The Santal, or Santhal, are an ethnic group native to India and Bangladesh in South Asia. Santals are the largest tribe in the Jharkhand state of India in terms of population and are also found in the states of Assam, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. They are the largest ethnic minority in northern Bangladesh’s Rajshahi Division and Rangpur Division. They have a sizeable population in Nepal and Bhutan. The Santals mostly speak Santali, an Austroasiatic language and that is the most widely spoken of the Munda languages.
According to linguist Paul Sidwell (2018), Austro-Asiatic language speakers probably arrived on coast of Odisha from Indochina about 4000–3500 years ago.The Austroasiatic speaker spread from Southeast Asia and mixed extensively with local Indian populations.
British officials intended to enhance the revenue by expansion of agriculture.They encouraged the Paharia people of Rajmahal hillsto practice settled agriculture but they refused to cut the trees. Then British officials turned their attention to Santals, who were ready to clear the forest for the practice of settled agriculture. In 1832, a large number of areas were demarcated as Damin-i-koh or Santal Pargana. Santals from Cuttack, Dhalbhum, Birbhum, Manbhum and
Hazaribagh migrated and started cultivating these lands as peasants. British collected taxes from these Santals as revenue. The imposition of taxes, exploitation by Zamindars and money lenders sparked the Santal rebellion. Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, two brothers led the Santals against the British but were defeated.
One of the most studied, the Santal religion worships Marang buru or Bonga as the Supreme Deity. The majority of reverence, however, falls on a court of spirits (Bonga), who handle different aspects of the world and who are placated with prayers and offerings in order to ward off evil influences. These spirits operate at the village, household, ancestor, and sub-clan level, along with evil spirits that cause disease and can inhabit village boundaries, mountains, water, tigers, and the forest. A characteristic feature of a Santal village is a sacred grove (known as the Jaher or “Santal Sthal”) on the edge of the village where many spirits live and where a series of annual festivals take place.
A yearly round of rituals connected with the agricultural cycle, along with life-cycle rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death, involve petitions to the spirits and offerings that include the sacrifice of animals, usually birds. Religious leaders are male specialists in medical cures who practice divination and witchcraft (the socio-historic meaning of the term, used here, refers to the ritual practice of magic and is not pejorative). Similar beliefs are common among other tribes of northeast and central India such as the Kharia, Munda, and Oraon.
Smaller and more isolated tribes often demonstrate articulated classification systems of the spiritual hierarchy less well documented, described as animism or a generalised worship of spiritual energies connected with locations, activities, and social groups. Religious concepts are intricately entwined with ideas about nature and interaction with local ecological systems. As in Santal religion, religious specialists are drawn from the village or family and serve a wide range of spiritual functions that focus on placating potentially dangerous spirits and co-ordinating rituals.