Architectural history of the Santals

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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.”[1]

During my fieldwork travels in the course of my doctoral research on a Santal architectural history,[2] 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,[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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

Fig. 2b: Ath-chala – plan and exterior view

Fig. 2c: Courtyard type house – plan and view of courtyard

These four layouts (single orak, ath-chala, courtyard houses and kumbaha) comprise the range of Santal architectural forms in the East Singhbhum region. Through analyses and comparison of these different layouts, it becomes evident that these are not completely different designs but are related to each other in terms of underlying ideas and organizational principles.

Beginning with the kumbaha, it was a single, usually rectangular volume. The bhitar (place for worship of ancestors and family/ kin spirits) was located at one end while the other was occasionally used for keeping some animals.[6] People cooked their food outside, and the front of the kumbaha had a racha (yard demarcated by plastering the ground with cow dung). This was the place for the family to meet outsiders, who were not allowed into the kumbaha itself. Since these houses were built using jhanti walls and leaf thatch, they were quick to erect, and if a family decided to move to another location, they would build another kumbaha for themselves using wood, bamboo and leaves from the forests. Elderly people in the village mentioned seeing such houses during their childhood, which means that such houses were seen around East Singhbhum until sixty to seventy years back. Given that such houses are no longer seen, it is clear that they went out of currency sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Bodding (How the Santals live 1940) underscores this point when he notes that kumbaha structures were the common method of building among Santals but were increasingly getting replaced by the mud walled orak

Fig.4: Birhor house as closest example of what a kumbaha may have been like. This example is built within a concrete frame, but a kumbaha would have been a stand-alone structure.

The single orak type houses are similar to the kumbaha in layout in that it also has a single volume (that may be internally divided into two spaces). Within the volume, one finds the bhitar and spaces for sheltering animals. But diverging from the activities in the kumbaha, one also finds covered cooking spaces and places for storing grain. In other words, the single orak houses are similar in layout to the kumbaha, but different in terms of more household activities being located indoors and in terms of construction material that is mud walls and thatch or clay-tiled roofs. This type of layout is commonly found around East Singhbhum, and is particularly built by widows, for instance, who require much less space as compared for other families.

It is interesting to highlight some of the broader changes taking place in the Singhbhum region in order to contextualise the shift from kumbaha to orak type houses. Through the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the densely forested landscape of Singhbhum was increasingly cleared to create terraces for paddy cultivation.[7] There was large-scale migration of non-Adivasi peoples, advent of mining and industry, and survey and settlement by the colonial government that introduced new land legislation and restricted forest access for Adivasi communities. With respect to architecture, Santals broadly shifted from being a forest-dwelling community, to becoming labourers who moved from place to place clearing forests, and eventually settling down as paddy cultivators. This shift in mode of living is reflected in the dwelling as well which transformed from the kumbaha to the mud orak.

The kumbaha structure used materials that were largely gathered or procured from the extensive forests in the region. Further, Santal (and other Adivasi) families were relatively mobile and moved from place to place.[8] For this too, the kumbaha was appropriate given the ease of procuring materials and the relative speed with which the structure could be put up. The appropriateness of the kumbaha to a mobile, forest-dwelling ways of life becomes evident. In the course of social, political and environmental changes in the region, Santal (and other Adivasi) communities became increasingly sedentarized, and this impacted the nature of dwelling architecture as well. People gradually shifted to building in mud that is a more permanent construction material. As compared to wood, bamboo and leaves that may be procured from any forest, mud for building is usually dug out from designated parts of the village, and in most cases from people’s own backyards. This too is possible only when families stay at a particular location long enough to lay substantial claim to the space they occupy. Finally, building in mud is a labour-intensive and time consuming process, and inherently one suitable to relatively settled rather than mobile communities. Therefore, the shift in building with jhanti to building in mud is not just one of material but one that reflects key changes in Santal society between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

So far, I have discussed the kumbaha and orak type houses. The other two house types observed in East Singhbhum are the ath-chala and, what is commonly found today, the courtyard type houses. The ath-chala type has a central volume and a verandah-like space all around it. This type of house is known as ath-chala on account of the roofs above the central volume and the spaces on all sides make for eight sloping sides. Ath-chala literally means ‘eight roofs’.[9] In terms of activities, the central volume of the ath-chala housed the bhitar and was also used as a place for storing grain. In the space around, areas were segregated using low walls and were designated for sheltering animals, cooking, and sleeping. A dhenki (a device for pounding paddy) was located near the single entrance leading into the house. Such houses today have other spaces added to them and form part of a courtyard house rather than standing alone. In the past however, the ath-chala house would have had a racha in front of the house where, like in the case of the kumbaha, the family would have received outsiders.

