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Short History of the Santals in Bangladesh

1. Historical Background of the Santals

Since how long the Santals landed in the territory of present Bangladesh, is not precisely known. Some believe that the Kherwars[15] reached the land of Bengal immediately after the first clashes with the invading Aryan tribes (2500 B. C.). With every probability the Santals landed in Bangladesh with their actual ethnic identity, not after 1000 B. C. It is probable that the Santals scattered throughout Bengal at the time of the Muslim invasion of this region during the last decades of the twelfth century or at the beginning of thirteenth century. In the words of Fr. Luizi Pussetto: “The Santals retired progressively toward more calm regions or where it was more easy to defend [themselves] from the invaders...”[16]

In later times, with the historic Santal Revolution in 1855 under the British Colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent, when 30,000 thousand Santals are believed to have been killed,[17] it is beyond any doubt that many of the Santals were dispersed into distant lands and geographically isolated territories. Many of them even crossed the river Ganges and end up in the East, the part of present Bangladesh. Many think that the early Santals came to North Bengal in search for job opportunities, especially when the railway tracks were under construction during the British rule in the second half of the 19th century. This may be one of the reasons that most Santals in Bangladesh are found settling on both sides of the railway lines from North to South.

1.1 The Name “Santal”: Regarding the name Santal, opinions differ among the scholars. For Skrefsrud, the name Santal is a corruption of Saontar, and was adopted by the tribe after their sojourn for several generations in the country around Saont in Midnapur. W. B. Oldham opined that Santal is an abbreviation of Samantawala, which has its etymology from Sanskrit Samanta, another name given to the country around Saont. O’Malley is of the opinion that Santal is an English form adopted from Hindi which corresponds with the form Saotal used by the Bengali speaking people. Sir John Shore designated Santals as Soontars while for McPherson it is Saungtars. For P. O. Bodding it would derive from Sant or Sat or Sar, a region of the district of Midnapur, in India. Bishop J. Obert who had long experience working with the Santals looked at this from different perspective. According to him, Set would mean seven, number referred to the seven rivers of a region: Country of the seven rivers. [18]

Most Anthropologists agree that Santal is a name given to this tribe by non-Santals. However, Santals prefer to call themselves hoŗ meaning “human being or person.” For the Santals the concept hoŗ bears a rich connotation to mean a person with qualities of intellect, of knowledge, of wisdom; they refer themselves as a tribe with dignity and full human potentiality. The Santals are proud of their identity that defines the traits of solidarity and uniqueness as a group.

1.2 Origin, Race, and Language: As to the “origin” of the Santals, very little is known for certain. The Santals have no recorded history. Like other ancient societies, Santals have tried to explore the mysteries of creation, history and life by means of myths and legends. Following the anthropological data, some authors classify Santals as Pre-Dravidian and others as Proto-Austroloids; and others as aboriginals of the Northwest. Thus, the opinions in this respect are very discordant. The Santals do have their own mythology of creation and many believe that they all have come from Pilcu haŗam and Pilcu budhi, which is like Adam and Eve in the Bible.

Santali is the mother tongue spoken by the Santals. It is a munda language of the kherwar group that belongs to the munda-mon-Khmer or ‘Austro-Asiatic’[19] sub-family. But there are other different opinions on this too. According to N. Prasad, “Santali is the richest dialect among all the tribal dialects of Bihar.”[20]

1.3 Geographical Location: In Bangladesh, the Santals are found mostly in North Bengal (Northern part of Bangladesh) especially in the then greater districts of Dinajpur, Rangpur, Bogra, and Rajshahi. According to the census of 1881, the Santals resulted present in the district of Khulna, Pabna and Chittagong in the south. Many say that the Santals, who are in Sylhet, are the ones who migrated from the districts mentioned above and came here mainly to work in the tea gardens as laborers. In short, the Santals of Bangladesh are almost all derived from those emigrated from the Santal Pargana in India and nothing distinguishes them from those who are still living there, with the exception, perhaps of the use of Bangla words that are Santalized. [21] In recent times some of the Bangladeshi Santals also started going abroad taking employment opportunities.

