Many of the tiger tales I have blogged about are from a book, ‘Folklore of the Santal Parganas’. It was compiled and translated by a gentleman – Cecil Henry Bompas. An officer of the Indian Civil Service, he published this collection of Santhal stories in 1909. Though details of his life are sketchy, it seems that he was the first chairman of the Calcutta Improvement Trust, created to develop the city’s infrastructure and beautify its environs. Calcutta’s Dhakuria Lake or Rabindra Sarobar was one project undertaken by the Trust (excavated in 1920, and named Bompas Lake, in his honour). Unlike many past and present bureaucrats working in the alien climes of India, he wasn’t an insular and pompous soul. His appreciation for the Santhal tribe of eastern India is also a world removed from the apathy and arrogance that marks the attitude of the upper caste elite who took over from the British after independence.
Bompas comes across as an earnest, hard working officer. ‘Folklore of the Santal Parganas’ shows the genuine interest he had in tribal culture. He selected, assembled and organized around 100 stories of the Santhal and Ho people (both being Austroasiatic speakers) for publication. They had been collected and written down at the behest of the Norwegian missionary, linguist and folklorist – Paul Olaf Bodding, in the Santhali language. One can see the delight he took in his work. Though not immune to the stereotypes rampant in the heydays of the British Empire (as demonstrated by his use of the word ‘primitive’), he was certainly above the naked prejudice that civil servants displayed (and continue to display) towards South Asian tribal communities. Given below is the Preface of his book in the form of an excerpt:
“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.”
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and has been taken from a book, ‘The People of India’, an eight-volume series compiled by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye between 1868 and 1875. This ethnographic study was conducted at the behest of the then Governor General of India, Lord Canning and is a treasure trove of information (especially the photographs of different communities across the length and breadth of the subcontinent).