Santal (Santhal) Adivasi of India

•May 23, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Santhals are the largest Adivasi community in India and can be found mainly in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Tripura and Orissa. Santhals can be also found in Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar boarder areas. In Nepal they live in the districts of Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari. And also one can found significant population of Santhals in Bhutan as daily wage laborer. In Bangladesh, Santhals have made remarkable history of Santhal’s identity. Majority of Santhal are being traced in the Chhotanagpur plateau. Rajmahal hill, Damodar valley and forest of Dolma are the witness since time immemorial.

Fa-hien the Chinese traveler was the first to make a pilgrimage in India and first to describe about the Santhal tribe at large. His journey lasted about sixteen years (A.D. 399-414) and described in detail about the tribe staying and lifestyle in foothill of Rajmahal.  He also describe about the religion followed by Santhals. It is fact that, Santhals belong to the Austro-Asiatic group of human families. They have also been called as a sub-group speaking a language belonging to the Munda family (Dahal, BS2051/052).  Some anthropologists also indicate that racially the Santhals belong to the Proto-Astraloid racial group, linguistically they belong to the Mundari group of Austro-Asiatic linguistic family and economically they may be classified as plain agricultural type.

History of Santhals

Histories of Santhals are only persisting in songs and folklore of Santhal tribe itself. Historians from different region have come and wrote different things regarding them and large populations believe that is only the truth about Santhals. Pandit Raghunath Murmu, who develops Santhali manuscript, written Santhals are from Pre Aryan period. And they were the real great fighters during British regime. Santhals were the first who fought against Permanent Settlement Act of Lord Cornwallis during 1855. It was during late 1850, when Sidhu Murmu, Kanhu Murmu, Chand Murmu and Bhairo Murmu hoarded around 85,000 Santhals to wage a war against British to object all the law which were objectionable to them at that point of time..

So, Santhals with their entire musical instrument (like Tumdak, Tamak, Banam, and Trio) and weapons (Aag-Saar, Kapi, Tarwade) start moving towards Calcutta. But they had to face British army on the way and could not able to reach Calcutta.

It is also recorded that “Baba Tilka Majhi” was the first Santhal’s leather who raise weapons against the British in 1789. It was due to great famine in 1770 and the consequences of “Court of Directors” orders influenced by British Prime Minister Pitt the Younger. Court of Director issued ten year of the settlement of Zamindari and later in 1800, it was permanent. This resulted in minimal chance to negotiate between local Zamindars and Santhal villagers. Baba Tilka Majhi made bold step to kill one of the British lieutenant with arrow from the top of banyan tree. Later Baba Tilka majhi was hanged till death from the same tree to show example for such deeds.

Santhal Language:

Languages can be broadly classified as:

1. Dravidian
2. Munda or Austric

The Kissam Koya and Oraon belonging to Dravidian-language-speaking clan are few in numbers in this district. The Santhals, Kol and the Munda tribes belong to Austric family and are the prime tribes and they do have own mother tongue. Santhals have their own language, which belong to Austro-Asiatic language family. Santhals have well developed manuscript called “Ol Chiki” developed by Pt Raghunath Murmu in 1920s. Initially “Ol Chiki” was regarded as copied one and also considered as, which doesn’t have any characteristic of language.  But  after lot of studies, when it was found that “Ol chiki” is alphabetic, and does not share any of the syllabic properties of the other Indic scripts such as Devanagari. It uses 30 letters and five basic diacritics. It has 6 basic vowels and three additional vowels, generated using the Gahla Tudag.

Santhals did not have a written language until the nineteenth century. Therefore, the script is a recent development. A distinct script was required to accommodate the Santali language, does not combine any features of both the Indic and Roman scripts. The modern “Ol Chiki” script was devised by Pandit Raghunath Murmu in 1925. He wrote over 400- 450 books covering a wide spectrum of subjects. Darege Dhan, Sidhu-Kanhu, Bidu Chandan and Kherwal Bir are among the most acclaimed of his works. Pandit Raghunath Murmu is popularly known as Guru Gomke among the Santhals, a title conferred on him by the Mayurbhanj Adibasi Mahasabh.

Art and Culture of the Santals:

Santali culture is such that it had and has been attracting many scholars and anthropologists since centuries. The first attempt to study the Santali culture was done by the Mughals and which followed by the Christian missionaries. The most famous of them was the Norwegian-born Reverend Paul Olaf Bodding. Unlike many other adivasi groups of the Indian subcontinent, the Santals are known for preserving their native language despite waves of migrations and invasions from Mughals, Europeans, British and others.

