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Face to Face with the Aborigines

One of the most important features of this group of islands is the primitive cultures they still supports. Primitive, did I say? Well, in fact, some of them are still living in the stone ages!

It was early morning in Port Blair. But 5.00 a.m. Indian Standard Time in these eastern latitudes does appear a shade queer. The sun was already out and well above. It seemed more like time to get ready for office.

A short trip downhill from the tourist bungalow brought me to the jetty which was already agog with activity—as people and sundry cargo all clamoured for a place on board a largish, white vessel, the ‘Chowra’. By the time I boarded and got down to finding my berth—deep inside the hull somewhere—time had crept by. At six o’clock the Chowra lifted anchor, hooted a couple of times and let the heavy marine diesels take on the rest of the job. She would sail the whole day today, then the night, and somewhere the next morning would sight land once again—the isle of Car Nicobar.

Travel by sea is a slow affair. Time becomes stubborn and refuses to pass. An hour seems to linger for more than one. Soon the Chowra cleared Ross Island, at the mouth of Port Blair harbour, and set course for the deeper seas. Most mainlanders like me are on the airy deck looking wistfully at the receding land, while the seasoned islanders are already in deep slumber below—rocked to sleep by a roll and pitch that the Chowra displays ever so slightly.

We are now an hour and more into the cruise. The South Andaman island, where Port Blair is situated, has receded beyond the horizon. A short while later she skirts Rutland Island. The next few hours are going to pass in solitude with the boundless sea as she navigates the Duncan Passage bound mostly dead south. Then finally, almost eight hours from Port Blair, with the Rutland well behind us, the Chowra veer around the Little Andaman Island to rendezvous with a small settlement, Hut Bay—my point of disembarking.

Hut Bay is a tiny settlement and the only accommodation here is that afforded by the bungalows of the Forest Department or the Andaman and Lakshadweep Harbour Works. Having got a room, some good chaiy and, of course, solid ground to stand on once again, I launched myself into planning what I had come here for—a visit to the Onge Tribal Reserve on this island.

The Onge Tribal Reserve is situated about 30 or 35 kilometres north of Hut Bay. I was told that I could go the first 25 to 28 kilometres by road (in fact that is the only length of road of Little Andaman). A few local buses ply the road for the convenience of settlers. At the end of the road, I was further told, I would be able to take a boat which would talk me to the settlement.

I had all of tomorrow and up to lunch on the day after, before my ship back to Port Blair was due at Hut Bay. And needless to say, I had not a little enthusiasm for tomorrow’s excursion for which I had traversed the entire span of the Bay of Bengal—well, almost! The cook at our little bungalow—a south Indian settler—had prepared a simple but sumptuous dinner of fried fish, dal and boiled rice. There was no dessert and we settled down to a cigarette. Of course, I can assure you that to relax under the canopy of the Andaman sky—resplendent with a myriad stars (and even shooting stars if you gazed long enough)—and the smells and sounds of the jungle all around (with snails and crabs on the pebbled ground, just beyond the porch) are an experience unto themselves. To even the most insensible of visitors, this experience (as umpteen other ones to be had in these islands) drives home the alarming fact of what humankind is destroying in its unthinking haste.

But pristine nature has also a second side. If it can be charming, it can also be awe inspiring. I was to learn this the hard way when, next morning, I trudged to the lone road. The bus was there alright. But the conductor told me in his characteristic language that there would be no services that day because a bonga (tree) had blocked the road. In one short stroke nature now threatened to undo all I had planned and willed.

There was only one option left. I could rent a cycle and try doing the 28 kilometre long stretch. In fact, I did just that. Starting at six o’clock in the morning, a group of locals and me made it to the other end by nine the same morning. The undulating terrain on certain stretches and the uprooted tree (which had blocked the road about eight kilometres from Hut Bay) had accounted for our sluggish pace.

