatives in the same sequence.

Santals have to undergo the Chacho Chetiar ceremony before they can take their place in society. No Santal can be married or cremated, participate in ceremonies, or claim any social rights without this. There is no prescribed age at which this occurs and Santals often perform the ceremony for several children at the same time. All the village officials and villagers attend the festivities, which are accompanied by singing, dancing, and drinking, and the retelling of the mythical history of the Santal people. The naming ceremony and the Chacho Chetiar are two of the rare Santal rituals that are not accompanied by animal sacrifice.

Around 8 to 10 years of age, boys are initiated into the tribe by having the five Santal tribal marks branded on their forearms by a maternal uncle. Girls are tattooed on their faces, foreheads, chests, and arms after they start menstruating, at which time they are considered to be sexually mature.

The Santals believe that the souls of the dead eventually become bongas, provided the correct rituals have been performed. The dead are cremated, but young children and pregnant women are buried. Bones are taken from the funeral pyre and kept in the house, where they are ritually fed with milk, rice-beer, and sacred water by female mourners. Periodically, the Santals take the bones of their dead relatives to a stream or river (many go to the Damodar River) and deposit them in the water. This ritual is completed by the sacrifice of a male goat. After returning from the river, the relatives of the deceased hold a feast for the entire village.


Santal children are taught proper manners at a very early age. When a son greets his father, he bows low, touches his left hand to his right elbow, raises his right fist as high as his forehead, and pauses slightly. The father responds by touching his right arm with his left hand, moving the right fist downwards and opening his hand. A daughter salutes her mother by bowing before her and touching the ground. Her mother returns the greeting by extending her hands, palms turned up, flexing them a few times, and raising them over her head.

These are the standard forms of greeting used not only between parents and children but by the community at large.


Santal villages usually consist of up to 30 or more houses built on either side of a single, wide, unpaved street, planted at intervals with shade trees. Villages are generally neat and clean, kept so by the villagers and also by scavenging dogs and pigs. The house of the village headman (Manjhi) is built close to the center of the village near the Majhisthan. This is a raised platform, covered with a thatched roof supported by poles, on which the business of the village is carried out. Every village also has its sacred grove of sal trees located within the village boundaries.

A typical Santal house is rectangular in form, roughly 5 m by 4 m (16 by 12 ft) in dimension, divided into two rooms. The floor is packed earth, while the walls are made of earth and cow dung, some 45 cm (18 in) thick, plastered over branches placed vertically between the wooden posts supporting the roof. The roof is gabled, made of a split-bamboo frame covered with paddy straw or grass, fixed on rafters. The sleeping room is also used to store rice and other possessions and the chickens are penned in there at night. Although most activities, including cooking, take place outside the house or on the veranda under the eaves, there is a hearth for cooking indoors during the cold season. Every Santal house has a special area, banned to outsiders, that is sacred to the ancestors. A separate shed is constructed to house cattle and pigs. Santals keep dogs, primarily for hunting, and also cats to catch rats.


The Santal are divided into 12 patrilineal totemic clans, which are further subdivided into subclans. Violation of rules of tribal endogamy and clan exogamy are severely punished, with the offenders being expelled from Santal society. Clan names are commonly used as surnames.

Households can contain nuclear or extended families, although the latter is more usual. Though women are theoretically subordinate to their husbands, in practice they are almost equal partners in the economic affairs of the family. Matters of trade and the sale of agricultural products are entirely in their hands. Wives are acquired through negotiation (the preferred method), elopement, or capture. Girls are married between 16 and 18 years or age, while boys are anywhere from 16 to 22 years old. The consent of both parties to the marriage is sought. Marriage (bapla) is one of the most important of the Santal life-cycle rituals and it is celebrated with much dancing, singing, and drinking. Traditional Santal practices involved payment of a bride-price, but among the more affluent, urban communities today the dowry is becoming popular. Residence patterns are patrilocal and the bride moves into the household of her husband's family. Divorce is permitted with the sanction of the village council. Women have no rights of inheritance, with sons sharing equally in the property of the father.


The traditional dress of the Santal male is the lengta or "little apron." This is a piece of white cloth, over 1 m in length and 25 cm wide (4 ft by 10 in). A string is tied around the waist, one end of the cloth is tucked into the string at the back, and the rest is drawn through the legs and tucked into the string at the front. Sometimes a larger piece of cloth covering the body from the waist to the knees is worn. Santal men generally wear no headgear and the upper body is bare, except in winter. Males wear no ornaments except small silver earrings.

