The people of the Santal community have lived in the northwest region of Bangladesh for hundreds of years. They are one of the major tribes in Bangladesh.
The features of the Santal people are quite similar to those of the Bengali people, the original inhabitants of Bangladesh, but the Santal people are a bit darker in color and have curly hair.
The Santal people practice ethnic religions or idolism. They do not practice Hinduism, but they worship several Hindu gods along with nature. They have their own tribe language, called Santali. It is completely different from the Bengali mother tongue, Bangla.
About a century ago, the Santal tribe possessed vast land properties in the northern part of Bangladesh. But according to Santal history, some cunning people from other communities took advantage of their addiction to home-made alcohol called Chuani and grabbed their land, not only making the Santal tribe poor but also ruling them for decades.
Most of the Santal people do not own land to grow crops. They work in other people’s fields as day laborers. Both men and women work in the fields. They spread seeds, remove weeds and collect crops in the harvesting season. Some of the Santali people are involved in the occupation of pulling a cycle-van.
Most of the Santal people have a small amount of their own land to live on. Their houses are made of mud walls with a straw or tin roof. These houses are normally 10 feet long, 7 to 9 feet tall and 8 feet wide. They have cow sheds attached to houses and do not have sanitary latrine facilities.
The northern portion of Bangladesh is plains and is very dry. The elevation is about 60 feet above sea level, and the weather is hot during the summer. During the winter, this area becomes the coldest in Bangladesh. And from September to mid-December, the area becomes drier. No crops can be grown, which ultimately causes a job crisis for the people because they cannot get regular work to earn their keep.
A crisis of water is another problem they face. They have to carry water to their homes from a far distance; however, some of the Santal families do have their own tube-well (hand-pump water supply).
Santal families often have five to seven children. With parents, children and grandparents, there are eight to 10 people in every household. The women who are widowed or have been left by their husbands stay with their children. These families usually have four to six members.
To send their children to school is a luxury for the Santal community. They are not able to bear the school tuition fees. As a result, most of the children of this tribe pass their days playing in the fields.
If any child from the Santal community goes to school, he or she usually drops out before completing the primary education (5th grade). More than 80 percent of Santal adults cannot read or write their own names.
Most of the Santal villages are in remote places. Walking is the only way to move around. To go a long distance, they take a rickshaw, cycle van or local transportation like a bus or pick-up van that runs on the highway.
The Santal community observes the culture and tradition of their ancestors. The Santal women wear sarees and use various kinds of ornaments and flowers to decorate themselves. The male wear lungis (Bengali skirts for men) and shirts. During certain special occasions the men wrap their heads with long cloths called pagris.
The Santal celebrate these occasions and worship idols with the music of drums and other local instruments, and the men and women take part in their traditional dance.
The favorite dishes are godo (field rat) and pork. They prepare these dishes for the festivals. They are also fond of kuicha (a kind of eel) and vegetables. Home-made alcohol is one of the main parts of every celebration and festival.
Approximately 65 percent of the Santal people follow their ethnic religion, 24 percent practice Hinduism, and 10 percent practice Christianity. The rest are Buddhists.
The growth trend of Christians could be more pleasing if churches became more effective in nurturing new believers. It is a common in Bangladesh for people who convert to Christianity to be troubled by their previous community group.
Compassion-assisted child development centers serving the Santal tribe include: BD-201 – 219 and 221 – 234.