Villagers pointed out that the ath-chala houses were the oldest structures in the village. During my preliminary surveys, I found that villages dating from the mid-nineteenth century all have some remaining examples of ath-chala houses.[10] Newer villages, i.e. those first recorded in the early twentieth century surveys have only courtyard houses. One may argue then that by the end of the nineteenth century generally, ath-chala houses were no longer being built and courtyard houses were becoming increasingly common.

What also becomes apparent that two types of houses were being built in the mid-nineteenth century – kumbaha (described above) and the ath-chala type houses. The ath-chala was distinctly different from the kumbaha in that it was larger and more permanent, built in mud, and had two layers of spaces as compared to the single volume. So how did such houses come to be built at a time when kumbaha was the common practice? The answer lies in the neighbouring region of Bengal because the ath-chala houses are very similar to rural Bengal house types and it is likely that that was a source of inspiration for the well-to-do Santals who typically built these larger and more permanent dwellings for themselves.

It also becomes apparent that around the same period of time, i.e. at the turn of the twentieth century, both kumbaha and the ath-chala were getting phased out and people were building orak with mud walls instead. The shift however was not of building materials alone but is seen in layouts and in the development of more complex interior spaces as well. With Adivasi communities becoming increasingly settled, the orak began to get differentiated into spaces for different activities. In earlier times, when people were more mobile, they built the kumbaha that sheltered the most essential parts of Santal domestic life – the place of worship and shelter for people and animals. As Santals turned to settled agriculture, their spatial needs changed as well. Families in staying in one place much longer, and began to built different spaces for different activities. So the bhitar, cooking areas, animals shelters, grain storage all became separate spaces and this is what we see in the courtyard houses today.

Courtyard houses are formed of a number of single orak units that are organized around a racha (central courtyard). In this case, different orak contain different activities i.e. bhitar, grain storage, cooking, sleeping and sheltering animals. This type of house is much more elaborate both in terms of size and differentiation of activities within spaces. These are also built in mud and have thatch, clay-tile, or roofing sheets on the roof. The degree of permanence suggested by the courtyard houses relates to the settled agriculturist mode of living, which Adivasi societies had transitioned into by the early twentieth century.

The interiority of the racha is a noteworthy shift in the courtyard houses. The earlier houses – kumbaha, ath-chala and orak – were all single blocks and had a racha located in front as the main space for socialising and meeting outsiders. There would have been no physical boundaries between the street and the racha. In courtyard houses, one moves from the front street through a door to enter the racha. Consequently, the racha becomes a relatively more interior space. This creates an additional threshold into the house. This was evident in the manner in which I – as a complete outsider – was usually met at the front door, while other villagers walked into each other’s courtyards as well. The point here is that compared to the earlier clear dichotomy between the interior space of the kumbaha meant for the family and an outside racha meant for socialising/ outsiders, thresholds gets blurred with the racha in the courtyard house itself become a relatively interior space. This shift, I would argue, must be correlated to the general shift in the context of Santal settlements that were increasingly becoming denser with population increase and more settled communities. Further, these shifts were taking place at a time of recurring conflicts between Adivasi communities and other migrants and the colonial government. One may see the increasing interiority of Santal dwellings as an implicit response to this climate of conflict.

