The Santhal legend about the ‘beginning’, souls, the next world and death

Taken from: Folklore of the Santal Parganas by Cecil Henry Bompas-1909

CLX. The Beginning of Things.

In the days of old, Thakur Baba had made everything very convenient for mankind and it was by our own fault that we made Thakur Baba angry so that he swore that we must spend labour in making things ready for use.

This is the story that I have heard.

When the Santals lived in Champa and the Kiskus were their kings, the Santals were very simple and religious and only worshipped Thakur. In those days the rice grew ready husked, and the cotton bushes bore cloth all ready woven and men did not have to pick the lice out of each others’ hair; men’s skulls grew loose and each man could lift off his own skull and clean it and then replace it. But all this was spoilt by the misdeeds of a serving girl of one of the Rajas. When she went into the field for purposes of nature she would at the same time pick and eat the rice that grew by her; and when she had made her hands dirty cleaning out a cow house she would wipe them on the cloth which she was wearing. Angered by these dirty habits Thakur Baba deprived men of the benefits which he had conferred upon them and the rice began to grow in a husk and the cotton plants only produced raw cotton and men’s skulls became fixed so that they could not be removed.

In those old days too the sky was quite close to the earth and Thakur Baba used to come and visit men in their houses. So it was a saying among our forefathers “Do, not throw your dirty leaf plates near the front or back door and do not let your brass plates and dishes remain unwashed at night; for if Thakur Baba come along and see them so, he will not come into the house but will be angry and curse us.” But one day a woman after finishing her meal threw the used leaf plate out of the door, and a gust of wind carried it up to the sky; this displeased Thakur Baba and he resolved no longer to dwell in the neighbourhood of men as they were so ill-mannered as to throw their dirty leaf plates at him and so he lifted the sky to its present height above the earth.

To this day men who have heard of this scold those who throw their refuse into the street and bid them heap it up in some out-of-the-way place.

The misdeeds of men at length made Thakur Baba so angry that he resolved to destroy them all. Now Thakur Baba is Sing Chando or the Sun, and the Moon is his wife: and at first there were as many stars by day as there are by night and they were all the children of the Sun and Moon who had divided them between them. So Sing Chando having resolved to destroy mankind blazed with a fierce heat till man and beast writhed under the torture of it. But when the Moon looked down and saw their sufferings she was filled with pity and thought how desolate the earth would be without a living being on it. So she hastened to Sing Chando and prayed him not to desolate the earth; but for all her beseeching the utmost that she could obtain was a promise from her Lord that he would spare one or two human beings to be the seed of a future race. So Sing Chando chose out a young man and a young woman and bade them go into a cave in a hill side and close the mouth of the cave with a raw hide and when they were safely inside he rained fire from heaven and killed every other living being on the earth.

Five days and five nights it rained fire and the man and woman in the cave sang—(to the Baha tune)

“Five days and five nights the fire will rain, ho!

Five days and five nights, all night long, ho!

Where will you two human beings stay?

Where will you two take shelter?

There is a hide, a hide:

There is also a hill:

There is also a cave in the rock!

There will we two stay:

There will we two take shelter.”

When they came out of the cave the first thing they saw was a cow lying burnt to death with a karke tree fallen on the top of it and near it was lying a buffalo cow burnt to death; at the sight they sang:—

“The cow is glowing cinders, glowing cinders:

The karke tree is burnt:

The buffalo cow has fallen and has been burnt

to ashes, to ashes.”

And as they went on, they sang a similar lament over the remains of each living being as they saw it.

Although these two had been spared to raise up a new race, Ninda Chando, the Moon, feared that the Sun would again get angry with the new race and destroy it; and so she made a plan to trick him. She covered up all her children with a large basket and smeared her mouth and lips with red and going to Sing Chando told him that she had eaten up every one of her children and proposed that he should now eat up his. At first Sing Chando declined to believe her but she pointed to her lips and said that they were red with the blood of the children; so Sing Chando was convinced and agreed to eat up his children except two whom he would keep to play with. So they devoured all but two and the two that were saved are the morning and evening stars.

Thus Sing Chando was deprived of the power to again burn up the earth; but when that night Ninda Chando let out her own children from under the basket she warned them to beware of the wrath of their father when he found out the trick that had been played him. When Sing Chando saw Ninda Chando’s children still alive he flew to her in a passion and the children at the sight of him scattered in all directions and that is why the stars are now spread all over the sky; at first they were all in one place. Although the stars escaped, Sing Chando could not restrain his wrath and cut Ninda Chando in two and that is why the Moon waxes and wanes; at first she was always full like the sun.

