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A Santhal Myth

Five Elements


Kanak Mital

This chapter draws upon the IGNCA thesaurus project under the Loka Parampara programme (Appendix). It is the first in-house project of the life-style study of the Santhals of Santhal Parganas and was taken up in 1988. The two dictionaries, in several volumes, on the Santhals by J. Campbell (1953) and P.O. Bodding (1929), form the base of the thesaurus. The beginning of the thesaurus was made from this point and it is webbed around the elements. Taking language through which man expresses himself, the meaning of the Santhali word banam (aam or am = self, you; bana = draw towards) is studied. Banam is thus called an instrument which draws the best towards you or yourself; it also communicates its ethos towards the universal phenomenon.

gota duniyam banag a boge aah em hatau aa

I will search the whole world for the best thing for you.

All love songs are sung accompanied by the banam. It is through the banam, its sound and rhythm, that the best for the loved ones can be obtained. This aspect comes out clearly in the myth of this musical instrument.

Once there lived an old couple. They had seven sons and a daughter who was the youngest of all. The sons used to go for hunting and the daughter cooked meals for them. Some time later the couple died. So all their sons and daughter came to a forest to live. There they lived in the same way as they used to live earlier, the sister cooking the meals and looking after the house while the seven brothers went hunting. One day while their sister was cutting sin arak (leaf-vegetable), one of her fingers got cut, and the blood of the wound got mixed with the vegetable. She cooked it and served it to her brothers after their return. They found the vegetable delicious. They asked their sister how the vegetable became so tasty, and found that her blood had got mixed with it. The eldest brother wondered that if her blood could make the food so delicious, how tasty would her flesh be. So he decided to kill her and share her flesh with his brothers.

One day, he found his sister climbing a tall tree. They did not want to lose the chance. They spread thorns around the tree to prevent her from escaping. Then the eldest brother shot her with an arrow. Others followed, except the youngest one who loved his sister deeply. The eldest brother noticed that his youngest brother appeared to be reluctant to participate in what they were doing. So he threatened to kill him if he failed to carry out his command. At last the youngest brother was made to follow the command of his eldest brother. Their sister fell dead. Her body was cut into seven pieces and each brother was given a piece. Everybody ate the piece of the sister’s flesh except the youngest one who left the place. He went, with his share, to a pond, and wept bitterly. Seeing this, the fish, the crab and all other creatures in the pond came out and sympathetically asked him the reason for his sorrow. He narrated the whole story to them. After having heard him, they suggested not to eat the flesh of his sister and instead to put it inside the mound of white ants.

After some time, there grew a beautiful guloic tree. It gave beautiful flowers. A melodious sound was heard from the tree. A jugi who very often used to come for picking up flowers heard its melodious sound and was astonished. So one day he cut a branch from the tree and constructed a musical instrument, the dhodro banam. Since then the Santhals construct the banam out of the guloic tree.

[Santhal Music, Onkar Prasad, 1985]

The entry point for the preparation of the multi-lingual thesaurus on the Santhals was initiated through this myth of the banam. The myth shows the relationship of the group (man/Santhal) and its environment (nature), out of which the instrument was born. The Santhals have a strong belief in the magical powers of this instrument which acts as a medium between themselves and the supernatural, with whose blessing, they claim, they can achieve the impossible. Thus, the myth reflects the whole man-nature relationship. The anatomy of the human being is conceived by the Santhals in the various parts of the instrument and is divided into head, ears, neck, chest and stomach.

The head is always on the top like the space or the sky. Thus, the bohok (head) represents space. Neck and chest are connected with respiration. Thus, hotok (neck) and koram (chest) represent air. The stomach is considered as the fire bag representing hunger, and the womb an organ of discharge. Thus lac represents both fire and water. The banam as a whole represents body or earth. The string, the most important part of the instrument, unites all parts of the banam and interlinks the elements together, representing a whole, i.e., earth. The string is considered as the breadth of the instrument and the body. It is the life-giving force of the instrument and the human body, without which both would be lifeless and dead. Earth, being female, is a symbol of fertility.

Body Parts Santhali terms Equivalent elements

head bohok space/ether

ears lutur ether

neck hotok air

chest koram air

stomach lac fire

body banam earth



Body Parts Santhali terms Equivalent elements

head bohok space / ether
ears lutur ether
neck hotok air
chest koram air
stomach lac fire
body banam earth


Banam is considered, by the Santhals, as an extension of their physical self. They look upon it as a living being as is apparent from its morphology. The instrument is used to establish communication with the non-living entities. Considering the banam as an embodiment of their self, they hold similar attitude towards other elements of their environment. This attitude towards their ecology forms an integrated part for a peaceful and meaningful coexistence.

