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Book No. 16

To first story in the book press: 598

To last story in the book press: 804

Folklore of the Santal Parganas

Bompas Cecil Henry

Folklore of the Santal Parganas, Translated by Cecil Henry Bompas, of the Indian Civil Service, 1909


The Santals are a Munda tribe, a branch of that aboriginal element which probably entered India from the North East. At the present day they inhabit the Eastern outskirts of the Chutia Nagpore plateau.

Originally hunters and dwellers in the jungle they are still but indifferent agriculturists. Like the Mundas and Hos and other representatives of the race, they are jovial in character, fond of their rice beer, and ready to take a joke.

Their social organization is very complete; each village has its headman or manjhi, with his assistant the paranik; the jogmanghi is charged with the supervision of the morals of the young men and women; the naeke is the village priest, the godet is the village constable. Over a group of villages is the pargana or tribal chief. The Santals are divided into exogamous septs – originally twelve in number, and their social observances are complex, e.g. while some relations treat each other with the greatest reserve, between others the utmost freedom of intercourse is allowed.

Their religion is animistic, spirits (bongas) are everywhere around them: the spirits of their ancestors, the spirit of the house, the spirit dwelling in the patch of primeval forest preserved in each village. Every hill tree and rock may have its spirit. These spirits are propitiated by elaborate ceremonies and sacrifices which generally terminate in dances, and the drinking of rice beer.

The Santal Parganas is a district 4800 sq. miles in area, lying about 150 miles north of Calcutta, and was formed into a separate administration after the Santals had risen in rebellion in 1856. The Santals at present form about one-third of the population.

The stories and legends which are here translated have been collected by the Rev. O. Bodding, D.D. of the Scandinavian Mission to the Santals. To be perfectly sure that neither language nor ideas should in any way be influenced by contact with a European mind he arranged for most of them to be written out in Santali, principally by a Christian convert named Sagram Murmu, at present living at Mohulpahari in the Santal Parganas.

Santali is an agglutinative language of great regularity and complexity but when the Santals come in contact with races speaking an Aryan language it is apt to become corrupted with foreign idioms. The language in which these stories have been written is beautifully pure, and the purity of language may be accepted as an index that the ideas have not been affected, as is often the case, by contact with Europeans.

My translation though somewhat condensed is very literal, and the stories have perhaps thereby an added interest as shewing the way in which a very primitive people look at things. The Santals are great story tellers; the old folk of the village gather the young people round them in the evening and tell them stories, and the men when watching the crops on the threshing floor will often sit up all night telling stories.

There is however, no doubt that at the present time the knowledge of these stories tends to die out. Under the peace which British rule brings there is more intercourse between the different communities and castes, a considerable, degree of assimilation takes place, and old customs and traditions tend to be obliterated.

Several collections of Indian stories have been made, e.g. Stokes, Indian Fairy Tales; Frere, Old Deccan Days; Day, Folk Tales of Bengal; and Knowles’ Folk Tales of Kashmir, and it will be seen that all the stories in the present collection are by no means of pure Santal origin. Incidents which form part of the common stock of Indian folklore abound, and many of the stories professedly relate to characters of various Hindu castes, others again deal with such essentially Santal beliefs as the dealings of men and bongas.

The Rev. Dr. Campbell of Gobindpore published in 1891 a collection of Santal Folk Tales. He gathered his material in the District of Manbhum, and many of the stories are identical with those included in the present volume. I have added as an appendix some stories which I collected among the Hos of Singhbhum, a tribe closely related to the Santals, and which the Asiatic Society of Bengal has kindly permitted me to reprint here.

My task has been merely one of translation; it is due solely to Mr Bodding’s influence with, and intimate knowledge of, the people that the stories have been committed to writing, and I have to thank him for assistance and advice throughout my work of translation.

I have roughly classified the stories: in part 1 are stories of a general character; part 2, stories relating to animals; in part 3, stories which are scarcely folklore but are anecdotes relating to Santal life; in part 4, stories relating to the dealings of bongas and men. In part 5, are some legends and traditions, and a few notes relating to tribal customs. Part 6 contains illustrations of the belief in witchcraft. I have had to omit a certain number of stories as unsuited for publication.

C. H. Bompas.

Part I.

In these stories there are many incidents which appear in stories collected in other parts of India, though it is rather surprising that so few of them appear elsewhere in their entirety. We have however, instances of the husk myth, the youngest son who surpasses his brother, the life of the ogre placed in some external object, the jealous stepmother, the selection of a king by an elephant, the queen whose husband is invariably killed on his wedding night, etc. etc.

Few of the old Indian stories found in the Kathâ Sarit Sâgara or the Buddhist Birth stories appear in recognizable form in the present collection.

Part II.

