Binti, the Santhal song of cosmology, is recited by a group of three or more singers at marriage ceremonies. When the members of the bridegroom’s party arrive at the bride’s house, they are asked several puzzling questions and expected to give proper answers. Both the questions and the answers are presented in the form of songs, amid ongoing jest and good humour. The rigidity of this test has declined in recent years, but still no food or drink is served until the questions are answered correctly.
Once the test has been passed, the bride’s party introduces the Binti song, and liberal quantities of handia are served. The song is meant to place this particular ceremony and celebration in a wider, universal context of tradition and society: it traces the institution of marriage back to the creation of the world, the dawn of human civilization and the emergence and migration of the Santhal community.
This is there song , a summary of the song as recorded in the village of Kalimati:
“The world as we see it today did not exist then. Everywhere there was only an endless expanse of water. Trees, creepers, animals—nothing existed. Maranburu and the gods in the heavens decided to create a world in this universal expanse of water and give birth to trees, creepers and animals. After further deliberation, Maranburu rubbed the dirt off his left and right palms, and with it fashioned two tiny birds. He then instilled life into these birds. The bird created from the dirt of his left palm became female, the Hansli chene, and the bird created from the dirt of his right palm became male, the Hans chene.The moment the two birds received life, they started singing and cackling, and asked for a place where they could build a nest. Maranburu took pity on them, and through the gods, directed Kichua Raj, king of the earthworms, to bring some earth from the bottom of the sea and place it on the surface of the water. Kichua Raj did accordingly but all the earth he brought dissolved at once in the waters of the sea. Maranburu and the gods began to worry. After much deliberation, they decided that a king cobra would sit on the back of the Hara Raj, king of the turtles, that a golden plate would be kept on the head of the cobra and that Kichua Raj would put all the soil brought up from the bottom of the sea on this plate. As this was done, the earth gradually took shape, and in turn, trees and creepers were born.
Eventually, Maranburu planted a karam tree on the earth, and the two birds went to live in it. They built a nest and laid two eggs. From these two eggs the first humans were born—a male and a female. The moment they were born, they started crying, and the whole sky was rent with their cries. Maranburu and all the gods
came down to see them, and Maranburu explained to the gods that these were the first human beings. He took them out of the bird’s nest, placed them on the leaves of an asan tree, took them on his lap, purified them by sprinkling cow-dung water on them and named them Pilchu Kala and Pilchi Kuli. The gods built a house for Pilchu Kala and Pilchi Kuli, and gradually they passed from childhood into youth. They were naked, but did not know shame.
In the meantime, the gods consulted Maranburu as to how humankind would grow in numbers. Maranburu advised Pilchu Kala and Pilchi Kuli to cook rice with the seeds of sagah grass and to soak it with water and three measures of powdered ranu. This should be left to ferment for three days, after which the liquid portion should be decanted and drunk after first being offered to him. Following His direction, Pilchu Kala and Pilchi Kuli prepared this drink, what we know as handia, and took it. They felt the stirrings of sex and fell in love. With love came feelings of shame, sin, good and evil. When Maranburu appeared before them, Pilchu Kala and Pilchi Kuli confessed their sense of guilt and shame for having fallen in love. He advised them to wear the leaves of the trees and explained to them that there was no sin in love—it is the most sacred human emotion. He directed them to live as husband and wife from that day, and to earn their livelihood by cultivating the land. They lived accordingly, and with the passage of time had seven sons and seven daughters.These children in their turn grew up and passed from childhood and adolescence to youth. They went to the forests for shikar, and the young maidens also went for flowers and fruits. During these sojourns in the forest, the seven sons and seven daughters of Pilchu Kala and Pilchi Kuli fell in love in pairs. Maranburu assured Pilchu Kala and Pilchi Kuli that there was no sin in this, even though they were brothers and sisters, but their marriages must proceed according to the prescribed laws of the gotras. Once, while hunting in the forest, the siblings killed a murmum enga with an arrow. It was so big that they could not carry it home, so they decided to carve it up in the jungle itself. To their surprise, there was a live human being in the animal’s stomach! They named this child Bitol Murmu. They then cooked the rest of the meat and feasted in the forest. Between the killing of the animal, the dressing of the meat and the final feast, various functions had to be performed. Depending on their function, each performer was assigned particular parises: (i) Murmu (ii) Hansda (iii) Hembrom (iv) Marandi (v) Soren (vi) Tudu (vii) Kisku (viii) Baske (ix) Chane (x) Besra (xi) Danda (xii) Gondwar.
Since Bitol Murmu had come out of the stomach of the murmum enga, he was assigned all the social functions relating to birth, death, and the like. Likewise, other functions were assigned to other gotras.
With the birth of children to these seven parents, the sons and daughters of Pilchu Kala and Pilchi Kuli, mankind gradually increased in numbers. The parents assembled in the shade of three trees in the forest—a lepej reel, khad matkon and ladeya bale—and discussed where to establish their settlement. It took them twelve long years to reach a decision, and they ultimately settled in the shade of a sari sarjom. They tied a brownish pullet, or young fowl, to a sal tree for five nights, and when they found that the bird was not killed by any of the animals of the forest, they decided that the spot was the proper place for a human settlement. Beneath the tree was designated the Taher Era, or sacred grove, and it was here that the sons and daughters of Pilchu Kala and Pilchi Kuli worshipped their deities. They built their homes nearby.”
The song goes on to describe the growth of the tribe’s population, their migration through different places such as Hihidi and Pipidi, the wars they had to wage with local inhabitants as they continued their journey and how they finally came to the land where they live now. It ends by recounting how they remember all this with gratitude to their ancestors, whose blessings are then invoked for making this particular marriage a happy communion of souls.
Translated by Sitakant Mahapatra
The third largest tribal group of India are the Santhal people. This tribe is mainly found in the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and Assam. From the Pre -Aryan period, they were the great fighters during the British Raj. A bantam bunch of Santhals can traced back to Bangladesh. In 1855, they courageously they warred against the permanent settlement of Lord Cornwallis.
From: Painted Words : An Anthology of Tribal Literature
Edited by G. N. Devy First published by Penguin Books India, 2002
Reprinted 2012 Purva Prakash, Vadodara