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Santhal Worldview

Review: Santhal Worldview. Mathur, Nita (Ed.). 2001. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts. Pp. 182. Rs. 275/-.
by D.P. Agrawal and Sunita Bashera

Dr. Nita Mathur is an anthropologist presently associated with the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts where she has coordinated collaborative programs based on lifestyle studies. She is also the author of Cultural Rhythms in Emotions, Narratives and Dance.

“The Indira Gandhi National Centre is engaged in evolving a multilayered, multidimensional model of lifestyle studies with emphasis on ‘folk’ tradition or loka parampara. The specific community studies take cognizance of the interrelatedness of nature, ecology, beliefs and practices, knowledge system and art works in an integrated framework…The loka parampara studies accept that there is continuity between the intellectual, textual tradition (sastra) and its interpretation and application in lived life (prayoga). For the purpose of comprehending a specific culture from a holistic perspective, the Santhal- a cohesive community in the eastern zone has been taken up for in-depth study. The cultural group has been researched and written about extensively since the 19th Century.”

A seminar on Santhal Worldview, of which this publication is an outcome, was held in September 1997. It provided a meeting ground of researchers associated with the IGNCA’s pursuit of comprehending the Santhal lifestyle on the one hand and representatives of the Santhal community on the other.

The Santhals are a well studied community for more than a century. They are unique in many ways. They even use a script invented just 80 years ago! The O1 Chiki script invented by Pandit Raghunath Murmu, was an epoch-making invention, which provided appropriate writing symbols to the Santhals. The origins of scripts of most other major Indian languages derive from the hoary past and the story of their origin has been a matter of historical research.

Quintessentially, the Santhals locate their lifestyle and worldview in cooperation, mutual care and love. The cultural expressions in nature, sound, language, creativity and sensitivity treat all life forms as sacred and respect them for what they are. Not only forms of life but even inanimate things and phenomena of nature are regarded as sacred. The sacredness is re-established in metaphors, rituals, songs, dance and everyday practices. This is the pristine, primal vision from which the new world order has much to learn.

In contrast to the strife of the class and caste ridden societies of today, the following are the main socio-religious characteristics of the Santhals:

  1. The society is devoid of caste hierarchy. The Santhal’s is a casteless society.
    2. By birth no person, family, clan group is superior or inferior.
    3. Image or idol worship is absent and there is no temple in Santhal society.
    4. Blood offering is prevalent in the community.
    5. Earlier practice of cow sacrifice is now restricted.
    6. Both burial and cremation are practiced. A chicken is dedicated to the dead body.
    7. Offering during worship is made within the pictorial boundary known askhondas a mark of the mundane relationship of the supernatural power.
    8. Priesthood is not appropriated by a particular clan group or a sect but is owned by the family members of the first settlers of the village. Occasionally selection of a successor of the old priest is held if he leaves no issue (male child). Such a selection is made mainly by a divinated person and it is undisputed.

The Western Science has always belittled the Traditional Knowledge Systems. Their anthropologists suffered from a unilineal view of a ladder-like development. The ladder symbolizes a climb from simple to complex, from instinct to intelligence, from non-living to living, from less conscious to more conscious, from inorganic elements to plants to animals to humans, from savagery to civilization. In each case the world is pinned to a ladder of progressive development. The aim of this proceedings is to show that there is an existential connection between nature and culture.

The essays collected here address the fundamental themes of: (i) Nature and culture; (ii) Sound and Language; and (iii) Lifestyle and Worldview.

Through the brief review of Santhal Worldview, Nita Mathur has thrown light on the Santhal culture and lifestyle. The Santhals are a major tribal group in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. The sixteen essays by different authors collected here explore the Santhal concepts of body, womb and seed; sound symbolism, formation and transmission of script; human and animal relationship; food and cooking, healing practices; religious beliefs and festivals; and the notion of the other world.

B.N Saraswati in his article, The Nature as Culture has emphasized the fact that the one idea which gets repeated in traditional thought and culture is the inseparability of nature and culture. There is an implicit acceptance of the fact that human beings constitute an integral part of nature. Lifestyles reaffirm the relationship between the various elements of nature and celebrate its rhythm in patterns of language, rituals, beliefs and different dimensions of culture. Saraswati explains how nature and culture are bound in concert. He takes the position that nature and culture do not constitute two distinct realities, rather, they coalesce with each other. It is, therefore, more suitable to define this relationship by the expression, “Nature as Culture”. The forms of culture are subject to the five-fold order of ‘origination’, ‘binding’, ‘interlocking’, ‘overlapping’ and ‘transcending’, much like the elements of nature.