2. The Worldview

The Santals are simple and unsophisticated people. Like any other people, the Santals have developed their own worldview, a system suited to deal with the basic problems of life and its meaning. They have perceived the enigma and the basic dichotomy of human existence—life and death, good and evil from their own perspective. For the Santals, life, health, wealth, prosperity, happiness, tribal solidarity, religious belief, mores, etc., are “good”; and death, illness, poverty, misfortune, injury etc. are “evil”. Their religious experiences is mediated through their culture and are expressed in terms of symbols, metaphors, myth, legends, folklore, songs, cult, rituals and so on.[22] The Santals consider Thạkur Jiu (Life Giver) or Cando Baba (Sun Father) or Marang Buru (Great Mountain) as the source of all “good”; while it is the “evil eye”, the “evil mouth” and the bạŗic’ bonga or malevolent spirits who cause harms in human life. Therefore, while acknowledging the Supreme Being, they also propitiate the bonga in an attempt to solve the problems of suffering, sickness, and other crisis. All these quite often lead them to superstitious beliefs and give rise to prominence of the fear of the bonga.

For the Santals every newborn child coming from the invisible and shadowy world needs to be purified, identified and introduced to the Santal society. Much of such realities are expressed through the ritual ceremonies performed after a child is born. The ritual of the janam chạtiạr (birth purification and name-giving ritual) is one example where these aspects are enacted through bathing, shaving the head of the baby, divining of arwa rice (unboiled rice) grains and welcoming of the baby by the community.

The death purification ceremonies like funeral rites of Bhandan, or Mora Karam (after-death celebration) provide further details of the Santal-belief system that the dead person goes back to the same spirit-world of life from where he/she had come as a baby and remains defiled and defiling, for which reason not only the family that needs purification, but the very return of the deceased person to its original state or shadowy-world is already defiling because it is a tribeless-state, condemned and sinful state and because it has been created for the punishment of the sins of greed and pride. Hence, the deceased person needs to be brought back spiritually to his/her own family and is installed as an invisible member as hapŗam (ancestor). The deceased, although invisible, remain a permanent member of the family and are remembered and respected during all their family occasions.

The Santals believe that “when [a] human being becomes perfectly free from all greed and pride this state will be removed and that will be the New Creation,”[23] which in Christianity may be compared with the state of salvation.

For the Santals, there is no clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, religious and non-religious, spiritual and the material areas of life. Animals and the material world are at the disposal of human beings for their self-preservation and well-being. Moreover, Santal-life is closely related to nature and to the whole of creation. Land and forest remain united with Santal-identity and are very much reflected in their lives, love, poetry, songs, dance and music. The Santals, for example, address to the “supreme being” as Cando Baba (Sun Father) and the stars too have different names. According to Archer, “Although fields, houses, men and women seem to constitute a Santal village, Santals regard them as at most a portion of their total world.”[24]

3. The Santals in their Socio-Cultural Realities

3.1 The Santal-village: The Santal village is a pattern of Santal living and it is the most traditional and ancient institution, which crystallizes the whole system of social, political, and ritual structures. It comes into existence through the special dispensation of the bonga and is sanctified by their blessings. The presence of different clans in a village demonstrates the beauty of a community living and obviously the democratic character of the village administration itself is a sign of incredible richness of the Santal societal dealing and living. A Santal village is demarcated with an implicit boundary so that it may remain free from outside interference of evil spirits. The Santals believe that quarrels among families and groups in the village, natural calamities, sickness, epidemics, etc., are caused by lack of balance between the forces of good and evil.[25]

The Santal villages enjoy a large measure of internal autonomy and they are mainly governed by their own traditional laws and customs. Santals have their own method of dealing with various issues[26] of moral and religious nature. But, this situation is rapidly changing due to the introduction of the state laws. The application of Hindu laws to the Santals, especially with regard to the inheritance of property rights, created much disputes among them who have enjoyed their own customs and traditions since times immemorial.