To a people living in the jungles the wild animals are much more than animals are to us. To the man who makes a clearing in the forest, life is largely a struggle against the beasts of prey and the animals who graze down the crops. It is but natural that he should credit them with feelings and intelligence similar to those of human beings, and that they should seem to him suitable characters around which to weave stories.

These stories are likely to be particularly current among a people occupying a forest country, and for this reason are less likely to appear in collections made among the inhabitants of towns. It is a strange coincidence and presumably only a coincidence that Story 118, ‘The Hyena outwitted’ is known in a precisely similar form among the Kaffirs of South Africa.

Part IV

The following stories illustrate the belief in Bongas, i.e. the spirits which the Santals believe to exist everywhere, and to take an active part in human affairs. Bongas frequently assume the form of young men and women and form connections with human beings of the opposite sex.

At the bidding of witches they cause disease, or they hound on the tiger to catch men. But they are by no means always malevolent and are capable of gratitude. The Kisar Bonga or Brownie who takes up his abode in a house steals food for the master of the house, and unless offended will cause him to grow rich.

Part V.

The legends and customary beliefs contained in this part are definitely connected with the Santals.

Part VI.

The belief in witchcraft is very real to the present day among the Santals. All untimely deaths and illness which does not yield to treatment are attributed to the machinations of witches, and women are not unfrequently murdered in revenge for deaths which they are supposed to have caused, or to prevent the continuance of illness for which they are believed to be responsible.

The Santal writer in spite of his education is a firm believer in witchcraft, and details his own experiences. He has justification for his belief, for as was the case in Mediaeval Europe, women sometimes plead guilty to having caused death by witchcraft when there appears to be no adequate motive for a confession, which must involve them in the severest penalties.

Mr. Bodding is aware that Santal women do actually hold meetings at night at which mantras and songs are repeated, and at which they may believe they acquire uncanny powers; the exercise of such powers may also on occasion be assisted by the knowledge of vegetable poisons.

The witch may either herself cause death by “eating,” or eating the liver of, her victim, or may cause her familiar “bonga” to attack the unfortunate. That witches eat the liver is an old idea in India mentioned by the Mughal historians.

The Jan guru is employed to detect who is the woman responsible for any particular misfortune. His usual method is to gaze on a leaf smeared with oil, in which as in a crystal he can doubtless imagine that shapes present themselves. The witch having been detected, she is liable to be beaten and maltreated until she withdraws her spells, and if this does not lead to the desired result she may be put to death.


Adwa. Rice husked without having been boiled.

Arta. Red pigment applied to the feet for ornament.

Baha Porob. The flower festival; the spring festival held about February.

Bandi. A receptacle for storing grain, made of straw rope.

Bharia. A bamboo carried on the shoulder with a load slung at each end.

Bhut. A ghost, a harmful spirit, not originally a Santal word.

Bonga. The name for all gods, godlings and supernatural beings. Sing bonga is the sun god; the spirits of ancestors are bongas, there are bongas of the hills, streams and the forest; others are like fairies and take human form. Sacrifices are offered to bongas on all occasions.

Brinjal. The egg plant.

But. Grain, a kind of pulse.

Chamar. A low caste, workers in leather.

Chando. The sun, the supreme god of the Santals.

Champa. A country in which according to their traditions, the Santals once lived.

Charak Puja. The festival at which men are swung by hooks from a pole.

Chatar. A festival at which dancing takes place round an umbrella.

Chowkidar. A watchman.

Churin. The spirit of a woman who has died while pregnant, her feet are turned backwards. Not originally Santal.

Chumaura. A ceremony observed at marriage, and Sohrae festival.

Dain. A witch. Witches are supposed to use their powers to cause sickness and death; women accused of witchcraft are often murdered.

Dehri. The president of the annual hunt; he presides over the Court which during the hunt hears appeals against unjust decisions of paganas.

Dewan. The chief minister of a Raja.

Dhobi. A washerman.

Dhoti. The waistcloth worn by men.

Dom. A low caste, scavengers, basketmakers and drummers.

Gamcha. A small piece of cloth worn round the neck, or when bathing.

Ghât. The approach to a pool or river at which people bathe; the crossing place of a river.

Ghormuha. A horse-headed monster; not a Santal name.

Goâla. A man of the cow keeping caste.

Godet. The village constable, the official messenger of the headman.

Goondli. A small millet.

Gosain. A religious ascetic, usually of the Vishnuite persuasion.

Gupinî. A celestial milkmaid, such as those who danced with Krishna; not a Santal creation.

Gûr. Juice of sugar cane, molasses.

Hadi. A low caste of scavengers.

Jan or Jan guru. A witch finder. When a man is ill the Jan is consulted as to what witch is responsible. The Jan usually divines by gazing at an oiled leaf.

Jahirthan. The group of sacred trees left in each village for the accommodation of the spirits of the forest when the jungle is cleared.

Jai tuk. A bullock given to a woman at her marriage.

Jhalka. A boastful man.