The priests of all creatures were born before the human beings. Man lives on the Earth in the company of animals and spirits. Natural elements are under the control of spirits and spirits are everywhere. Rituals are performed in the sacred grove, near the source of water, on hill-tops and in mountain caves and help humans to experience the rhythm of life. Elements of nature have a vital role in the making of a cultural person.

This is most explicit among indigenous communities such as the Santhals, which thrive in the lap of nature. The ritual language paves the way of life. The Santhals live with nature of which they are an inseparable part. The Santhals have understood the basic relatedness of nature and culture, without the imposition of a theory based on creation or evolution. Briefly, the traditional Santhal culture is the prime extant example of a lifestyle that has proved its capacity to integrate with the natural and the supernatural world.

The second article based on the Santhal’s concept of ‘Womb and Seed‘ is by Nita Mathur. She explains that the Santhals understand the internal representations by what they see ‘out there’. The chief concern of the Santhal is cultivation for subsistence and making the most of land and seed. Evidently, the seed and womb constitute the center points of cosmology and imagery of beliefs and rituals that go a long way in developing their social organization and life functions. In this section, basically Nita Mathur has explained the Santhal concept of womb and seed from their language, beliefs, rituals and life philosophy at three levels: Empirical, Physiological and Metaphorical. The continuity between the apparently diverse dimensions of existence gets established. It is the seed of the plant world, which gets transformed into the fertilizing fluid. The human body and seed are spoken about in verbal expression as the dhuri to mean the first flowering of maturity on the one hand, and the first leaves of a crop on the other, which are both occasions of joy and celebration. Maturation or growing old is likened to ripening of fruits expressed by the term ararao. Finally, the ripened fruit withers; new seeds are sown and the cycle begins again. At the time of death when the body is consigned to flames, the ash is collected at one place while the remaining area is cleaned. The womb-seed continuum so conspicuous in the world of plants and animals emerges repeatedly in the Santhal cognitive paradigms.

The third article is about the relationship between animals and human beings. ‘Man and Animal Relationship‘ by Subhra Bhattacharya, begins from their creation myth and goes on to explain the processes by which this relationship permeates class structure, marriage patterns and therapeutic practices. A newborn animal is ceremonially incorporated into the family and looked after with much concern. In fact, a large corpus of the Santhal myths and beliefs has to do with animals and people’s own relationship with the animal world. The animal world plays multiple roles in Santhal life.

In the fourth article, ‘Tribal Life in Association with Animals‘, by Ajit Kumar Aditya and Prasanta Chatterjee, is discussed the fabulous environment and the system of attitudes against which their rituals and practices pertaining to domesticated and wild animals are contextualized. The association between tribal life and animals is very strong because they have lived together from the ancient times. The Santhal knowledge about the origin of animals on the earth is in line with the present day scientific opinion and they have vast experience of the use of animals for various requirements at every level. Thus their own traditional arts and culture reflect the modern word.

In the next article, Indrani Bhattacharya explains the ‘Santhal’s concept of food‘. She says that the Santhals believe that food is for energy and it also saves life, and it is a made of Solid, Liquid and Gas. In accordance to their theory, our body is like a machine and food is similar to oil necessary for it and they also believe that the kind of food one takes makes a great impact on body.
Peter Pannke’s article ‘Sounds from a Santhal Village’, is based on recording of sounds of music, as also the everyday sounds. The Santhals have their own and well defined conception of sound. Sounds are always an important indicator of anything going on inside or outside the village; certain sounds are attributed to auspiciousness or inauspiciousness. The voices of humans, animals and nature blend into a harmonious, constantly moving stream of sound.

Onkar Prasad’s dissertation on “Santhal approach to sounds“, classifies the sounds in three categories. It is observed that some sounds are auspicious or inauspicious in relation to variables like time, space, direction and object. In spite of the ‘auspicious, and the inauspicious’, as observed by Saraswati, they are transcendental categories, each accommodating within itself a great amount of variations and uses.

