From leafy greens to meat, how Santhal food reflects the community's identity intertwined with nature

The controversial arrest of Santhal professor and activist, Jeetrai Hansda, in Jharkhand in the month of May, left the community stirred. Firstpost speaks to some individuals from the Santhal community about their food, way of life, and the significance of their prevailing food culture.

Arshia Dhar August 13, 2019 09:16:46 IST
From leafy greens to meat, how Santhal food reflects the community's identity intertwined with nature
  • Earlier in May, the arrest of a Santhal professor from Jharkhand, Jeetrai Hansda, over a two-year-old Facebook post asserting his people's right to eat beef, left the nation stirred.

  • Santhals are generous and liberal about food, with barely any restrictions, barring a few.

  • The Santhals are also fish-eaters, with villagers even consuming the ones that grow in the water pooling at the foot of paddy plants.

Dr Biplab Mardi (name changed) is a restless man, all of 54, with eyes almost always roving for stories, conversations, laughs. The breathless world of medicine has only left him seeking more human touch, more stories, if that’s possible. “My wife is also a healthcare professional at a nearby hospital, but I am slowly phasing out of the profession for greener pastures in healthcare management," he says. A medical professional in Kolkata, Mardi is a native of the Santhal Parganas in Jharkhand.

He invites me to his place for lunch some day — an "ethnic Santhal lunch", that too. Suddenly, you're alerted to the significance of the term 'ethnic' in his life, and perhaps that of his community at large. Mardi is a Santhal from the state that houses the largest percentage of this category of Adivasis, or Scheduled Tribes, as the Constitution calls them. The man has been settled in the capital of Bengal — the state with the second highest population of Santhals — for decades now, and life has barely remained the same.

"We, the educated Santhals, are quite accommodating of change, you know. I've become as Bengali as one can be!" he laughs. Earlier in May, the arrest of Santhal professor Jeetrai Hansda in Jharkhand, over a two-year-old Facebook post asserting his people's right to eat beef, left the nation stirred. Jeetrai is a well-known theatre artiste and activist who was taken into police custody on 25 May, based on a complaint lodged by members of Akhil Bharati Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at the Sakchi police station in Jamshedpur district.

From leafy greens to meat how Santhal food reflects the communitys identity intertwined with nature

Villagers at Taljhari in the Santhal Parganas of Jharkhand go fishing collectively, before the summer heat dries up their lakes and ponds. They are seen using traditional fishing devices. This tradition is known as 'Hako jhali'. Image courtesy: Divya Hansda.

Mardi, however, is not surprised, even though he is visibly distraught. “We all know how this colonisation started with trying to grab our natural resources, that is what it is all about even now, at the core,” he says, referring to the constant power and identity tussle between the Indian state and the tribal population over land, water and minerals. Followers of animism who lead lives heavily intertwined with nature, the Santhals, much like other tribal communities, continue to depend on their forestland and soil for sustenance till date. For 49-year-old Tonol Murmu, editor and publisher based in Kolkata, the Santhal identity is inseparable from their origins of "hunter-gatherers", who adopted an agriculturist way of life only a few centuries ago. He draws one's attention to how the hor-hopons ('children of man' in Santhali) continue to have settlements close to forests, and "vegetables, tubers, wild fruits, green leaves, mushrooms, along with minor games still comprise a vital source of nutrition" for a lot of Santhals in the rural interiors.

"Due to this relatively new status as agriculturalist — our old cuisine was hunter-gatherer in nature — and much of that is lost due to unavailability of the ingredients, many of which are even unfamiliar to the newer generations, and survives through mentions in folklore only. Major components of our newfound cuisine as agricultural people is very similar and practically indistinguishable from that of the Bengalis, our nearest neighbours. Oṛiya, Boḍo and Ohomiya influences also can be found in regional Hor cuisines," Murmu says.

However, all is not lost. A wide array of rice, lentils, and edible green leaves or shaak that have long been forsaken by neighbouring communities, can still be found in Santhal kitchens, according to him.

"Another thing I remember is the predominant use of molasses as sweetener instead of sugar in various steamed, baked and deep fried 'pithas'," says Murmu, who, despite being born and brought up in Kolkata, can trace his ancestry back to the Sahibganj district of the Santhal Parganas, now in Jharkhand.

Murmu’s perfect Bangla barely ever betrays his Santhal identity, much like Mardi. “We are perhaps one of the few families who’ve continued to speak in Santhali at home. The rest all have adopted Bangla,” Mardi says. Both have defiantly stuck to their roots, with Mardi making frequent visits to his native village even today, on account of being its priest or Naeke, and a senior member and headman (called Majhi Haram in Santhali) of his community back home. His efforts at trying to hold on to the diluting legacies of the Santhals through various social channels are relentless and gritty.

From leafy greens to meat how Santhal food reflects the communitys identity intertwined with nature

A young Santhal boy and his catch during 'Hako jhali'. Image courtesy: Divya Hansda.