Some men say that the man and woman whom Thakur hid in the cave were Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Budhi and they had twelve sons and twelve daughters and mankind is descended from them and has increased and filled the earth; and that it was in that country that we were divided into twelve different races according to the food which our progenitors chose at a feast.

CLXI. Chando and His Wife.

Once upon a time Chando went to the hills to fashion a plough out of a log of wood; and his wife was left at home alone, Chando was so long in coming back that his wife grew impatient; so she made some mosquitos and sent them to worry him and drive him home. But Chando made some dragon-flies and they ate up the mosquitos and he went on with his work. His wife made various other animals and sent them out, but Chando destroyed them all. At last she made a tiger and sent it to frighten him home; but Chando took up a handful of chips from the log he was cutting and threw them at the tiger and they turned into wild dogs and chased the tiger away. Ever since that no tiger will face wild dogs.

Then Chando’s wife shut up a locust in an iron pot and when Chando at last came home she asked him “Why have you been so long? Who is to give food and drink to all the living creatures if you don’t attend to business.” Chando answered that he had fed them all.

“No you have not, you have not fed the locust!”

“But I have” said Chando.

Then she took the lid off the iron pot and showed him the locust eating grass inside; and Chando had nothing to say.

CLXII. The Sikhar Raja.

Santals say that the Sikhar Raja was a bonga and this is the story they tell about him. A certain woman was with child but could not say by whom she was pregnant so she fled into the jungle and at the foot of a clump of bamboos gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl; and then went home leaving the children lying in the jungle. The children lay there crying very pitifully. Now a herd of wild bison was grazing in the jungle and they heard the crying and one of the cows went to see what was the matter and took pity on the children and suckled them. Every day she came three times and fed them; and under her care the children grew up strong and healthy. If any man came to hunt in the jungle the bison-cow used to attack him and drive him away; she used to bring the bows and arrows which the hunters threw away in their flight to the boy that he might learn how to shoot. And when any basket makers passed by the jungle on their way to market to sell their wares she used to charge out at them and then bring to the girl the winnowing fans and baskets they threw down in their fright, so that she might learn to sift rice.

Thus the children prospered; and the boy was named Harichand and he and his sister looked like gods. When they grew up they married each other and then the bison-cow left them. Then Thakur sent from heaven sixteen hundred gopinis and the gopinis said that Harichand and his wife should be king and queen in that land of Sikhar. Then they took counsel together as to where the royal fort should be. Three scribes sat down to study the books with Harichand and his wife in their midst; on the right sat the scribe Hikim, and on the left the scribe Bhuja and the scribe Jaganath opened the book to see where the fort should be; and all the gopinis sat round in a circle and sang while the book was read.

“Raja Harichand of the Sikhar stock, of Jhalamala,

Where is his abode!

Raja Harichand of the Sikhar stock, of Jhalamala,

In the bamboo clump is his abode!”

“Raja Harichand of the Sikhar stock of Jhalamala

In the banyan-tree field in his abode!

Raja Harichand, of the Sikhar stock, of Jhalamala,

In the brinjal corner is his abode.”

And they found in the book that the fort should be in Pachet hill; then they sang in triumph:—

“It will not do, O Raja, to build a fort here:

We will leave Paras and build a fort on Pachet hill:

There in the happy Brinda forest.”

Then they brought the Raja and Rani from the jungle to Pachet and on the top of the Pachet hill a stone fort sprang up for them; and all the country of Sikhar acknowledged their sway. After that the Santals made their way from Champa and dwelt in Sikhar and cleared all the jungle in it and abode there many years. They called the Sikhar Raja a bonga because no one knew his father or mother. Under Raja Harichand the Santals were very contented and happy, and when he celebrated the Chatar festival they used to sing this song, because they were so contented:—

“Harichand Raja was born of a bison-cow,

Sirguja Rana was born of a snake.”

