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The Indigenous Tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Updated on June 6, 2011
A notice just outside the reserve
A notice just outside the reserve

The Andaman and Nicobar islands, an archipelago off the east Indian coast, have been inhabited for at least a couple of thousand years. For a place that small and isolated, it’s mindboggling to think that it was noticed only in the early 11th cen. and that too only for its strategic significance. Interest lost, local rulers kept changing hands for a few naval bases until the Europeans, most notably the British, established a permanent settlement in the latter half of the 19th cen which proved to be a disappointing one anyway. So, basically you have an age of ignorance shown by the outsiders to this land which resulted in an extreme lack of cultural influences on its people, thereby making them an indigenous group like nowhere else on the planet. Let me introduce them to you.

Meet the Jarawas

Around 300-400 individuals, they are among the largest in number. Quite small compared to around 500 years back, but thanks to the Europeans and other local settlers and their diseases, most of them died. The British had other reasons to keep a check on them, political being a major one during the early 19th cen. Their area has been declared a reserve and to cross it you must be a part of a convoy with police protection (cool right?). Initially they were extremely apprehensive of any outsiders and avoided all possible contact, maintaining their ways about which little is known anyway, but after 1998 there has been some progress and now they can be spotted in their reserves and nearby areas. Otherwise they live deep in their forests, survive on nature and love, I mean LOVE the colour red. This I know first-hand because I’ve always seen them wearing a garland or two made of red flowers, nothing else. Earlier in the day, one of my friends was actually mugged by them because he was wearing a red tee and fell a little behind the convoy. They surrounded his car, pointing arrows and took his tee (how freaking cool is that??!). Few problems still plague the jarawas including diseases, loss in territory and too much contact with local people.

an artist's illustration on the great andamanese battle against the British
an artist's illustration on the great andamanese battle against the British

Meet the Great Andamanese.

Before the British established a colony on the islands, they were close to 5000 individuals divided into 10 territorial groups. Needless to say, after they were brought in sudden contact with the outside world, diseases took control. To add to this, there was a major battle between them and the British, the battle of Aberdeen in which the British ended up killing a major chunk of their population. Combined with many more such factors, in 1901 only 600 remained and since lessons are usually not learned, in 1961 only 19 remained (yes, 19). The situation is sort of improving with the current population being around 50. But even then, most of their culture and heritage has been lost; the oldest of them who had some idea of their native language died recently and the ever increasing contact with the settlers is plaguing them with diseases. In short, bad shape.

take position..
take position..

Personal favourite, the sentinelese

Extremely hostile, they live on an island of area 72 km 2. They are known for their vigorous efforts in avoiding contact from outsiders. Therefore, nothing about them is known with certainty. Neither the population nor the language or the culture. Rough estimates put them at around 50 (rough being due to their 100m accurate bow range). Efforts at appeasing them with materialistic goods have not shown much success though it gave a limited understanding. The household ware and metal objects being utilized, coconuts being eaten but not planted, pigs were not eaten but shot and buried, as was a doll. Red buckets were taken with apparent delight, while green ones were rejected. I came across an interesting eye-witness account of a research party of Indian anthropologists who found themselves cornered on the reef flats between North Sentinel and Constance Island.

“Quite a few discarded their weapons and gestured to us to throw the fish. The women came out of the shade to watch our antics...A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude...They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened — a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship...”

The Onges

Similar story here to. Colonisation resulted in Onges being only 150 in number in 1951 from 600, two hundred years earlier. The interesting point here is their story which saved them from the tsunami. The semi-nomadic Onge have a traditional story that tells of the ground shaking and a great wall of water destroying the land. Taking heed of this story, all 96 tribesmen survived the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian ocean Earthquake, by taking shelter in the highlands.

So basically all these tribes live in their own ways untouched by the world. They have their own thing going on. The tsunami of 2004 failed to kill even one member of any of these tribes which just proves how much we could learn from them. The fact is that they are fascinating and we need to expose them to the world (metaphorically) to make the world realize this fact and bolster every attempt being made to conserve them and their natural environments.

For more on the Andaman and Nicobar islands,


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    • Yourglobalgirl profile image

      Yourglobalgirl 6 years ago from UK

      This is a really interesting hub and fascinating to read about these people. I guess there is a fine balance between raising awareness of these people and protecting them from Westernisation.

      Thanks- I really enjoyed reading this hub.

    • Jared Peace profile image

      Jared Peace 6 years ago from the deepest pits of boredom

      True, that's the only key to their survival. Glad you enjoyed reading it.

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