LIFE AND CULTURE OF THE ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLAND TRIBES

ANDAMANESE LANGUAGE AND RELIGION

The languages of the different Andamanese tribes are very different from one another. It was once thought that each group spoke a mutually unintelligible language but close study has revealed there is some overlapping between the different languages. No firm links have been found between the languages of the Andaman Islands and those of Negritos in Southeast Asia and the Philippines, traditional forest groups with similar physical characteristics.

The Andamanese islanders are animists who believe that all living things have the power to affect humans and the universe is a multi-layered structure with separate places for spirits, the smell and breath of humans and plants and animals. Spirits are regarded as formless and said to have the ability to absorb smells. They fall into two basic categories: those associated with natural phenomena such as earthquakes, thunder and wind; and those associated with dead ancestors.

The spirits of the dead are divided into benevolent and malevolent ones. After death a number of rites are held to ensure the dead becomes benevolent spirits. The spirits of coastal dwellers go to the sea. Those of forest dwellers go to forests. After a second funeral, bones of dead relatives are retrieved and made into amulets to ward off evil spirits. Medicine men and healers are sometimes called on to communicate with ancestral spirits. The most important ceremonies are funerals and initiation rites for girls and boys at puberty time. These events are often celebrated with singing, dancing and feasting.

Andamanese Hunting and Fishing

The Andaman islanders have traditionally not practiced agriculture. Among the items they collect from the forest are yams, larvae, jackfruit. wild citrus fruits and wild berries. Certain groups had certain rights to certain territories. Other groups were allowed to use the land if they shared a portion of whatever food, animals or other resources they took.

Fish is the main source of protein. Among some groups the word for “food” is same as the word for “fish.” Fishing has traditionally been done with bows arrows while standing in knee-deep water, especially at low tide. Skilled hunters can shoot six or seven fish at a go. Occasionally lines and hooks are used. Hand-held neats are used to catch crabs and other shellfish in the island’s streams.

The northern groups hunt sea turtles and dugongs with outrigger canoes and harpoons. During the wet season they hunt pigs with bows and detachable arrowheads. Pig are the most common source of meat and they are hunted with dogs that surround the animal and are rewarded with entrails after the pig has been shot. Dogs were introduced in the 1850s. They are the only domesticated animals.

Andamanese Society and Customs

Andamanese society is divided into two primary groups the turtle hunters, who traditionally hunted turtles from outrigger canoes at sea; and pig hunters, who hunted wild pigs in the forests. Marriages between pig hunters and turtle hunters sometimes took place to strengthen bonds and maintain peace between the two groups. Conflicts have traditionally been dealt with by “going away”—an offender would go into the forest for a couple of days and would be accepted back into the group after he returned. Conflict never escalated to dangerous levels. Settlements were often worked out through negotiations by women and often involved shared feasts.

An Andamanese greets an old friend by sitting on his lap. When exposed to Westerners for the first time some Andamanese wrapped their arms around the huge pot bellies they witnessed to see if they were real and rubbed their hairless chins against the whiskers of European because they couldn't believe the facial hair was real. Since European intervention many of "exceptionally happy tribes no longer sing and dance."

Andamanese Marriage, Families Men and Women

Only men hunt pigs, turtles and dugongs. Both men and women perform all other activities, including child care cooking and gathering food. Marriages have traditionally been arranged by elders in the groups of turtle hunters or pig hunters. Cross cousin marriage were traditionally the norm. Among the Ongee a shortage of women has meant that men often marry older women, sometime old enough to be their mothers. Widows and widowers often are the first pick of new marriageable partners. Newly married couples often live with the mother’s family until a child is born.

The Onge believe that a woman becomes pregnant with the help of a spirit that lives in the sky over Little Andaman and soul of the baby is transferred to the womb through honey and turtle meat that the woman eats.

Adoption is common. The nuclear family is the most basic and essential social unit. It consists of married couples, their children and adopted children. The responsibility for training children often lies with the child’s matrilineal relatives. When a boy reaches puberty he receives training and education and is prepared for initiations by his father relatives. After a girl has her first menstruation she receives training and education from her mother’s relatives. Both sexes learn about the duties by joining their elders on hunting and gathering trips.