An attempt has been made to analyze terms pertaining to one element, i.e., water. It is interesting to note how the community conceives this element, uses it in daily life and has different manifestations attached to it.

Water (dak) plays an important role in the life of a Santhal. From the terms available, it is evident that when a child is born, it comes out into the world from water (womb, lac). The midwife who helps the delivery is called dak dudulica or dak dula budhi. By a birth not only the parents but the whole village becomes unclean. Before the purification ceremony, the villagers oil themselves and bathe. A ritual is performed by the midwife by sprinkling water on the gathering. At marriages good omens are judged through water. The main ritual of marriage (dak bapla) is performed in water. The whole house and village becomes unclean by death, as it does by birth. The funeral pyre is lit only after the potful of water is broken. Again, as at birth, the purification ceremony is performed by the whole village bathing at the village pond. Drinking of handi (rice beer) at each of the above-mentioned occasions are varied. Different drinks are offered at different occasions to the bongas (guests). Food prepared at the three major occasions of life are — neem dak (at birth), gur dak (at marriage) and sauri dak (at death).


Conceptual Plan of Loka Parampara Projects

Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts has initiated a number of projects under its programme of life-style studies in its Loka Parampara section. These projects are launched to concretize the conceptual plan of the Centre which encompasses the study and experience of the arts at all levels.

The Centre seeks to adopt a new approach to evolve an alternate model for studying life-styles. Such an approach is based on the premise that life is not fragmented into single dimensions or isolated units, and nor can one model replicate in full a complete picture of the cultural life of a given community. This approach considers culture to be a multi-dimensional system in demarcated or defined space. Such studies aim to draw attention to the inter-dependence of nature and man. Where man is in nature, inter-dependent and inter-related, the ecological balance is mentioned by a consciously-articulated belief of relationships. Thus, the five elements — fire, water, earth, air and ether — though physical necessities, are given a symbolic significance. The natural environment, which comprises of soil (earth, rocks), water resources, flora, fauna and sources of energy (thermo and solar), acquire great significance. Life is punctuated by defining special moments in daily, monthly and annual cycles, where the inter-dependence and inter-relationship are tactfully or explicitly stated. Social structure, kith-kin patterns evolve and the cosmology develops myth which is manifest in a worldview, and insight, vision, knowledge, technology and manual skills are inter-wedded in symbiosis. These multi-disciplinary studies hope to bring out the inter-dependence of man and nature, especially as reflected in what are called the arts. They hope to underpass the intrinsic relationship of life-function and art, and to re-establish the study of rural arts in the socio-cultural context. Naturally, inter-action between levels of society and amongst regions will be logical.

Subsequent steps will be taken to investigate man’s view of himself and the understanding of the body system. Preventive and curative indigenous medicinal systems which have evolved and developed drawing largely upon water, vegetation and animal resources of the region, will be studied. Besides this, a body of myths are intrinsic to the system, both as knowledge and therapy, physio(somatic) and psychic. A large number of rites, rituals and shamanistic practices are part of this world, i.e., ethno-medicinal. They are valid from the point of view of physio-psychical efficacy and others which may appear as superstition to outsiders.

The social structure of the group, individual and society have finally to be placed in the framework of time — daily, monthly, annual — computed in terms of the movements of the sun, moon and stars. All human activities are regulated by the movement of these planets in the sky, specially, the physio-biological rhythm of women and the rites and rituals used to punctuate the rhythm. The vegetation, crop-pattern is also regulated by this movement and thus sowing, reaping of particular crops, correspond to the astronomical lunar or solar calendar. The myth-rites and rituals are the uppermost layers of this relationship of body-rhythm, nature-rhythm, cultivation-rhythm and astronomical cycle.

Most collective or domestic rituals, which comprise arts, crafts, regulation of vegetable, animal life, place of pilgrimage, in statis and flux, can be observed along this multiple stave system of body nature, annual crop cultivation (myth, art and crafts) placed in annual cyclic time, measured along equinox of the sun or movement of moon or of other planets. This is universal. The solar and lunar calendar is the most fundamental device of tribal, rural, urban continuum and interaction, even within single communities. In circumscribed time, for that specific duration, all spatial and level hierarchies are broken and equalization or reversal of roles takes place. Artistic manifestation is intrinsic to this life-style and the punctuation of rhythm through rites and rituals and festivals is common. Space is consecrated or enlarged. Finally, the life-cycle from birth to death, rebirth provides another framework of time where physical and metaphysical, sacred and profane, coalesce and interpenetrate.

