Since the British era, friendly links with the Onge tribes that had been tried, yielded results as they showed positive response towards coastline surveyors and finally agreed to mix with outsiders.
By Prasanta Paul
The Onge, Andaman archipelago’s one of the six surviving prehistoric tribes, are reported to be the first group of tribes to have arrived at the island from Lower Burma(presently Myanmar).
How and when did the first group of Onges set their foot on the island, is shrouded in mystery; for that matter, the early history of six stone age tribes in the Andamans has still been wrapped under various layers of assumptions and speculative stuff.
When the first batch of officials during the British era first discovered their existence, Onges were terribly hostile and some of the mainland people reportedly fell to their poisonous arrows.
After several aborted attempts to establish contact with them, the British officials had to wait till 1901 (as per Radcliffe Brown) to record some semblance of success.
By using some native means, the officials succeeded in making an estimate of their population and pegged it at 672. Gradually, the hostilities began to peter out; however, their population at the same, also began to thin.
It registered a total of 631 in 1911 from where the number shrank to 346 in 1921 and by 1931, it got further reduced to 250. In May 1987, only 76 of them were surviving in Dugong Creek and 22 in the South Bay settlement.
The Onge speak their own language which has no script. Due to their regular contact with outsiders , some Onge men have learnt to speak Hindi, while some Onge females understand Hindi, but cannot speak.
The traditional dress of the women and the unique paintings in the bodies adorning both sexes distinguish the Onges from other five tribes of the region. The women wear a tuft of shredded palm leaves or tassel as public cover. Both men and women often embellish their bodies and faces with white clay or red-ochre mixed with lard, on various occasions. Geometrical designs are painted by simple method of daubing and scraping, either with nails or with an indigenous implement.
A series of research on the Onge have revealed that they belong to the below medium, short and very short structure, having an average status of 148cms and 138cms for men and women respectively. They have peppercorn type of hair on the head while hair in the body and face is scanty.
The Onge are non-vegetarians. Till recently, their traditional food used to comprise meats of wild boar, turtle, wild fruits, fish, honey and crabs among others. Before their rehabilitation, they used to boil and roast the food. Post rehabilitation in 1976, they are being provided with rice, wheat flour, pulses, cooking oil, dalda, milk powder, sugar, tea leaves, onion, salt and spices by the local administration.
Interestingly, they have no habit of storing food for future consumption. They don’t have any fixed time for eating; if food is available, they eat it at frequent intervals. They may also remain without food for a couple of days. While they never drink alcohol, they drink a lot of black tea without sugar. Even as they have more or less habituated to the food items being provided by the government, they have nearly lost the habit or practice of farm production.
Prior to their rehabilitation, the Onge inhabited in different parts of the island in groups or bands. Each group used to have at least one beehive shaped communal huts of its own as a common resident for the entire band. These huts became the all important place for all the major events like births, marriages & death. There is only one hut that is presently visible in the Dugong Creek settlement as they have mostly shifted to new huts erected by the administration for them.
The Onge never marry outside their own community. Exogamy prevails at the level of the communal hut-based groups only. Consanguineal marriages are allowed with sister’s children and also at the level of cross-cousins. Given the number of mates presently available and prevalence of remarriage, the age of marriage no longer holds any importance.
Because their number has been reduced to less than 60. Desertion or separation does sometimes occur due to extreme incompatibility in terms of age or because of highly irresponsible or indifferent behavior by one spouse. After the death of a person, his children may also be adopted by his brother or sister. The desire to procreate is very high among Onge women who firmly believe that a woman can become pregnant only if the spirit that lives in the sky above the Little Andaman, blesses her.
Even though the Onge have no habit of farm production, the bountiful marine and forest resources have been their traditional means of sustenance.
They freely exploit the natural resources for their subsistence, but do not exercise any right of ownership or control over the resources. They procure food by hunting or gathering which is meant for immediate consumption.
The women concentrate on collecting edible fruits, roots and tubers, firewood besides catching small fish, prawn and crabs in the shallow water of coral reefs and creeks with hard nets of bark fibre. When a wild boar , dugong or turtle is hunted, the meat is shared by as many as possible.
As stated earlier, the only art form practised by the Onge is the embellishment of the body and face with geometrical designs of paintings. They once used to make pottery, but no longer. They do not have special craftsmen; everyone is used to craft things he or she requires. The single outrigger dugout canoe is made out of a single trunk through a long process of scooping and chipping.
The Onge cane basket is of very fine quality, better than that of the other Negrito groups of the Andamans. Both men and women often spontaneously sing lyrical folk songs, related to their day-to-day activities like hunting and gathering. But no musical instrument is used.
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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