Cosmography In The Oral Tradition Of The Santhals: An Anthropological Perspective

Subrata Chakrabarti

Introduction The Creation Myth
The Origin: Our Views The Present Concept of Time
The Origin: Their Views Roots vis-a vis History


The Santals are one of the well- studied tribes of India. In Racial Element, Guha (1944) has grouped them as a race belonging to Proto-australoid community. Grierson (1906) on the basis of their spoken language has placed them to the Austro-Asiatic sub family of the Munda group of language. As a pre-literate tribe, the Santals have no written history of their own but there is no dearth of anthropological records, monographs and paper on them. Since E.G Man (1865) published his Sonthalia and the Sonthals, there has been continuous edition to literature to the Santal, which would amount to over five-hundred titles, as up to 1975 the number of 487 titles have been recorded by Troisi (1976). The interest in the Santal anthropology has least been abated and still persists on but most studies on them are concerned with their general ethnographic description of livelihood activities, social relations and cultural traditions (Chakrabarty 1989: 264) or to a lesser extent on aspects of Santal religion (Troisi 1978).

In spite of notable research attempt on the Santal culture, there is a great deal more to be learned about the Santal and their world –view. The vast mass of empirical data that are now available no doubt throw important light on their life circle, mode of thought and pattern of behaviour, nevertheless for a deeper understanding of the Santal psyche of primitivisation, their cosmic laws will have to be weighed against their long- standing oral traditions.

The oral tradition of the Santals fairly constantly focuses upon that:

  1. The Santals are well distributed in Space and Time.

  2. The Santals as Hors or human beings are no less inferior to Diku or human beings other than the hors, and

  3. As hors they are undifferentiated replica of the cosmos consisting of basic elements of Sema (sky) Dak (water) Hasa (soil) and Sengal (fire).

It is with this background, the cosmography in the oral tradition of the Santal will have to be analysed. Interestingly in their concept of creation of the universe as well as their own creation as human beings, the idea of cosmogony and cosmology is interwoven with each other. However, to find a model of unknown, which is unknowable through probing- anthropological or historical facts, the only clue left to look for it is in transcendental sphere of the creation myths. For, it is here, as it has been claimed that:

The creation of the world being the pre-eminent instances of creation, the cosmogony becomes the exemplary model for “creation” of every kind (Elide 1964:21)

An attempt in this paper is, therefore, made, basing upon the exemplary oral traditions of the Santals, especially the well- known story of the creation of the universe, the origin of the hors as well as their sung-poetry through which the Santals narrate their “history”, to reconstruct the santal concept of cosmogony vis-a-vis cosmography.

The Origin: Our Views:

The origin of the Santal as a tribe is obscure. Nevertheless there is no doubt that they are one of the oldest inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent. The Santals seem to have secondarily primitivised even before the arrival of the Aryan speaking people in India. There is a difference in the view point on whether the Santals are the autochthonous or emigrants to India. Hunter (1868), Risley (1891) and even Roy (1912) maintain that the Santals are emigrants from Australia and its adjacent countries. A very recent DNA studies also suggest their migratory character, but had their roots in Africa (Prabhakaran et al 2000).

Anthropologists and linguists have argued that the Santals have had other nomenclature by which they were known in the past. Skrefsrud (1887, reprinted in 1968) did suggest that even two hundred years ago they were known as soontar and the soontar has not been their original name but a title given to them by the local inhabitants when these primitive tribe(s) settled down in areas around Midnapur. The soontars have been regarded as the progenitors of the Santals (Skrefsurd 1887). On the other hand, Suiniti Kumar Chatterjee would put his note of dissent even to the coinage of the term Santal. Chatterjee while writing an introduction to a book by Tudu (1966) advocated that the name Santal has derived from Samantapal, a border place of West Bengal where the Santals live in large numbers but judging by their language, it would be logical to designate them as Kherwal or Kherwarh rather than as the Santals. However, the Santals have accepted the name without knowing what it actually means.

