Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The People of Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The People of Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The Andaman and Nicobar islands, a union territory belonging to India is virtually a treasure trove for ecologists as well as anthropologists. The tiny groups of islands situated right in the heart of the Bengal bay, is in the south eastern part of India. Its geographical location is between 6 and 14 degree north latitude and between 92 and 94 degree east longitude. The group of islands mainly comes in two clusters mainly the Andaman and the Nicobar groups. Port Blair is the capital of this archipelago.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago consist of 319 islands in total, of which 38 are with human inhabitation. Of the thirty eight inhabited islands first one, the Andaman group consists of twenty six and the other Nicobar group consists of just twelve. For an average person, the Andaman Island reminds the “notorious Cellular jail” where criminals along with all considered undesirable to the former British raj were dumped for their whole life.

The history of the cellular jail is rife with records of horrendous tortures inflicted upon hapless people who had taken part in the freedom struggle. At present the cellular jail which is situated in the Andaman Island near Port Blair, is a national historical monument under the “Archaeological survey of India”. In the pre colonial period the group of Islands consisted of aboriginal people divided in to ever so many sub groups. Some of them are the great Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas, Sentinelese etc. And their total population was several thousands. At present their strength has dwindled to a mere fraction of it. All the members of the tribes left are awarded with the status of scheduled tribes by the government of India.

The way these aboriginal people first came and settled in these Islands which are situated far away from any main lands is a mystery to the anthropologists. The time of this migration also remain as a riddle. The anthropological museum of the Government of India situated in the Andaman Island is engaged serious research in the ethnography of these groups of Islands. However there are evidences to prove that human habitation existed in these islands about two thousand years back as per the old sailors’ accounts. The British who colonized these Islands did much damage in polluting the purity of genomes existed in its purest form until then, They did it by importing all sorts of people from all corners of the world.

Up to the middle of the 19th century, purity of the tribal population remained almost un affected. The great Andamans (the largest of the Islands) contained about ten sub tribes. Their names as noted below, all pre fixed by Aka, like Aka-Bea, -Bale, -Bo, -Cari, -Cora, -Jeru, -Juwoi, -Kede, -Kol, -Pucikwar. The total population of all these tribes in great Andaman itself was about seven thousand. The present situation is rather pathetic, as the total population of all these tribes put together, come less than twenty. The remaining ones have been rehabilitated at Strait Island. These tribes are now referred to as the “Great Andamanese” The contact with immigrant population caused certain diseases to spread to these people, who did not have the physiological adaptation to resist these new types of germs brought in by these immigrants.

The Ongese – the original inhabitants of the Little Andamans are sub divided in to a number of “Bands”. A “band’ is a collection of more than one families. There is only one tenement for a band and this tenement is known as “Beyra”. This type of a joint family by name beyra forms a social unit. The Ongese are at present got settled in Dugong creek and South Bay. This resettlement is done on Government initiative to protect the tribe from getting extinct.

As their tribe name denotes the Nicobarese tribes are the original inhabitants of the Nicobar group of Islands. Even though they are known in the same generic name “Niconarese” each tribe live in separate Islands speak separate languages. More over they are known in different names in accordance with the Island where they live. People of Choura are known as “Som Pai” and those of Car Nicobar are “Tarik”. The inhabitants of Katchal are Kamotra and those of Trinket are Som Ita. Though the names are different they are a homologous population.

They share many cultural and social rituals among them. “Tuhet” is the extended household of the Nicobarese, and it plays very important roles in controlling their social and trading activities of its members. As the Nicobarese are mainly fishermen, herders, horticulturalists and sailors, they frequently have to cross the straits between the Islands for trading purposes. For the purpose of transporting goods across the sea, special type of boats, by name canoes are used for this purpose. These canoes are made by of digging out the bark of a single wood

By the ardent work of the government agencies the Nicobarese have been imparted with some formal education. This has enabled them to acquire some types of jobs like Police, Shipping related works, clerks etc. Of all these tribes the sentineleses are perhaps the smartest they never permit outsiders to enter in to their Island. They are the only inhabitants of the North Sentinel and lead a life not different from what it used to be in thousands of years ago. As hunters Sentenalese are experts in using bows and arrows. Any outsider who sneaks in to their territory will taste the sharpness of their arrows.

Jarawas who live in the South and Middle Andaman islands are mainly hunters and gatherers. The dense forests and the sea around bless them with every thing these tribes require; there sole want is only just something to fill their stomach. Shompens live in the great Nicobar Islands, are generally nomadic, they stroll in the dense forest searching fruits, tubers etc. The “Kaley” and “Keyet” both tribes found in the great Nicobar Island come under the generic name Shompens, the former live in the west coast of the Island and the latter live in the east coast.

The establishment of the penal settlement in this Island by the British during the second half of the Nineteenth century has done much in the destruction of the demographic purity of this Island. The penal settlements established by the British during the early half of the 19th century brought convicts from various parts of the their Empire. And these people were encouraged to get settled in these Islands it self. Due to scarcity of young women in the Island those who wished were allowed to bring in brides from their native lands.

A fresh heterogeneous community belonging to different religions, castes, and ethnic groups was thus formed. This new community with numerous exogamous sub groups was named as “Locals” for the sake of convenience. Some of them are the “Bhantus” of Uttar Pradesh (a community accused to have criminal life style), they are further divided in to about ten sub groups by name “gotor”.

Growing timber industry also required a lot of skilled labor, which was not available among the tribals, hence labors from ChotaNagpur and Jharkhand were also brought in, these people are known as “Ranchiwala” or as “Sathi”. In Sathis also there are about a dozen sub groups. Baraiks,Chik, Lohars, Khariars,Ouaos, Kumbhars, Mundas, Gonds, etc Are the members of the Sathis, all are exogamous units. Bhantus, Moplas (Mulims)and Locals are mainly agriculturists; the Ranchiwalas are mainly landless laborers. Between 1907 and 1923 people from erstwhile Burma (Myanmar) were also brought in, they are known as the “Burmese” as the former sub groups (Pallungs, Shans, Shantalokes, Kachins and Chatris Karens) all lost their identities gradually.

The partition of India also had an impact in the ethnic diversification of these Islands. The Hindus driven away from Eastern Bengal had to be settled here. The Moplas from the Malabar region who took part in the agitation by name “The Mopla agitation” were deported to these Islands by the British, As per the IndiaSri Lanka agreement the Tamil speaking community settled in Sri Lanka were to be accommodated here. Along with all these people from all states came and got settled here adding variety to the cultural mosaic of this Island. In short the Andaman and Nicobar Island is a miniature India with all the varieties India has along with the “unity in diversity” of which India is proud of. The British gained by disposing of the trouble makers in to it, India also gained as influx of refugees from East Pakistan and Sri Lanka could be settled here.

The blunt question that can be asked is, “who is the loser in all these events? what the innocent tribes have gained?. To a people whose identity is being lost and who are slowly becoming extinct, what gain and loss mean.


Anonymous said...

Andaman & Nicobar is a Mini-India. It has poeople from all over India. Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu & Malayalam is spokem here.

Unknown said...

Smti. Naw Ahmay of a Karen Tribe from Webi Village,Mayabunder belong to a karen community living here in North Andaman ,to say that we belong to a Karen tribe came down from Burma in 1925 under the leadership of Rev. Lugyi and our population is approximately 3000 and we still do have our identity .We regret that we are being treated as one of the lost community,eventhough we are good in number do have our own dialect,custom,and culture.