3.2 Social structure of Santal village: The primary feature of every Santal village is the “Manjhi Council” or the village council headed by a manjhi (headman). The village council is the representative body of the community consisting of seven officials, namely: Manjhi, Paranik (a deputy headman), Jog Manjhi (an overseer of the village on moral issues), Jog Paranik (assistant to Jog Manjhi), Godet’ (a messenger), Naeke (a village priest), and his assistant is Kudạm Naeke.[27] These officials in fact are the servants, not the masters of the village and their role is purely functional. The Mạnjhi remains as the overall leader of the village council and presides over the village meeting but with the accepted principle that no one overrules any one else. The functions of the council on the other hand, are categorically divided among the members in order to avoid any overlapping. The council members perform their functions in accordance with their tribal customs and traditions. The pattern of the village governance of the Santals is mostly democratic in character like any other democratic institution. However in present time, with the introduction of the government-sponsored Union Parisad (local administrative council) the social control of the traditional mạnjhi council of the Santals is mostly undermined.

Following the patriarchal pattern, the Manjhi (leader) of the village for the Santals, is always a male. The title of the Manjhi is generally hereditary and it is passed on patrilineally. Now-a-days, the male members of the village may elect or even select their own headman upon common consensus. The term of office is indefinite but can be altered by general agreement according to the need. Although the office of the headman is voluntary and honorary in nature, the members of the Manjhi council are responsible to the community for the smooth running of the village particularly for social matters.

3.3 The Clans: Santals are endogamic as a people because they cannot get married outside their tribe, but they are exogamic as clan because they cannot be married between the same clan (pạris).[28] Traditionally the Santals used to have fostered a total of twelve clans but unfortunately in the course of history one has been missing. The clans are: 1) Baskey, 2) Besra, 3) Core, 4) Hasdak’, 5) Hembrom, 6) Kisku, 7) Marandi, 8) Murmu, 9) Pạuria, 10) Soren, 11) Tudu, and 12) Bedea (the lost one).

Major functions of the clans are to regulate marriage, inheritance, succession and affiliation (Ali 1988; also Hossain 2000). One becomes a clan member by birth. It is said that these clans are hierarchically ordered on the basis of occupation, like: Kisku raja (king), Marandi Kipisạr (wealthy or richer), Murmu Thạkur (priest), Soren Sipạhi (warrior), Tudu Mạndạŗiạ (musician), and so on and so forth. However, according to the researcher, these occupational hierarchies of status do not have any impact on the Santals in daily lives.

3.4 Family and Marriage: Family is the primary unit of human society. The family among the Santals can be termed as of biological, joint, and extended. A husband, his wife and their unmarried children form part of the biological or nuclear family.[29] A husband, his wife and his married and unmarried sons and daughters and sometimes his old parents, brother and his family form part of the joint family[30] or extended family[31] type.

According to the Santals, marriage is an union between a man and a woman, which is socially recognized; culturally and religiously it allows the couple to live in a family. A Santal marriage can be described also as a legal transfer of dependency of the bride, from her father’s family to the groom’s family. By this transfer, the groom’s family does not only assume guardianship but also assumes control over all her affairs. Through marriage the bride looses her paternal legal identity and acquires the identity of the groom’s family. In the institutional sense, marriage is the partnership between a man and a woman regulated by customary laws that enhance legal union between the sexes and define the procedures for establishing the husband-wife relation, the reciprocal obligations and the accepted restrictions upon its personnel.[32]

As to the origin and institution of marriage, the Santals believe that the Creator Himself has established marriage. That is, the Thakur Jiu who created the first human pair (Pilcu haŗam and Pilcu budhi) has also instituted marriage. Although there are some instances of polygamy,[33] monogamy is the nature of most Santal marriages. Besides serving sexual needs and procreation of heirs, a Santal marriage has also other purposes, such as companionship, formation of family, economic security, cooperation in the family enterprise, social and psychological security, etc. Thus, Santal marriage is not only between two persons of opposite sex but it also becomes a bond of union between two families, two villages, and also influences the circle of relationship among the relatives.

M. A. Jalil[34] mentions four types of marriage among the Santals in Bangladesh. These are: 1) Dangwa bapla (contact marriage), 2) Angir bapla (love marriage), 3) Or bapla (force marriage), and 4) Itut’ bapla (tactical marriage). C. Mukharji mentions several other forms of marriage among the Santals in Santal Parganas, in India. These are: Bạriạt bapla, Tanki dipil, Baha dor bapla, Jharipani bapla, Kiriń jawae, Sanga bapla, Nirbolok’ bapla, Ghạrdi jawae bapla, and Hiram cetan bapla. [35] Moreover, Santals do have exceptions especially in the case of marriage between candidates of the same clan. For example, when the marriage of a young couple of the same clan for a valid reason becomes necessary, and consanguinity or affinity does not prevent it, they apply a juridical pretense. In such case, an elderly couple of a different clan, adopts the bride as their daughter through a simple ritual ceremony and gives the proper name to her.[36]

Marriage among the Santals is usually arranged by the parents and by the close relatives of the couple. Yet, in present days, there is much relaxation on this traditional practice and the candidates do have their say for arranging their marriage.

