Few have seen the fascinating communities living an isolated existence in a remote group of islands
Reviewed by Pallavi Pinakin
Where the Andaman Sea meets the Bay of Bengal lie the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, home to some of the most fascinating communities on Earth. For millennia, the Andamanese people have led an isolated existence, practising unique customs and traditions.
Until the late 18th century, their contact with the outside world was virtually nonexistent and scholars had little but unsubstantiated rumours to go by – some labelled the tribal people’s unfamiliar rituals as ‘savage’ while others romanticised their apparently Edenic lifestyle and connection to nature.
The Andamanese way of life was completely preserved from external changes for thousands of years, thanks to their geographical remoteness as well as a tendency to deal swiftly and violently with any perceived threat – including shipwrecked sailors and unwelcome explorers. It was the British colonisers who eventually made real contact, resulting in the unfortunate and rapid decimation of these communities.
Disease, conflict and loss of territory have taken a severe toll over the last couple of centuries: from 7,000 inhabitants in the 19th century, the An-damanese number a mere 500-750 people today.
In order to halt any further erosion in their numbers, the Indian government regulates external intrusions into their lives. Today, some of the tribes have begun tentatively coexisting with the mainlanders while others continue to maintain a proud independence. The Jarawa and Sen-tinelese are two tribes that have staunchly protected their insular way of life. Genetically speaking, the Andamanese resemble African pygmies – they’re dark-skinned and short in stature with the tallest among them reaching five feet.
So where did they come from and how did they reach Southeast Asia?
Different theories abound. Some researchers think they were washed ashore from slave ships thousands of years ago while others believe them to be descendants of the first modern humans in this part of the world.
Experts who have studied the unique language patterns of the Andamanese say that the lack of similarity with the old-world languages we know of suggests that these communities have truly ancient roots – they could be the remnants of Stone Age settlers who arrived in Asia at the end of the last ice age.
Yet another branch of thought claims that the inhabitants arrived from northeast India via an ancient land bridge that connected Myanmar with the Andaman Islands. There’s no definitive consensus yet, and the history of these tribes remains as enigmatic as the people themselves.
Of the five main tribes settled on the Andaman Islands, four remain – viz. the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawas and Sentinelese. Sadly, the Jangil are now extinct.
Like many other remote communities, Andamanese notions of culture and propriety are complex and distinctive, and they often baffle outsiders (surely, the Andamanese must think the same about us!). From a much more open-minded attitude towards nudity, to fashioning garments with leaves and bark to not having any systems to keep time or track age, these communities approach the world in an altogether different manner.
The Sentinelese tribe, which has fiercely maintained its status as the most isolated of all the Andamanese communities, is the most intriguing.
Based on fleeting interactions and fly-by video footage, anthropologists have pieced together some idea of how they live. The Sentinelese prob-ably sleep in thatched huts, eat coconuts, hunt turtles and birds, and lack the ability to make fire from scratch – instead, they carefully store embers from lightning strikes. Their internal communication seems to be marked by physical contact and a two-note song system.
Some people are quick to dismiss these cultures as being ‘backward.’ However, many of the tribes possess a treasure trove of natural world wisdom passed down through generations. Thanks to this bank of ancient ancestral knowledge, elders in some Andamanese communities were able to recognise the signs of the impending Boxing Day Asian tsunami in 2004 and shepherd their people to safety.