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We’ve only heard of the exotic tribes

Thursday 30 December 2004, by CHAKRABORTY*Sanghamitra

NEW DELHI: You just need one statistic to realise how far removed the tribes on the Andaman and Nicobar islands are from the developing economy that is India - 30% of the tribal population reported hunting and gathering as their occupation in a survey conducted a few years back. Only 38 of the 572 islands are populated, 26 in the Andamans and 12 in the Nicobars. The total population of the islands is 3,50,000, with a 12% tribal population. Almost 95% of the tribals live in the Nicobars, where they form more than 50% of the population.

Little is known about the Andaman’s Sentilnelese - thought to number around 100 - who live on the North Sentinel Island, 64 km south-west of Port Blair. They are thought to be Burmese nomads, who were swept away to the Andamans by the sea, and started living there. They have their own language, which has no script, and is unintelligible even to other tribes in the islands. Hunting and fishing for wild boars, sea turtle and a variety of fish and molluscs are their primary occupations and they use bows and iron-tipped arrows. The men wear a waist belt of bark, and other than that both men and women wear nothing except some leaf ornaments around the head, neck and arms. Among the most isolated communities in the world, they have no interaction with other tribes except receiving occasional gifts, and they defend their island from outsiders using bows and arrows.

The Onge tribe, who might have more than half of their population of 98 wiped out, live on the Little Andaman island. According to their mythology, the first two members of their tribe originated from a monitor lizard. They speak their own language, which has no script. They are semi-nomadic and are dependent on food gathering for their livelihood. In 1976, they were rehabilitated in two settlements at Dugong creek on the island.

The Shompen, whose fate is uncertain - they were at great risk because live in Great Nicobar, the island closest to the epicentre of the quake - are a semi-nomadic tribe and number about 250 at present. They have an interesting diet that includes turtle, snakes, lizards and crocodiles. Their main source of livelihood is food-gathering, hunting and fishing. They are not allowed to meet outsiders without the permission of the headman, though they have been known to trade occasionally with other tribes in Nicobar.

The Nicobarese - a generic name for the indigenous population of the Nicobar islands - consist of 12 different island communities. They are by far the largest tribal group on the island (25,000). Each of the groups on different islands speak different dialects, but most understand Car Nicobarese - the language of the natives of Car Nicobar, which uses a variant of the Latin script.

Historians believe the islands were frequented by Malays, Burmese and others, some of whom continued to live there.

See online : The Times of India

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