3.5 Annual Festivals and Ceremonies: The Santal society is marked with feasts, festivals and ritual celebrations. One of the terms often used by the Santals is rạskạ meaning happiness, or joy, which is not only dear to their hearts but is part and parcel of their life. Thus, we find dancing and singing have a very important role at every festival occasion. It brings a Santal to forget worries and stresses of his or her day-to-day life. In the social life of the Santals, feasts and festivals have great significance for these are the living expression of the deep aspiration of joy and happiness, and also demonstrate the feeling of community and solidarity integrated as part of the nature of the Santals. Many of such characteristics are expressed in songs, music and in dance. In fact, the Santals don’t give any space to individualism and it is really during the feasts and festivals that an individual realizes himself or herself in the community and his or her future role in the life of the community. Although, most of these festivals seemingly appear as mere gathering of close friends and relatives, individuals of the same sub-clan or that concern only the inhabitants of a village; yet, there are also occasions that involve more villages, as it usually happens on the occasion of marriage when participation is mostly unanimous.

In any of these feasts and festivals, there are certain rites and rituals being followed often accompanied by simple offering at the center. Ablutions and unction of oil, the use of vermilion to mark the sacrificial victim and even being used by the participants, bears a greater significance. In fact, some of these festival performances consist of some sort of worship or folk cults. From the rites and festivals of the Santals, it is quite clear that their economic life, social organization and ritual performances are interwoven mainly around agriculture. The Santals believe that the aspects of material life must be protected and guarded by appropriate rites and festivals; and bonga (spirits) must be satisfied by giving their due shares.

Many of the socio-cultural festivals and ritualistic celebrations indicate that Santals have deeper insights that go beyond mere external celebrations. However, due to the scope and limitation of this study, we only mention some main annual festivals and ceremonies commonly observed like: Sohorae (harvest festival), Baha (flower festival), Erok’ (sowing of rice seeds in the field), Iri-Gundli Nạwai (offering of the first fruits of the millet iri), Janthar (offering of the first fruits of the winter rice crop).[37] Santals also have occasional rites and festivals, which are neither associated with agricultural operations nor performed annually. Some of these are: Jom Sim, Mak’ Moŗe and Karam.

4. Socio-Economic and Political Realities

4.1 Occupations and Living: Traditionally Santals are mainly agriculturists. They cling to their land as their principal occupation and means of subsistence. About 95% of the Santals are involved in agricultural operations. Industrious and hardworking as they are, unfortunately the scientific side of their knowledge about cultivation and managing their land has not been developed. In the past the majority of the Santals were landowners, but due to the increase in population, exploitation by moneylenders and landlords, illegal occupation of their land, poverty and illiteracy, natural calamities etc. the vast majority of the Santals in Bangladesh have lost their land properties. At present, nearly 80% of the Santals are land-less,[38] forcing them to earn their livelihood depending on the mercy and availability of work in the fields of their Muslim or Hindu neighbors for their mere subsistence. Yet, it is significant to note that traditionally there are no beggars among the Santals. Rather, the Santals in the time of dire poverty go to the jungle to collect wild plants, fruits, wild potatoes and roots of young shoots, flowers, mushrooms, etc.

Hunting and fishing that used to be part of Santal-living, have now become secondary importance due to the change of situation. Lack of employment opportunities in the village areas, also forced many Santals to flock to the nearby towns and cities in search of daily wages and jobs. The women in Santal society play an important role in maintaining their families but in reality they remain deprived of their equal right, which is reflected by the fact that women are not eligible for the inheritance of properties.

