The Santhals are among the major tribes of India. They are also among the most numerous of India’s tribal communities, the other two being Gonds and Bhils. Unlike the other two, the Santhals live in a contiguous area consisting of Jharkhand, South Bihar, the western part of West Bengal and Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. It’s a tribe deeply conscious of what it considers its Great Tradition. This sense of a Great Tradition seeks to recall a glorious past in which the tribe enjoyed material prosperity and cultural efflorescence. Subsequently, due to the cruel machinations of the non-tribal world around them, they have fallen on evil days.

The Santhal society of today is characterised by what social anthropologists like Orans call the solidarity-emulation conflict. They want, on the one hand, to emphasise their superiority vis-à-vis the other neighbouring tribal groups and, on the other, are eager to follow the lifestyle of the non-tribal groups, whom they secretly envy.

The Santhals have a cycle of festivals, most of which have religious overtones. During these festivals the tribal deities are worshipped and their blessings sought for the welfare of the community, for peace and plenty.

The prayer songs accompanying these festivals are known as Bakhen. One other specific and important song is the Binti. This song celebrates the Santhal concept of the origin of society and the migration of the community in historical times. Apart from the Bakhen and the Binti, they have also a very large repertoire of love songs, marriage songs and songs for celebrating the spring season.

The Santhals are extremely fond of singing and dancing and many of their festivals extend over a period of a week or, sometimes, even two weeks. The celebrations are also spread out over time in different villages, thereby enabling participation by men from outside the village.

The Santhals also have a large variety of musical instruments—drums of various types and string instruments, and of course, the inevitable flute. There have been a fair number of collections of Santhal songs, both in the original Santhali and in English translation. The songs illustrate various aspects of Santhal life, their rituals and social mores and customs. The songs are essential parts of ceremonies spread over the entire year apart from love and marriage songs.

Binti: Cosmology & Migration

Binti is the Santhal song of Cosmology and is recited by a group of three or more singers at the time of marriage ceremony. They give an elaborate description of the migration of the tribe during historical times and bring the story down to the particular occasion of marriage.

After the members of the bridegroom’s party arrive at the bride’s house, they are asked several intriguing questions and are expected to give proper answers. No food or drinks are served unless these questions are correctly answered. The rigidity of this test has somewhat declined in recent years.

Both questions and answers are in the form of songs. All along, as the questions and the answers go on, there is jest and good humour. Thereafter, the members of the bride’s party introduce the Binti song and handia is served liberally.

The entire song is meant to put the particular occasion in a wider context, the universal context of society and tradition.

Marriage as an institution is referred back to the beginning of human creation and the particular occasion of the marriage is sought to be viewed in the larger context of the creation of the world, the dawn of human civilisation, the emergence of the Santhal community, its migration in historical times etc.

The whole song is a part of an important oral tradition. In every village, there are some professional singers, who learn the Binti from their forefathers and recite it from memory. It is true there are occasional additions or modifications, which is common to all oral tradition. The singers introduce the subject saying that they have not witnesses the incidents they are going to narrate, but have learnt about them from their ancestors. It has not yet been written down and published.

The Binti song is repetitive and there are many refrain lines. This makes its performance lengthy. After the recitation relating to the particular families of the bride and the bridegroom and their respective villages, the song goes on to describe the growth of the population of the tribe, its migration through different places such as Hihidi, Pipidi, the wars that had to be waged with local inhabitants as they continued their victorious onward journey and how they finally came to the land where they now live. It ends by stating that all this is remembered with gratitude to their ancestors whose blessings are invoked for making the particular marriage ceremony a happy communion of souls.

Bakhens: Ritual Invocation

Like most primitive cultures, the Santhals display a passionate curiosity about the supernatural. The world of the supernatural is inhabited by Gods and Goddesses, both benevolent and malevolent and also the spirits of dead ancestors. Like all primitive cultures, the Santhals have invocation songs addressed to the Gods, spirits and the ancestors seeking to propitiate them in the interest of prosperity and wellbeing of society.

These ritual invocation songs, app-roximately 16 in number, are called Bakhen. The Bakhen are recited for personal and communal welfare; for rich harvests, peace and plenty; for cows which will yield milk in abundance; for smiling crops which will not be destroyed by pests. These elaborate systems of invoking the blessings of Gods, spirits and ancestors are part of the Santhal tribes search for the Great Tradition which is inextricably linked in their minds with their antiquity.

The 16 invocation songs can be divided into two groups. The first group of 10 songs is recited at different stages in the agricultural cycle along with the rituals relevant to each such agricultural activity. They also relate to the building of new houses, repair to existing ones and entering forests to collect timber, grass, etc. The second group of six invocation songs relate to festivals of birth, marriage and death along with relevant rituals. The dates of the festivals and the corresponding ritual celebrations are determined by the village headman or manjhi. He has the traditional right to determine the date and time for each ritual occasion. Most invocation songs are celebrated at the place for communal worship called jahera, which is the sacred grove in Santhal mythology.

The Santhals are deeply aware of the expressive and symbolic functions of the rituals and songs connected with them. The invocatory songs of the Santhal are thus intimately concern with family and kinship interest and with social and village institutions.

The songs have elaborate rituals and as Monica Wilson observes “men express in ritual what moves them most and since the form of expression is conventionalized and obligatory, it is in these rituals that the groups’ values are revealed”.

Normally, the invocation songs are long and recited during various ritual occasions. A part of four invocation songs are given here purely as instances. As may be seen, the first two of the invocation songs relate to agricultural activity. The first prayer, namely Erok Sim Bonga, is for every seed that is sown to be become 16 and not to be attacked by disease. This is at the time of the cultivation of the fields by the traditional method with the help of bullocks or agricultural instruments and thereafter the sowing of the seeds.

