Santhal Folklore: The Invention of the Plough

The Invention of the Plough
Theodore Kisku Rapaj

(Originally published in Natun Ganatantrer Janya, Year 1, Vol 11, November 2000, Kolkata)

Abridged Translation by Kumar Rana

That the invention of plough and slash and burn cultivation is a contribution of the women is clear from the old folk tales, songs and poems of the Santals. The invention of the plough added to the enhancement of crop production manifold, which resulted in surplus of food grain and consequent evolvement of the conception of wealth. The meat gathered by men through hunting could not be stored for long and never, therefore, considered as wealth. The Santals tales tell us how the male dominated society deceived the women, by invoking so called celestial injunction, from their right to the plough. The story reads as follows:

When the human beings (hor) needed an implement for cultrivation they went to the haram (the old man – here the father of all humjan beings or all hor) with the rerquest of making for them such an implement. It caused great trouble for the Haram for he had no idea as to how to devise such an implement. So he pondered all day and all night over about the matter, but to no avail. Seeing the Haram entangled in the mess Thakran (equivalent of 'her ladyship', or the mother of all hor) asked him, “what makes you worry? Why do you look so hassled?” Haram explained the impasse. Thakran was not worried, “You have created so many things. Then what is a big deal in devising an implement for tilling the lands?”

Then one morning Haram told Thakran, “ I am going to the forest to explore a good piece of wood with which I might be able to make an implement.” Thakran said, “It should not take much time for a man like you. So come back quickly.” Time passed, but Haram did not return. This made Thakran worried. Then she told the mosquitoes, “Go, and find out Haram. And agitate him so much that he comes back home immediately.”

The mosquitoes complied. They found Haram and bothered him with bites and horrible buzzing noises around him. Haram was engroseed in his work. He was enraged with the disturbances created through the noise and the biting. So he created huge smoke that scared the mosquitoes, who went back to Thakran to report to her, “Where did you send us Thakran? Haram created a thing that drove us out from the place.” Thakran smiled, “ How does it matter? Just be away from that scary thing.”

Then Thakran devoted some time to think and decided to send a strong animal to bring Haram back to her. So she sent the tiger with the proper instruction. The tiger reached the place Haram was working at and growled terribly, and made horrifying gestures. But Haram was unperturbed; rather he angrily said, “I will make life hell for you and won’t allow you to stay in the forest.” And he tossed a pieced of wood which created a pack of wild dogs. Terribly scared by the dogs, the tiger fled and took refuge under the cot Thakran was sitting on and said, “What did you do to me Thakran? It made my living in the forest impossible.” Then Thakran said, “Well I will do something right now. Just see, I will change the behaviour of the wild dogs in a manner so that they won’t be able to live in peace in a single place henceforth and would roam around from forest to forest. All what you need to do to live without fear is to change your abode according to their shifting of homes.” So she commanded the dogs towards another forest. They went away. The tiger came out of his hiding, and murmured, “I was almost gone. These two old man and woman are quarrelling with each other, and it almost took my life”, and left.

Much after Haram came back with a plough on his shoulder. Thakran asked , “why are you so late?” Haram replied, “Is making a plough a matter of joke?” Then Thakran took up the plough and threw it on the air. It fell down to earth soon but only to be split to a number of small parts. Haram made it by joining several small pieces of wood.

Then Thakran said, “its not under your power to make the plough.” Having said this she went inside to make a plough and came back after a while. She made the plough with a single piece of wood and hence it did not split even after being thrown heavily on the air.

Haram was so pleased that he said, “ I am blessing you , and all the women community. Today onward you are freed from the hard labour of ploughing the land. Even touching the plough will be taboo for you.”

In the disguise of a divine blessing women were prohibited from using the plough, which kept them from the implement of wealth accumulation that they themselves had invented. Since food grain was the first source of wealth accumulation men forcibly acquired the key to the production of the crop.

Post Script:
An old Santali song suggests that the slash and burn cultivation was also invented by the women.

The wood has caught a fire
The small plants
And the bamboo groves
And the grasses
All burnt down to ashes
O Chhita* , do go to the forest
And see if there is any
Stream of water nearby

(*Chhita and Kapura are very common Santali names. Chhita, it is told, is Sita, wife of Rama. The male names also resemble the four brothers – Ram, Lakhan, Bharat, Chatur).

The song indicates that the women were in search of water to irrigate the soil available for cultivation after the vegetations are burnt to ashes, which would, in addition, enhance the fertility of the soil.

A channel drawn of the plough is called in Santhali “Sita nala”. Also the drain through which water flows down is also called “Sita nala.” Irrigation was carried out by drawing channels through the plough. As a Santhali legend tells us, there is a river underground which is also called “Sita nala”. There is a stream at the Ayodhya hills near Puruliya which is also called “Sita nala”. This Ayodhya hill has been a silent onlooker or a symbol of the ancient history of the Santhals. Who knows whether the real history would be unearthed some day?

Chhita was the third daughter of Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Burhi. The Santal tales indicate towards the vast knowledge on agriculture that the Santhal women possessed which has later been reflected in peoples’ memory to be iconizede as Sita. A shloka in Kautilya’s Arthsastra reads, “Sitame riddhate devi vijesu cha dhaneshu cha”, which means the goddess Sita makes the seed and wealth fruitful.