PRIMAL ELEMENTS : THE ORAL TRADITION
Five Elements in Santhal Healing
The Santhals believe that as long as the balance between human beings and nature and supernatural beings is maintained there would be harmony, peace, health and happiness in life. It is their belief that any sinful act, incest and infringement of social customs makes anyone who commits such an offence suffer from illness. Otherwise a human being has a natural right to live up to old age in good health and die a natural death.
The evil spirits, whose number is legion in the Santhal world, are enemies of men and bent upon harassing them and eating up their vitality and causing illness and death. There are bongas (supernatural beings) and witches in large number in the Santhal habitat and they only know how to make someone unwell but do not know how to make well.
There are priests in every Santhal village to propitiate the deities and there are medicine-men and magicians to neutralize the effects of sorcery, evil eye and witchcraft. The institution of ojha-ship and training given on herbal medicine and healing practices is very elaborate and well-established. The ojha is a diviner, sooth-sayer, sorcerer, exorcist and magician and an expert in herbal medicine. He knows all the methods of home remedies, like sekao (fomentation), iskir (massage), soso (marking with the juice of marking nut) and tobak (marking the affected part with a pointed sickle made red hot). He also knows the divinations of purging the evil spirit out of the body of ailing persons.
The Santhals take preventive and precautionary measures against certain diseases. In the month of January-February (Magha), all men of a village observe sexual abstinence and on a day, fixed earlier, sacrifice a black female kid and a black pullet at the end of the village and bury them there. They also take vows to offer sacrifices to the bongas living on the village boundaries the next year, provided they keep good health throughout the year. After the ritual, some medicinal pills, comprising different kinds of medicinal herbs are ground and mixed with handia and distributed among the villagers. Then sanctified rice-water is sprinkled in every house by the ojha.
They wear different kinds of amulets, on a string, round the neck, waist or elbow. Medicines are kept in a receptacle which is sealed. Another form of amulet contains ancient stone beads. It is used to keep cholera and smallpox away. It is believed that the amulets can save a person from epilepsy, bronchitis and cough, and are often tied on children.
The Santhals rarely suffer from diseases of the teeth. They regularly clean their teeth with a tooth-stick made of sal twigs. They do not eat anything and do not drink even water before cleaning their mouth and brushing their teeth with a datanni (tooth-stick).
The sanitary habits of the Santhals are remarkable. They like open air and their villages are not congested. The houses are built on fairly high lands and sufficient space is left between the houses. They have very broad streets and the houses are set apart from one another. The houses are put up round a courtyard and all rooms open to the courtyard. No house appears to be crowded. They do not have any windows in their houses. Every house has only one door. Generally they cook their food outside, but have a fire place inside also, where food are cooked during rains and in winter. Since there are no proper outlets the smoke from the oven gets trapped inside the room. The fowls are kept inside the living room at night.
The herbs and ingredients used in medicine are available in the locality. The Santhals can identify many medicinal herbs and are able to use them without consulting the ojha. But the ojha and other practitioners keep stock of these medicines and supply them to the patients whenever needed. However, the common people have no knowledge of the invocations, incantations, spells and magical formulae which are the prerogative of the ojha. Only he knows how and on what occasion such mantras and jharnis can be used for remedial measures.
As regards the preparation and application of medicine, the following procedures are observed. Some medicines may be given in their natural form. An example of this form is the use of bael fruit. Some medicines are soaked in mustard oil or water. Some medicines are boiled and the boiled water is given to the patients. The common procedure for the preparation of medicines is to grind the ingredients on a flat stone and mix it with other ingredients. Medicines are given on empty stomach in the morning, repeated at noon and in the evening. In the case of bone fractures, splints are used in the bandage. The splints are made of cut pieces of sar (Sacecharum Sara). Medicinal steam-bath is also given as a remedial measure for certain maladies. In certain cases, particularly carries of the teeth, the worms (tejos or main god, as the worms are called) are removed.
The administration of medicine takes into account the day it should be done. For the Santhal not all days of the week are auspicious. A fairly large number of remedies are treated on Sunday morning before easing the bowels or attending morning ablutions. Sunday is generally considered to be a good day, and, so, the remedy to be most efficacious is administered on this day.
Not all types of water are suitable for the preparation of medicine. In some preparations, carefully-collected dew is used. To collect the dew, a clean piece of cloth is dragged over the grass in the morning and then squeezed out. Dew, thus collected, is supposed to have a mysterious quality that makes the medicine efficacious. Similar qualities are attributed to hail water. Hailstones are collected in time and kept in a bottle for future use. The vessel used for the preparation of medicine is always a new, unused earthenware pot which is used for preparing and administering the remedy. The earthen vessel is considered to be cleaner than other types of vessels. The girls who help in the preparation of medicines are always unmarried. The precaution is probably more to ensure that the girl has not been exposed to the influence of the bongas than with their virginity. It is believed that a married woman could be under the influence of her husband's bongas.
Yet another interesting point has something to do with the association of women that a sacrificer, on the night previous to the day of sacrifice, is to be kept away from women. The same restriction is observed before the preparation and administration of medicines to cure barrenness in women.
The Five Elements
The concept of the pancabhuta extant among the Santhals are found in the local folk sayings, literatures and oral tradition. A few sayings which convey some ideas of the pancabhuta, similar to those mentioned in a funeral hymn derived from the Rigveda, are:
Santhal literature is very rich, but its cataloguing and compilation has not yet been done exhaustively. The literatures are in Hindi, Oriya, Bengali and Roman script. Some of them are in Ol Chiki. The two sources which make a mention of the five elements in the most abstract manner are Hital, published by the late Pandit Raghunath Murmu, who invented the Ol Chiki script, and an unpublished manuscript by the late Ram Dayal Majhi.
Pandit Raghunath Murmu's book Hital gives an account of the five elements. Stanzas 15 to 21 are quoted below. It is in the Ol Chiki script.
These stanzas indicate that the human body is made up of the five elements which, when balanced and in harmony with one another, bestow well-being on mankind and other living organisms.
Ram Dayal Majhi better known as Dayal Baba, came from Basipitha in the Udala subdivision. He was a Santhal and, according to his people, died at the age of 120 years. His grand-daughter's husband, Sida Hembram of Beguniadiha of Udala subdivision, has a manuscript of Dayal Baba. Some of the extracts from this are given below. These are regarding halma galahan (constitution of the body).
The literary translation of these lines follows. However, further studies are required for the analysis and explanation of these abstract ideas.
There are many other such sources — some printed and others as manuscripts. Some of them are in memory of Santhals who had personal contact with the saintly persons, reformed, thinkers and writers. There is an urgent need to locate these, and retrieve them and prepare an annotated and classified bibliography on the subject of the five elements.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi