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Published in 1913, Sketches of Santalistan by M A Pederson is an un-put-downable book. I have been looking for old Santal photos when I came across this magnificent treasure, the moment I browsed through few sentences, I could not stop until I finished the entire literature. I thought I could give the readers an overview of the book, of it’s engaging and interesting contents. You can go read the full book but for the time being I have hand-picked some very interesting passages as trailer that you may quickly glance through.

Firstly the author clarifies that there is no land called Santalistan, “Santalistan is not an official name, you will not find it on map. The name is applied colloquially to the district in Northern Bengal where the Santals live… The official name of Santalistan is Santhal Paraganah, it has an area about 4800 square miles and is as large as the state of Connecticut.”  It is a beautiful place says Rev. Pederson although far from his home, something unreal, memories of something which remain till the end of life. “Here and there you get glimpse of straw thatched roofs or white-washed walls of a village. It is a scene so full of peace and beauty that it captivates you. It is like a beautiful dream and you forget the fleeing hours. The Sun is sinking. From the hillside below you the evening breeze wafts up to you the melancholy notes of a shepherd’s flute as he wends his way homeward with his flock. A last lingering look and you come away enriched with memories that will remain with you as long as life. You have got a glimpse of a bit of Santalistan.

The ‘Padre Saheb’ as a white missionary was usually addressed by Santals, explains in every detail the modes of travel in Santal country. People could either walk, or ride on bicycle or horse, of course those had means to afford it. Someone riding a bi-cycle was a spectacular show for the kids who chased the riders for a long way amused by the uncommon vehicle of transport. There were tomtoms, tika gari (horse drawn four wheeled carriage), bullock carts, not very convenient though because of the miserable conditions of the roads. There was this dandy he mentions which basically was a chair lifted into the air by poles tied on either side and supported on the shoulders of the bearers. Then there was the palki or palanquin which was quite uncomfortable nonetheless a prestigious, common way of transport. The Padre Saheb tells us a fantastic story of Bengali clerk who was to be transferred to new location. The Bengali man brought all his things, furniture,utensils so on to the railway station to be sent on by train, he had prepared a list of the items to be transported. One of the item was a charpoi, now the man knew little English and the nearest synonym to charpoi he could fathom was ‘quadruped’, so he wrote it. The European station master was not amused, he summarily rejected the ‘quadruped’ and informed the Babu that a train was not meant to transport animals!

carriage 1

Various means of transport in Santalistan

The Jungle Missionary lived in a big thatched bungalow behind which were other houses. A platoon of servants kept his daily routine going smoothly. There was a cook who cooked all kinds of delicacies, he was assisted by a paniwala who fetched water from the nearby pond. There were dhobis who usually appeared on Monday morning to take the dirty clothes for washing. He took the clothes to the washing pond, “dips the dirty garments into the dirty water and beats it against a dirty stone with the result that he can deliver it clean…when Mark Twain first saw them he thought they were trying to crack the stones with wet clothes”! The author narrates the story of a missionary’s wife,” some years ago high sleeves were the fashion in women’s dresses. Last time were home on furlough, I brought with me several of these waists of that style. They were too heavy and warm for this country and I did not use them much so they got moth-eaten. One day in the rainy season I looked them over and found that they were eaten beyond repair so I threw them away. During the following cold season we went to Calcutta to meet some friends and bring them out to our station for a short visit. We ordered our syce (a person who takes care of horses) to bring the horse and carriage to the railway station on a certain day when we arrive with our guests. Imagine my mortification when alighting from the train our syce comes up to us salaming very politely arrayed in on of my castaway moth-eaten, high-sleeve waists.


