Mandala Of Indic Traditions
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
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
7. Offering during worship is made within the pictorial boundary known as
khond as 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
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
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
"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
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
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.