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Santhals of Purulia

Santhali Villae in Purulia

Purulia, located at the extreme end of West Bengal, is actually a part of Chhotanagpur plateau.  For centuries, the area has been inhabited by Santhals, the largest tribal community in India.  They are a sub tribe of Mundas and have a distinct language and culture, which distinguishes them from the Bengali population of the area.

Santhali Language

Santhali language belongs to Austroasiatic family and is closely related to Mundri, Ho, Korku, Savara and Gadava. Interestingly, the language is also distantly related to Vietnamese and Khmer, which is the official language of Cambodia.

Ol Chiki – the Santhali script

Santhali Children Engrossed in Studies

Until the twentieth century, the language did not have any script. The European missionaries used Latin alphabets to write Santhali. However, since it is phonetically different, all sounds in Santhali could not be expressed through Latin. Ultimately, Raghunath Murmu of Orissa created Ol Chiki script, consisting of thirty letters. Significantly, the script is also known as Ol Cemet. While ‘ol’ in Santhali means writing, ‘cemet’ means learning. In 2013, the language has been recognized by University Grant Commission and introduced in the National Eligibility Test.

Religious belief of Santhals in Purulia

Worship of Gosea Era Bonga

Although a large number of Santhals in Purulia follow Christianity, majority of them follow their own Santhali religion. Maran Buru Bonga is their principal deity and is worshipped by one and all.

Maran Buru Bonga

Maran Buru Bonga is the emissary of Thakur Jiv, the creator of the world. Once the first human beings known as Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Bhudi were born, Thakur Jiv appointed Maran Buru their guardian and entrusted him with the task of proliferation of the tribe. He taught the Santhals the art of carpentry, agriculture, animal husbandry etc. He also taught them how to brew alcohol known as hariya so that they can enjoy life. Since he is omnipresent there is no idol of Maran Buru; he is worshipped in stones and trees.

Worship of Marang Buru Bonga

Good and evil bongas of Santhali culture

It is to be noted that the word Bonga literally means spirit. Santhals believe that some spirits are good while some are bad. Among the benevolent bongas are Maran Buru Bonga and his consort Jaher Era Bonga.  Besides, there are Gosae Era Bonga, Moreko Turiko Bonga etc. Every Santhal village has a sacred grove called Jaher Than and all these benevolent bongas are worshipped there. Santhals also believe that there are some evil bongas who try to do harm and they need to be placated with sacrifices. In general, Santhals sacrifice small birds to placate these sprits.

The religious leaders are generally male who also provides medical cures. Today however, with spread of education and proliferation of government health centers many people prefer to go there.

Santhali Culture in Purulia

Santhali Dancers

While discussing Santhali culture in Purulia, it is important to remember that culture of any race is a dynamic process, which changes with time, imbibing components from the surrounding. Santhali culture too has undergone many changes. Yet, it can be safely said that, just as anywhere else, the singing and dancing is part of life for the Santhals of Purulia. They burst out in dancing and singing on every occasion.

Santhali Dances in Purulia

It is common to see Santhali girls in red bordered white sarees standing in semi circle, their hands interlocked, dancing to the tunes of Madols and flutes. It must also be understood that there are different types of dances, each evolved to suit a particular occasion. For example Bhuyang is performed during the Durga Puja; it derives its name from percussion like instrument called bhuyang. This dance is always accompanied by a lot of chanting and wailing. Then again Natua (derived from Nataraja) is performed during Shiber Gajan.

Ladies in Red Bordered Sarees

Other Santhali art form in Purulia

In general dancing is accompanied by singing. In fact, singing is an important part of the Santhali culture and there are many traditional songs composed to suit different occasions. Painting is also a significant part of the Santhali culture. A drive through a typical Santhali village will reveal how proficient they are in this art form. One will find the outer walls of their homes covered with beautiful paintings. These paintings not only depict the surrounding nature, but also their culture and heritage.

Santhali Festivals of Purulia

Sohray being Celebrated by the Villagers

The yearly hunting festival, known as Disum Sendra, is one of the most important festivals of the Santhals of Purulia. However, hunting of big animals has now been banned by the government and therefore, much of the grandeur surrounding this festival is now lost. Nonetheless, the Santhals of Purulia celebrate many other festivals that retain is grandeur even to this date.

Baha, the Santhali Spring Fesival, is one such festival. Santhals sing and dance throughout the night to celebrate the coming of spring. Another festival to retain popularity among the Santhals of Purulia is Bhejabindha. Cock fight is the main attraction of this festival. Cocks are reared specially to take part in this fight.
Bhejabindha or Santhali Cock Fight

Santhals of Purulia celebrate many other festivals.  Following are some other festivals celebrated exclusively by this tribe:
  • Erohk Sim celebrates sowing of seeds in the month of Asad
  • Karam parab is celebrated after paddy cultivation is complete
  • Sohray is held after the Kali puja
  • Jathel Utsav is celebrated between 15 th November to 15 December
  • Magh Sim is held during the month of Magh 

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