Santals have never been found to be interested in commerce or any such profession to avail of economic self-reliance. This is one of the reasons why they remain rather marginalized inviting poverty in their lives. Moreover, most Santals do not think about future, rather they are more concerned for the day; it’s a day-to-day living and they remain satisfied and happy with the little they can have for maintaining their family. However, due to some progress in education, a small number of Santals have been able to make little changes in their way of living. Some have taken up modern professions like teachings, technical assistance, judicial advocacy, nursing etc.

4.2 Political Reality: Santals, a peace loving people have never been found interested in politics. Yet, they have always reacted when things went severely painful and

they were pushed against the wall when they could not bear anymore. The historic Santal Revolution in 1855-56, the Tebhaga andolon (share croppers’ movement) in 1945, and the Nachol Bidroho (farmers’ revolution) in the year 1950, are the concrete examples of the past.[39] In fact, Santals have always been used by others in the forefront battle. Illiteracy, absence of organizational set up and lack of genuine leadership have kept the Santals far from achieving any end result. In recent years, some of the Santals have been found to take active role in the local politics by their participation in the local election.

4.3 Conflict management: Human society does not live in perfect harmony with one another. People often behave themselves in such a way that other people’s property rights and even their physical and psychic selves are violated; Santal society is not an exception to this. Beside the democratic pattern of the village governance, the Santals traditionally follow a tribal system of conflict management. In any case, the issue is always reported to the Manjhi (headman) who takes initiative to settle the matter by the village court that constitutes all the male members of the village community. A number of villages also form one local administrative unit under a Pargana Council, which consists of (usually) five mạńjhi from the neighboring Santal villages. Any issue that cannot be solved in a Mạńjhi Council is referred to Pargana court.[40]

The third judiciary procedure of the Santals is known as Des Manjhi Council. It consists of the representatives of: a) head of the Manjhi Councils, and b) the Parganas (head of the Pargana Councils). This juridical entity is superior to both the Manjhi Council and Pargana Council. The Des Manjhi Council acts as an appeal court to settle disputes that remain unresolved by the two inferior judiciary councils.

Traditionally, Santals also have the practice of Sendra Bạisi (hunting court) or Lo Bir Bạisi (forest court), which is the highest court for the Santals. This informal court, consisting of the elders belonging to the region, takes decisions on outstanding cases. It hears appeal made against the ruling of the Manjhi or the Pargana councils. The decision of this hunt or forest council comes into immediate effect. In extreme cases, when the community bond is in jeopardy, the forest court (Lo Bir Bạisi) can resort to physical punishment. The dihri (special priest) presides over this council. This court makes judgment on the basis of the principle of equality[41] that is, where human dignity is respected and all are considered equal in front of the law. With the change of situation, especially with the installation of the state law applicable to all the citizens, both Pargana Bạisi and Sendra Bạisi do not seem to be effective in Bangladesh anymore. The breakdown of these socio-juridical entities has created many social problems threatening the social integrity and identity of the Santals.

5. Beliefs and Ritual Practices

5.1 The Belief in One Supreme Being: As it has already been mentioned earlier, Santals do believe in one “supreme being” whom they call Thakur Jiu (Life Giver) or Marang buru (Great mountain) who is considered to be the “supreme” among all the “religious beings”. The most common Santal-term used for the Supreme Being these days is Cando Baba (Sun Father). According to the experience of the researcher the Santals here do not refer literally to the Sun itself rather, it is an expression of a divine activity: expression of divine love in relation to human beings. For the Santals, Cando Baba is a benevolent Deity[42] who organizes the days and nights and is responsible for heat and cold, rain and sunshine; and from a dwelling ‘somewhere in the sky’, allots each Santal a term of life here on earth. But, he stays far away, far above the sky and cannot be reached. It is underneath the sun, beneath the clouds, that Santal life is challenged. Here the bonga roam around and only by coming to terms with them can Santals be happy.[43]

5.2 The Belief in Bonga (spirits): The Santals believe in the existence of the spirits who are called bonga. The bonga have much repercussion on daily living of the Santals. To ensure their continuing care, beside annual sacrifices, the bonga are remembered in a daily basis. Whenever a meal is taken, a small portion of the food is dropped on the floor for the bonga, or at the time whenever rice-beer is drunk, a little is spilt on the ground for Marang Buru. Thus, the Santals live not only in their tribal society but in a greater society consisting of supernatural beings as well. [44]

In practice, the Santals often use the term bonga meaning “to incorporate” someone into the society by doing certain ritual. The phrase used in this case is: bonga tala kedeako meaning, he/she has been admitted into Santal society.