Santal women wear two pieces of clothing. One is wrapped around the waist and lower body; the other, about 1 m by ¾ m (3 ft by 2½ ft) is worn over the torso so as to cover the breasts. This cloth, usually white in color, was formerly spun and woven by the Santals, but nowadays it is purchased in local markets. Women wear silver earrings, bead necklaces around the neck, and silver rings and ornaments in the nose. Heavy brass bracelets are worn on the arms and also brass or sometimes silver anklets on the legs. Every Santal girl wears flowers in her hair.

Dress styles are changing and Santals, especially those who live and work in towns, have adopted regional dress, such as the sārī for women or Western-style clothes for men.


Rice is the staple food of the Santals. It is typically eaten boiled, with spiced vegetables such as sweet potato, eggplant, pumpkin, beans, radishes, and onions. Dishes are also prepared from edible roots, leaves, and mushrooms collected in the forest. The Santals cultivate a variety of pulses, which they boil in water and mix with spices and salt. This dish is called dāl. Fruits eaten by the Santal include jackfruit, guava, plantain, blackberry, tamarind, and papaya.

The Santals are fond of meat and eat beef, pork, and the flesh of wild animals, fish, and birds. The cost of meat is prohibitive, however, and the Santals usually subsist on a vegetarian diet. At festival times, the meat of sacrificed animals is eagerly consumed.

Milk is not an important element in the Santals' diet, although it is used for preparing curds and butter, from which ghi is made. The liquid left after the butter has been churned is drunk and considered to be very nourishing.

Rice-beer is brewed and drunk in large quantities. The Santals also distill liquor from the fruit of the Mahua tree (Bassia latifolia), although this is now banned by the government.


Levels of educational achievement among the Santals is generally low, except among the Santal Christian community. Despite the availability of government educational programs, Santals show literacy rates below the average for the Scheduled Tribes. In Jharkhand, for example, the 2001 Census returns show overall literacy among Santals standing at only 40.5%, with female literacy being less than half that of men. A recent study in a rural area of West Bengal showed literacy among local Santal women to be around 10%.

A major conflict in Santal education relates to the use of the Santali script. The Christian Santals are in favor of the Roman script whereas the non-Christian prefer the locally developed Ol Chiki script. However, Santali has already been recognised as one of India's 23 official languages by the central government and the state governments of Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, and Orissa have already initiated action plans for imparting education in their mother tongue for the Santal students in primary schools. The University Grants Commission in Delhi has started teaching and conferring Post-Graduate degrees in Santali language and literature, while universities in Jharkhand and Bihar are offering post-graduate courses in Santali language and literature. In government schools in Bihar, Santali students are provided primary and secondary education in Santali, although there is a problem with obtaining the appropriate texts.

Despite these advances in Santali education, a flourishing modern literature in Santali, and the fact that many Santals see education as a way out of poverty and low socio-economic status, illiteracy is high among the Santals—especially women— and education is not high on the Santal priority list. Only some 37.6% of 5- to 15-year-old Santals attend school and only 13.2% of the population graduates from high school.

Even though Santali is known primarily for its oral traditions and despite the issue of which script is to be used, there is a modern tradition of Santali literature—especially poetry— with writers such as Nirmala Putul composing their works in Santali.


Santals have a rich tradition of oral literature. Myths tell of the creation of the world, of the first Santal man and woman (Pil-chu Haram and Pilchu Burhi), of the wanderings of the tribe, and of Santal heroes. Folk tales, riddles, and village stories add to lore of the Santals. Much of this material has been gathered and published over the last century. A tradition of modern Santali literature has also developed, with poems, novels, short stories, and plays being written by authors such as Ragunath Murmu, Balkishore Basuki, and Narayan Soren. Newspapers, literary magazines, and even school texts are now published in Santali.

Traditional songs are an integral part of Santal life and represent the very essence of Santal culture. There are songs for every occasion—songs to be sung at specific rituals, to accompany dancing, and for the worship of bongas. There are love songs, obscene songs for the licentious spring festival, songs for the ceremonial hunt, and songs expounding on Santal social customs. Dancing, too, is an important part of Santal life and there are specific dances that accompany the songs. Men and women dance separately, except when love songs are being performed.