Luck met me with a smile at this end. My boatman was missing but his competitor was all the more willing to take me to Onge land. By the time we had wound our way to the slippery banks of the creek, there were about eight passengers already—all willing to hitch a free ride since it was I who would pay.

But who was thinking of all this at that time. I was agog with the rain forest around me and the creek we would soon be navigating. Frankly, I had never known that water could stand so still. Indeed, the creek was more like a sheet of transparent glass that did the job of a looking glass as well. It reflected the surrounding, dense rain forest without a ripple to distort it and the stillness allowed you to peer down its shallow depths. The creek was full of dead wood, but little marine life. The rain forests were lush green and overcrowded with creepers to the extent that the visibility was down to a mere four or five feet. The ground was perpetually soggy due to the excessive tropical humidity.

The diesel engine of our flat-bottom boat was either overly loud, or it so appeared in the midst of such complete silence. The creek was fairly long—about a kilometre and a half. Actually, most of the islands here are fissured by creeks—once ideal hideouts for the pirates from south-east Asia and the large salt-water crocodiles that love to laze about in such waters. To be somewhat poetic, the pirates are all gone and the salt-water crocodiles are going (due to poaching)!

It is only when one approaches the end of the creek, opening up to the sea, that one can discern some movement in the limpid waters and some fish which have got caught in the receding tide. But now luck decided to frown once again. The boatman was engaged in frenzied dialogue? “We can’t proceed because there is a storm coming up,” they declared.

So the boat was moored and we all got down on the sandy shore—not far from where the waves were viciously lashing the shore. We would not have to take the route along the shore. But just as we had begun our trek, our boatman espied a small fishing craft coming in fits and gasps from the open sea. “If they can do it why can’t we try,” the boatman wondered. And not withstanding the fact that my mouth had gone completely dry at the very proposition, we boarded the boat once again and headed for the furious sea. The thud of the diesel now appeared to become a whimper and even at full power to the fore we were hardly moving faster than a snail. But more was to come.

We were still only a hundred metres, out of the creek. But the waves had grown to 20 feet monsters (which are actually little ones to seasoned seafarers). Our little flat bottom had to be maneuvered in such a way that the coming wave hit the bow, rode it, and then plunged all of 20 feet with a thud. What made things worse was that I had a huge crab near my feet. And even though it seemed half dead, it heightened my discomfort. It must have been a good part of a half hour that this stomach churning exercise went on before she finally turned towards the shore.

As fate often has it, the storm died down as we entered the calmer bay. By the time we were at the wharf by the Onge Tribal Reserve the sun had broken out from behind the receding storm clouds. Now was to begin a completely different experience. Rather, a different kind of journey to the very beginning of human civilization.

We were greeted by the officer of the tribal reserve and some young Onge boys. There was the inevitable round of chaiy even here and then we were taken around the settlement where about 100 Onges (the total number of their population) live.

Together with the Jarawas, the Great Andamanese and the Sentinelese, they form a distinct group a tribal inhabitants classified anthropologically as negritos. Their origin and arrival on these islands is shrouded in mystery. And there is no one theory that appears to have gained significant grounds as the most plausible. To those who are new to the Andaman Islands, it comes as a great surprise that two of these tribes—the Sentinelese and the Jarawas—still live without any contact with the outside world. As modern civilization ushers in the 21st century, these tribes continue to live in the stone ages. They have no agriculture, no metal tools and nothing to do with raiment to cover their bodies.

What is, probably, the most important fact is that these tribes do not have more than a rudimentary spoken language and absolutely no idea of the written word. So it is least surprising that their origin and subsequent history (before the British first started studying them) has been lost in oblivion for good.

Of the four groups, the Great Andamanese (of whom only 30 were alive in 1990) and the Onges (numbering 98 in the 1981 census) came in contact with the settlers and gave up their traditional life in the jungle. But this very intermingling also exposed them to new diseases, brought in by the settlers, which their immune systems could not withstand. Subsequently, a great number of both tribes perished and the decline could only be arrested after placing them in strict reservations.

