This story is about the first time that I landed on the pristine and beautiful Andaman and Nicobar Islands many years ago and actually saw and met the indigenous people of various tribes and even visited their settlements. Subsequently, my fascination for these forgotten lands of India grew and providentially, in every naval assignment in my career, I have had the occasion to visit these beautiful islands repeatedly right from my time as a naval cadet to my retirement and thereafter. Destiny took me to these islands in all naval capacities and over the years I have developed a deep bonding with these islands. But before I proceed further, let me narrate a little history about these islands that India has the fortune of being bestowed with.
The name of Andaman Islands is ancient and is reported to have been derived from ‘Andoman’, a form of Lord Hanuman, the Sanskrit name of the Indian God and ‘Nicobar’ means ‘the land of naked people.’ There is also a belief that the Venetian merchant Niccolò de’ Conti who travelled to India in the 15th century refers to Andamans as the ‘islands of gold’. Conti, whose travel accounts influenced Genoese map makers and explorers, tells the story of a lake in an island of the Andamans whose waters could turn iron into gold. Later the Dutch came looking for this magic lake but turned back when their ship was met by a hail of arrows. The magic lake of the Andamans has never been found till today and remains just a fable.
The world has always been obsessed with these mystery islands for centuries. A mere mention of their name has always thrown up images of white beaches, fascinating coral reefs, green forests with palm trees and some of the oldest tribes in the world. Even today many in India know very little about them. The most incredible aspect of these islands apart from their beauty is their location in the Bay of Bengal – approximately 1200 km east of the Indian mainland from the ports of Visakhapatnam and Kolkata extending linearly in north – south direction over 750 Km located at the mouth of Malacca Straits. The northern most tip of the island chain named Landfall Island is only 40 km from Coco Islands (Myanmar) and Indira Point, earlier known as Pygmalion Point located at the southern tip is about 150 km from Aceh in Indonesia. The islands lie just about 190 km west of Myanmar, 510 km northwest of Phuket in Thailand, 975 km northwest of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Basically, they are closer to these littoral countries rather than the Indian mainland.
The arrival of the first inhabitants in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is unknown but their presence has been documented since the 2nd century by Greek astronomer Ptolemy, and again in the 7th century by Chinese monk Xuan Zang during his 17-year journey through India. Since ancient times these islands have been home to aboriginal tribes namely the Great Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas and Sentinalese who are from Negroid origin totalling to just a small figure of 700. In the Nicobar group of islands live the Nicobarese with a strength of about 27000 and Shompens with a strength of a little over 200 both of Mongoloid origin. The areas inhabited by the tribals have been notified as Tribal Reserves which constitutes 34% of the total forest area and the Government of India has a clear and strict policy of keeping a distinct separation between tribal groups, their lands and the mainstream island communities in view of the high vulnerability of these small, isolated tribal communities. They are also supported through various welfare services. The tribal population is on the decline and the increase in overall population of A&N Islands is due to continuing migration of mainland settlers there.
The Japanese gave nominal control to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) – ‘Azad Hind Fauj’. During his visit to the islands, Netaji renamed them as ‘Shaheed Dweep’ (Martyr Island) and ‘Swaraj Dweep’ (Self-rule Island)
The documented history about Andaman and Nicobar is limited. However, they have occupied the fancy of numerous invaders throughout the history which is borne by the fact that the Chola dynasty established a strategic naval base on the islands in the 11th century (1014 – 1042). Then in the late 17th century, the islands were annexed by the Marathas who established a maritime base for ships led by the legendary Admiral Kanhoji Angre who is credited with making the Islands a part of India. Subsequently, the Europeans colonized the region in 1755 and named it first as ‘New Denmark’ and later ‘Frederick’s Islands’. After repeatedly abandoning the islands due to outbreak of malaria they finally totally abandoned them in 1848. Meanwhile, Austria tried to establish a colony – ‘Theresia Islands’ between 1778 and 1784 assuming that Denmark had forfeited its claims to the islands.
