Santali and related tribal languages of the Chotanagpur region: Mundari, Ho and Birjiya – Jharkhand

Birjiya [Birjia] is the language spoken by Asur tribe/ethnic group, just as Kurukh is spoken by Oraon group, Santali by Santal group, Mundari by Munda group, Ho by Ho group and Kharia by Kharia group.  These are broadly identified by sociolinguists and anthropologists as belonging to two distinct linguistic and ethnic families:

a. Mundari (Santal, Munda, Ho and Birjiya)
b. Adi-Dravidian (Oraon, Kharia).

Santali is very similar to Mundari, Ho and Birjiya (i.e. mutually comprehensible) but different from Kurukh and Kharia.

The Chotanagpur region of Jharkhand has many tribal groups living close to each other. A unique phenomenon of this region is the emergence of a hybrid language called “Nagpuri” or “Sadri”, which is used as lingua franca. It is a mix of many tribal languages and Hindi. It’s a bit like the Creole used among migrants in some areas of the world. Purists dislike the Nagpuri/ Sadri language and are trying to revive their mother-tongue.

In Santal Parganas (Dumka) region, there are two main tribal groups – the Santal and the Paharia. Paharias are considered backward and live on hills while Santals are considered more advanced and live on the plains. The Santals see themselves as dominant and do not intermarry with Paharias, though they do intermarry with Oraon and Munda groups (which are the most advanced among Chotanagpur tribes).

There are other small groups also in Chotanagpur like the Birhor of Netarhat and the Chik Baraik. The Birhor and Paharia communities are among the “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups” (PVTGs) identified by the government, entitiling them to special welfare schemes.

Even among different tribal groups, there is some friction and some sense of animosity. The Santals and Mundas are supposed to be most “martial” because the two great tribal rebellions occurred among them – the Santal Hul of 1855-56 (led by two brothers named Sido and Kanu Murmu) and the Munda Ulgulan of 1872-1901 (led by Birsa Bhagwan).

Courtesy: Dr. Ivy Hansdak, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia University New Delhi (email 17 March 2017)

Adivasi and “tribal” are not interchangeable as explained by Dr. Ivy Hansdak:

Tribal” is a very broad term in the English language, as we all know, and includes all the different indigenous groups of India.
Adivasi” – which is derived from Sanskrit – is applied to the dark-skinned or Austro-Asiatic indigenous groups of India (usually those from Eastern India). It is a commonly-used term in Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha. It is also used by the local Mongoloid tribes of North Eastern India for the migrant workers who were brought in as indentured labourers to work in tea plantations during the colonial period. 

Source: personal message (email dated 27 March 2020)

See also

Research the above issues with the help of Shodhganga: A reservoir of theses from universities all over India, made available under Open Access >>

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