It is true that what we see of the Onge aborigines today is only a faint reflection of what they were in the past. Among the things they have imbibed from modern culture are clothes, the use of metal utensils and tools, and of course, the transistor and paan. I observed with surprise that both the Great Andamanese and the Onges had taken to betel leaf chewing with gusto,

The Onges were very friendly without being obtrusive. The little children frolicked around calling us entel. As I came to learn this meant ‘officer’ in the their language. But then, for the simplistic Onges, every body who was not an Onge had to be an entel. Or so their logic went.

We had the good fortune of seeing them build their typical huts from bamboo splinters. They offered us as many green coconuts as we wished to drink; took us on a quick hunting trip in their slim and fast canoes; showed us exactly how they hunted turtle; and even showed us around their little dwellings.

Though these dwellings are not their traditional huts, they do retain one very important feature of their culture: the fire place. It is not clear whence they acquired fire or learnt to produce it. But all the four tribes knew its use prior to the advent of more civilized intruders. The fire place was unique in the sense that it had a bamboo loft right above it where the tribes kept excess food stocks naturally protected by smoke.

Yet another mentionable feature that they still retain is the crafting of canoes (actually dugouts) from a single log of wood. What is important, however, is that they do not possess the knowledge to build any kind of larger craft which would have been essential for these tribes to migrate to the islands by sea routes. This feature has only added further darkness to their already mysterious past and how they arrived in these islands.

It was five in the evening by the time we were ready to return. Three Onges had decided to accompany us back to Hut Bay. The return journey was not as tumultuous as the one in the morning. When we disembarked at the creek the Onges who had brought a heavy load showed us how they made ropes out of sundry rain forest foliage. One of tribals peeled off the bark from one of trees. Obviously, they knew which ones made strong rope and which ones didn’t, though to my untrained eye they all seemed quite indistinct. I, for one, was very surprised that such thin peels of bark could ever carry the kind of load they were subjected to by the Onges. By rough estimate, not less than 40 kilograms per person were strung to their backs by these flimsy bark strips.

But what strikes the likes of us is the great resourcefulness that the Onges display in their knowledge of the jungle and the sea. It is the vast experience of past generations that is still reflected in the vastly changed Onges of today.

And now I had all of 28 kilometres to cycle back. I was tired alright, but the sense of relief of accomplishing what I had come here for was certainly the more dominant feeling. As I neared Hut Bay all I remember is that the huge tree was still lying across the road as it had in the morning.

Darkness overtook me as I reached the store to return the rented cycle. Dinner was a great relief but one which had to be given only a passing thought. I had to leave early the next morning for the Nicobarese reservation just eight kilometres south of Hut Bay.


The Andaman and Nicobar islands were known to many of the cultures in Asia as early as the 1st century AC. The Chinese and the Japanese called them Yeng-to-Mang and the Malays. Handuman. Among the Indians, they were known to the Cholas whose mighty fleets traversed these seas on their way to south east Asia. Marco Polo (who passed these islands in 1290 AD) remarked: “Angamanian (Andaman) is a very large island not governed by a king. The inhabitants are idolators…” I detest from quoting further because most people consider Marco Polo’s remarks uncharitable to the aborigines of these islands. For Marco Polo concludes his description by saying, “they… eat everybody that they can catch if not of their own race.”

Nothing of course, can be further from the truth about the aborigines of these islands. As the British themselves were to realize when they first came and established their base in the Great Andamans (consisting of the North, Middle and South Andaman Islands basically), the aborigines of these islands—though very primitive in culture—exhibited absolutely no tendencies towards cannibalism. In fact, later researches have shown more evidence to support this fact and discredit earlier accounts based, in all likelihood, on hearsay rather than interaction.

