culture of the santhal tribe

Is the Culture of the Santhal Tribe Disappearing? Here’s What You Need to Know

The Santhal tribe is one of India's largest tribal communities, with a rich cultural heritage transmitted and preserved for generations. As one of the indigenous peoples of the Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha states, the Santhals have a unique way of life deeply connected to the land and their traditions. The advent of modernism has led to an ongoing process of change assimilation, which situates the Santhal tribe on the verge of modern challenges of tradition and identity.

In this blog, we explore the culture of the Santhal tribe through various lenses to gain a closer insight into a resilient and inspiring community that adds a profound to the diverse tapestry of Indian culture.

Who are the Santhal People?

The Santhal tribe, the third largest tribe in India, boasts a rich and intricate history that spans millennia. Their origins are enveloped in myth and legend, with historical records and oral traditions offering glimpses into their past.

Santhal mythology situates their birth in the mythical land of "Hihiri-Pipiri," from which they were eventually displaced by unknown forces. They embarked on a long journey, traversing mountains and rivers, before finally settling in the forests of the Chhotanagpur Plateau. This period, symbolising the peak of their independence and self-governance, is often referred to as the "Golden Age" of Santhal history.

Historical evidence suggests that the Santhals were connected to the Indus Valley Civilization, with many regional names having Santhali roots. Additionally, the Champa Kingdom in northern Cambodia is believed to be linked to their ancestral homeland. The tribe had also played an active role in resistance against the British regime in the 1850s.

With their current population exceeding five million, Santhals are spread among the eastern Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Orissa, along with smaller communities in Bangladesh and Nepal. Many Santhals work in coal mines near Asansol, West Bengal, or in steel factories in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, while others engage in seasonal agricultural labour.

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The Culture of the Santhal Tribe

Santhal identity, as is usual for indigenous communities, is deeply rooted in traditional knowledge and cultural practices based on their deep connection with nature. Primarily an agrarian community, their economy centres around agriculture, forestry, and traditional handicrafts. The Santhals are renowned for their skill in creating musical instruments, pottery, and traditional paintings.


Members of the Santhal tribe mainly speak Santhali, a dialect of Kherwari, one of the most widely spoken among the Munda group of languages within the Austroasiatic language family. Santhali is written in the unique Ol Chiki script, which is credited to Raghunath Murmu.

The Santhal people are known for their bilingualism, often speaking Santhali as their mother tongue while also being proficient in the majority languages of their respective regions, such as Assamese, Bengali, Hindi, and Oriya.

The inclusion of Santhali in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution has also provided a boost to the language, ensuring its dignity in education and administrative spheres. The increasing scope of higher education in Santhali has further encouraged the community to pursue studies in their mother tongue.

Social Organisation

The Santhal tribe has a distinct, organised social structure emphasising equality, community living, and strong cultural ties. At the core is the patriarchal family, with villages as primary social units, each featuring agricultural fields, pastures, ponds, graveyards, and a central gathering place called the Akhara for community activities like singing, dancing, and festivals.

Village leadership is hereditary, with a headman, a council of elders and village priests managing both administrative and religious duties. Groups of villages form larger units called Parganas, each led by a hereditary headman. Inter-village matters are managed by the pargana, chief of twelve villages, assisted by the "country chief" and a messenger.

Social control is maintained through traditional assemblies that resolve disputes over sexual offences, land, money, jealousy, and witchcraft accusations. The local kin group handles major offences, sometimes leading to excommunication or death.

Despite the presence of Indian courts and the Panchayati Raj system, traditional institutions remain significant. The Santhals have a long-standing suspicion of "foreigners," especially the dominant Hindu population, reflected in their myths, folklore, and history of exploitation.


The Santhal tribe has a diverse economy centred around agriculture, forestry, and traditional handicrafts. Agricultural practices, with expertise in both traditional and modern farming techniques, along with cattle rearing, form the bulk of their occupation. Hunting and gathering forest products are supplementary activities, with occasional hunting for meat.

During the lean or post-harvest seasons, many Santhals work in nearby industrial, mining, and urban areas to boost their income. Traditional handicrafts, including musical instruments, pottery, and Santhal paintings, are significant cultural and economic contributors.

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The Santhal tribe's rich religious tradition is deeply connected to nature and ancestral spirits. Nature worship is central to their faith; trees, rocks, rivers, and hills are known to be inhabited by spirits or bonga, worshipped in sacred groves called Sarna. Ancestral spirits, especially those of deceased village headmen and religious specialists, are also venerated at key life ceremonies and believed to guide and protect the community.