I would also like to iterate here that some of the transformations discussed above may be evident in the architecture of other Adivasi communities as well. But different communities have had their own particular trajectories of transformation based on their community histories and engagement with the social, political and environmental processes mentioned above. Consequently, though there are broad similarities in architecture such as in terms of material and construction technology, the trajectory of architectural transformation may vary. A case in point is the Birhor example used as an illustration of the kumbaha house type. Within the same historical period that Santal architecture transformed from kumbaha to courtyard houses, Birhor families continue to build in what must be considered as older architectural practices. The point I am trying to make here is that though there may be some similarities, the trajectory of architectural transformation outlined above must largely be considered as being specific to Santal communities and only in the East Singhbhum region. Santals elsewhere, or other Adivasi communities within East Singhbhum will have different trajectories of transformation depending on the particularities of their engagement with the contexts and localities they live in.

Considered as a whole, the architectural transformation of Santal dwellings may be summarised as follows – early houses were largely of the kumbaha type and the wealthier Santals built ath-chala houses. Over the next few decades, the kumbaha type houses increasingly gave way to mud orak and further to orak clustered around a racha, which remains the most common rural Santal house type even today. It is important to iterate here that these shifts were not absolute breaks in an architectural tradition, but gradual transformations that emerged over considerable periods of time. Different layout types co-existed, indeed, even today most Santal houses are amalgams of structures built at different times in the past. What is particularly important to highlight here is that these changes have occurred in relation to specific shifts in social, political, economic and environmental conditions in Santal societies and the East Singhbhum region in general.

Architecture and people’s relationship to environments

Before moving onto what people chose, a little background is useful. This display was part of my PhD research project where I explore how Santals (in East Singhbhum particularly) perceive their built environment. With my background in architecture, my research project focuses on Santal dwellings and settlements as being gestures that represent their relationship to the environment. In other words, I analyse dwellings and settlements as both physical structures and as lived places in order to understand what shelter is being sought for and what shelter is being sought from. Further, I explore the social, political and environmental history of Singhbhum in order to understand the changing contexts within which the dwelling and settlements have transformed. In short, I am attempting to reconstruct a Santal architectural history in relation to wider processes of change in the region.

As a part of this enquiry, during fieldwork, I was interested in what the villagers considered important in their environment. As an architect/ architectural historian, I was focusing on houses and the village to explore people’s relationship with the environment and to reconstruct an Adivasi history. As residents, however, people may have a very different view of their environment based on their patterns of use and association. So using a number of participatory methods, I attempted to explore what sites, objects and everyday practices villagers considered important and representative of their lives and culture. This display of photographs in the kulhi was one such participatory encounter between the villagers and my research project.



[1] W.G. Archer, The hill of flutes, London 1974, P. 20.

[2] The material for this article is drawn from my on-going PhD research at the School of Art History and World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia

[3] These studies include my undergraduate dissertation and a dissertation by Dhaval Shah under my supervision at the Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, in 2004 and 2010 respectively. I also referred to other studies carried out by undergraduate students at the Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University.

[4] For my PhD research project, I conducted fieldwork in three villages across the East Singhbhum and Seraikela-Kharsawan districts in south Jharkhand.

[5] This is the term used for such structures in East Singhbhum since villagers from that area suggested this word as describing these jhanti­-walled and thatch roof structures built in the past.

[6] Most villager recollected that people and animals living in the same space was a common feature of the kumbaha type dwelling.

[7] See Das Gupta, Sanjukta – narratives from margins

[8] A number of villagers mentioned the mobility of Adivasi families in the past. While sustenance must have been an important reason for the movement, villagers often said that families moved if a place did not appear to ‘suit’ them.

[9] As mentioned by a village elder in personal conversation.

[10] “District SInghbhum ([Surveyed by] Captain J.E.Gastrell and G.C. De Pree, Seasons 1859-65),” Singhbhum, BIhar (District) – Maps (Calcutta: Survey of India Offices, April 1891).

Gauri Bharat is an architect and Assistant professor at the Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University, Ahmedabad. She is currently doing PhD at the School of Art History and World Art Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich under Dr. Daniel Rycroft and Prof. John Mack. Her interests include Adivasi architecture and material culture; she has been carrying out research on Santal built environments for the past 14 years. Ms. Bharat’s current research is moving in the direction of Adivasi everyday lives and participatory explorations of perceptions and identity.


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