Servants and Paniwala

A missionary in the midst of Santals must be a doctor and being their ‘father and mother’ must help them cure any disease. So homeopathic medicines were the best for the purpose, they were cheap, two or three drops of medicine in a little water doesn’t kill the person if not cure him. Once two men came to the Padre-cum-doctor-Saheb to collect medicine for their relation who was terribly ill. Usually the patients carried a small bottle with them whenever they went to see a doctor. The Saheb made the medicine and poured it into the bottle and advised them the dosage. They went off, in the middle of the road the two noticed the bottle had a hole through which the medicine was slowly leaking through the crack. They were in a terrible situation, the precious medicine was gradually dripping down it would be finished by the time they reach the patient. The two men decided two finish off the medicine than to waste it and drank it to the last drop, medicine cannot be wasted! The ‘omnipotent’ doctor had unusual patients, patients who hardly believed a medicine to be medicine until it tasted bitter, sour or drained tears  down the eyes. One man Puchia was a terrible patient he drank a portion of the pain-killer that was given to him, and he felt better for few hours, then he thought if a portion of the medicine could heal him right-away, then the entire portion could heal him completely, and he drank it till the last drop. The man slept for one and half days continuously, when he woke up  he have had enough of medicines! Malaria was very common in India those days, four and half million people died every year of this disease. The Government distributed quinine through post offices to meet the challenge. There were no end to the variety of medical cases brought in for remedy. The blind, the deaf, the maimed all flocked before the Padre like the Israelite’s before Jesus.

The Missionary was also a justice giver, sometimes extraordinary cases were brought before him for justice. A man named Salku had a pig who was found eating corns in the field of Salku’s neighbor Sitol. Sitol wasn’t bit amused in rage he took out his bow and arrows and shot the pig dead. Salku came looking up for the pig and found it lifeless in the corn field of Sitol, argument soon followed and the matter was brought to Padre Saheb. After much deliberation the Padre advised the parties to share the pig equally. Salku wouldn’t agree for he wanted a live pig in replacement or compensation whatever it was. The matter was forwarded to the village headman, and the jury. The jury comprising of elderly man found both of them equally guilty. The most difficult part of it was that both of them were found guilty, Salku was guilty of letting loose the pig in the harvest season, and Sitol was guilty of killing the pig after a single warning, whereas the Santal law stipulated that he should have warned Salku at least twice before taking law into his own hands. The verdict was plain and simple both were asked to pay fine of one and four anna. A sumptuous feast followed with the fine paid. The idea behind this is the sin of the offender is ‘eaten and digested ‘ by the jury, next time no one is allowed to bring up the offence again, the sin-money is feasted off, the chapter is shut and close!


Animals, insects were abundant in Santalistan. Padre Saheb says that when the sun went down and lamp was lit there were insects all over it like a blanket. The most notorious were of course the mosquitoes and took it a great deal of effort to make the Santals understand that stagnant dirty water had direct relation with malaria. The Santals loved to hunt and there was no scarcity of leopards, hyenas around they were spotted very frequently. Often Santal huntsmen would borrow rifle from the Padre Saheb to hunt the big cats. The most exciting leopard hunt narrated by Padre Saheb was the leopard of Benagaria. The leopard was trapped inside the hole of a culvert where it was quickly discovered by villagers. Able bodied men held a war council, it was decided that the culvert would be blocked from one side by an iron gate and the other side be covered with fish nets. The leopard to be frightened by drum beatings and forced to pass through the other side covered by fishnets. The plan was ingenious no doubt, but the execution failed terribly. For although the other side was blocked effectively, when the drum beatings started the leopard appeared near the nets with its knife like dentures completely overpowering the natives, they ran hither thither leaving the net. The leopard jumped out of the trap, entered the nearby church campus where it sprang onto the church veranda looking for an entrance, which was opened by a brave fellow and once it was inside the door was closed from behind leaving the leopard trapped inside the church. The leopard roared inside the church while the hunters fired from the holes, until a shot found its neck and defeated the big cat!


The Padre Saheb talks emotionally about Sam  previously a medicine man  and later a devoted Christian. Sam after accepting the new religion had to face severe discrimination from his own neighbours. Many of his family members later had become Christians. This lovely picture of the newly weeded couple is of Durga, the groom, and Raria the bride, she had just graduated from the Girls’ school at Benagaria.


The picture which the book presents is very picturesque, it is vivid, lucid and at the same time emotional. I guess you will feel a tinge of it here-‘the tent is pitched under some spreading matkom (Mahua in Bengali, Madhuca Indica) trees just outside the village. The hot, steamy and sultry days, which follow the rainy season are over and the air is delightful. It is autumn in Santalistan and the sound of the sickle is heard, in the rice-field. There is a chair at the tent door, where you can sit and watch and listen. The shadows are growing long and the day is preparing its departure. With heavy sheaves on their heads the women are returning from the fields. In spite of their heavy burdens they laugh and talk. The joy of the harvest is in their hearts. Another picture flashes across your mind-the last great harvest and the songs of rejoicing of those who are then able to bring in sheaves.