Santali 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 Santhal people love music and dance. Like other Indian people groups, their culture has not been influenced by any mainstream Indian culture and or by Western culture, but traditional  Santhals have own way of music and dance. Santali music differs from Hindustani classical music in significant ways. Onkar Prasad has done the most recent work on the music of the Santhal but others preceded his work. The Santal traditionally accompany many of their dances with two drums: the Tamak and the Tumdak’. The flute (tiriao) was considered the most important Santhal traditional instrument and still evokes feelings of nostalgia for many Santhals. Santali dance and music traditionally revolved around Santhal religious celebrations. However, Santhal music and dance both retain connections to traditional celebrations. The names of many Santhal tunes are derived from the traditional ritual with which they were once associated. Sohrai tunes, for example, were those sung at the Sohrai festival. Santali rituals are mainly comprised of sacrificial offerings and invocations to the spirits, or bongas.

The Santhals are musicians and dancers par excellence and have dances for every imaginable occasion. The martial dances – Golwari and Paikha are marked with vigor, virility and a lot of jumping and leaping in the air. They carry bow and arrows while doing martial dances and perform mock fights and attacks. Their courtship and marriage dances are typical. These dances, romantic and lively in nature, are performed on full moon nights. The loud drumming, resembling thunder, calls the belles of the community and they come dressed in their fineries, adorned with flowers, feathers and assemble under a large banyan tree. The young men come forward taking strides with drums and lilting songs on their lips, and then the dance commences in two rows, their arms interlinking in pairs. The rows surge forward like rhythmic waves and then recede with supple footwork and swaying heads and bodies. The boys in the row opposite play on flutes, drums, and large cymbals and sing songs in perfect harmony. After the dance the boys and girls mingle and have a good chat.

Santhal’s have their hunting and sowing dances. On Dassai festival men-folk dance from one locality to another. Then there are the Jhika and the Lagren type dances in which men and women dance together. Men form the outer ring and the women the inner circle. The Dhong and Lagren are exclusively confined to women. The Lagren has many forms and variations according to the occasion, be it a marriage, a festival or social gathering. All these dances reflect their collective nature, cohesion, community feeling and social awareness. They are great spontaneous collective singers and dancers. The Santhal women and girls can be seen singing and dancing while engaged in their daily chore like sowing, plantation, journeying to and from the forest. They work and sing simultaneously and in between pause for a round of dance. They use song and music as a convenient tool of dancing. Dance is a super ordinate and all the rest is subordinate.

Adivasi Religion:

Santhals have Jaher and Gosade are two places where Santhals do religious activities. Santhals don’t have even shape of God and do not believe in idol worship. Santhals follow the Sarna religion. The common God and Goddess of Santhal are Marang-buru, Jaher-era. Santhals pay respect to the ghosts and spirits like Kal Sing, Lakchera, Beudarang etc. They have village priests known as the Naiki and Ujha. Animal sacrifices to the Gods are the common practice common practice among the Santhals to appease the Gods and Goddess.

Santhals do believe in many Gods and Goddesses except common GOD and patrimonial one. According to them the Sun is omnipotent. He is the creator and father. The earth is believed to be their mother. She brings up all. Mother earth is the female and the Sun God is the male and all other are their off springs.

Different clans of Santhals worship the God with different names. The ancestral GOD is important and followed by some rituals in regular interval of time. Santhalis worship the powerful Sun God as ‘Singabonga(also spelled as Singhbonga) in common.


Santhals celebrate loads of festivals in different occasion.  Santhals follow cycle of nature and agricultural term to celebrate festivals and celebrate festivals accordingly. They celebrate this festival to invocations the Nature for helping them in getting where ever they have and sometime to increase their wealth and free them from all the enemies. It is the tradition among the Santhals to grow the tree outside their house after the purification process for different purposes.

The Santhals celebrate other festival like, Sohorai, from the end of Paush and for the entire month of Magh. “Karam” festival is celebrated by the Santhals in the month of Aswin (September- October) in order to have increased `wealth and progeny` and to get rid of the evil spirits. During this festival, two youths after being purified, fetch two branches of Karam tree from the forest and plant them just outside the house. Other festivals of the Santhal community include Maghe, Sakrat, Baba Bonga, Sahrai, Ero, Asaria and Namah. They also celebrate haunting festival called Disum sendra on the eve of Baishakhi Purnima.

