Among the many tribes living in India, the largest one is the Santal. Most of them live in the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Orissa. And even in Bangla desh.
In the past, Santal were nomads wandering from place to place in quest of agricultural lands. ( Indeed, agriculture was and is still their main occupation). Nowadays, their settlements are permanent. But sometimes, a family leaves the village for a new site when there is scarcity of land, outbreak of an epidemic or fear of witchcraft. Santhal villages are big. From 50 to 100 households. Many villages consist of a number of hamlets situated around the main hamlet. Adjacent to each village, there is a ritual place (“jaher” in santali language), a sacred grove where the village deities reside. The Santal decorate the walls of their houses with different colours, figures of human beings, flowers, animals,…
Because Santal are coquettish, men have scarifications on their arms and women, tattoo on their arms, wrists and chests. Like other tribes, they are fond of dance and music, dance and music being associated with all their festivals.
Being animists, they believe in many gods, ghosts and spirits. The main deity is Thakur, the creator of the universe. He is a benevolent god and is associated with the sun. They also believe in many village deities; such deities play a vital role in the life of the Santal. They protect the village from evil spirits. For example, Santal believe diseases are due to supernatural powers, witches. So, when they are sick, they go to the “ojha”, the medicine man. By observing the symptoms, the “ojha” diagnoses the disease and prescribes herbal medicines. If it doesn’t work, he applies magico-religious methods to detect the cause of the disease. Any type of chronic and serious disease is believed to be the evil effect of a spirit. And leprosy is considered as a social crime. So, a leper is driven outside of the village.
Santal are divided into various clans. The members of each clan trace their origin to a common mythical ancestor.Usually, each clan is named after a natural phenomena, an animal or anything like a duck, a weed, a cow,… The members of a clan are considered as brothers and sisters. So, the tradition consider marriages or sexual relations among them are taboo. But nowadays, such marriages inside the same clan are tolerated. ( But tribal endogamy is still the rule.)
During pregnancy, Santal women observe taboos and restrictions to protect them and their baby from evil spirits and ghosts. They are not allowed to go alone to the forest, to touch corpses or go to cremation grounds. After giving birth, the mother remain secluded in a special room till purificatory rites are performed. Usually they take place after 7 or 9 days.
Rice is their staple food through the year. It is supplemented by millets, vegetables but also by roots, fruits and tubers collected in the forests. The forests supply various green leaves, honey, mushrooms, mangos, fishes, insects,… And fuel, herbal medicines, grass and timber to build their houses,… But the Santal area is no more surrounded by dense forests and infested with wild animals as it was in the past. Since decades, there is severe deforestation and the government has imposed a ban on hunting wild animals. So Santal no more go for hunting. Because of the fragmentation of the land ( at the time of the inheritance) and the restrictions imposed by the government to gain new agricultural lands from the forest, there are no more enough lands to feed everybody. So, many cultivators have turned to agricultural labourers.
For those who still live in the villages, the “haat” ( the weekly market) is important, they depend on these markets to purchase their daily necessities and sale their agricultural and forest products.. But many tribals have migrated to towns and industrial belts. They work in factories and mines as day labourers.
Since decades, Santal have experienced many changes. The interaction with the hindus, the urbanization, the industrialization have changed the way Santal behave, the way they dress. They desire the goods they see when they visit the towns. But changes are superficial. Deep inside, they ( try to) remain the same.