According to the Santal religious belief there are two types of bonga—the malevolent and the benevolent ones.[45] The bonga-worship is primarily to please and to invoke the powers of the benevolent bonga and to avert the ill will of the malevolent bonga. In the worship of Bonga we can distinguish analytically two interrelated aspects:

a) The objective aspect of the religious rites is to have an alliance with the benevolent Bonga and thereby controlling or even defeating the powers of the malevolent Bonga; and

b) The expressive aspect of the worship is manifested through various seasonal and religious rites, festivals and rites associated with various social rituals.

Santals have an innate relationship with their Bonga and consider themselves living with them. This relationship is mostly of dependence, submission, propitiation and reverential fear. The Santals do supplications; offer rice-beer; and animal sacrifices in the name of the Bonga. It is worth mentioning that there are instances among the Santals in the rural villages where persons even in time of serious sickness would not look for medical help instead leave it to the Bonga to be cured. [46]

5.3 Belief in witchcraft: Related to Santal belief-system, is also the existence of witches. The Santals believe that there are certain people, especially women, who possess special power and techniques to harm people, cattle, and crops. These so-called witches are involved in doing harmful activities like giving poisons, taking out human livers, sending troublesome spirits to certain families and changing themselves into black cats. Because of such belief in witchcraft practices, the Santals easily suspect one another, and are often led to fight. It is presumed that it is essential to have such a belief especially in the pagan world.[47] However, there is also a counter-belief among the Santals that there are certain people Ojha-janguru (specialists), mainly men, who possess special power and techniques for detecting witches and nullifying their spells. Thus, whenever Santals get into trouble, they seek the help of these people who, more often exploit the society.

Referring to the sickness and other problems, the Santals believe that they are caused by the evil spirits when they become dissatisfied with the sacrifices of the people or when they think that they are being manipulated by some evil-minded people (witches). Therefore, the Santals try to identify the agents of the trouble through the help of ojhajanguru and try to pacify each agent through various sacrifices.

5.4 The Ancestors: From the rites and rituals as practiced by the Santals, it is quite evident that ancestor-worship is a common feature among them. The dead ancestors are the real benefactors of the families or groups to which they belonged and that they are easily approachable by their living kinsmen. Hence, at all important occasions of birth, of marriage or of death the deceased ancestors are remembered and offered sacrifices.

5.5 The Jaherthan or the sacred grove is an essential part of a Santal village. It is a sacred place of special worship for the Santals. After a village has been set up, a Jaherthan is installed through ritual ceremony at the outskirt of the village. The main deity of the Jaherthan, is known as Jaher Era (the lady of the grove). According to the Santals, she resides there besides other important deities such as the Moŗeko-Turuiko [48] (literally means ”five-six”). The Jaher Era presides over the sacred grove, tends over other bonga in the Jaherthan and looks after the interests of the villagers especially for their physical needs. The spirits of the Jaherthan are worshipped during the principal festivals, like Sohorae (Harvest festival), Baha (Flower festival), Erok’ (Sowing festival), and so on for the general welfare of the village particularly for obtaining good crops and for the health of the villagers and their livestock. [49]

5.6 The Mạńjhithan or the altar of the headman is placed along side the kulhi (village road) or often at the central place of the village or in front the house of the Mạńjhi (the headman). It is believed that the Manjhi bonga (spirit of the headman) resides in this altar and acts as the spiritual adviser of the headman. Here the Mạńjhi offers sacrifice for the benefit of himself, his family and for the whole village.

5.7 The “House-altar”: In the inner side of a Santal house, there remains the bhitạr, a tiny compartment, which is the darkest space of the house. It is the abode of the oŗak bonga[50] (house spirits) or often known as abge bonga—the bonga of the sub-clan. The head of the family does the worship. In any occasion of the family and social festivals, food offering is made on this altar. The names of the oŗak bonga are not revealed to outsiders and even to the female members of the house rather, handed down from father to son. Usually the eldest son receives the name from his father.[51]

The bhitạr is also used as a secret place to germinate and to store hạndi (rice beer), which is not only used as normal drink but its use is significant and extended to socio-cultural ritualistic celebrations, and even that to be offered to satisfy the bonga.

