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The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India—Volume I (of IV)

by R.V. Russell

Santal, Saonta, Sonthal.—An important tribe of Bengal, belonging to the Munda family. The transfer of five of the Chota Nagpur States has brought more than 10,000 Santals into the Central Provinces. They belong principally to the Sarguja State and a few are returned from Udaipur State and from the Bilaspur District, but in all those tracts they are known as Saonta and appear to have been cut off from the main tribe for a considerable period. According to Mr. Skrefsrud the name Santal is a corruption of Saontar and was given to the tribe by the Bengalis because they lived in the country about Saont in Midnapur. Sir H. Risley held that the tribe might equally well have given its name to the locality, and there was no means of ascertaining which theory was correct. The forms Santal and Sonthal are only used by natives who have come into contact with Europeans. Santals call themselves 'harko,' men, or 'harhapan,' man-child. [488] At the present day when a Santal is asked to what caste he belongs he will almost invariably reply Manjhi, which means a village headman, and is the common title of the tribe; if further explanation is demanded, he will add Santal Manjhi. Whether the term Santal was derived from the Saont pargana or not, it is therefore at any rate a name conferred by the Hindus and affords no evidence in favour of a separate origin of the tribe.

There seems good reason to hold that the Santals are only a branch of the Kols or Mundas, who have been given a distinct designation by their Hindu neighbours, while their customs and traditions have been modified either by long separation from the Mundas of Chota Nagpur or by contact with Hindu influences. Sir G. Grierson's account of the two dialects Santali and Mundari shows that they closely resemble each other and differ only in minor particulars. The difference is mainly to be found in the vocabulary borrowed from Aryan neighbours, and in the grammatical modifications occasioned by the neighbouring Aryan forms of speech. [489] Of Mundari he says: "Aspirated letters are used as in Santali, the semi-consonants are apparently pronounced in the same way as in Santali; genders and numbers are the same, the personal pronouns are the same, the inflexion of verbs is mainly the same." [490] Some points of difference are mentioned by Sir G. Grierson, but they appear to be of minor importance. The Mundas, like the Santals, call themselves hara-ko or men. In the vocabulary of common words of Mundari and Santali given by Colonel Dalton [491] a large proportion of the words are the same. Similarly in the list of sept-names of the tribes given by Sir H. Risley [492] several coincide. Among the 15 names of main septs of the Santals, Besra, a hawk, Murmu nilgai, or stag, and Aind, eel, are also the names of Munda septs. The Santal sept Hansda, a wild goose, is nearly identical with the Munda sept Hansa, a swan; the Santal septs Kisku and Tudu are sept-names of the Hos, a branch of the Mundas; and in one or two other names there is a great resemblance. The principal deity of the Santals, Marang Buru, is a Munda god. In the inheritance of property both tribes have the same rule of the exclusion of daughters. In his article on Ho, Sir H. Risley indeed states that the Santals, Hos and Mundas are local branches of the same tribe.

The Saontas of Sarguja and Bilaspur appear to have been separated from the parent tribe for some generations and to have assimilated some of the customs of the Gonds. They have some Gond sept-names, as Markam and Dhurwa. Those of Pendra zamindari have no traditions of their origin beyond saying that the adjoining Kenda zamindari was their original home. They profess to revere only the sun, fire and water. In order to worship the Jal-deota or water-god they pour water round the fire and then throw a little butter on the fire in his name. Mr. C.U. Wills, Settlement Officer, records of them the following curious custom: When a man is at the point of death or actually dead, they sometimes set fire to the hut in which his body is lying and run away, no doubt to save themselves from being haunted and troubled by his spirit, to the attainment of which end so large a part of funeral ritual is everywhere directed.

The following short account of them by Colonel Dalton may be reproduced for reference: [493]

"The name Saont or Saonta directs us to the Santal branch of the Kols, and, as I have already noticed, there is in Sarguja a small tribe so called. They are the sole inhabitants of the magnificent tableland forming the southern barrier of Sarguja, called the Mainpat or more correctly perhaps the Manipat. They are a small tribe living scattered over the vast area of the plateau in about a dozen hamlets, and they are strong in the belief that they were especially created to dwell there, or that they and the plateau somehow sprang into existence together, and cannot be separated. I saw a number of them when I was last in Sarguja, and from their features I should be inclined to class them as Kols, but they have some customs and notions which they must have derived from the Dravidian Gonds. They acknowledge Dulha Deo as a household god, and follow the customs of the Gonds and other southerners in their marriage ceremonies.

"They worship the sun as Bhagwan, and like the Kharias offer sacrifices to that luminary in an open place with an ant-hill for an altar. The Mainpat is their Marang Buru, and as it is 16 miles long, 12 miles broad, and rises 3850 feet above the sea-level, it is not unworthy of the name, but they do not use that or any other Kol term. The great Mainpat is their fatherland and their god. They have it all to themselves except during the summer months, when it becomes a vast grazing field for the cattle of Mirzapur and Bihar.

"The Saonts are armed like the Korwas with bows and arrows, and the peculiar battle-axe of the country, but it is against the beasts of the forest that these weapons are used. Formerly the Mainpat was a magnificent hunting field, especially noted for its herds of antelope and gaur. The late Maharaja of Sarguja strictly preserved it, but on his death it fell into the hands of his widow, a very money-loving old lady, who allowed it to become one of the great grazing tracts, and the pasturage alone gives her an income of L250 a year; but the wild animals have in consequence withdrawn from it.

"The position of the Saonts is altogether very curious, and though they now speak no language but a rude Hindi, the evidence is, on the whole, favourable to their being a remnant of the ancient Kol aborigines of Sarguja, cut off from connection with those people by successive inroads of other races or tribes. Their substitution of a Hindi dialect for their own language seems to indicate that they were first subjugated by Aryans. The Gond chiefs only count about twenty-four generations in Sarguja, and they have all adopted the Hindi language."

Only Santal part's is taken from:
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