Jogi or Jugi. A religious ascetic, a mendicant.

Lota. A small brass water pot.

Lakh. One hundred thousand.

Mahadeo. The great god, i.e. Siva.

Mahajan. A moneylender.

Mahuli. A tribe akin to the Santals, basket makers by profession.

Malhan. A cultivated leguminous plant.

Manjhithan. The little pavilion in the centre of every Santal village at which the spirits of dead headmen are worshipped and where village councils are held.

Mantra. An incantation, sacred or magic formula.

Marang Burn. The great spirit, the original chief god of the Santals.

Marwari. A trader from Rajputana and the adjoining parts.

Maund. A weight, 40 seers or 82 pounds.

Meral. A small tree. Phyllanthus emblica.

More Turuiko. Lit.: The five or six – certain Santal godlings.

Mowah. A tree, Bassia latifolia, the fleshy flower is eaten and spirit is distilled from it.

Musahar. A semi-aboriginal caste which catches and eats rats.

Nala. A water course with steep banks.

Narta. The namegiving ceremony observed three or five days after birth, by which the child is formally admitted into the tribe.

Ninda Chando. The moon goddess, wife of Singchando the Sun god.

Kat. A dry measure used for grain.

Kisar Bonga. A spirit which takes up its abode in the house, frolicsome and mischievous.

Kisku. One of the twelve exogamous septs of Santals, by tradition it was formerly the royal sept.

Koerī. A cultivating caste of Hindus.

Kora. A youth or young man, the hero of a story is often called so throughout, and I have for convenience adopted it as a proper name.

Kos. A measure of distance, two miles.

Ojha. An exorcist, a charm doctor, one who counteracts the effects of witchcraft.

Pachet. A place in the Manbhum district which the Santals occupied in the course of their immigrations.

Panchayat. A council primarily of five which meets to decide a dispute.

Pagri. A cloth worn round the head, a turban.

Paharia. A hill man; the Saurias or Malé of the Rajmahal hills.

Pai. A wooden or metal measure containing half a seer.

Pan. Betel used for chewing.

Parganna. A Santal chief having jurisdiction over a number of villages.

Paranic. The assistant headman of a village.

Parrab. A festival.

Peepul or pipal. A tree, ficus religiosa.

Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Budhi. The first man and woman.

Rahar. A cultivated crop, a kind of pulse.

Raibar. A marriage go-between, a man employed to arrange a marriage.

Rakas. An ogre. Sanskrit Rakhshya.

Rum. To be possessed, to fall into a cataleptic state.

Sabai. A kind of grass used for making rope.

Sal. A forest tree. Shorea robusta.

Seer. A weight, about two pounds.

Sid atang. To take the final step, to be completely initiated.

Sing bonga. The Sun god.

Sipahi. An armed guard, a soldier, armed messenger.

Sohrai. The great winter festival of the Santals.

Taluq. A revenue division of the country.

Tarop tree. A small tree, Buchanania latifolia.

Thakur. The supreme Being.

Tika. A mark on the forehead, the giving of which corresponds to coronation.

Tola. A hamlet, a detached quarter of a village.



The Kolhān forms the western half of the district of Singhbhum in Chota Nagpur. The Hos or Larka Hos who form the bulk of the inhabitants are a branch of the Mundas of the Chota Nagpur Plateau. They are one of those Kolarian tribes of which the Santāls are perhaps the best known. I have collected some of the Folklore stories current among them, the recollection of which would, however, appear to be dying out.

The Rev. A. Campbell of the Free Church of Scotland, Santāl Mission, has printed a volume of Santāl Folk Tales collected by him in Manbhum, a neighbouring district to Singhbhum. As might be expected there is considerable resemblance between those Santal Tales and the ones now reproduced. I have heard some of Mr. Campbell’s Santāl stories told by Hos precisely as he relates them, and there are many incidents common to both collections. On the other hand there is no resemblance between these Kolarian tales, and the Bengal stories published by Rev. Lal Behari De. In the latter I only notice one incident which appears in the Kolhān stories, the bringing together of two lovers through a long hair floating down a stream, but in Bengal it is the lady’s hair that floats to her lover, while in the Kolhān it is always the long hair of the hero which inspires love in the heart of the Rājā’s daughter.

The stories may be divided into two groups, the animal stories in which the principal characters are animals, for the most part denizens of the jungles, and the stories which deal with a settled state of Society with Rājās, priests and members of the different Hindu castes following their usual occupations. It is interesting, but perhaps scarcely profitable, to try and deduce from the latter some hints of the previous history of the Hos, who, as we know them, are a strongly democratic race, with a well developed tribal system. They look on themselves as the owners, of the soil and are unwilling to admit the claims of any overlord.

I have made no attempt to put the following stories into a literary dress; I merely bring them as a few stones to the hands of the builders who build the structure of comparative mythology.

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