This study of man-family and man-society wil bring out the position of individual and community, organization of society as well as acceptance of individual in the collective. Further, the fairs and festivals aim at creating in circumscribed space and time, the experience of cosmic space and time. Its outermost manifestation — verbal, kinetic and aural — is called art and ritual. Inseparable from the above are crafts in a society. Each of them has a utilitarian as well as symbolic function. The form and design are conditional and governed by the worldview, myth and the ritual which each article reflects at given moment. The study of the crafts include natural inorganic and organic resources, life-cycle and its physical/cultural and mythic world. When taken out of this context and alienated the article acquires the status of a pure and decorative art object for museums. Equally important and more fundamental is the transmission of skills of these crafts from one generation to the next. This includes inculcation of skills, identification of raw material, nature of soil, composition (terracotta, clay), rocks, stone, vegetables, trees, bark and metals and minerals, as well as actual making of an object.

Placing man at the centre, the study will attempt to examine his physical, social and cultural parameters in defined space and time. From this will emerge a holistic and comprehensive picture, which will be webbed together with the basic elements — water, fire, air, earth and ether. Graphically, the model may be represented as a cultural sphere with life inside and manifestation outside on the surface. This may be identified both as indicator of life and as a starting point of understanding the webs of cultural areas which may be placed in an orbit of daily, monthly and annual time cycle.


The study of man can be conducted in various ways: by studying him directly, by studying his environment, material and human aspects, and the art forms he creates, and by studying man’s conscious awareness through an investigation of his vocabulary.

Language articulates at best the community’s perception of the self-consciousness. Thus a beginning will be made to understand this self-consciousness by articulating through the language its vocabulary of the five universal elements — water, fire, air, earth, ether. This methodology will be applied in both circumstances, i.e., relation to the body of man and his natural environment. The corpus or thesaurus of words will provide an insight into the community and man’s perception of the world and its relationship with him as a physical and mental being. Conversely, the worldview is reflected in both life and art.

Keeping in mind the general outline of the studies as mentioned, the structure of the pilot projects in the section are given here. All the projects will be studied through six modules. The first four modules will be common to all the projects, while the next two, though same in structure, will be specific to each project.

Module I : Multi-Lingual Bibliographic Module : Preparation of a comprehensive list of primary and secondary source materials related to the project. Acquisition of books, articles, newspaper cuttings, etc., and any other written material on the subject concerning the project.

Module II : Module on Physical Environment : A detailed geological survey of the land, its flora, fauna and climate to be collected from the Imperial Gazetteers and other government records and the latest available data. Indigenous administrative terms to be listed in the context of the above. Various government reports on population to be acquired and scrutinized.

Module III: Cartographical Module : Preparation or acquisition of a list of secondary source, cartographic material related to the project and the region is essential. Collection of maps, atlases, books as cartographic source material for preparation of maps on the area and its environs may be done on the following themes — administrative, relief and drainage, distribution of population, climate (rainfall and temperature), flora and fauna, land use, minerals, soil, migration, distribution of various musical instruments, materials acquired (if any) for manufacture.

The time frame for modules I, II and III will be six months. In the case of module III the time limit may be increased if necessary.

Module IV: Module on the Basic Elements and Life-style : Specimen collection of vocabulary related to the five elements and preparation of a thesaurus of vocabulary related to them, is to be compiled. The vocabulary will be compiled by asking questions in relation to the body, physical environment, climate, plants and animals.

The second part of the module will be the compilation of the same terms and concepts (vocabulary) in relation to life-style, daily routine and special occasions.

The third part will be the collection of words/terms and their metaphorical use in describing the music, musical instruments, dance, drama, clothes, textiles, decorative arts, etc. Secondary sources will be scanned if available and list prepared of the indigenous terms.

Module V: Module Specific to the Project Theme : This module is project-specific and will bring out the specific vocabulary in the community to be studied in relation to grains, vegetation, crops, food, vocation, livelihood, etc. The main aim of this module will be to see how some elements are inter-related to the above-mentioned parameters and the life-cycle of the entire community.

Module VI: Main Theme of the Project and its Various Manifestations (human interaction) : This module is project-specific. Some terms/concepts and the use of words in relation to the main theme of the project along with the gender roles. The time cycle and the seasons will be taken into account in this module.

The time frame for modules IV, V and VI will be six months. Further abstraction of the project will be done after the data have been analyzed and interpretated.


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