The Indigenous Tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Andaman and Nicobar islands remained inaccessible for centuries. But the inaccessibility meant the tribes thrived in the fascinating flora and fauna of the islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands is home to Six aboriginal tribes. Of these Six, Four tribes that are Negritourign tribals inhabit the Andaman Islands and Two tribes that are Monguloid tribals inhabit the Nicobar Islands. The Negritourign Tribals include the Jarawa (Ang), Onge, Sentinelese, and the Great Andamanese and the Monuloig tribals include the Shompens and the Nicobarese. 

These tribes that are the original inhabitants of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have inhabited the Islands for about 60,000 years. Something that was probably made possible via a possible land connection from Myanmar millennia ago.

beach with few paddle boats on one side and a strip of white sand on horizon
Ross & Smith Islands of North Andaman

Negritourign Tribals:

The negrito tribe is a term used for various widely separated people in Southeast Asia like the Semang of Malay and the Aeta of Philippines.

The dominant characteristics of this tribe (not a monophyletic group) are short height, dark skin, and peppercorn hair.

1. Jarawas

The Jarawa tribe’s actual name is ‘Ang’. Ironically they came to be known as Jarawas since the British occupation in the islands, the word that in Great Andamanese language means ‘Outsider’.

Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands is known to have an estimated population of slightly over 400 and have been living on the islands for over 60,000 years. They inhabit the western coast of South and Middle Andaman Islands. The Ministry of home affairs in collaboration with the Ministry of Tribal affairs has gone to great lengths to not only protect this tribe but ensure they thrive in their own natural habitat. In order to do this, the area of Jarawa Reserve was increased from 847 to 1028 sq km.

The Jarawa tribe is known to live self-sufficiently on these lands. They hunt pig, turtle, fish through their arrows, and gather honey and fruits from the forest.

There are also exclusive wards at certain primary healthcare centers to limit the tribe’s interaction with the non-tribals.

Andaman map with west coast highlighted
The Jarawa tribe habitat

2. Onge

Just a little 100 in number, the Onges tribe were relegated for reservation at Dugong Creek in Little Andaman Island.

The attempts to befriend them were successful which led to them receiving concrete houses, food, clothes, and medicines from the administration.

The tribe is known to have artistry skills and they can also make canoes.

Fun fact: Onge tribe calls themselves ‘En-irigale’  which means ‘Perfect Person’.

3. Sentinelese

Sentinelese tribe inhabit the North Sentinel island that is a heavily forested area. Very little is known about this tribe because they don’t leave the island and have been hostile about any outside contact. They do make canoes unlike other tribes in the Andaman Islands but the boats are very narrow and predominantly used in the shallow waters.

There was some success achieved in the late 20th century to contact this tribe but the initiative was abandoned soon afterward owing to the fear of passing on diseases from the outside world to this isolated endangered tribe. The little we know about this tribe is through those limited interactions and mostly observing them from boats at safe distance.

Also Read: Meet the first woman to contact one of the world’s most isolated tribes

It is the Sentinelese tribe that the 27-year old John Allen Chau was trying to establish contact with but was killed by the tribe. He was shot arrows at and his body was left on the beach. All the seven fishermen who had helped Mr. Chau reach the island illegally were arrested.

Also Read: American 'killed in India by endangered Andamans tribe'

4. The Great Andamanese

Once the largest in population, the great Andamanese tribe is only 50 or so in number today. Their population largely dwindled after coming in contact with the British who had invaded the island in the 19th century.

Some of them died in conflict against the British and a large part of the population died after contracting deadly diseases brought by the British like diarrhea, syphilis, measles, pneumonia, etc.

They were rehabilitated by the Indian government to a small island named Strait island. Today, they are reliant on the government for their food needs. They have acquired unhealthy drinking habits after having been introduced to alcohol nearly two centuries ago by the convicts and non-tribals.

The Great Andamanese tribe can cook food today and also know how to make use of spices apart from continuing with their hunting habits. Some of them have taken to cultivating vegetables in recent years.

“They must see the superior comforts of civilization compared to their miserable condition… we are in reality laying the foundation stone for civilizing a people hitherto living in a perfectly barbarous state, replete with treachery, murder and every other savageness,” wrote Colonel R.C. Tytler in 1863.