But actually, Denmark had sold its rights to the Islands to Britain who found a use for them as a penal colony, initially to detain ‘regular’ criminals from mainland India and later to incarcerate political dissidents – the freedom fighters for Indian independence. The British in 1789 set up a penal colony along with a naval base but they too had to abandon it due to disease after two years. The British re-established a permanent colony in 1858 at Port Blair. It then became a part of British India in 1869 and the infamous Cellular Jail was built. During WW II, the islands were occupied by the Japanese, who were regarded with ambivalence by the islanders. Some initiated guerrilla activities against them, while others regarded them as liberators from British colonialism. Japanese gave nominal control to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) – ‘Azad Hind Fauj’. During his visit to the islands, Netaji renamed them as ‘Shaheed Dweep’ (Martyr Island) and ‘Swaraj Dweep’ (Self-rule Island). At the end of World War II, the British reoccupied the islands in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to them.
At the time of independence of both India (1947) and Burma (1948), the British wanted to resettle Anglo-Indians and Anglo-Burmese on the Islands to form their own nation which did not materialize. The 1947 confidential records of the British Government also indicated that they were contemplating to hold on to the Andaman and Nicobar islands due to their strategic location in supporting Australia, New Zealand and the Far East as and when required. Jinnah on his part objected to India being allotted these islands as he felt they were never a part of India both historically or geographically and went on to claim them as a part of Pakistan as they were the only channel of communication between East and West Pakistan. Australia wanted the British to, at the very least, secure long term leases for naval and air facilities if not retain the islands.
However, Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy and Governor General of India, did not want to raise this controversial subject at that late stage as it could provoke violent opposition from all parts of India. Eventually the British government realized that they would lose not only the Andaman and Nicobar Islands but also the goodwill of re-emerging India if they persisted with the matter and they quietly dropped the proposal. Thus following Independence in 1947, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were incorporated into the Indian Union. Since then, migration from the mainland has inflated the island population from only a few thousand to over 4 lakhs presently. Government of India over the years after independence declared these islands as a union territory.
The region consists of two groups of islands namely the Andaman and the Nicobar Islands which are separated by the 160 km-wide 10 degree channel. The archipelago consists of 572 Islands of which only 37 islands are inhabited. The Andaman group of islands has 325 islands and the Nicobar group has 24 islands. A coastline of 1692 km provides these islands with an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 0.66 million Sq Km and a terrestrial land area of 8249 Sq Km. Thus even though these islands constitute less than 1 percent of the Indian mainland landmass they provide over 30 percent of Indian EEZ with tremendous potential for mining of undersea resources so crucial to the economy of the nation.
These islands are the raised extensions of undersea ridges of mountains and are home to highly-diverse terrestrial and marine ecosystems, with a variety of habitats ranging from densely-forested mountain areas to sandy beaches and some of the most intact coral reefs in the world. The mangroves fringing these islands are the largest and most intact in India. The islands have a vast forest resource base covered by forests of a variety of timber. Because of their susceptibility to degradation from human impact, access to Nicobar Islands is restricted which in turn has resulted in reduced economic activity with their consequent effect on development.
The Andamanese were once the largest in population and the most advanced. They have been rehabilitated in a small island named Strait Island. Their traditional diet consists of fish, dugong, turtle, turtle eggs, crabs, roots and tubers. They also eat pork, Andaman water monitor lizard etc. Lately, some of them have taken to cultivating vegetables and have also established poultry farms. They are vulnerable to communicable diseases besides unhealthy drinking habits, acquired after contact with the non-tribal, urban, dominant and advanced communities.
Onges, one of the most primitive tribes in India are presently concentrated in a settlement namely the Dugong Creek in Little Andaman Island. They are a semi-nomadic tribe and fully dependent on the food provided by nature. The Onges also suffered grievously at the hands of the colonisers and early settlers. They have developed artistry and crafts and can make canoes.
Jarawas are the Adivasi indigenous peoples of the Andamans. It is a term, other tribes use for them, meaning “other people”. They have confined themselves to the thick forests of Middle Andamans, which is known as the ‘Jarawa Reserve’. They are reported to be worst hit during the Japanese occupation as the Japanese considered this forest to be the hiding place for the British army. They remained totally isolated from the outside world prior to initiating contact with the outside world in 1997.
