Sunday, 15 March 2015

Where Santhal Wisdom Shelters

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.

From field and farmhouse, the cycle van winds along the track into this darker but not-less-beautiful world. Beyond is Ashurer Beel, a picturesque waterhole favoured for picnics and famed for migratory birds.

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…

The national park keeps another history. Under its canopy, at its edges, the culture and wisdom of the Santhals finds shelter.

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.”

House detail.

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 contrast to the dire economic reality of Alekuti, in India it’s not uncommon for Santhals to be living in cities and working in areas as diverse as medicine, engineering and the public service.

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.

“Those who can paint do so,” says Hemrom.

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.

The remainder observe the old religion, which worships Marang buru or Bonga as supreme deity. It features a court of spirits to regulate aspects of the world, from whom blessings are sought through prayer and offering. There are also evil spirits to be protected from.

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.

“We dance and sing in Santhali and in Bangla,” says Hemrom, “The children enjoy the festivals the most.”

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.
Caught by surprise, initially the Santhal Rebellion met with some success, but ultimately bows and arrows proved no match for British guns. Battles were akin to massacres. Many Santhals, including the two celebrated leaders, were killed; and subsequently the Nawab of Murshidabad used elephants to trample Santhal huts.

More recently, the Santhal community was instrumental in successfully advocating the creation of Jharkhand state in India, which was carved from southern Bihar in 2000. It was hoped that statehood for Jharkhand would allow better representation for the various minority peoples who account for about 28% of the state population. Santhals are the largest group.

Yet Gabriel Hemrom speaks of his heritage humbly. “Everybody likes his own culture,” he says.

Despite the current hardships of life in Alekuti, it’s not possible to be entirely pessimistic. Santhali culture has survived great hardship before. And, as when leaving the forest, perhaps it’s generally true that sunshine will inevitably come to replace the shade.

Gabriel Hemrom, 40, with his son Remechus Hemrom, 10.

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