Also Read: How a British orphanage in the 18th century hastened the destruction of the Great Andamanese tribe

Isn’t it sad the most damage was caused to the tribe that was the friendliest?

Pair of feet in crystal clear water with broken shells at the bottom
At one of the beaches in North Andaman

Monguloid Tribals:

It is believed that these tribes came from the Malay-Burma coast thousands of years ago through a possible overland route that could have existed back then.

1. Shompens

Shompens inhabit the great Nicobar island which is the largest of Nicobar islands. They are largely comprised of two divisions – Mawa Shompens and hostile Shompens. Totaling up to 400 in number.

While Mawa Shompens are shy and inhabit coastal regions along river valleys. The Hostile Shompens on the other hand, live near the Alexendra and Galathia river areas along with the east coast in the interior of the island. Shompens are gradually approaching the non-tribals and what appears to be letting go off their shyness.

It is also believed the tribes have survived more or less intact basis the surveillance of their forest area that looks little damaged.

2. Nicobarese Tribe

With a population of about 30,000 Nicobarese are known to be horticulturists unlike any other tribe from A&N Islands.

The Nicobarese tribe of Nicobar Islands is known to make round huts that are raised 7 feet above the ground on slits.

Fun Fact: Until recently Nicobarese tribe’s currency was coconuts. It was either the coconut being bartered or an item that had its value equated to coconuts.

How can you see the indigenous tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands?

You cannot.

You certainly cannot choose to see the tribes but you could come across them. The government has for all good reasons taken measures to discourage large scale tourism or commercial activities at the cost of these endangered tribes.

The point of intersection for tribals and non-tribals is the Jarawa Tribal reserve which is one of the areas that Andaman Trunk road passes by. The road connects South Andaman to North Andaman. The entry in this reserve is restricted and vehicles can only pass through in large convoys, four times a day. Wait time of hours is commonplace.

Queue of vehicles waiting on the side of the road
Queue waiting to be let in

Convoy Timings:

  • 1st Convoy – 0630 hours
  • 2nd Convoy – 0930 hours
  • 3rd Convoy – 1230 hours
  • 4th Convoy – 1500 hours

Once inside the reserve, the vehicles move at a steady pace, taking pictures, videos, offering food to tribals is a punishable offense. Unlike any other place, you must have been to in India, rules are strictly adhered to. The rules primarily exist to protect the tribe from any potential exploitation at the hands of non-tribals.

Andaman Anthropological Museum: 

This museum would be the best place to know more about the tribes. it includes replicas of boats used by the tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

My experience of seeing the Jarawa tribe:

I was headed for the northern part of the Andaman Islands with my family from Port Blair. After waiting for over an hour, we finally were let into the part of Andaman Trunk Road that passed through the National park. We were accompanied by many other private and public vehicles ahead of us and behind us.

Inside the reserve, the vehicles moved slowly, making as little sound as possible. We had our eyes fixed on the side of the highway for any signs of the Jarawa tribe movement but we saw none on our way to Diglipur.

Two days later we were on our way back and stopped along the way taking cure from the vehicles ahead of us. Soon after the movement resumed ever so slowly we saw a man walking from car to car, his dark skin shone in the sun but not as much as the top of his spear that he was holding with one hand. He had no clothes on just some strings of jewelry made with some red flowers and white shells. As the car moved we saw more of them, one had a large-sized yellow t-shirt on but no pants. Our driver told us they did have some aid from the government that included clothes and medicines.

On the side of the road was a woman with two kids, she was sitting down nonchalantly wearing nothing. All of them had abs to die for.

One man approached our car and knocked on the window panes. We were reminded to not take any pictures and not to open the car window by our driver. They had gotten in the habit of seeking tobacco after allegedly some tourists had introduced them to it. We neither had any nor were we allowed to give any.

The northern islands are stunning no doubt with only a fraction of tourists around compared to the south but the 10-hour backbreaking journey is advisable only if you have that kind of time at hand. The roads were not in the best state in 2018.

River with thick forest on both sides
Along the Andaman Trunk Road outside the Jarawa Reserve

The Andaman Trunk Road has been criticized by many for its intrusion into the Jarawa reserve but it also connects dozens of villages in the northern part of the island to the south. In my experience, the government does ensure in every possible way that the road users don’t interact with the tribes.

What do you think about it, was there a better alternative to the Andaman Trunk Road?

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