CLXIII. The Origin of Tobacco.

This is the way that the chewing tobacco began. There was once a Brahmin girl whose relations did not give her in marriage and she died unmarried. After the body had been burned and the people had gone home, Chandu thought “Alas, I sent this woman into the world and she found favour with no one; well, I will confer a gift on her which will make men ask for her every day,” So he sowed tobacco at the burning place and it grew up and flourished. And there was a boy of the cowherd caste who used to graze his cattle about that place; he saw his goats greedily eating the tobacco leaf and he wondered what the leaf was and tasted a bit but finding it bitter he spat it out. Some time after however he had tooth-ache and having tried many remedies in vain he bethought himself of the bitter tobacco and he chewed some of that and kept it in his mouth and found that it cured the tooth-ache; from that time he formed the habit of chewing it. One day he saw some burnt bones or lime and he picked up the powder and rubbed it between his fingers to see what it was and after doing so he ate some tobacco and found that the taste was improved, so from that time he always chewed lime with the tobacco. He recommended the leaf to other men who had tooth-ache and they formed the habit of chewing it too and called it tobacco; and then men who had no tooth-ache took to it; and acquired a craving for it. This is the way tobacco chewing began, as our forefathers say.

CLXIV. The Transmigration of Souls.

All the cats of Hindus have believed and believe, and the Santals also have said and say, that Thakur made the land and sky and sea and man and animals and insects and fish and the creation was complete and final: he made their kinds and castes once for all and did not alter them afterwards; and he fixed the time of growth and of dwelling in the body; and for the flowers to seed and he made at that time as many souls as was necessary and the same souls go on being incarnated sometimes in a human body and sometimes in the body of an animal; and so it is that many human beings really have the souls of animals; if a man has a man’s soul he is of a gentle disposition; but if he gets the soul of a dog or cat then he is bad tempered and ready to quarrel with everyone; and the man with a frog’s soul is silent and sulky and those who get tiger’s souls when they start a quarrel never give up till they gain their point. There is a story which proves all this.

There was once a Brahman who had two wives and as he knew something of herbs and simples he used to leave his wives at home and go about the country as a quack doctor; but whenever he came home his two wives used to scold him and find fault with him for no reason at all till they made his life a burden. So he resolved to leave two such shrews and one day when they had been scolding as usual he put on the garb of a jogi and in spite of their protests went out into the world.

After journeying two or three days he came to a town in which a pestilence was raging and he sat down to rest under a tree on the outskirts. There he noticed that many corpses had been thrown out and he saw two vultures fly down to feed on the bodies; and the he-vulture said to his mate “Which corpse shall we eat first?” Now the Brahman somehow understood the language of the birds—but the mate returned no answer though the he-vulture kept on repeating the question; at last she said “Don’t you see there is a man sitting at the foot of the tree?” Then they both approached the Brahman and asked why he was sitting in such a place and whether he was in distress; he told them that trouble had driven him from his home and that he was wandering about the world as chance led him, because the continual quarrelling of his two wives was more than he could bear. The vultures said “We will give you a means by which you may see your wives as they really are” and one of them pulled out a wing feather and told him when he went to any house begging to stick it behind his ear and then he would see what the people were really like; and they advised him to marry a woman who gave him alms with her hands. Then he got up and went away with the feather, leaving the birds to prey on the corpses.

When the Brahman came to a village to beg he saw by the aid of the feather, that some of the people were really cats and some were dogs and other animals and when they gave him alms they brought it in their teeth; then he made up his mind to go home and see what his wives really were; and he found that one was a bitch and one was a sow; and when they brought him water they carried the cup in their months; at this sight he left the house again in disgust, determined to marry any woman who offered him alms with her hands.

He wandered for days till at last the daughter of a Chamar, when he begged, brought him alms in her hands; and he at once determined to stay there and marry her at all costs; so he sat down and when the Chamar asked why he did not go away he said that he meant to marry the girl who had given him alms and live in his house as his son-in-law; the Chamar did all he could to remonstrate at such an extraordinary proposal as that a Brahman should destroy his caste by marrying a Chamar; the Brahman said that they might do what they liked to him but that he would not leave till he obtained his bride. So at last the Chamar called in his castefellows and relations to advise him whether he would be guilty of any sin in yielding to the proposal of the Brahman; and they called into council the principal villagers of all the other castes and after fully questioning the Chamar and the Brahman the judgment of the villagers was that the marriage should take place and they would take the responsibility. Then the Brahman was made to give a full account of himself and where he had come from, and when this was found to be true, the bride price was fixed and paid and the marriage took place and the Brahman became a Chamar.

