Santals are historically and locally renowned for the neatness, orderliness and workmanship in constructing houses and organizing village settlements. Writing about Santal villages, W. G. Archer pointed out that “the mud walls have a hard cement-like precision, a suave and solid neatness, and the roofs, softly thatched or ribbed with tiles, compose a vista of gently blending courves. Even in the rains the walls contrive to keep their trimness. Of all the other tribes of eastern India, now has quite the same relish for neatly ordered buildings, the same capacity of tidy spacious living or the same genius for domestic architecture.”
During my fieldwork travels in the course of my doctoral research on a Santal architectural history, it was common to hear from other villagers that Santal houses were distinct in the precision of mud construction and in the designs and colours of paintings on the walls of the houses. Villagers, both Santals and people from other communities, asserted that other communities simply lacked the skills to build and paint like Santals. For me, as an architect travelling through rural Jharkhand on various occasions, Santal houses appealed as unique examples of mud architecture and formed the basis of my research interests in the subject.
In the course of a number of subsequent studies on Santal architecture in different parts of East Singhbhum, two things became apparent. First, dwellings were not just physical constructs but also social and ecological entities, i.e. Santal domestic architecture was produced, used and transformed within complex interrelated meshwork of materials, construction technology, environmental factors, social conditions and cultural memories. In order to understand the significance and cultural uniqueness of Santal dwellings, one needs to explore these various aspects as well. This multi-faceted enquiry forms the core of my doctoral research. Second, Santal building practices were similar to those of other Adivasi and non-Adivasi rural communities in East Singhbhum, but were aesthetically different on account of the workmanship and orderliness mentioned above. Consequently, my study of Santal dwellings and settlements also became concerned with the similarities and differences between the different Adivasi communities in the East Singhbhum region in order to distinguish between Santal vis-à-vis local or regional aspects of culture and identity. In this article, I focus on the architectural transformation of Santal dwellings in relation to broader changes in the East Singhbhum region to suggest how these processes informed on another.
Types of Santal dwelling
Santal dwellings in the Singhbhum region today typically comprise orak (rooms) organized around a racha (courtyard). The interior spaces are typically designated into cooking areas, sleeping areas, for sheltering cattle, for storing grain and as the bhitar (inner room where the family offers worship). The interior spaces are restricted for use by the family alone, while outsiders and other villagers are met in the racha (courtyard) or in the kulhi racha (space in front of the house on the kulhi or the central street of the village). Houses have a barge (backyard) where activities such as washing, storage of agricultural implements, storage of straw and growing of vegetables takes place.
Fig.1: Typical Santal house
Fig.2: Views of typical Santal house in East Singhbhum
While this is a description of a typical Santal house, a number of different dwelling layouts were observed across the case study villages where I conducted fieldwork. These were - single volume orak houses with a barge (backyard), ath-chala houses with a large volume in the centre and a verandah all around the large volume and the courtyard houses as described above. Additionally, villagers mentioned that in the past, much smaller houses were built and typically house the bhitar at one end and a place for animals and the family at the other. They further described that such houses were built using jhanti walls (panels made of branches held between cane strips) and roofed with leaf thatch. Such structures were known as kumbaha. The first three types of houses area seen across East Singhbhum villages today while the kumbaha type house is no longer built. For the purposes of this study, verbal descriptions of the kumbaha by elderly people in the villages were used to reconstruct its physical form.
Fig.3: Types of Santal dwelling layout observed
Fig. 2a: Orak – single volume house