The Sentinalese however, still maintain a distinct entity and are yet to learn to cover their bodies. They are perhaps the only people surviving today without any contact with any other group or community living on their North Sentinel Island. They continue to remain isolated from other tribes. The Sentinelese are very hostile and never leave their Island. They seem to be essentially a hunter-gatherer society subsisting through hunting, fishing, and collecting wild plants. There is no evidence of either agricultural practices or methods of producing fire. They are still hostile to any outside interference.
The tribes inhabiting the Nicobar group of Islands – the Nicobarese and the Shompens are of mongoloid origin. They have yellowish brown complexion, flat nose and broad lips with straight hair. The Nicobarese alone have had a natural growth of population and have made headway on the road to civilization.
The Shompens are a mongoloid hunter-gatherer community of the Great Nicobar Islands. They inhabit areas close to the coastal region along the rivers and valleys. Owing to thick hilly forest cover in the area, their settlements are not easily approachable. With the establishment of settlements at Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar, they have been visiting the settlers and gradually shaking off their shyness and attitude towards civilized people.
I have had the occasion to interact with many tribals over a period of years but there are a few incidents that stand out in my mind as unique incidents that I have experienced. Of the many incidents, I will only dwell mainly on three significant ones. The first one was that our ship on which I was a junior officer was deployed to patrol off the coasts of the Nicobar Islands for showing presence. As per plan we were to anchor near specific islands and land ashore in boats to make friends with the local population and improve relationship between the Indian Navy and the tribals.
An idea germinated in my mind about arranging to play a game of football between the Nicobarese and our ship’s football team
One such stop was to make landfall near Great Nicobar Island and land ashore. A meeting was arranged by the Naval liaison team at Campbell Bay and I was one amongst the group that landed ashore to meet the designated tribal leaders and also, we were to be given a tour of the Nicobarese reservation there. During discussions with the group of Nicobarese, it emerged that they loved to play football and an idea germinated in my mind about arranging to play a game of football between the Nicobarese and our ship’s football team. This was fixed for the next day and we returned back to our ship satisfied that this interaction would go a long way in improving ties between the Navy and tribals.
The next day saw us in our ship’s colours equipped with football shoes and goalie pads in the designated ground where we were led to upon landing ashore. Whilst we were limbering up and doing warmup exercises, we noticed the Nicobarese team standing bunched up in a corner, shirtless, barefoot and many with pot bellies. Our team captain was giving us the usual pep talk about going in for the kill but he also briefed us in whispers about trying to be nice and not strike too many goals lest the opposing team gets demoralised. With our team practicing kicks across the field to loud cheers from the assembled village folks, we really enjoyed being in the limelight.
As the game kicked off, we soon realised that these Nicobarese were outstanding at playing football and within no time they had scored numerous goals. Half time saw our Captain sweating and telling us to leave no stone unturned and to try and salvage our injured pride and win the game at any cost. The second half was even more climactic as we got trounced by the tribal team. They apparently were more current with the game than our team as we had been at sea for quite some time and therefore had no time to practice. At the end of the game, our Captain who was also the designated Chief Guest for the event converted this abysmal defeat of ours into a diplomatic exercise of improving ties with the indigenous people. With much back slapping and doling out small gifts, we returned to our ship with our hurt pride to having lost to a tribal football team. But it was a lesson that we learnt very quickly in life, as to never to underestimate the skills of anyone purely based on their appearance.
Our next stop was to anchor off Nancowry Island. Naval visits to Nancowry were always accompanied by a visit to pay respects to the Queen of Nancowry, Rani Lachmi the reigning queen. The current reigning queen is Queen Fathima daughter of Rani Lachmi. The Queen’s palace “Rani Ghat” was located in a place called Champin and comprised of three buildings where her family of 42 members lived. During the infamous tsunami of 2004 this palace was totally wrecked along with many settlements and people. The title “Queen” was bestowed by the British government for services rendered during WW-II upon Lachmi’s mother and Fathima’s grandmother named Islon who was a Nicobarese woman. They follow a system of female succession and Princess Aysha, daughter of the current Queen Fathima would be the next queen.