In the past, Santals preserved knowledge of their traditions through institutions along the lines of "guru" schools. Every clan had its school headed by a guru (teacher), usually an elder who had intimate knowledge of the myths, lore, and customs of the people. It would be he who would pass on traditions of music, dance, and song from generation to generation. Similarly, the Santals have an extraordinary knowledge of folk medicine and herbal healing. The Raranic, or herb-doctor, learns his trade as an apprentice to an older man, jealously guards his secrets, and in turn passes his knowledge on to the next generation. Even today, Santals often seek the services of both the herb-doctor and modern medical doctors to treat illnesses.


Santals were once hunters and gatherers, subsequently adopting the slash-and-burn cultivation still practiced by the Paharias (hill tribes) in the hills of Chota Nagpur. Today, the Santals are primarily settled cultivators, growing paddy rice and cereals, and keeping cattle, goats, pigs, and poultry. They fish where they have the opportunity and supplement their diet by hunting. Many Santals have left the land to work as agricultural laborers. Some work in the mines and factories of the Damodar Valley industrial region, while others have migrated further afield to find employment on tea plantations or as gardeners or domestic servants. Seasonal labor is important, even for those who cultivate their own land. More educated individuals work in government offices, schools, hospitals, and other service-sector industries, and a small elite have entered the professions as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and politicians.


Boys play with bows and arrows, just as their fathers hunt with these weapons. Hide-and-seek is a popular pastime. Another game involves two small, semicircular pieces of wood and a stick about 1 m (3 ft) in length. A hole is dug in the ground and one of the semicircular pieces is placed standing on its straight edge by the hole. The other piece is stood on edge about 1.5 m (4–5 ft) away from the first piece. A batter takes the stick and tries to strike the second piece so that it knocks the first into the hole. The loser is penalized by having to run a short distance on one leg.


The boundary between entertainment, recreation, and traditional life in Santal society is never very clear. The dancing, singing, music, and feasting associated with religious festivals and social occasions provide entertainment as well as strengthening village and family ties. Even the ceremonial hunt combines ritual meaning with a favorite pastime of the Santals.

Access to modern forms of entertainment, however, depends largely on individual circumstance. The more prosperous Santals living in urban areas, with the means and inclination to do so, can share in the radio-television-movie culture of the modern urban scene. Many Santals, however, living in relative isolation and faced with poverty and a lack of education, do not have access to such modern entertainment.


The Santals have a rich tradition of folk arts and crafts, including designs painted on walls, woodcarving, and the making of jewelry. Design motifs include figures of animals, birds, and trees, and scenes of humans hunting and dancing. Among the woodcarvings are representations of deer, peacocks, small sparrow-like birds, fishes, and frogs.


A major problem faced by the Santals over the last few decades is land fragmentation. Smaller land holdings and the resulting poverty have led to the displacement of cultivators and increasing numbers of landless laborers. Many workers have migrated to towns to seek work, losing the immediate support provided by their traditional social environs. Emerging educated elites living in urban areas have lost contact with their roots in rural areas, depriving their communities of potential leadership. Alcoholism and belief in witchcraft remain a problem in traditional Santal society.

The Santals see themselves as neglected and exploited by non-Santals (dikus or outsiders). This was the driving force behind the 1855 Santal rebellion and it remained the driving force of Santal involvement in modern demands for a separate tribal state called Jharkhand. However, the creation of Jharkhand State was not a panacea for all tribal ills. Although Santals make up about 10% of Jharkhand's population (the total tribal population of Jharkhand is about 28%), Santals by no means have proportional political representation in the 81-seat legislature. Furthermore, in its short history, Jharkhand has seen it all: Naxalism, bribery cases and murder, not to mention five chief ministers in seven years as of 2008.

Jharkhand and central India is an area which has recently seen a surge in Naxalite activity—Naxalism is the communist-inspired insurgency in India that takes its name from Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal that saw a violent Maoist uprising in 1967. Naxalites are said to be active in 15 of the original 18 districts of Jharkhand, with their activities ranging from attacks on villagers and Indian police and security forces and assassination of politicians to encouraging opium production to fund their operations. Some Santals, resenting their exploitation by "outsiders," naturally felt that the Naxalites sympathized with their condition on their side and joined them in insurgency, which is most pronounced in the Red Corridor"of eastern India that includes Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh States. The vast gap between poor and rich and the underdevelopment of the tribal areas has fueled the insurgency and has revived and encouraged the ethnicity, indigeneity, and sub-nationalism so typical of the region.