The article, “Formation of Ol Chiki script and process of its transmission,” by Shyam Sundar Mohapatra informs that Pandit Raghunath had invented the ‘Ol Chiki script’ in 1920 and he had discovered the characters from nature, physical environment and everyday life of the Santhal. The Santhal has been preserving similarity between sound and symbol. The very ingenuity in shaping the symbols and arrangement of the script has been greatly helpful in transmission of the script. A large number of words in the language of Santhals derive from natural sounds. This is illustrated in the paper of Khageswar Mahapatra complemented with Shyam Sunder Mohapatra’s essay, which explains that the words in Ol Chiki are derived from the physical environment and what surrounds the people – hills, rivers, trees, birds, bees, plough, sickle – the list is endless.

Santhal language and culture“, by Chaitanya Prasad Majhi, discusses the language and culture of the Santhals. The Santhals have a Santhali language. They have no doubt preserved their ancient culture and language but they have remained stagnant, static and obscurantist. Pandit Ragunath Murmu, a distinguished writer of Santhal language, who had discovered the Ol Chiki script has a different story to tell regarding the origin of the Santhals. The Ol Chiki script is the medium to established links between the people and the community.

Jadupata in the Context of Santhal Culture” is by Nilanzana Das. The Jadupatas are paintings of men, women and children that are taken around by the practitioners of the Jadupatas in a Santhal village. Jadupatua, the spiritual guide, helps the deceased to be relieved from the earthly bindings and guides him or her to heaven. Jadupatua ensures his place among the Santhal by exploiting and entertaining them at the same time.

Sitakant Mahapatra explains in his article “Living in the kingdom of Bongas” the integrative and interactive relations between the Santhals and the Bongas whom they always seem anxious to appease. The Santhal believes that his ancestors were Bongas. The largest Bonga territory is the village itself and its immediate surroundings. The Santhal worldview adopts an integrated perspective of the social, natural and supernatural orders.

P.C. Hembram explains in “Santhal Worldview” the difference in the perspective with which a man views the world around him during his lifetime and after death. Life is full of agony, pain and pleasure also. Pleasure and pain are true and in their peaceful state of life, they remain suppressed and curtailed. The life, the creation itself is the gift of godly powers. God may get angry if man does not follow the rules of nature. A natural situation does not disturb, since nature blesses main if he acts honorably. The Santhals believe that there are gods everywhere. They worship the Bonga buru. The worldview is conditioned by the socio-cultural situation of a community.

In the article by N. Patnaik, “The Santhal World of Supernatural Beings“, the Santhals give a different picture altogether. Their culture is full of folktales, folklore and myths etc. and their customs and traditions, mores and values, sanctions and standards, ethos and worldview form these folktales. The Santhal worldview incorporates Man, Nature and God and the relationship that exists between these components. The Santhal’s situate their lifestyle and worldview in cooperation, mutual care and love. There are many such rituals and festivals observed by the Santhals.

The article “Santhal Worldview Woven Around Rice and Banana Cultivation“, is by S.K. Chakraborty. Rice is the staple food and major crop of the Santhals in the eastern part of India. Rice starch, fried rice, flattened rice are also occasionally consumed by the Santhals. The Santhals use the term kaira darey to refer to banana plants, while the fruit is known as kaira. Ripe and unripe bananas are important sources of food to the Santhal. In Santhal opinion, agricultural land is the most valuable resource as it is everlasting and does not change like the material items. And they have very close ties with nature, which surrounds the human society. They believe in supernatural beings and their ancestral spirits also. The Santhals are fully aware of their position in group commonality.

The last article is “Change and Continuity in Santhal Worldveiw” by Sachchidananda. He thinks that in view of the fast changes taking place in the environment of the tribal world, the worldview of the tribals assumes salience. The worldview suggests how everything looks to a people, the designation of the existence as a whole. The Santhals organize their activities in consonance with the natural environment and the changing seasons. Another change in the worldview now seems to be the greater importance being attached to time, the sequence, as well as the duration.

This volume makes us aware that there are lifestyles and Traditional Knowledge Systems, quite different than ours; but no less valid. In this volume, the specific community studies on the Santhals take cognizance of the interrelatedness of nature, ecology, beliefs and practices, knowledge system and art works in an integrated framework. The loka parampara studies accept that there is continuity between the intellectual, textual tradition (sastra) and its interpretation and application in lived life (prayoga). For the purpose of comprehending a specific culture from a holistic perspective, the Santhal- a cohesive community in the eastern zone has been taken up for in-depth study. This valuable volume is a must for all of us as it opens a window into a different but no less valid worldview.