5.8 The “After-life” is the continuation of life that is lived in this world. The Santals believe that the spirit of the deceased goes to a shadowy world where the person requires the materials of this world. This is well expressed with the ritual practices done at the time of burial and during the bhandan, the last ceremony done in honor of the dead. In the past, it was performed immediately after all the requirements had been fulfilled for the deceased person, but in present days such ceremony, in a rich family, is done within two or three months from the death and in a poor family, it is one year or two. For the Santals, the more numerous are the animal-victims offered in honor of the dead during the bhandan, the more would be the animals that the ancestor will have in the other world. Most animal-victims are donated by the relatives and none of them are to be spared for future use by the family concerned.

Traditionally every Santal, male and female, is supposed to bear undeletable scars on the body. For the male, it is the sikạ[52] that must be at least three scars representing jion (life), moron (death), and jion (life). The Santal women do not practice sikạ, but to escape to be devoured by the worms in the life-after, they have their chest tattooed, which is called by the Santals khoda. Fr. Pussetto, with his vast experience with the Santals testified:

I have not only seen Santal women tattooed on the chest but also on the back, on the face, on the arms and on the legs; the tattoo were enough complicated, but purely ornamental…The tattoo will serve to the women to be recognized from the respective husbands in the other life.[53]

In the present times the younger generation of the Santals in Bangladesh does not practice sikạ or khoda or rather these have become voluntary. However, every Santal child bears needle-eye wholes in his/her two ears to use ornaments when they grow up and especially at the time of his/her marriage.

6. Morality in Santal Conception

For the Santals, morality means rightful doing and living; and remaining true and loyal to their tribal identity. For the Santals, morality is intimately linked with the issues pertaining to sex. For them, sex is sacred and it is intimately related only with marriage and it can only be done in secret. The Santals never talk about sex in public; and they use metaphorical language to express sexual issues.

In most Mạńjhi Council meetings, sexual issues (kuŗi-koŗa dorbar) get priority to be resolved. The Santals often have marathon session to settle such issue even it takes more than a day. Since family and village community are the principal arena of moral education and formation, it is clear that Santal-morality is passed on from one generation to another in the living expression of the culture of the people.

7. The Santals in Search of “new identity”

Every ethnic group or society has its own unique characteristics, value-systems, language, religious belief, mores, life-attitudes, culture, customs and traditions. It has its own approach to life and death, disease and sickness, individual and community, and above all, a sense of identity. Anyone visiting a Santal village or an area with vast majority of Santal inhabitants will easily realize the difference and the identity that applies to the Santals. This sense of identity or cultural self-image defines the traits of solidarity, uniqueness, and also seeks differences with other groups in the larger society around.[54] Yet, in many ways, the Santals of Bangladesh today can be seen going through an identity crisis for a variety of reasons. They have not been able to make concerted efforts to face the rapid changing situation. Whatever changes seem to have taken place due to the outside pressure, promotion of education and some initiatives taken by the Church, do not reach out to the bulk of the Santals living in the rural villages scattered around the countryside. As the time passes, Santals are more and more becoming marginalized—struggling for survival without having proper direction to move forward to improve their life situation.

There is clearly a confrontation between the ritual-based sense of traditional culture and the forces of change and modernization represented by the socio-political and socio-economic factors allied to these changes. In fact, the Santals are badly caught up between the mythological past of glorious traditions and the present with its ever degrading and desperate poverty caused by ignorance, exploitation and oppression by their neighbors.

Moreover, Santals are found to be more divided than being united due to the fact that there are Santals who have already embraced the Christian faith belonging to different church denominations while the vast majority still remains following the old traditional pattern of culture and religious practices. The gap among these groups has been widening in the course of history. According to Kazi Tobarak Hossain, “The social solidarity and homogeneity of the ethnic minority of Santals are weakening and disintegrating. In effect, culturally they are in a transitional state.”[55] The Santals today face the transition from the sovereignty of the isolated village to the complexities of modern polity, bureaucracy and money economy.