Development itself has created problems for the Santals. Jharkhand is rich in mineral resources and to access this mineral wealth requires operations that inevitably result in the displacement of tribals from their ancestral lands. Thus Santals complain that at no point of time in the planning for the Pachwara Coalmines Project in Santal Parganas, which affected some 130 villages, did consultation in any form take place, either with the villagers or with the Gram Sahbas. Between 1950 and 1990 it is estimated that some 740,000 tribals were displaced by development projects in the area of what is now Jharkhand State. Even though compensation was offered, fewer than 200,000 of the displaced persons have been resettled.

Loss of tribal land to non-tribal peoples is a major problem facing Santals in Jharkhand and continues with the government turn a blind eye to it. Thus, the Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB) was able to acquire the land for its Pachwara mining project in the Scheduled Tribal area, even though there are certain provisions in the Santal Parganas Tenancy Act of 1949 (SPT Act, 1949) prohibiting the transfer of tribal land through sale or mortgage or lease or any other agreement. Santals found out the hard way that their traditional rights over land meant little to the new government. Adivasi populations and also other poor peasants have routinely lost land for decades throughout India. This has been well documented. The Santals in Jharkhand are no exception.

In the years following the creation of Jharkhand, the state experienced unrest over what was termed the "domicile" controversy. At issue was who could be called a resident of Jharkhand and thus be eligible for "reserved" government jobs. Local residents, objecting to a Jharkhand High Court verdict that said that the state could conduct a country-wide search for qualified teachers, instituted a bandh (strike) that led to police firings and violence and even deaths. The chief minister at the time, Babulal Marandi, decided that 1932 would be the cutoff date and certificates of domicile would be issued to anyone who could provide documentation—e.g. land records—of residency at that time. Of course, many Santals, who had been in the area much longer, had no such documentation. Even the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006, passed by the government of India in 2008 does little to protect the rights of Santals to their lands. Land alienation (i.e. the sale of tribal lands to non-tribal peoples) is a major issue in Jharkhand.

Santal religion, however, is a potent force in strengthening the social solidarity of the people. The Santal concept of righteousness is bound up with its social or tribal consciousness. They have an excellent and well-ordered village organization with a hierarchy of village officers and courts for dispensing their unwritten law.

The search for a new identity, both political and cultural, is a distinguishing feature of Santal society today.


Despite living in a patrilineal society, the Santal woman is not subject to the negative elements usually associated with Hindu caste society. However, she does not have political or religious rights and cannot be a member of the village panchayat. In most cases, she runs the household as well as works with the men in fields, farms, and forests. She goes to the market and strikes bargains for the surplus produce of the family.

In the matter of inheritance Santals follow their own customs and do not follow the practices of the (usually Hindu) societies amongst which they live. A Santal woman does not have a share in her father's property but she can hold moveable property like money, goods, and cattle, and usually gets a cow when her father's property is divided between the sons. A widow may remarry, but it is thought the right thing for her to do is marry her late husband's younger brother (junior levirate). Divorce is allowed, although if a woman demands a divorce without just cause, the father returns the bride-price to the aggrieved husband and often pays a fine that is determined by the local panchayat.

Despite these disadvantages, Santal society is highly democratic and the Santal woman's social status is relatively high, though she still suffers from poverty, illiteracy, and lack of access to education or health care.


Archer, William G. The Hill of Flutes: Life, Love and Poetry in Tribal India . London: Allen & Unwin, 1974.

Biswas, P. C. Santals of the Santal Parganas . Delhi: Bharatiya Adimjati Sevak Sangh, 1956.

Bodding. P. O. Traditions and Institutions of the Santals. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2001.

Kaviraj, N.Santal Village Community and the Santal Rebellion of 1855. Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 2001.

Mahapatra, Sitakant.Modernization and Ritual: Identity and Change in Santal Society. Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Ray, U. K., A. K. Das, and S. K. Basu.To Be With Santals.Calcutta: Cultural Research Institute, Scheduled Castes and Tribes Welfare Department, Government of West Bengal, 1982.

Sharma,B.K.Habitat, Economy & Society of Tribal Core: A Case Study of Damin-I-Koh. New Delhi: Inter-India Publications, 1992.

—by D.O.Lodrick

About this article


Updated About content Print Article