Andamanese Homes and Camps

The Andamanese have traditionally adjusted their settlement patterns to seasonal changes. In the relative dry season from October to February they stay close to the coast and sleep in simple lean-to huts that are organized in a circle around a central campground. Unmarried men and newlyweds live in huts outside the circle.

When the Andamanese migrate to the forest in the wet season, they stay in more sturdy huts. They sleep on four-foot-long wooden sleeping platform cots, 70 centimeters off the ground. and use a log for a pillow and mats for cushions. Andamanese often sleep two to a platform along with a dog. Campsites are usually selected on the basis of closeness to a water supply and firewood. Each campsite is dismantled when they move on. At each new campsite new platforms are built. Tribe members carry their sleeping mats and log pillows from campsite to campsite.

In the dry season the Andamanese live in traditional clan huts , which have 15 to 20 sleeping platforms. These huts are circular in shape and measure five to seven meters in diameter. They have woven thatch roofs and walls. The sleeping platforms are organized in a circle. There is one for each nuclear family. In some places the Indian government has built wooden houses on two-meter-high stilts for the Great Andamanese and Ongees. Some use them. The Ongees use them mainly for storage.

Andamanese Everyday Life

The Andamanese have traditionally hunted for turtles and dugongs and fished from their canoes. Between May and September when violent rainstorms occur, they move inland and hunt pigs and gather fruit, tubers and honey. Their dugout canoes are made from hollowed logs and there houses are made from timbers and palm fonds. Some tribes make tent-like shelters which they carry from place to place during the hunting season. Resin-coated palm fonds have traditionally been used as torches.

The Andamanese traditionally took of care of all their material necessities using what they could gather from the forest and sea. Now they use items like plastic and nylon chords to make nets and other things. Many of what they use is discarded from passing ships and collected on the shore.

Metal was introduced by the British in the 1870s, before that time adzes and arrowheads were made from shells, bones and hard woods. The Ongee grind metal scraps they collecting on the shores into cutting blades and arrowheads. Houses are made from parts joined by cane string or rattan chords not nails. Smoking pipes, outrigger canoes and containers for holding honey are among the object that the Ongees carve for themselves.

Andamanese Food and Drugs

The Andamanese gather fruit and tubers from the forest; collect turtle eggs, mollusks and massive land crabs from near the shore; and hunt turtles, dugongs and wild pigs. The pigs are generally boiled after all the hair has been singed off of them. The most prized part of the pig, the head, is rewarded the hunters. Most tribe members now eat chapatis and drink tea which they receive through bartering coconuts, pig meat, resin, honey and shellfish.

Cooking was traditionally done in hand-molded clay cooking pots. But these have now been replaced by metal pots and pans that in many cases have been given as gifts by the government. Clay pots continue to be used but mainly for ceremonial purposes. The Onge cook food by placing it under the fire rather than over it.

Even before tobacco was introduced the Andamanese smoked aromatic leaves in pipes made from crab claws. They are reputedly heavy smokers and many became addicted to opium when it was introduced by the westerners. When collecting honey the Andamanese chew the leaves of the narcotic tonjohe plant to relieve the pain of stings and then blow on the hive after they have consumed it to subdue the bees. They also smear their bodies with chewed leaves.

Andamanese Culture

Andamanese paint their faces and bodies with clay. Each lineage has its own design and often deities are represented with elaborate geometric patterns. The paints are made with red, white and yellow clay mired with water and/or pig fat and applied with fingers or comblike instruments. Face painting is done on a daily basis. Body painting is done mostly for special ceremonies. Typically the woman paint each member of her family. Men and women also wear decorations made from shells and plants gathered from the forest.

Andamanese s enjoy chanting monotonously when they work. They also enjoy communicating with large colorful pigeons in forest. When they call the birds answer back. Call-and-response songs are sung at important ceremonies. Elder sings traditional songs that recall the groups history and legends. These are sung in a “crying” style. Most Andamanese singing is not accompanied by musical instruments.

The Andamanese often entertain themselves at their camps with stories. Storytelling is regarded as a kind of art and skillful storytellers are admired and often asked to perform. Dancing is usually performed separately by men and women. The dances are choreographed and often feature hand clapping and slapping feet against the ground or the body.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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