SANTALS, an aboriginal tribe of Bengal, who have given their name to the Santal Parganas (q.v.). Their early history is unknown; but it is certain that they have not occupied their present home for longer than a century, having migrated from Hazaribagh, and they are still moving on into Northern Bengal. Their total number in all India is nearly two millions. They speak a language of the Munda or Kolarian family.
The Santals as a race care little for permanent homes. They are not true nomads, but they like to be " on the move." In the lowlands they are agriculturists; in the jungles and on the mountains they are skilful hunters, bows and arrows being their chief weapons; on the highlands they are cattle breeders. But if fond of change the Santals like comfort, and their villages are neat, clean and well built, usually in an isolated position. Their social arrangements are patriarchal. In every village is a headman supposed to be a descendant of the founder of the village. A deputy looks after details; a special officer has charge of the children's morals, and there is a watchman. Physically the Santals are not prepossessing. The face is round and blubbery; the cheekbones moderately prominent; eyes full and straight, nose broad and depressed, mouth large and lips full, hair straight, black and coarse. The general appearance approximates to the negroid type. They are somewhat below the average height of the Hindus. They are divided into twelve tribes. In character they are a bright, joy-loving people, hospitable and seizing every chance of a feast. " They have neither the sullen disposition nor the unconquerable laziness of the very old hilltribes of central India," writes Sir W. W. Hunter in Annals of Rural Bengal (1868). " They have carried with them from the plains a love of order, a genial humanity, with a certain degree of civilization and agricultural habits. Their very vices are the vices of an oppressed and driven-out people who have lapsed from a higher state, rather than those of savages who have never known better things." Each village has its priest who has lands assigned to him; out of the profits he must twice a year feast the people. At the Sohrai feast the " harvest-home " in December, the headman entertains the villagers, and the cattle are anointed and daubed with vermilion and a share of the rice-beer is given to each animal. The Santals have many gods whose attributes are ill-defined, but whose festivals are strictly observed. Marang Buru, the great spirit, is the deity to whom sacrifices are made at the Sohrai. Among some Santals, e.g. in Chota Nagpur, Sing Bonga, the Sun, is the supreme deity to whom sacrifices are made. Generally there is no definite idea of a beneficent god, but countless demons and evil spirits are propitiated, and ancestors are worshipped at the Sohrai festival. There is a vague idea of a future life where the spirits of the dead are employed in the ceaseless toil of grinding the bones of past generations into a dust from which the gods may recreate children. In some villages the Santals join with the Hindus in celebrating the Durga Puja festival. In the eastern districts the tiger is worshipped. For a Santal to be sworn on a tiger-skin is the most solemn of oaths. The Santals are omnivorous, but they will not touch rice cooked by a Hindu. Santal parents undergo purification five days after childbirth. Santals have adopted as a rite the tonsure of children. Child marriage is not practised, and the young people make love matches, but the septs are exogamous as a rule. Santals seldom have more than one wife and she is always treated kindly. An open space in front of the headman's house is set apart for dancing, which is very elaborate and excellent. The flute, upon which they play well, is the chief Santal instrument. The Santals burn their dead, and the few charred bones remaining are taken by the next of kin in a basket to the Damodar, the sacred river of the Santals in Hazaribagh district, and left where the current is strongest to be carried to the ocean, the traditional origin and resting place of the Santal race.
See E. Tuite Dalton, Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal (Calcutta, 1872); F. B. Bradley-Birt, The Story j>} an Indian Upland (1905).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)