When I was in India in August 2000 for my annual leave, I took a holiday to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, popularly known as the Emerald Islands, which are rated as one of the most beautiful, virgin and eco-friendly islands in the world. Some things that fascinated me most about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were its lush-green Mangrove forests, deep blue water and the existence of several primitive tribes; many represent the earliest inhabitants of India.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India are the treasure houses of several primitive tribes, many of which are facing extinction. The tribes are primarily of two stocks: Mongoloid and the Negroid. The Great Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas and Sentinelese are dominant among the Negroid tribes and are concentrated in the Andaman District. Their background and origin is unclear and continues to be a subject of speculation among scholars and anthropologists. Studies have indicated that the Onges tribes have been living in the Andamans for the last 60,000 years. The Andaman communities, divided into ‘eramtaga’ (jungle-dwellers), and ‘ar-yuato’ (coast dwellers), subsist on fish, turtles, turtle eggs, pigs, fruits, honey and roots. The Nicobarese and Shompens are the Mongoloid tribes concentrated in the Nicobar District. The Nicobarese, who claim descent from a Burmese prince, were identified as ‘lokenje’ (naked people) by the renowned Chinese traveller I-Tsing.
The forest-dwelling Jarawas are perhaps the most easily accessible among the Negritoid tribes of Andaman. The Jarawas have remained in isolation for eons, living in the rain forests at peace with nature for centuries The Jarawas have traditionally greeted outsiders aggressively, firing arrows at settlers whose cattle and fields encroach upon the vital resources and occasionally robbing the passengers of their food. No wonder these tribes were classified as “hostile” by the District Administration.
One incident in October 1997 changed the Jarawa vision of the outside world. A boy named ‘Enmay’, who had fractured his leg after getting caught in an animal trap, was rescued by the district authorities and admitted into a hospital in Port Blair. This was the first time ever that any member from the hostile Jarawas came out from the forests to interact with the settler populations. When the boy was left back into the forests after his recovery, he carried with him good memories of his interaction with the mainlanders, which opened the door for interaction with the Jarawas. Later, many Jarawas came out of deep forests to more open areas, faced with an acute shortage of food in their territory. With the increasing interactions between the Jarawas and the district authorities, their classification also changed from “hostile” to “friendly”. The interactions have been so much intensified that some Jarawas have even picked up a few Hindi words and memorised popular Hindi songs. This remarkable incident has been termed as the “Enmay Revolution”.
The nearest tribal area from Port Blair is the Jarawa Reserve, about 150 km away on the Andaman Trunk Road that connects Port Blair with Mayabunder. The area of the Jarawa Reserve has some of the best and largest sources of timber that still survive on the islands. To go to the main Jarawa Reserve one must take a ferry to the Uttara Jetty on another island and drive down for about 75 km in the Reserve Forest. A smaller Jarawa settlement is also found in the Kadamtala area, about 60 km from Port Blair. The entire Jarawa Reserve is spread over an area of 765 square kilometres on the western coast of the Middle and South Andaman Islands. Entry into the Jarawa area requires written permission from the Superintendent of Police, Andaman District and a vehicle entry permit from the police outpost at Jirkatang, about 50 km from Port Blair.
During one of our trips along with Dr Pronob K. Sircar, an eminent sociologist and an authority on the Jarawas, and some officials of the Directorate of Tribal Welfare, Port Blair, we had a chance encounter with a small hutment of the Jarawas at Kadamtala. The Jarawa group, comprising about half a dozen members, thronged to our jeep looking for bananas. Fortunately, we were carrying with us a lot of bananas, biscuits and other eatables. Some of them asked us questions in the Jarawa language: “Ni Atiba? Li Dimo?” Dr Sircar translated these as: “What is your name? How are you?” We could see a distinct expression of joy on their faces at the sight of bananas. Incidentally, the banana is the favourite food of the Jarawas, which is cherished equally by the young and the old. The Jarawas are good at hunting and fishing. They, however, do not kill deer and birds. The deer, which are called ‘potiyal’ in the Jarawa language, are considered “evil spirits” and left alone!
The Jarawa huts are small, made up of bamboo and dried coconut leaves, tied together with ropes. Inside the hut, a traditional earthen stove or “chulha” is placed in the centre, which is used by the Jarawas to cook raw meat and fish. One can find huge bunches of raw bananas hanging from the ceiling, apparently preserved for consumption at leisure. Another interesting feature that can be noticed inside the Jarawa huts is the presence of several skulls of wild boars hung from the ceilings. It was explained to us that the superiority among the Jarawas tribal groups is judged by the number of wild boars killed by them. The larger the number of wild boars killed by a tribal group, the higher its hierarchy in their tribal social strata.
The Jarawas affix great importance to trees in their territory, and each male marks a tree as his own. Like other Andaman tribes, the Jarawas acknowledge an anthropomorphic deity, ‘Phalgun’, who is feared for his wrath in the form of storms but do not worship him. They attach great significance to dreams and believe that their ancestors are said to influence events in their lives or cause disasters like earthquakes when angry. The Jarawas sing and dance at each full moon. The daily ritual dances are also central to communal life and are held on the land enclosed by huts.
The Jarawas believe in the institution of marriage, but marriages are seldom performed outside the tribal group. Darwin’s concepts of ‘Struggle for Existence’ and ‘Survival of the Fittest’ seem deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Jarawas. The young ones are forced to lead an independent life from a young age. Thus, one could find many hutments consisting only of young ones living on their own.
The Andaman Administration, through its Department of Tribal Welfare, has been taking care to ensure the proper well-being and survival of these tribals. The Jarawas are only a little over 330 in number. Their number had gone to a critical low of 70 in 1931 when a large number of tribals had died in internecine wars with the rival Great Andamanis when the Andaman Islands were ruled by the British. Over the years their numbers began to increase and in 1961over 500 Jarawas existed. The contact with the outside world also had an adverse impact on the tribals, who had to encounter previously unknown diseases like measles, to which they had no immunity. It is the duty of humanity to preserve these beautiful people and their unique culture from the onslaught of “civilization”!