The Origin: Their Views:

The Santals’ own notion about their origin is mysterious. They also retain the idea that they have come from far off place, the land of sunrise. Even though the Santals are not certain about their place of origin, they have their crystallised idea about the origin of man and the creation of the universe. The Santals narrate these cosmological matters in their myths and songs, which they sing in any occasion, notably in context with their practices connected with festivity such as Karam, Dasae, Sohrae and other festivals.

Now I shall reproduce below the Santal myth of creation of the universe and the origin of human beings and, also, relevant sung poetry of the Santals connected with their cosmology and cosmogony.

The Creation Myth:

The most representative of the Santal creation myth is the one that was told by Hor Kolean a century ago to Diku Skrefsrud (1887). O.P. Bodding (1942:3-14) translated this myth into English. Since then anthropologists and scholars dealing with the Santal tradition often referred to the myth. The myth is presented here to help illustrate the world- view of the Santal. The story runs as follows:

In the beginning there was only water all over. At the lowest bottom of water there was land. The Thakur Jiu (spirit of God) felt the pang of creation. There he brought into being the earth and the different animals like crab, alligator, whale, crocodile, tortoise, lobster and earthworm, etc., to live in the water. But the Thakur Jiu was not happy with his creation. He felt that his mission would not be consummated till ‘man’ comes into being. He, therefore, created man and woman and decided to breathe life into them. But behold: Just when he would infuse life into his creation a Sin Sadom or a weird horse came down from the heaven and devoured the human effigies.

Thakur Jiu was terribly grief-stricken. He decided that he would never again attempt to create man. Before that, he thought, he should create birds. Hence he brought forth a pair of ducks from his Breast. Then he infused life- essence into them. Now the two creatures just floated about on the water with permanent moorings. When absolutely tired they could take rest on the palm of Thakur Jiu which was a short respite followed by another bout of ceaseless and aimless floating.

Again this time the Sin Sadom appeared from the heaven and threatened to kill the ducks. But Thakur Jiu was on his guard this time. He dealt a stroke and the Sin Sadom turned into froth of sea. Now the ducks began to float on the froth. They needed earth to rest on. They needed to sustain life. They prayed to the Thakur Jiu, ‘We want food and shelter’.

Thakur Jiu summoned the tortoise and ordered him to fetch earth from the bottom of the sea. The tortoise tried its utmost and failed.

He then summoned the lobster and ordered him to fetch earth from the sea bottom. The lobster also failed. In this way every aquatic animal, such as, crocodile, Raghop Boal or whale and crab failed.

Now Thakur Jiu ordered the earthworm to fetch earth from the sea bed. The earthworm came forward with zeal and succeeded.

Thakur Jiu , the Supreme Master, then created the earth. He placed mountains, wood and oceans on the earth. The two ducks built their homes on the earth. According to the law of nature, they laid eggs. The ducks now swim on water and heat their eggs. Suddenly one day the eggs hatched two human babies- one of them male and another female. The male infant was named Pilchu Haram and the girl infant was named Pilchu Buri. Now the ducks danced about in joy and songs:

Hae Hae, Jala puri re
Hae Hae, nuking manewa
Hae Hae, busnr akankin
Hae Hae, nuking manewa
Hae Hae, tokare dohokin

Hae, Hae, do se laieben
Hae Hae, Maran Thakur Jiu
Hae Hae, busur asankim
Hae Hae, nuking manewa
Hae Hae, tokare dohokin

Hey Hey, Kingdom of Water
Hey Hey, Child of Man
Oh, tell me
Where I will keep you!
Oh where?

Hey Hey, Go to the Thakur Jiu, Oh Child!
Hey Hey, Implore him for shelter.
Hey Hey, Implore him for clothes.
Hey Hey, Child of Man
Hey Hey, Oh tell me
Hey Hey, where I will keep you, where!

This creation story, albeit willy-nilly arranged, presents a structured vision from which it is possible to devise the form of thought of the Santal on the Universe. But as their poetry is their life and their life is poetry, as observed Archer (1974:346), it is essential to reproduce them along side the creation myth in order to gain the Santal’s total vision of life and conception of cosmogony.