The second prayer relating to the agricultural cycle is Asadia Bonga. In the month of Asadh which is the rainy season, the prayer to the Jaher Era is to bring in rain-bearing clouds so that the crops grow well.

These two prayers are for Jaher Era, namely the presiding deity who lives among the sal trees on the outskirts of the village and most ceremonial celebrations of Santhal society are held there.

While Jaher Era is traditionally looked upon as the Earth Mother and the most important Santhal deity for purposes of worship, Maran Buru, the God in the sky, occupies an important place in the pantheon of Santhal Gods and Goddesses. The third bakhen or prayer given here relates to the marriage ceremony and the fourth one to the naming ceremony of the newborn.

It may be seen from this that Jaher Era is the Goddess for agricultural operations. Only two of such bakhen meant for Jaher Era are given here as samples, but most of the bakhen relate to agricultural operations. Scholars have debated why the birth and marriage ceremonies are related to the God in the sky. Jaher Era and Maran Buru are the two major Goddess and Gods in the Santhal pantheon. While Jaher Era is located in the sal grove at the outskirts of the village, Maran Buru is more abstract a concept and as the God lives somewhere in the sky perhaps behind the clouds.

The hills and the jungles covering it provide materials for their house building, fuel wood and also various kinds of indigenous medicinal preparations which they make from out of the roots and tubers and the leaves of specific plants.

Traditional Santhal medicine is very well known and lot of research has gone into listing the ingredients that go into their preparations and the exact procedure adopted for making the medicines. The preparations of the medicines are accompanied by certain invocations which are of a low order of importance and, therefore, they are not listed among the 16 major bakhen.

The date for entry of the Santhals into the forests for the purpose of collecting  roots, herbs and leaves is decided every year by the village priest because this is supposed to be important for the potency and efficacy of the medicine.

Unfortunately, along with this traditional practice in many areas, Santhals use this occasion of forest entry also to kill animals and cut trees. Sometimes there is a ban imposed by Government and this brings the Santhals into conflict with the Government.

On several occasions there is amicable settlement permitting the Santhals to enter the forest exclusively for the purpose of collection of ingredients for making their traditional medicines. As regards building materials, they are given the facility of their requirement per family depending upon its size. The timber for this purpose is given at a very concessional rate by the local forest officers to the Santals.

Erok Sim Bonga

Our obeisance to you, Mother Jaher Era.

On the occasion of the Erok festival we offer to you young fowls, and freshly husked rice.

Accept it in pleasure.

We pray to you:

for every seed we sow let there be twelve

and let not disease attack them.

 

Asadia Bonga

Salutation to you, Mother Jaher Era.

On the occasion of the Asadia festival we offer to you young fowls and freshly rice.

Kindly accept them.

We pray to you:

bring us rain-bearing clouds

and make our fields fit for cultivation.

Bapla Handi Bonga

Salutation to you Maran Buru.

We offer to you handia on the occasion of this marriage

kindly accept it with pleasure.

We pray to you,

let this coming together of man and wife be blessed and auspicious.

Let them live long and have sons and daughters.

Let there be a lively and happy

understanding between them.

Caco Catiar Nimdah

Salutation to you, Maran Buru.

On the occasion of the naming of this newborn baby

We offer to you handia and neem water.

Kindly accept it with pleasure.

We pray: let this child be health and strong.

Let him grow well and live long.

Let him also be blessed with true knowledge and wisdom.

Love Songs

He plays his flute on the hill

as I fill my pitcher in the spring

how do I go there leaving my pitcher

how do I withstand the insistence of the flute’s call?

 

In the village street the dance has ended

The flowers have withered on the trees

The stars are setting in the west

And the moon looks pale and tired

Allow me to go home

Allow me to go back and dream of you.

The koel sings in the mango grove at the end of the road, dear friends,

Summer is already here the kusum and the palas have set the forest on fire

and where have you vanished my beloved?

All my girl companions have gone to their husband’s houses

All my boy friends now have wives

The flowers have withered on the trees

The leaves have fallen

And have been blown away by the restless wind and now I sit alone.

 

While the love songs are many and vary from region to region with the area the Santhals live, the marriage songs are fewer in number and more common in the Santhal region. This author has noticed the variation in love songs of the Santhals in the region of Jharkhand, Mayurbhanj of Orissa, western part of West Bengal and south Bihar. On the other hand, the marriage songs are more or less common in these regions. Two of the marriage songs are given below:

Marriage songs

The Phagun moon is waxing

and your marriage day approaches

Tonight you will be anointed with oil and turmeric

Tomorrow evening we bid farewell to you

Do not cry O daughter

This is the way of the world.

(ii)

O daughter

Now your friends and all the relations

are anointing you with oil and turmeric

Tomorrow at dusk you will leave this village

and go to your husband’s house

Tomorrow this village, its trees and flowers will miss you

The flowers will wither

You will leave behind all affection, all loving bonds

And yet, don’t forget them

Remember them.

A girl is meant for another house

Parents cannot keep her for ever.

The Santhals observe the season of spring as the Baha Parab. Several ritual functions along with appropriate singing take place during the Baha festival. This is the time when the trees in the forest have new leaves of various colours and the songs celebrate the coming of the spring season. A couple of these Baha songs are given below:

Baha Songs

(i)

This is the day of days, the season of seasons

The mahul trees are all in flower

and honey drops from the flowers

Do they not know, the boys and the girls

Do they not know the mahul flowers are smiling, full of honey?

(ii)

The manjhi’s daughter, how she sways

like a leaf in the wind

Even before the madal strikes a note!

Her body is as soft as the dove’s breast

Her lips red like palas

And how her body sways in the wind

like a leaf!!