Of the six aboriginal tribes of the Andaman archipelago, Shompen have long banished their savage tradition, after having mixed with the mainlanders. Notwithstanding this, they still continue with their nomadic life style and traditions
By Prasanta Paul
PART – 1
Shompen, the nomadic tribe of the Great Nicobar Island, are considered to be the aboriginal stock of the Nicobarese. The existence of the Shompen in Great Nicobar was first mentioned by Pastor Rosen, a Danish missionary in 1831. Their singular purity of breed, even now, seems to point to this, because the other tribes of the region show traces of admixture with Malay and other stock. The Nicobarese call Shompen, Shamhap. The Shompen do not however call themselves by this name.
They are semi nomads, wandering in search of fruit and game. They are basically divided into two bands; each band is territory-based. The territory of one band is closer to the East coast while others live close to the West coast of Great Nicobar island. The west coast Shompen call themselves Kalay while the east coast Shompen call themselves Keyet.
According to Kloss, a well-known researcher on the Andaman tribes, Shompen were an isolated group of primitive Malayans, who had many features that indicated they were racially pure, though they must be regarded as the aborigines of the island. Some Dravidian mariners, it is widely believed were accustomed to undertaking trading voyages to the Eastern Archipelago, became stranded on these and got mixed with the locals. Shompen resemble, in appearance and lifestyle, the primitive Malayans who intermixed with Negritos.
Shompen speak their own language which has many dialects. Members of the one band do not understand the dialect of the other. They are of short to medium stature; have a round or nearly broad head shape; narrow nose; a broad facial profile and distinctly exhibit Mongoloid features such as light brown to yellow brown skin and oblique eye features.
According to 2011 census, their number has touched 229. Shompen eat turtle, snake, frog, pig, bird, lizard, crocodile meat, freshwater fish, shell fish, honey and coconut. Pigs are staked or hunted down with dogs while birds like megapode are snared. The jungle in their area has cane and they drink cane juice during water-scarce months. However, even though they are now known to mix with people of the mainland, they neither smoke nor drink alcohol.
Shompen have nuclear families comprising husband, wife and their unmarried children. There is no specific law governing children. A Shompen family is controlled by the eldest male member who controls all activities of the women and kids. Women are not allowed to freely move outside the settlement without the permission of the headman of the band because of inter-band rivalries and fear of outsiders.
Traditionally, Shompen choose marital partners through exchange, capture or negotiations. Monogamy is the general rule although polygamy is allowed too. Polygamy happens in the event of barrenness and impotency, inter-ethnic marriages are not the norm though. A great disparity in age is often observed between husband and wife among them. A widower is free to marry his deceased wife’s sister. The wedding is basically very simple; the bride and bridegroom spend the day after the wedding in the jungle and then come back to their settlement.
Shompen, unlike Onge or Great Andamanese, do not observe any special rite or ritual during pregnancy. A woman is allowed to perform almost all her routine duties during the early stage of her pregnancy. But at a later stage, she remains isolated. A separate hut is constructed when she is expected to go into labour where she remains confined for nearly a month.
Shompen do not make any distinction between male or female child.
On the second day, the infant is bathed in cold water and lime paste is rubbed on the forehead of the mother and new-born. A cross is also placed on the baby’s stomach to protect it from evil spirits while a wooden stick burns all the while when the new born and the mother sleep.
(To Continue in Part – II)
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The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world