Ero (Paddy sowing festival)

The Santals, Mahali, Bhumija and Lodha celebrate this festival on the day of ‘Akshitrutiya’ to worship mother earth with religions flavor and enthusiasm. The black cock is offered as sacrifice with non-boiled rice, flower, Vermillion and incense sticks to propitiate mother earth for bumper harvest, prosperity peaceful and disease free life. Dance amidst traditional tribal songs and beating of drums rent the air, which makes the festival quite enjoyable.

Jamtala Bonga (Jantal Festival):

This festival is celebrated when the ear of paddy hangs downward exclusively in the year when crop is destroyed due to scanty rainfall. The fill treated as God is offered male goat as sacrifice with a belief that propitiation of hill God will bring about bumper crops. The male goat so killed is distributed among the villagers.

Karam Parva:

This festival is celebrated in the month of ‘Ashwina’ or ‘Kartika’ and the auspicious day in fixed by the village meeting. A ‘Karam Bough’ is planted on the altar in the middle of village. The village maids offer molasses non-boiled rice, flower and vermillion then story of ‘Karamdharan’, the God of fate is recited and it continues amidst dance, song and beating of drums till morning and then immersion of ‘Karam Bough’ is solemnised with the blessings of God of fate the life becomes enriched with health and this is their sincere belief.

Makar Parva:

The prime festival of Santhals is celebrated with pomp and grandeur by Adivasis month of ‘Pausha’ and English month ‘January’ when the paddy reaping is half done and the mind is free from all lures and anxieties. Irrespective of colour and crew and age all partake in religious gaiety and fervour.

This festival lasts for three days and celebration primarily starts night before ‘Makar Sankranti’. First day is celebrated since morning by the burning of log of woods in the bank of river or near water reservoir. It is told as ‘Kumbha‘, done mostly by the children and teens. The process is done in the early morning. Day of Sakrat, everyone in the family will take bath early and wear new cloths. In every household ‘Makar Chaula’ and delicious cakes are prepared. After that head of the family offer food and drinks to ancestors and Ora bongs (house God) in the inner most (Bhitar orah) part of the house. In other words we can say the deities are worshipped. After having food which includes mutton curry, chicken, pork, lamb, sheep, palatable cakes and country liquor ‘Handia‘, in every village or collection of villages’, male will participate in archery competition and female come to witness. First village priest “Naike” will purify the target and set the distance for competitors. Three chances will be provided until someone hit the target. If someone hit the target, then he’ll be the winner and awarded with garland of flowers and someone (assign by headman of village) will take him in shoulder till “Gosande”. Manjhi/Naike will worship and is followed with singing, dancing and playing of instrumental music. All those present there, are given rice-beer. Winner will be accompanied by Santhali traditional dance, song and music. In that occasion men and women dance in the “Gosande” till late night with boisterous music, songs and drums.  The traditional dress of Santhal women is called Pandhat, which is a covering from the chest to the foot.

Second and third day is for the occasion of Makar a special ‘Monkey Dance’ named as Gari-aseen’ is performed. The tribal folks adorning their bodies in many forms roam door to door asking for paddy, rice and cakes, which becomes quite enjoyable. Also female makes-up by men and dance with tradition songs and drums called “Budhi-Gari”.

Finally in a village meeting all the collected items will be disclosed. And villagers will organized for feast or grand village party on some free day. Rice will be distributed to different household to brew rice whisky or rice beer and collected on the day of grand village party. Relatives are also invited to join.

By nature, the Santhals love Dance, Music and wine. There cannot be a festival without these. Their fairs and festivals are very colorful.

Judicial system:

The Santhals traditionally had an organized judicial system for the management and solution of the various problems within the community. They make every effort to solve the social problems arising within their community by themselves. The Santhal system of governance, known as Manjhi–Paragana, is compared to what is often called Local Self Governance. This body is responsible for making decisions to ameliorate the village’s socioeconomic condition.

