Santal - Orientation

Identification. The Santal are the largest of the tribal populations in South Asia. Santals are found in the three adjoining Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal, and Orissa. Migrants work in the tea plantations of Assam, with smaller groups elsewhere in India. There are also Santal communities in northeastern Bangladesh and in the Nepal Terai. Traditionally mixed farmers with a recent past of hunting and gathering, Santals have found their way to employment in agriculture and industry all over eastern South Asia. "Santal" is the only term currently used by outsiders for the tribe. It is also recognized as an ethnic term by the Santals themselves. Hoṛ hopon ko (human children) and Hoṛ ko (men) are used by them in a more traditional or ritual context.

Location. The Santal heartland is the area known as the Chota Nagpur Plateau, a hilly area of crystalline Cambrian rocks, strewn with laterite and covered by deciduous forest. The area lies in northeastern India approximately between 22° and 24°30′ N and stretches from 84° to 87° E. Elevation ranges from 200 to 500 meters with mountains over 1,000 meters. Rainfall, concentrated in the July monsoon, totals about 100 to 130 centimeters. Mean temperatures range from 15° to 21° C in January to 26° to 29° C in July.

Demography. The Indian census counted 3,640,946 Santals in 1971 (but did not count tea workers in Assam), and today the total number of Santals must be somewhat more than four million. It is difficult to say much about their population history, except that they are the largest tribal group in South Asia. The regions of the core Santal area seem to have been settled by different clans. Further migration led to a subdivision of land among subclans, still unevenly distributed over the area. In practice, however, each region today contains a number of clans, possibly the result of an ongoing process of migration.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Santal language, Santali, belongs to the North Mundari Group of languages, itself part of the Austroasiatic Language Family. Writing was introduced by Norwegian missionaries in the late nineteenth century, and so Santali literature uses Roman characters. More Recently, Santali has been written in Devanāgari.

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