The Santhals hold a strong belief in magic and witchcraft, consulting ritual specialists, or Ojha, for exorcisms, healing, and protection from evil spirits. Despite recent influences of Hinduism and Christianity, many Santhals continue to uphold their traditional beliefs and practices.


Traditional tribal paintings of the Santhal tribe depict scenes of daily life, celebrations, and rituals. These minimalist paintings, made from handmade paper backed with cloth, feature simple, clear-cut images of community activities such as dancing, harvests, and merry-making.

Santhals are skilled in crafting musical instruments like the Tirio (bamboo flute), Korom, Hotok, Phet Banam (fretless string instrument), Junko, and Singa. The Tamak and Tumdak drums are essential in festive dances, including martial, marriage, hunting, and sowing dances. These dances involve vigorous movements, rhythmic footwork, and community participation.

The Santhal tribe is known for their love of dance, music, and wine, making their festivals vibrant and colourful. Their main festival, Sohoray, is celebrated for a month, along with other festivals like Janthad Lonan Puja, Baha Utsav, Aerak Parba, and Karam, which involve rituals for prosperity.

Preserving Santhali Culture in a Modern Age

The Santhals have a strong territorial identity with a highly collectivist ethos shaped by their historical experiences. Communal life privileges cohesion, selflessness, and community goals over individual desires. However, modernisation presents significant challenges to Santhal culture, as members of the tribe are slowly assimilating into the Bengali Hindu society and adopting modern ways of living.

Traditionally a collectivist society with cohesive communal life and selfless social norms, the Santhals are now increasingly adopting individualistic values and practices. These shifts are evident in their cultural values, occupational structures, and role perceptions. They are continually adopting new cultural symbols, such as Western clothing and cooking styles, and there is a decline in the authority of traditional leaders.

Despite these challenges, Santhal culture has seen a heartening revival lately. Many in the community are working hard to bring back cultural practices and traditions, like promoting the Santhali language, especially using the Ol Chiki script, and including Santhali elements in school curricula. A particularly proud moment was when Draupadi Murmu, the first tribal woman President of India, was elected, shining a spotlight on the Santhals and their valuable contributions to Indian society.

Preserving the culture of the Santhal tribe in the modern age requires a comprehensive approach spanning cultural education, documentation and support. Integrating the Santhali language and heritage into school curricula and promoting it, especially in the Ol Chiki script, through literature, media, and technology is a crucial way to support the continuation of Santhali culture. Advocating for government policies that recognise and protect Santhal cultural and linguistic rights is also paramount.

It is also essential to support Santhal festivals and businesses selling traditional arts and crafts for economic viability and cultural continuity. Documentation of Santhal history, folklore, and traditions ensures their preservation for future generations. Through these efforts, the rich cultural heritage of the Santhal community can be celebrated amid the forces of modernisation and globalisation.

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The Santhal tribe, with its rich cultural heritage and resilient spirit, continues to preserve its unique identity despite modern challenges. From their mythical origins in "Hihiri-Pipiri" to their significant presence in India today, the Santhals have a multifaceted and powerful history. Efforts to promote their cultural arts and festivals from within the community have effectively fostered a sense of pride amidst the pressures of modernisation and globalisation. By recognising and respecting their traditional practices and values, these initiatives ensure that the vibrant culture of the Santhal tribe can continue to thrive.


What is the traditional culture of Santali?

The traditional culture of the Santali tribe is deeply rooted in their social harmony, community celebrations, and artistic expressions like singing, dancing, and storytelling. Their lifestyle revolves around cultural practices such as traditional festivals like Sohrai and Baha, vibrant folk music and dance, and the use of natural elements in their arts and crafts.

What is the tradition of Santhal?

Santhal traditions emphasise their connection to nature and communal living. They celebrate festivals with dance, music, and rituals, worshipping spirits and deities tied to natural elements. They worship a Supreme God, Thakur Jiu, along with various spirits and deities like the Sun God, Sin Bonga. Their traditional practices also include storytelling, crafting musical instruments, and creating vibrant tribal paintings.

Who are the Santhal tribes of West Bengal?

The Santhal tribe is the largest tribal community in West Bengal, accounting for over 50% of the state's tribal population. Primarily residing in the districts of Bankura, Purulia, and Paschim Medini, they are traditionally involved in agriculture and are recognised for their vibrant festivals, music, dance, and unique artistic expressions.

Anuska Saha

Anuska Saha is an aspiring academician and musician pursuing her Master's in English. A passionate book enthusiast and a singer-musician, she navigates the realms of academia and creativity with equal enthusiasm.

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