The original bifurcation names 12 distinct tribes of the negritos. These, it must be remembered, are totally distinct from the Mongoloid tribals: the Nicobarese and the Shompens who inhabit the Nicobars. Nevertheless, today most traces of this earlier classification have vanished and we have only four tribes left. These are the Jarawas and Sentinelese on the one hand and the Great Andamanese and the Onges on the other. The former two are still largely hostile to intrusions by modern man, while the latter two were befriended by the British.

But it comes as a great surprise to most that the very tribes that came in contact with the British and Indian settlers are now on the verge of extinction. While the two hostile tribes, are still alive and kicking. The Jarawas continue to live their old way in the western reserves of the South and Middle Andaman islands and the Sentinelese are even more remote, being located on the North Sentinel island. The reason for this is easy to grasp. The outsiders coming to the islands also brought with them a host of virus and bacterium that the immune system of the tribals was not made to defend against. As a result the populations of both the Onges and the Great Andamanese declined rapidly after the British arrived and especially after convicts were allowed to settle here.

It is a commendable fact that the welfare of these tribes put on a solid footing after independence. The Government of India decided to set up protected reservations where the tribals could either live their original lifestyle; or, where the groups which were being exterminated could live in the protected environs of modern medical and other facilities.

The scope of communications with the isolated group of Jarawas has also been given considerable impetus due to the efforts of Tribal Welfare Department (under the Andaman and Nicobar Administration). Since 1974, this department has been successful in contacting the previously hostile Jarawas. Every full moon night it sends a party with gifts for the tribals. The full moon night is specifically chosen since the aborigines still keep track of time by the phases of the moon and the seasons.

Similar efforts have been tried with the Sentinelese (living on the North Sentinel island), but with little headway as yet. According to the estimates made by the administration the populations of the Jarawas and the Sentinelese are around 200 and 80 respectively.


A peep into the religious beliefs of the negrito groups shows that they were animists in the true old world sense.

They had great faith in Puluga, an anthropomorphic deity who was responsible for all the events around them. They also believe in the transmigration of the soul which is supposed to pass to another world after the death of a person.

Tattooing and painting of the body is a very important part of their daily life and social customs. This is also seen amongst the Onges. Normally the tribals use various natural materials to paint their bodies. The kind of materials and the designs they use indicate sickness, sorrow, festivity, celibacy etc.

A person’s death is mourned by relatives who gather around him and beat their breast. The body is normally buried in shallow graves. But bodies of more honoured members are often placed on a high platform especially prepared under a tree. The tribals decorate the place and do not visit it for the next three months.

Marriage is usually exogamous. Sometimes the wife goes and lives with the husband’s family; or the husband may choose to come and live with his wife’s family. The Onges generally marry their children at around 10 or 11 years of age.

Since their language can express only the most rudimentary emotions, they rely heavily on gestures. It is mildly surprising that they do not have any words to express greetings or thanking. When two tribals would meet in the days of yore they would stare at each other for a while and then the younger of the two would break the silence by telling the other some news. If they happened to be relatives, they would sit on each other’s lap and weep loudly. Among the Onges the custom is somewhat different. They meet silently and carees each other with the hand. And at the time of parting they take each other’s hand and blow on it exchanging sentences of conventional farewell.

Strange as all this may sound to us, these are first hand records of researchers who came across the aborigines of these isles when many features of their age-old lifestyle still persisted.

Naming of children is the sole privilege of the mother. A girl child would normally be named after one of the jungle flowers that would be in bloom at that time.

Among their prime occupations, nothing can be more important than their hunting and gathering activities. They also made many items of daily use such as unglazed clay pottery (by the coiling process since they did not know the concept of the wheel), nets and mats made of string from various jungle fibre, bamboo baskets and canoes from hollowed tree trunks. For weapons they used bows and arrows and harpoon spears in a combination with nets. The arrow and harpoon heads were either made of bone or chipped quartz flakes. They had no knowledge of metals or the use of glass.