The Santals of India

by Dorothy Plater



William Walker, my father, held the Santals in great affection. For 11 years he lived alongside them and in later life, wrote his doctoral thesis on their creation story. He was always trying to find the best approach to convey to these charming and vivacious people, that the overflowing love of God could disarm their deep-seated fears, speak to their sense of human lostness, and satisfy the longings for harmony and joy so poignantly expressed in their culture.



My father first arrived in India as a young man in 1947, just before Independence. Because of his aptitude for languages, he was asked to learn Santali and to become involved in Christian witness to Santal people.


One aspect of Santal tradition that greatly interested him was their creation story, which calls to mind their origin and is sung to the community at festivals throughout the year. It tells a story of the creator, Cando, the giver of life and light, from whom we have become woefully estranged and confused. And yet, in the human heart, there is the glimmer of remembrance of home, a longing for a reversal and reunion, for homecoming and harmony.


The Santal song of creation describes humans hatching from two eggs. Like the birds, we are citizens of two worlds, the seen and the unseen, earth and air. According to the story, along the way, Maran Buru, the cheifbonga (spirit) belonging to the Santals, led them astray. Now they yearn to find their way back to their homeland in the east, where their benevolent, sun-like creator lives and all is well.


In the meantime, Maran Buru is their mainstay and is accompanied by many otherbongas. The welfare of the village is thought to be dependent on making regular appeasements and offerings to ensure thebongasare not upset. This, alongside the fear of witchcraft, creates a great deal of anxiety. Cando, despite his great power and kindness, is a very long way off.


It is easy to see how the Santal would be naturally attracted to Jesus Christ. He, like any Santal villager, is Hor Hopon (the Son of Man). Possessing little, He learned to work with His hands, befriended the humble and told poetic stories drawn from the life around Him to describe the kind of community the Creator wants to establish. He understands us because He was one of us. He sacrificed himself to save us. His life and death reveal our pathway home.


My father believed that it was not appropriate to Santal culture to preach structured sermons, but rather to use a style of communication closer to Santal sensibilities: through stories, drama and music.



Tribal groups in India, known asAdivasis (original inhabitants), comprise almost 10% of India's population of 1.3 billion. Of the 275 different groups, the Santals are thought to be the largest. The distribution of their settlements in wooded areas and high plateaux, spreads from Nepal and Western Assam in the North, through Jharkhand and West Bengal, across a belt of Central India and south to Orissa.


Santals are designated as part of the 'Scheduled', or particularly vulnerable groups of India. They are not part of the Hindu caste system. The organisation and regulation of their villages differs from the majority of the country. Santal culture is mainly oral and, living as tenant farmers, they have often been vulnerable to exploitation by local landlords and unscrupulous money lenders.


The Santals came to the attention of the Western world as a result of the Rebellion of 1856, when 30,000 Santals in West Bengal, armed with bows and arrows, walked to Calcutta to present their grievances to the British Governor General. As a result, laws were passed which were intended to protect their rights and land, known as the SantalParganas (Territories), designating the area for their use. Subsequently the British government encouraged missionaries, and others, to come and live among them.


Santals have a reputation for being good-natured, peaceable, reverent and life-loving people. Their villages are small-scale, close-knit and well organised. They live in friendly relationship with their non-Santal neighbours.


Santal women enjoy being brightly dressed and ornamented. This love of colour and design is also evident in their homes, which are clean, orderly and beautifully decorated. Houses are usually built on either side of a main street and made from mud plaster and sticks, with thatched roofs. Murals on the walls depict scenes from village life, including dancing and singing, farming and hunting.


Santal boys are trained to hunt with a bow and arrow. The annual hunting season, like all festivities, is accompanied by much celebration, dancing and singing, as well as copious amounts of home-brewed rice beer. Santals love a goodporob, or party, and are suspicious of puritanism in any form, yet their communal life is governed by clear codes of conduct. Regulations, especially about avoidance and familiarity, are taken seriously.


Songs, stories and riddles abound in Santal culture, and their language is full of figures of speech. Santals are an extremely musical people, composing songs about everything and playing many instruments, especially the drum and bamboo flute. Music and song are typically an accompaniment to group dancing, which is referred to asenec- the same word used for child's play. It is an expression of theirjoie de vivreand collective happiness. This capacity to enjoy life, despite its hardships, has endeared the Santals to many of those who know them.



The first Western mission to the Santals began in the mid-19th century, with American Baptists, Church Mission Society, Church of Scotland and Scandinavian Lutherans. For many decades such people have contributed to the educational, medical, cultural and spiritual needs of Santal people. Today Christian Santals acknowledge that their lives are enhanced in every way by following Christ.



Although Santals have a predominantly oral culture, many schools are now open to Santal children. Their language has been written down in a script calledOl Chiki. However, there still exists a tension between an educational system which requires standardisation and abstract thinking, and the Santal way of life which is nature-based, flexible, intuitive, and endowed with great practical intelligence and skill.


Modernisation has also created environmental difficulties for Santal villages. Deforestation in North India has become a serious problem, with the degradation of vast areas of sal or teak forests where many Santal villages are found.



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