“We weren’t touched by the feudal mainstream or by the colonial rulers until Independence, as is evident from Section 91 of the Government of India Act, 1935, which is the precursor for the Constitution of India. In this, partially excluded areas have been rechristened as schedule V, under article 244 (1) in the Constitution," Mardi explains. He goes on to recount the ordeals of his people in great, often painful detail, conjuring images of constant unrest plaguing the community he hails from.

"After the great Santhal Hul (Rebellion) in 1855, Reverend LO Skrefsud, a Norwegian Christian missionary, set foot in the Santhal Parganas in 1868. Immediately afterward, in 1871, an anti-census movement was initiated under the influence of one Trilokyanath Chakraborty at Deoghar, and Debi Gossain, allegedly an exile from Oudh settled at Govindpur in erstwhile Manbhum (present day Purulia and Dhanbad districts). It transformed into an anti-proselytisation movement, known as 'Kherwar Movement', led by Bhagirath Manjhi (Hansda). This is when the process of ‘purification’ or sapha begun, and it was so severe, that the Santhals turned vegetarian and stopped brewing hariya (a rice beer prepared and consumed by Santhals and other tribal communities) and offering it to the gods," he explains.

Soon after, a cult among Santhals — who called themselves 'Sapha hor' or purified men — came up. "Essentially, (this was) Hinduisation," the doctor says. "Large proportion of these men reverted to the traditional religion and culture later. Now, only a tiny portion of Santhals follow it, attending to the Ganges for a holy dip once in a year."

A latent cultural conversion among Santhals slowly crept in through the back door, as observed by Mardi. "A lot of Santhals have co-opted Bengali-Hindu traditions, like worshipping tulsi plants in their courtyards, praying to Hindu deities and their idols, or maybe an old calendar carrying their images at home. These haven't come around due to overtly political or religious agendas, but have just seeped surreptitiously into the psyches of the Santhals, for play of force majeure of mainstream Hindu society in their close neighbourhoods, while looking to progress in life after moving to cities like Kolkata and other small towns," he points out.

From leafy greens to meat how Santhal food reflects the communitys identity intertwined with nature

The day's catch and distribution. Image courtesy: Divya Hansda.

Food, being one of the most fundamental blocks of society, has been under constant attack in the past couple of years, specifically seeing a spike in cases of moral policing and assault on beef eaters and sellers. According to a 2015 survey by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), India has a population of nearly 80 million beef eaters, including Muslims, Christians, Adivasis, and Hindus from the Southern and Eastern belts of the country. Despite such telling numbers, the access that indigenous tribes have to their own cuisine and the ability to practise it is not improving.

"Professor Jeetrại Hansda was absolutely right in defending our food habits. One people should have absolutely nothing to say about the food habits of another people... Our paradigm and worldview are simply different from the others, just that," Murmu says. On account of Santhals fanning out, and moving beyond their places of origin, the community's food habits have undergone shifts as well. While Santhals are generous and liberal about food — with "rodents and reptiles" being permissible too, as long as they aren't harmful to one's health (and flies, insects, felines and canines being prohibited, of course) — they find their accommodating outlook towards coexistence threatened.

"There are practically no restrictions on food among Santhals, except a few for totemic reasons," Mardi says.

For Hansdas, who derive their name from hans or ducks, killing or eating the meat of the bird is out of bounds, as they consider them their forefathers. Similarly, for the Murmus, leaves of the palash tree remain prohibited.

But Dr Mardi's childhood memories are mostly centred around food, its lavish aroma and rich taste, with frequent surprises as they never quite knew what would show up on their plates in the very next meal. The food was seasonal and curated carefully from what grew in their backyard, embracing what Mother Nature had to offer almost blindly.

For Divya Hansda, a Kolkata-based documentary filmmaker, who also traces her roots to Santhal Parganas' Rajmahal Hills, her days growing up were all about discovering what she's most comfortable eating. The choices on offer were practically countless.

"As a child, my brother and I were very fond of doodh-roti. We disliked certain vegetables like gourd, brinjals, and taro," Divya reminisces. Her paternal grandmother reared hens, as a result of which she developed a liking for chicken. "They also cooked mushrooms, oysters, crabs, small turtles and edible snails at home. At that time, houses were surrounded by mango, custard apple and guava trees, that attracted fruit bats at night, so the bhaiya in our neighbourhood once brought us cooked bat meat. We tasted it but the very image of a black bat gave us goosebumps," she says about her time spent in Jharkhand's Taljhari.

From leafy greens to meat how Santhal food reflects the communitys identity intertwined with nature

Preparation of chicken, traditional Santhal style. Image courtesy: Sudipto Mukhopadhyay.

The Santhals are also fish-eaters, with villagers even consuming the ones that grow in the water pooling at the foot of paddy plants. Local variants like puthi, bulbuc, darkak, and paddy-field variety of crabs, among others, are also commonly found in the Santhal kitchen, along with shutki, a preparation of dried or pickled freshwater fish popular among the natives of erstwhile East Bengal (present day Bangladesh). Shutki is as famous for its rich flavours, as it is notorious for its pungent smell. But Santhals know just the trick to cure it of its strong scent. They clean and descale the fish thoroughly, before drying it repeatedly until there's not a drop of moisture left — first on roof tops, and then by hanging it over burning chulhas (ovens) for the heat to soak up the residual moisture, if any. The fish is now ready to be cooked with vegetables. Thorough cleaning and cooking of food items is sacrosanct for Santhals, as opposed to the myth that suggests they have their meals raw.