The santals have poetry for all occasions but we will refer here to only seven such songs relevant to our theme. The songs are as follows:

Song No. 1

Dakma cetan re
Serma latar re
Has Hasi cerekin
Rak homorok’

Tokarikin abok’a
Tokarikin Japida
Has Hasi cerekin udau lanqayen
Thakurak ‘bohok’ rikin abok’a
Onde gekin Japida
Has Hasi cerekin jiwetgeya.

Water is above
It is below the sky
The two, Has and Hasin weep
Where will they sit?
Where will they sleep?
The Has and Hasin got tired of flying
They will sit on the head of God
They will sleep there
The two, the Has and the Hasin are alive

Song No. 2

Sermare dak’ banu
Dhartire hasa banu
Sange dharti sajaw banu
Hoe doe rakap keda sermare dak’

Ledondon hasae rakap ‘Ket’

Sangi dharti sajaw ena.

There was no water in the sky
There was no soil on the earth
Truly the earth was not fully arranged.
The air lifted the water up into the sky
The female earthworm lifted the soil up
Thus the earth was properly arranged.

Song No. 3

Laha pahil dharti losot’ ge
Thol Thole takekan
Cekae dhari rohar ena
Losot ‘hawet’ laqit’ ponkhiraja
Hoy may hoy teqe ror ena

In the beginning
The earth was marshy
How could the earth become dry?
To make the marshy land dry
The Bird King created the air
With that hard blowing air,
It became dry

Song No. 4

Tokoe Jonom dharti
Tokoe Jonom Pirthimi
Tokoe Jonom dharti
Manewa hor
Horo jonom dharti
Lende Jonom Pirthimi
Has-hasi cere jonom
Manewa hor.

From what did the earth originate?
From what did the earth originate?
From what did man of this earth originate?
This earth originated from the turtle
The soil originated from the earthworm
A pair of swans gave birth to man.

Song No. 5

More sin’ more ninda
Engel dak’ doe jari leda ho
Manwa toka redo ben tahekan
Menak ‘menak’ dhiri dander
Menak ‘menak’ dhiri kahar do
Ona relian tahekan
Ona relin sunduc’ tahekan.

For five days,
And for five nights
O man, where did you live?
Where were you hiding?
We (two) were hiding in a cave
We (two) were there
We (two) were hiding there.

Song No. 6

Hasa hormo ho hoe jivi
Jian jhardak’ do chlkau Kana
Jivi ban hilok’ do hasa dhurire mesaw abon
Jian jhardak ‘do mesaw cabak’

The body is soil
And life is air
The water of the spring of life overflows.
The day life goes out
We turn to soil
The water of the spring of life also sinks into the earth.

Excepting Song No.5 and 6, the other songs are sung in the festival of Karam, after the name of a tree (Adina Cordifolia), which the Santals hold as sacred. The Song Nos. 5 and 6 are connected with the Baha and Cumuara festivals respectively.

The Sung- poetry of the Santals reveals, as in the myth story cited above, that the major concern of their cosmogony is the origin of Earth and human beings. The Earth stands for Nature and as the earth produces hors, and, therefore, human beings become part and parcel of Nature (Song No.4). Whereas Song No. 1 illustrate their belief that in the beginning of creation there existed nothing but a vast sheet of water and the sky and, in the days of such a deluge, the sun was lost in darkness all round and no creation was possible (Song No.2). But then air was created which made the Earth ultimately dry and marshy (Song No.3). The land then appeared in which the created, viz., the Aves, could take shelter. In course of time the environment of Earth could hold vegetation and, finally, when the Earth was properly arranged (Song No. 3 and 4), human beings appeared.

This reveals that the Santals have perceived the primeval time in terms of abstract principles. But, all the same, their perception of the world did not end in creation alone, it does incorporate the principle of the world destruction along side the world creation (Song No. 5). However this creation- destruction percept of the Santals is also connected with the Santal view of primal elements (Song No.6). the primeval elements that they refer are air, earth and water, which have been consider by the Santals to form the fundamental elements of the universe. The schemes that arise out of their creation myth as well as their sung- poetry that can be sequentially ordered under:

  1. At the beginning there was nothing but dak or water and above it was the sky.
  2. In water life began, and
  3. Then the earth was inhabited only by aquatic creatures, since no land existed
  4. As lands began to emerge the other forms of life, notably birds, appeared
  5. Hoe or air played a vital role in the creation of land, vegetal world and other forms, excluding human beings, of life on earth.
  6. When land, air, vegetal world etc. were arranged properly the end product - hors appeared

Finally comes fire.

