|Suddenly in the forest there are faces...|
|A sal tree in Nawabganj National Park.|
Perhaps it’s generally true that shade follows sunshine. Beyond Sitakot in Dinajpur’s Nawabganj the sal trees gather. Though geographically unlikely locals believe Nawabganj National Park might be the last remnants of the forest where Sita of the Hindu epic Ramayana lived in exile.
|Into the forest...|
And suddenly in the forest are faces… not the middle-class motorcycle-riding ones of picnickers but curious, distinctly non-Bengali faces…
|Alekutia village is home to 40 Santhal families.|
|Peeling jungle potatoes.|
In Gabriel Hemrom’s leafy yard a little beyond the park boundary, in Alekuti village along the same track, women sit on the ground preparing date leaves for weaving. Another is busy with jungle potatoes, which are soaked in water for several days and eaten with molasses-like jaggery, known in Bangla as ‘gur’.
|A well-constructed mud brick Santhal home.|
Alekuti is home to forty Santhal families, Hemrom estimates. “Our ancestors are from a place called Dumka,” says the forty-year-old father of three sons. “But we were all born here.”
As in Bangladesh, Santhals are one of the most populous minority peoples in India. Mainly they live in Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Jharkhand. Dumka is a district in the last of these states. There are also a small number in Nepal.
|Nearby Ashurer Beel with boat and fish traps.|
|By tradition Santhals engage in hunting, forest clearing and farming.|
The village’s forested location reflects the Santhali tradition of forest clearing and subsistence farming. They are also famed hunters, with bow and arrow. But in Alekuti, along with some small-scale farming, most earn as they can through cycle-van riding or day labour. It isn’t much of a living.
|House painting. Santhals capture their history and daily lives in design.|
“For the poor, food is always a problem,” says Hemrom.
In Alekuti meanwhile, are traces of the well-developed, unique culture of which any Santhal can be proud. Most visibly it’s in the painted designs on the walls of their well-constructed mud-brick homes. By tradition Santhals present history and daily life in wall paintings, although the Alekuti examples are modest.
|Painting around an internal doorway. 50 - 70% of the villagers in Alekuti are Christian these days.|
|The forest nearby.|
The Austroasiatic Santhali language, of the Munda languages and distantly related to Khasi, Khmer and Vietnamese, is sophisticated and well-studied. Its unique script, called Ol Chiki and invented in 1925 by Pandit Raghunath Murmu in response to deficiencies in representing the range of Santhali sounds in Roman or other Indic alphabets, has thirty letters.
|Santhals are famed hunters with bow and arrow.|
In general, the Santhals have preserved their language well; but in Alekuti it’s facing difficulties. “Our children used to study Santhali at the mission schools in Dhanjuri and Patarghat,” says Hemrom, “but now they only learn at home. We use our own alphabet but it’s explained in English.” Including Bangla, Alekuti relies on three languages.
|The church in Alekuti.|
Hemrom estimates that like his family, 50 – 70% of the families in Alekuti converted to Christianity some thirty years ago. The village features a small church attended by visiting clergy.
|An old mango tree on the forest road.|
Traditionally, Santhal villages feature a sacred grove on the edge of the settlement where spirits live and sacred festivals occur. In Alekuti neighbours participate in the rituals of both religions.
In their political history Santhals can also take some pride. In response to land grabbing and enslavement, on 30 June 1855 leaders Sidhu Murmu and Kanu Murmu mobilised 30,000 Santhals to fight the British.
|Sal tree trunk.|