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Santals (India)

Last modified: 2009-06-06 by ian macdonald
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[Santals, India] image by Chrystian Kretowicz, 16 April 2009

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Santals are the largest adivasi (indigenous) community in the Indian subcontinent with a population of more than 10 million, and they reside mostly in the Indian states of Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Assam and Bihar, and sparsely in Bangladesh and Nepal. The estimate of their numbers varies widely from source to source. "The Santali language is part of the Austro-Asiatic family, distantly related to Vietnamese and Khmer. A few of the Indian anthropologists also believe that humans first came to India about 65000-55000 years ago. Historians believe that they were the ancestors of the tribal community residing in the eastern part of India (excluding hilly portions). So the Santals, Kols and Mundas may be the descendants of them. But in those times their primary way of subsistence were hunting and food gathering. The agrarian way of living was brought by the Aryans who came about in the 1500 B.C. How the Mohenjo-Daro civilization annihilated is a big question whether there was an Aryan invasion or a major environmental change that wiped them out is still under research and every day new theories are coming out. Coming back to the history of tribals, the Proto Australoids, their earliest ancestors, started living in the forest in the eastern part of India.

The Santal community is devoid of any caste system and there is no distinction made on the basis of birth. They believe in supernatural beings and ancestral spirits. Santali rituals are consist mainly of sacrificial offerings and invocations to the spirits, or bongas. It is believed by some scholars that Bonga means the same as Bhaga (or Bhagavan). The Santal system of governance, known as Manjhi–Paragana, may be compared to what is often called Local Self Governance. This body is responsible for making decisions to ameliorate the village's socioeconomic condition.

In 1855, the Santals rebelled against the British. Although the revolution was brutally suppressed, it marked a great change in the colonial rule and policy. The day is still celebrated among the Santal community with great respect and spirit for the thousands of the Santal martyrs who sacrificed their lives along with their two celebrated leaders (Sido and Kanhu Murmu) to win freedom from the rule of the Zamindars and the British operatives." (from Wikipedia)

Today, the Santals are engaged in the vicious war with Bodos in Assam. The fight is led by the Birsa Commando Force - BCF which is a separatist group made up of ethnic Santhals, an Indian minority group that lives in several northeastern Indian states. The Birsa Commando Force was founded in response to ethnic clashes between Santhals and Bodos (another minority group) in the state of Assam. Bodos and Santhals both demand independent states in Assam, and have often clashed over territory and economic issues. Santhals make up a large majority of tea-workers in Assam, which has created a backlash among Bodos who resent the Santhal's higher economic standing.

More on Santals can be read at and including a story about their unusual and interesting alphabet and script - Ol Chiki.

James B. Minahan (Encyclopedia of the Stateless Nations - Ethnic and National Groups Around the World - volume IV) pictures and describes their flag as:
"The Santhal national flag, the flag of the national movement, is a horizontal tricolor of green, white and red, bearing a centered gold disk on the white stripe."

Chrystian Kretowicz, 16 April 2009