Thus beginning with water and ending with fire, the Santal relates the cosmogony in succeeding order in which Nature played more important role than Thakur Jiu or the Supreme Being.

The Present Concept of Time:

As against this background the abstract concept of Primeval time, the concept of present time is not very crystallised among the Santals. This does not mean that they do not have any concern for time. The Santals do seem to gear their time in terms of dictates of Nature. They do have terms for hours, minutes, and seconds i.e. taran, tiring, tirij respectively. The day is distinguished in five main parts: Seta (morning), tikin (Noon) tarasin (afternoon), aiyub (twilight) Sidau (midnight) with additional breakdown of parts basyumi (morning till 9 A.M.), dadha tikinand bera-achur (between Noon and Afternoon) and Sigur (between twilight and midnight). A week is divided in seven says- Singi (Sunday), ate (Monday), bale (Tuesday), Sagun (Wednesday), Sardi (Thursday), Jaram (Friday) and Ynhun (Saturday). They have also name for twelve months but mostly these names are borrowed names with the exception of Dasae (October-November) and Sohrae (November-December) and some others.

Furthermore, the full idea of all the seasons of the year is absent in Santal time perception although as compared with the other tribal groups such as the Birhors (Adhikary 1970), the Santals have better concept of seasons, which they divide as Dasae (Autumn), Sohrae (between Autumn and winter), Rabang (winter), Baha (Spring) and Situlol (Summer).

From the foregoing thus it seems that the Santals have perception on the one hand on time in which the reflections of their relations to environment get represented and the structural time representing reflections to another in social structure on the other. This time percept is similar to what has been described as ecological time (Evans- Pritchard 1940:94).

Roots vis-a vis History:

No account of Santal cosmography is complete without reference to the poetry in which they speak about their origin as a people and, finally, wandering from place to place, they established a territory of their own. The song runs as follows:

Song No. 7

Hihiri rebon janam len
Pipiri rebon busur len
Khoj karam rebon khoj len
Harat rebon hara len
Sasan Beda rebon jatena ho.

We were born in Hihiri
We lived in Pipiri
We took refuse in khoj Kaman
We multiplied in Harata
We divided into clans at sasan Beda.

And then by the grace of Maran Buru, they were shown a lighted path through which they arrive in Chae-Champa kingdom

Attempts have been made by the scholars to identify the places referred to in the above songs but the geographical location, due to lack of historical data, of these places is far from settled. Hihiri Pipiri has been identified with Ahiri Pipiri in Hazaribagh (Risley 1891) and Chae- Champa that means the land of Seven Rivers has been located somewhere along the northwest frontier of Hazaribagh Plateau (Pakistan Publications 1968).

Hihiri in Santhali means elevated land or hillock and Pipiri stands for plain; hence this compound word would actually means plateau where the Santals had their origin and roots. As hunter-gatherers they wondered in this yet to be identified plateau until they became technologically well equipped to adapt the mountainous tracts and plains through which they passed by finally to arrive in Chae- Champa, the land of Seven Rivers!

The real challenge to anthropologists and, more particularly to, archaeologists lies in identifying the places the Santals has been referring since their origin. Unless the root of the Santals as a tribe is properly located, their cosmogony and cosmology could not be anchored in history.

To summarise, the myth of creation of the universe prevails among the Santals. This has been expressed in abstract principles governed by the concept of basic elements such as the sky, water, air, land and fire. But when considered in terms of percept of time and its relation to cosmogony, the Santhal expression is more in consonance with ecological time than time as history.


Acknowledgement is due to Sri Kalicharan Hemmbram for his kind co-operation as an informant.


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