Queen Lachmi was the reigning queen when our contingent went ashore to pay our respects to her. I found that interaction very illuminating as she appeared to be very wise and quite an educated person and showed real concern for her land which was merely the small island of Nancowry and her Nicobarese subjects residing there. As per tradition, all visiting bureaucrats and naval ship Captains used to pay their respects to her. Strangely, the Government of India continues to recognise to this day the status of Queen of Nancowry even after independence. After being given a befitting reception as guardians of the seas and saviours of the people of Nicobar at the Queen’s palace with a colourful cultural programme and sumptuous seafood feast, we returned to our ship enriched with this new experience. Having met royalty during the course of our duties.
As our contingent of four marched in our smart uniforms armed with our pistols to the opening in the thicket, we soon became aware of a large gathering of tribals in loin cloths standing in a semi-circle armed with spears, bows and arrows.
We then sailed off to Little Andaman Island where we were to meet a group of Onge tribals and try to improve our relations with them showing them that the Indian Navy was a friendly force. This incident with the Onge tribe was the most amusing of all that I have ever encountered. My team of four young subalterns were briefed to be very sensitive with the tribals during our interactions as the Onge had not really been fully civilised and could at the smallest provocation attack outsiders with their primitive weapons. Before leaving the ship, we were told not to eat anything the tribals offered nor try to touch them like a shake hand or to embrace them. We were to make our conversation while standing only. Not wanting to alarm the tribals, we did not carry our machine carbine weapons but chose to wear our pistols at our hips for self-protection.
As we landed ashore in our boat at the landing point which was hardly just a shallow patch, we kept back a sentry with the boat just to ensure safety and in case of an emergency getaway. Not really knowing what to talk or to gift, in our wisdom we carried some raw rice and other grains to gift the tribals. Additionally, we carried a sea cap to be presented to the chief of the tribe. A most inappropriate gift, I thought to myself as I packed it while listening to the briefing onboard. As our contingent of four marched in our smart uniforms armed with our pistols to the opening in the thicket, we soon became aware of a large gathering of tribals in loin cloths standing in a semi-circle armed with spears, bows and arrows. From the corner of our eyes I saw the women also only in loin cloths and naked children looking on with deep interest. Presuming that the old and fat man in the centre was the chief of the tribe, we bowed and did namaste to him. Immediately, I could see that he was a person of authority as he had an interpreter of some kind standing behind him and who kept whispering something in his ears all the time.
We commenced with the usual line that “we come in peace” and “we bring gifts for your people” having seen similar statements made in movies. I was always on watch to see that the warriors were not getting spooked by keenly watching their facial expressions which were very grim all the time. After the initial pleasantries were over, now it was the time to gift the sea cap to the Chief and I was the designated member to do so as we had rehearsed earlier. With a flourish, I bowed and handed the cap to the chief who accepted it with great reluctance and tension. He immediately gave the cap to another person whispering some instructions curtly, who in turn took it and vanished into the background.
After a short uncomfortable silence as there was nothing else to talk about, the person returned with the cap and handed it back to the chief. I could see that a string was tied to it from side to side. The chief then took this cap with a big show and wore it around his neck like a necklace as a sign of acceptance of our gift. My team was astounded at this and in our nervousness we clapped our hands loudly. This led to breaking of tension and the whole congregation started clapping and cheering in their language. With that, we quickly indicated that we wanted to return and after paying our respects to the chief once again we walked back to our boat relieved to get away from that tense situation. I guess our actions may have played a small part in laying the foundation of trust and friendship amongst the Onges and people from the Indian mainland.
Such are the unique experiences in life that can never be forgotten. I have had many such encounters subsequently on the numerous occasions that I have visited these beautiful islands over the next four decades, but those initial encounters were certainly the most memorable. Later on in life, when I captained my frigate to these very islands for a special deployment, I decided to carry out an aerial recce in my ship’s helicopter to review the flora and fauna. I recall getting a taste of the same medicine that the Dutch must have received two centuries back – a volley of arrows greeted our helicopter as we overflew some islands at low altitude. I felt indeed fortunate to have tread in the footsteps of the early colonisers over the centuries on many of these islands that I had landed ashore over the years.
It is heartening to see that development is slowly coming to these beautiful islands which were closed for tourists earlier as the corridors of power have woken up to the strategic significance of these islands to India’s national security. I hope and pray that the Government of India is able to maintain the balance between development, environment preservation and protection of the indigenous population.
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