Food, at its core, is a necessity born of biological needs. But on scratching the surface, one realises its significance as a language for communication. The mundane nature, or the 'everydayness' of food consumption, tends to mislead people into perceiving it not as a socio-political and anthropological marker, but merely as a source of nutrition. “Cooking becomes more than a necessity, it is the symbol of our humanity, what marks us off from the rest of nature. And because eating is almost always a group event, food becomes a focus of symbolic activity about sociality and our place in our society," says anthropologist Robin Fox. And indeed, food has not only been used as an expression of celebration, loss, and mourning, but also as a weapon of colonisation — whether by the British who engineered a famine in India in 1943, or by the Americans who slaughtered buffaloes to starve Canadian prairie natives in the late 1800s.

"This is done to hurt one’s identity," Mardi says, further explaining Santhal traditions of meat-eating and animal sacrifice on various religious occasions. While Santhals aren't very successful at commercial poultry farming, they've been able to sustain a social model for it, where each family has a couple of hens to themselves. "We even have pigeon meat, only the female head of the family can’t have it because she's the primary caregiver for the birds," he explains. The tender meat of pigeon chicks cooked into a stew is said to have high curative value among Santhals. Divya too swears by its meat cooked the Santhal way.

From leafy greens to meat how Santhal food reflects the communitys identity intertwined with nature

Cooking the chicken. Image courtesy: Sudipto Mukhopadhyay.

The community also rears lambs, usually sacrificed during the religious festival of 'Abge', which, Mardi says, is celebrated widely in Bengal at present as well. When it comes to pork or pig meat, the animal is sacrificed on the third night of 'Sohrae' or the harvest festival, and as an offering at the funeral services of a deceased person, he informs.

Goats are sacrificed in a ritual called 'Khashi mak' that takes place traditionally in Santhal weddings. The meat is then cooked with rice by the bride and groom together, and served to the two families, village community and heads, to the Santhal god, Marang Buru, and also family deities.

"Any attack on these food habits and cuisine, indeed is an attack on our socio-cultural identity. However, people do change over time, and so do their livelihood patterns. Large-scale hunting of wild game for venison and other wild meats is discontinued nowadays, and these cannot be supported any more from the ecological view point. But, token and symbolic hunting during our annual 'Sendra porob' (hunting festival) still takes place with some minor kills. Often, our hunters take along domestic livestock to the forest for mock hunting, in want of real big games," Murmu says. He informs about how their community's social organisations are proactively creating "environmental awareness and responsible guardianship to further minimise the minuscule kill that occurs every year during Sendra porob". However, he believes the process should be organic, and allowed to take its due course, instead of Santhal traditions being denigrated by conservationists.

In Jharkhand, the festival of 'Kutam Dangra', which is celebrated every four to five years during spring, is when a cow is offered to the presiding deity of Marang Buru, and to Jaher Era, the custodian deity of the Santhals' sacred grove, or the 'Jaherthan'. An ox is also offered to the dead ancestors and supreme lord, according to Mardi.

From leafy greens to meat how Santhal food reflects the communitys identity intertwined with nature

Chicken prepared the Santhal way. Image courtesy: Sudipto Mukhopadhyay.

The same festival changes name and form on entering Bengal, where in regions like Purulia and Jhargram it is known as 'Jaher Dangri', usually observed to ward off calamities and epidemics. In Kolkata, this festival has been celebrated widely for the last 70 years as 'Mak-more', in which an effigy of a cow is sacrificed. "Up to Singhbhum and Santhal Parganas, you'll also find some neighbourhoods sacrificing black female calves during this festival. Clearly, denying bovine meat to the tribals not only deprives us of a cheap and rich source of protein, but also attacks our religio-cultural identity," the doctor says.

But the fight against disappearing tribal identities does not simply end there. The Adivasi community is yet to win a long-standing battle with the state over the controversy of them being labelled 'Hindu', following the removal of the 'Others' category under religion in the 2011 official census forms.

According to instructions mandated for the 2001 Census, only six religions – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – were given codes from 1-6. If a person follows a religion beyond the ones enlisted, she/he would have to specify its name, but the government would not grant such religions an official code. A similar method was adopted for the 2011 Census as well.

"Such identity-based conflicts are results of the misleading identity politics, used so conveniently by the present regime to mask the root causes of historical, systematic deprivation, and inequality prevailing till this day. Hatred cannot be an antidote for other kinds of hatred. A sustainable reengineering of the social system and socio-economic relationship can be the only viable solution," Murmu implores, reminding one of the fragile, yet resilient predicament of the Adivasis through the nation's history, irrespective of the forces in power. While India teeters on the edge of a socio-political realignment almost overnight, the term "ethnic" gains currency more than ever now, especially for the Santhals, who refuse to continue watching from the peripheries of their 'democracy'.

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