At the time of the Liberation War in 1971 and in the post-war period, both Christians and the non-Christian Santals felt closely affiliated to the Catholic Church. Fr. Giacomelli, a PIME missionary who worked among the Santals during the period reported that he distributed thousands of medals and crucifixes to non-Christian and many were approaching him for security reason. But, this priest was not a missionary to take advantage to convert them. He never discriminated anybody on the ground of religion. The same could be mentioned with other missionaries who were engaged in other parishes in Bangladesh.

Presently, a little change, mostly among the Christian Santals has been noticed because of their contact with the local mission stations. The Legal Aid activities for the Tribals supported by Caritas-Bangladesh during the post-war period, Mạńjhi-dupuŗup’ (village leaders’ meeting), the Sida-Kanhu martyr’s day annual celebration, the Diocesan Credit Union movement, Educational and Health care facilities and services, pilgrimage to religious shrines, priestly ordination and Bishops’ pastoral visits to local parishes created a tremendous impact on the non-Christian Santals to know Christ. Yet, many of them remain closely attached to their traditional beliefs and many also fear the societal excommunication or they are even scared of the harmful consequence of displeasing the bonga.

Until now the Santals have not been converted to any other religion like: Islam or Hinduism, except Christianity. This issue is important for the reason that whether the Santals in the near future would be ready to accept Islam or to be converted to other religions as it happened in the past when many low caste Hindus were converted to Islam.

The fact that the Santals who remain artificially divided in two camps: a small number of Christians and the majority remaining out of reach—certainly cannot be a good sign for the Santal society and for its future. The prayer of Jesus for his disciples echoed in the Gospel is something that draws our attention “that they may all be one, as you Father, are in me and I in You, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John (17:21-22),

Thus, evangelization of the Santals in the proper sense would mean a new hope and a new beginning of realizing the dream that will bring the Good News of Jesus to the Santals. “The harvest is plentiful” (Mt. 9:37-38) and Bangladesh remains a “fertile ground” for the mission of evangelization. Hence, the local churches in Bangladesh have a greater - role to play in the field of the evangelization of the Santals. For “God has called us to be Christians not only so that we may be saved but that we may collaborate in the work of the world’s salvation, and invite those whom God draws to the Church to share in our faith.”[56]

Thus, the questions to be answered are: Where do the local churches in Bangladesh stand? Does evangelization carry any meaning for the Santals who look forward toward the Church in the silence of their hearts with great hope and who search for a direction of a way, the light, and the truth?

A brief summary of the chapter

This chapter has helped us to conclude:

a) Bangladesh is a small, newly independent country with much socio-economic-political-educational drawbacks. It presents diverse socio-cultural, multi-religious realities with a large human population. Human freedom, justice and peace, mitigation of poverty, eradication of illiteracy, and hope for better future have been found to be the motivating force for the people to move forward in their struggle for survival;

b) The presence of the all four major religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity is significant in the context of evangelization mostly if these religious groups can work together for a common goal of establishing the Kingdom of God in communion with the most neglected section of the tribal population. The Catholic Church and the Christian community, though a tiny minority, are to proclaim and witness the Good News through dialogue, compassion and redemptive service to the nation as a whole;

c) The Santals have been presented as the largest ethnic tribal minority by illustrating their historical, socio-cultural, economic, educational, moral and religious realities. We have seen that the Santals are a people with rich traditions and cultural heritage. They believe in one Supreme Being but their families are extended with the presence of the multiple bonga (spirits) including the spirits of the deceased members of the family. They also believe in witchcraft and Ojha-janguru (specialist). All these certainly require in-depth study before they are discarded as mere superstition or put in anathema.

d) The Santals are seen at the brink of “cultural disintegration” and identity crisis. The mythology of a glorious past, which the Santals dream of, has failed to correspond in reality to the present context. Moreover, the missionary endeavors and the proclamation of the Good News have had rather little impact on the Santals since the last century. The question is: Why? Yet, the Santals need to be seen in their own eyes, in their own socio-cultural context where “Truth and grace are found among the nations as a sort of secret presence of God” (AG 9). The challenge therefore, for the local churches in Bangladesh remains as an important factor at the dawn of the Third Millennium.

In the next chapter we will deal with proclamation and witness as the primary elements of evangelizing mission and further highlight their need and urgency in the context of the Santals in Bangladesh.
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