The Great Andamanese tribe is facing questions of survival after coming in contact with mainstream society, with barely people from four tribes – Jeu, Kora, Cari and Bo, surviving the onslaught of civilization
by Prasanta Paul
The pristine Andaman archipelago houses among others, the Great Andamanese, one of the rare tribes, whose numbers have consistently dwindled ever since they have come into contact with the mainland people.
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal have always evoked curiosity among the researchers and travellers alike.
In the earliest historical account of the Andamans by two Muslim travellers of the 9th century AD, it is said that these islands ‘were inhabited by Negritos.’ The Great Andamanese are one of the four Negrito tribes of the island.
Several expeditions led by many British explorers were undertaken between 1870 and 1940 among whom Radcliffe Brown was the most famous for his collection of information about the Negrito tribes.
In fact, the Great Andamanese were, in reality, 10 tribes – Cari,Kora, Jeru, Bo, Keda,Kol, Juwai, Pucikwar or Bajigyab, Bea and Balawa. For administrative purposes, these different tribes were collectively referred to under a single category – Great Andamanese.
They have now settled in Strait Island, about 60 kms northeast of Port Blair. The tribals do not have surnames as such; they speak the Jeru dialect among themselves while some have acquired a faint skill in Hindi.
Interestingly, their children who now go to school, write in Devnagari script. They no longer wear any distinctive dress that might distinguish themselves from their neighbours but their body structure, skin colour and hair are absolutely distinctive.
The 1901 census recorded 625 Great Andamanese which was drastically reduced to 28 in 1987, with barely people from four tribes – Jeu, Kora, Cari and Bo – surviving the onslaught of civilization.
While the number of births per mother registered a meagre 1.57, the mortality rate shot up to more than 83 per cent, triggering an alarm among the anthropologists.
The Great Andamanese belong to a scheduled tribe; their staple food consists of fish, pig, crab, dugong, shell fish, turtle egg, tubers and wild fruits which grow abundantly in the island.
However, series of meetings and mixing with the outsiders have led to a drastic change in their food habits and the manner in which they used to cook. They now take wheat flour, rice and pulses supplied by the administration.
What is worse is the fact they had never been exposed to alcohol earlier, but thanks to some mischief mongers, some of them now drink and smoke beedis, cigarettes and opium.
They have also picked up a liking for tea that was offered to them by those visiting their island. Crab soup is a special dish consumed by pregnant women and suckling mothers. Considerable changes, it is a matter of regret, have taken place in their social and economic life in the aftermath of their interaction with outsiders.
The Great Andamanese do not wear any marriage symbols. Close consanguineous marriages are forbidden; but marriage with distant cousins is allowed. Marriages are arranged by the parents, foster parents or the elders of the camp when they get to know the attachment between a boy and a girl.
A bridegroom is chosen largely for his capacity to feed and maintain his spouse. Adult marriage and monogamy are widely followed. Married couples live in a separate hut which is specially prepared for them.
They are also presented some household articles and hunting implements to set up a home. Divorce is permitted for both partners and remarriage is welcome for widows, widowers and divorcees.
The Great Andamanese have retained some traditional customs in life cycle rituals. During the advanced stage of a woman’s pregnancy, she is advised to sleep beside the hearth in the room. Before the delivery, a temporary hut is constructed beside the main hut.
When a Great Andamanese dies, his or her name is not uttered during the mourning period. The hut in which a person died, used to be destroyed and the corpse buried near the hut. Corpses were covered with white cloth and the personal belongings too were buried along with the corpse.
Earlier, the mourners used to keep the skull of the dead after cleaning it with white clay; but over the years, this practice has been discontinued. A candle and a bottle are also buried with the corpse.
In the past, the Great Andamanese had no notion about immovable property. Though a canoe is considered personal property, during emergency, any person in the community can use it with the permission of the owner. Everyone has the right to cut a tree considered suitable for making a canoe.
But once a tree is marked by someone for a canoe, it becomes his property. Everyone has the right to hunt pig, dugong or turtles and it is customary for him to share the meat with the community people.
If there is one benefit, so to say, that has evolved out of their association with the external world, it is the habit of farming. The Great Andamanese now grow sweet potato, tapioca, pineapples, bananas, papayas, coconuts and vegetables like brinjal, chilly and sim.
Sometimes, they barter their produce or a portion of their hunt for tea, tobacco and sugar from the crew of ferry boats which ply between Port Blair and Rangat, the main island where the Great Andamanese presently live. The administration grants them free rice, wheat and pulses.
The oldest person among the Great Andamanese is always the obvious choice of the tribe’s leader. The community does not have any tribal council. The leader’s powers have been limited to organizing meetings among various local groups and directing hunting and fishing activities.
But he has no power to punish the guilty. After the authorities established contact with them, a system of chieftainship was introduced by selecting a group of trustworthy men who now look after the well being of the tribe.
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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