The head of the Santhal community is called Manjhi Hadam (headman of village). He is the chief of the executive, judicial and all other functions within society. He is assisted by other office bearers like Paranik, Jagmanjhi, Jagparanik, Naike, Gudit, etc, who work in their respective fields to solve various kinds of problems. After the birth of a child, the Jagmanjhi and following the death of a person the Gudit and others are present. Manjhi Hadam undertakes the looking into judicial cases and the dispensing of justice and above him is Disham Manjhi, and above both is Diheri. The Diheri is the highest judicial office bearer of Santhals. The Santhals who generally like to live in concentrated settlements of their own near rivers and forests are divided into 12 thars or groups. As the groups are in accordance with professional specialization, this appears as a form of social system. The Murmu are the priests of Santhals and Mardi the businessmen, while Kisku are the rulers and Hemram judges. Similarly, the Tudu are musicians and Soren soldiers. The organizations of Santhals are village council (Manjhibaisi), Parganna Council (Pramatrabaisi) and the highest council (Labirbaisi).

Customs of the Santhal:

After the birth of a child, the Santhal midwife of Gaasibudhi cuts the umbilical cord of the child with an arrow and buries it near the door. The child is named on the day of the birth or on any odd numbered day following birth. The first-born son is given the name of his grandfather; and second a male child will be named from maternal side. He is also given another name for calling him.


Birth is regarded as very joyous occasion in the society of the Santhal. It makes the couple fertile and washes the strain of barrenness forever. It enhances the status of the husband and the wife as father and mother. After birth of child family has to provide feast to villagers.


Family is the smallest unit of social organization in the Santhal society. Family is nuclear, husband-wife and their unmarried children. Married son established their own family and married daughter leave the house to lead a family with their husband.

Marriage and divorce:

The ritual of marriage generally comes in the life of all boys and girls of the Santhal, Monogamy is the usual form of marriage. Bigamy is also allowed. Levirate and Surrogate marriage are possible depending on the situation. Pre-marital relation within lineage group is not allowed. But in case of other lineage group it is excused and finally results in marriage. Marriage may take place between boys and girls of two lineages but generally it is avoided. They generally follow village exogamy. Usual way of acquiring bride is by bride-price and through the consent of parents of boys and girls. But marriage by exchange, elopement service and love may also take place.

The Santhals have different types of marriage. Their marriages are exogamous and these marriages known as `Bapla` are of seven types namely Sanga Bapla, Kadam Bapla, Kirin Bapla, Upagir Bapla, Tanki Dipil Bapla, Itut Bapla, Nirbelok Bapla, Diku Bapla etc. At the end of every marriage, the bride money is collected. Divorce can be obtained easily; however, some alimony has to be given whole divorcing. If marriages are undertaken within one`s own group, such couples are ostracized and chased away from society. There is also the practice of the son-in-law staying in his in-laws` house.


The death during old age is taken good because it brings occasion of transformation of body and soul of a person. The dead body is buried or cremated. Only male members participate in death rituals. The dead are cremated as well as buried. After the death of a respected person of the community who occupies an important post such as Manjhi, Paranik, Gudit, etc, all Santhals participate in the death ceremony. The entire village has to mourn the death. On the evening of the death of a person, a rooster is killed and Khichadi (porridge) cooked and offered to the soul of the dead. After seven days the Santhals purify themselves by bathing in a river. The last rites (Bhandan) are undertaken at an appropriate time after another seven days. The last rites or purification are undertaken on the same day of the week as when the dead was buried.

Population, Economy and Livelihood

Santhals has total Population –96, 05,000 (from 2001 census)

  • West Bengal           19, 97222
  • Bihar                      1039425
  • Jharkhand             20, 67039
  • Orissa                     9, 29782
  • Assam                     1223032
  • MP                          2348500

Major economic activities of the Santhal are agriculture, collection of forest produce from the forests and cultivation. The livelihood of the Santhals revolves around the forests they live in. They fulfill their basic needs from the trees and plants of the forests. Apart from this they are also engaged in the haunting, fishing and cultivation for their livelihood. Santhals possess the unique skills in making the musical equipments, mats and baskets out of the plants. This talent is safely passed on from one generation to the other. Now days, Santhals, who got education engaged in well paid governments and private jobs.



  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Duyker, E. 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.


  1. ^ “West Bengal: Data Highlights the Scheduled Tribes” (PDF). Census of India 2001. Census Commission of India.
  2. ^ “West Bengal: Data Highlights the Scheduled Tribes” (PDF). Census of India 2001. Census Commission of India.
  3. The Cult of Brahmā By Tārāpada Bhaṭṭācāryyeṇa, Tarapada Bhattacharyya, P. 292, 2000


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