CLXV. The Next World.

This is what the Santals say about the next world. After death men have a very hard time of it in the next world. Chando bonga makes them work terribly hard; the woman have to pound the fruit of the castor oil plant with a pestle; and from the seeds Chando bonga makes human beings. All day long they have to work; those women who have babies get a little respite on the excuse of suckling their babies; but those who have no children get no rest at all; and the men are allowed to break off to chew tobacco but those who have not learnt to chew have to work without stopping from morning to night. And this is the reason why Santals learn to chew tobacco when they are alive; for it is of no use to merely smoke a huka: in the next world we shall not be allowed to knock off work in order to smoke. In the next world also it is very difficult to get water to drink. There are frogs who stand on guard and drive away any who comes to the water to drink; and so when Santals die we send drinking vessels with them so that they may be able to run quickly to the water and fill the vessels and get away before they are stopped. And it is said that if a man during his lifetime has planted a peepul tree he gets abused for it in the next world and is told to go and pick the leaves out of the water which have fallen into it and are spoiling it and such a man is able to get water to drink while he is picking the leaves out of it; but whether this is all true I cannot say.

CLXVI. After Death.

When grown-up people die they become ancestral bongas and sacrifices are offered to them at the Flower and Sohrai festivals; and when children die they become bhuts. When a pregnant woman dies, they drive long thorns into the soles of the feet before the body is burned for such women become churins. The reason of this is that when the churin pursues any one the thorns may hurt her and prevent her from running fast: and so the man who is pursued may escape; for if the churin catches him she will lick all the flesh off his bones; they especially attack the belly and their tongues are very rough.

There was once a man who had been to get his ploughshare sharpened by the blacksmith and as he was on his way home it came on to rain, so he took shelter in a hollow tree. While he was waiting for the weather to clear he saw a churin coming along singing and she also came to take shelter in the same tree. Fortunately she pushed in backwards and the man took the ploughshare which was still nearly red hot and pressed it against her back; so she ran away screaming and he made good his escape in the other direction; otherwise he would assuredly have been licked to death.

CLXVII. Hares and Men.

In former days hares used to eat men and a man presented himself before Thakur and said “O Father, these hares do us much damage; they are little animals and hide under leaves and then spring out and eat us; big animals we can see coming and can save ourselves. Have pity on us and deliver us from these little animals.”

So Thakur summoned the chief of the hares and fixed a day for hearing the case; and when the man and the hare appeared he asked the hare whether they ate men and the hare denied it and asserted on the contrary that men ate hares; but the man when questioned denied that men killed hares. Then Thakur said “O hare and man, I have questioned you both and you give contradictory answers; and neither admits the charge; the matter shall be decided in this way; you, hare, shall watch a Kita tree and if within a year you see a leaf fall from the tree you shall be allowed to eat men; and you, man, shall watch a Korkot tree and if you see a leaf fall, then men shall be allowed to eat hares. Begin your watch to-day and this day next year bring me your leaves.” So the man and the hare departed and each sat under a tree to see a leaf fall but they watched and watched in vain until on the last day of the year a korkot leaf fell and the man joyfully picked it up and took it to Thakur; and the hare failing to see a leaf fall bit off a leaf with its teeth and took it to Thakur. Then Thakur examined the two leaves and said to the hare, “This leaf did not fall of itself; see, the tip of the stalk is quite different from the stalk of the leaf this man has brought; you bit it off.” And the hare was silent Then Thakur rubbed the legs of the hare with a ball of cleaned cotton and passed this sentence on him, that thenceforward he should skip about like a leaf blown by the wind and that men should hunt hares wherever they found them and kill and eat them, entrails and all.

And this is the reason why Santals do not clean the hares they kill, but eat them entrails and all.

CLXVIII. A Legend.

Once upon a time a woman was found to be with child by her own brother, so the two had to fly the country. In their flight they came to the Mustard Tank and Flower Lake, on the banks of which they prepared to cook their food. They boiled water and cooked rice in it; and then they boiled water to cook pulse to eat with the rice. But when the water was ready they found that they had forgotten to bring any pulse. While they were wondering what they could get to eat with their rice they saw a man of the fisher caste (Keot) coming along with his net on his shoulder. Then the woman sang—

“The son of a Keot is standing on the bank of the tank:

The fish are jumping: the son of a Keot is catching the fish.”

So the Keot caught them some fish, which they ate with their rice.

Then they went on and by the side of the road they saw a date palm the juice of which had been tapped, and they wished to drink the juice but they found that they had brought no drinking vessel with them. The woman looked about and saw near by a fan palm tree and she sang—

“The peepul’s leaves go flicker, flicker:

The banyan’s leaves are thick and fleshy:

Of the fan palm’s leaf, brother, make a cup.

And we will drink the juice of the date palm.”

So her brother made a drinking vessel of a palm leaf and they drank the date juice and went on their way. At nightfall they rested at the foot of a Bael tree and fell into a drunken sleep from the date juice they had drunk.

As the woman lay senseless her child was born to her and no sooner was the child born than a bael fruit fell on to its head and split it into four pieces which flew apart and became four hills. From falling on the new-born child the bael fruit has ever since had a sticky juice and the tree is covered with thorns which are the hair of the child. In the morning the man and woman went on and came to a forest of Tarop trees and the woman wiped her bloody hands on the Tarop trees and so the Tarop tree ever since exudes a red juice like blood.

The next morning they went on and came to a spring and drank of its water and afterwards the woman bathed in it and the blood stained water flowed over all the country and so we see stagnant water covered with a red scum. Going on from there they reached a low lying flat and halted; almost at once they saw a thunder storm coming up from the South and West; and the woman sang—

“A storm as black as the so fruit, brother,

Is coming, full of danger for us:

Come let us flee to the homestead of the liquor seller.”

But the brother answered—

“The liquor seller’s house is an evil house:

You only wish to go there for mischief.”

So they stayed where they were and the lightning came and slew them both.

CLXIX. Pregnant Women.

Pregnant women are not allowed to go about alone outside the village; for there are bongas everywhere and some of them dislike the sight of pregnant women and kill them or cause the child to be born wry-necked.

A pregnant woman may not make a mud fireplace for if she does her child will be born with a hare-lip; nor may she chop vegetables during an eclipse or the same result will follow. She may not ride in a cart, for if she does the child will be always crying and will snore in its sleep; if she eats the flesh of field rats the child’s body will be covered with hair and if she eats duck or goose flesh the child will be born with its fingers and toes webbed. Nor may a pregnant woman look on a funeral, for if she does her child will always sleep with its eyes half open.

CLXX. The Influence of the Moon.

If a child is born on the day before the new moon the following ceremony is observed. After bathing the child they place an old broom in the mother’s arms instead of the child; then the mother takes the child and throws it out on the dung heap behind the house. The midwife then takes an old broom and an old winnowing fan and sweeps up a little rubbish on to the fan and takes it and throws it on the dung hill; there she sees the child and calls out. “Here is a child on the dung heap” then she pretends to sweep the child with the broom into the winnowing fan and lifts it up and carries it into the house; and asks the people of the house whether they will rear it. They ask what wages she will give them and she promises to give them a heifer when the child is grown up.

If this is not done the child will be unlucky when it grows up; if it is a boy, however often he may marry, his wife will die and so, if it is a girl, her husbands will die.

Another fact is that they always shave a child’s head for the first two times during the same moon; if it is shaved first during one moon and then during the following moon; it will always have a headache once a month.

Similarly when they tie the knots in a string to fix the date of a wedding the wedding must take place in the lunar month in which the knots are tied or else the children born of the marriage will die.

CLXXI. Illegitimate Children.

If a woman has an illegitimate child and from fear or shame will not name its father the bastard is called a child of Chando. At its birth there is no assembly of the neighbours; its head is not ceremonially shaved and there is no narta ceremony. The midwife does what is necessary; and the child is admitted into no division of the tribe. If it is a boy it is called Chandu or Chandrai or sometimes Birbanta and if a girl Chandro or Chandmuni or perhaps Bonela. Sometimes after the child is born the mother will under seal of secrecy tell its father’s name to her mother or the midwife; and then between themselves they will call the child by a name taken from the father’s family but they will never tell it to anyone else. When the child grows up he is given some nickname and if he turns out well and is popular his name is often changed again and he is recognised as a Santal.

Often if a father will not acknowledge a child the mother will strangle it at birth and bury the body. Men who practise sorcery dig up the bones of such murdered infants and use them as rattles when doing their sorceries and are helped by them to deceive people.

CLXXII. The Dead.

Santals are very much afraid of burial grounds; for dead men become bongas and bongas (ghost) eat men. If a man meet such a bonga in a burial ground it is of little use to fight for the bonga keeps on changing his shape. He may first appear as a man and then change into a leopard or a bear or a pig or a cat: very few escape when attacked by such a being.

It is said that the spirits of young children become bhuts and those of grown-up people bongas and those of pregnant women churins.

CLXXIII. Hunting Custom.

Formerly when the men went to a hunt the mistress of the house would not bathe all the time they were away and when the hunters returned she met them at the front door and washed their feet and welcomed them home. The wife of the dehri used to put a dish of water under her bed at night and if the water turned red like blood they believed that it was a sign that game had been killed.


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