Winds over theNicobars1
 

Simron Jit Singh


Reproduced with permission from India International Centre (IIC)
First published in IIC Quarterly "The Human Landscape", Winter 2000-Spring 2001, Vol. 28(1):123-138, September 2001 
Copyright of this article is held by India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi

 

If there is one thing that dictates the lives of the people ofNicobar islands, it is the winds. Whether it is the making of acanoe, celebration of festivals, performing of rituals, visitingother islands, or simply everyday life, it is the winds that blowover Nicobars that have the last say.

It was late April in the year 1979. There had been no regularinter-island shipping service for some weeks now which had rendered agroup of sixteen students studying on the island of Car Nicobartiringly restless to go to their home island of Chaura. With theirsummer vacations drawing to a close, the boys decided to make it on adug-out canoe. The island of Chaura is the first inhabited islandseveral hours south of Car Nicobar. A young boy by the name ofSylvanus convinced the others that they should approach Euso, theheadman of Perka village, who owned a good canoe which they could useto go to Chaura.

"You are young students and have no idea about the sea. Who willlead you if I agree to give you my canoe?", said Euso to the boys ina highly concerned manner but also realising the eagerness of theyoung boys to go home.

"We will find out but we must go and see our families", said theyoung Sylvanus.

The boys decided to approach Edmond, an old man from Kakanavillage with a very accuratre knowledge of the winds and the sea tobe their guide to Chaura.

"The holidays are about to end and we want to go to Chaura, ourhome, to see our family. You are one of the few who know the sea andcan predict the weather. Euso will provide us the canoe if you agreeto accompany us", said Sylvanus with a hopeful yearning in hiseye.

Edmond took pity on the boys. He looked at the sea and the sky andafter some thought he warned, "Tommorrow the sea and the wind isfavourable but we should make sure to arrive at Chaura beforemid-day. However, the sea will not favour you to return verysoon".

The students couldn't believe their ears. Obsessed with thethought of going to Chaura and to their homes the next morning, theyrejoiced all night.

Early next morning before the crack of dawn, the boys, on Euso'sdug-out canoe and Edmond as their guide set sail from the coast ofMalacca located on the eastern side of Car Nicobar island. In threehours they crossed the uninhabited island of Batimalv. The sea andthe wind favoured the boys' tender yearning to go home. By 9 am theysaw the hills of Teressa island, that neighboured the tiny island ofChaura. The boys screamed with excitement and rowed even faster. Anhour later Chaura was in sight. This instilled fresh energy into theboys and made them light with humour at the thought of setting footon the home island. At 11:30 am they dropped anchor and landed onChaura.

Half an hour later began a gentle breeze from the south-west. Thebreeze soon turned into a violent storm uprooting many trees oncoastal Chaura, followed by massive rains. The South West monsoonshad arrived. Edmond's prediction was right.

- A true story narrated to the author by Rev. Father Sylvanusof Chaura island

II

Located some 1200 kms off the east coast of India, the Nicobarislands are part of the larger Andaman and Nicobar archipelago,forming a north to south arched chain of 850 kms in the Bay ofBengal. Most geologists are of the opinion that these islands arepeaks of a submerged mountain range arching from Arakan Yoma(Myanmar) in the north to Sumatra (Indonesia) in the south (Saldhana1989, Dagar et al. 1991 in Sankaran 1998). As in many othersituations within insular south-east Asia, the rise of sea levelsfollowing the Pleistocene period led to the isolation of a oncecontinental mass giving its floral and faunal endemicity.

The 319 islands with an area of 8249 Km_ houses outstandingtropical diversity. Although taxonomic surveys are still far fromcomplete, biologists have already identified some 250 species ofbirds, 85 species of reptiles, 17 species of ambhibians, 60 speciesof mammals and thousands of invertebrates and plants. The littoraland marine environments of the archipelago are no less varied andinclude essential nesting beaches for four species of endangered seaturtles, seagrass beds which support the rare dugong or sea cow andone of the world's largest mangrove ecosystems with extensivenetworks of mangrove creeks inhabited by saltwater crocodiles and thegiant water monitor lizard. The islands are also fringed byspectacular coral reefs which support thousands of species of fish,coelentrates, molluscs, crustaceans and sea snakes (ANET, 1998).

Concomitant to this enchanting ecological diversity, the islandsare also home to six aboriginal tribes, two of which are stillhunter-gatherers and employ bows and arrows to safeguard theirterritories from the outside world.2 These originalinhabitants belong to two major groups &emdash; Negrito andMongoloid. The Negrito tribes, namely Great Andamanese, Jarawa,Sentinelese and Onges inhabit the Andaman islands and the Nicobareseand the Shompens of the mongoloid group belong to the Nicobarislands. The densely clustered Andaman islands and the widelyscattered Nicobar islands are separated by the 10 degree channel(situated on the 10 degree latitude) which is known for its notorioussea currents where many a small vessels have disappeared into thedepths of the ocean in the past.

A large part of the Andamans that are inhabited by the four tribesand the entire Nicobar group has been declared as a tribal reserveand entry has been restricted to these areas under the Protectionof Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (PATR) of 1956. The paperrestricts itself to the apparently alike, and yet so diverseNicobarese and how the various forms of cultural expressions theypractice help in regulating their relationship to their immediateenvironment.

III

The archipelago of Nicobar consists of 22 islands out of whichonly 12 are inhabited. The Nicobars can be geographically classifiedas northern, central and southern groups. Generally belonging to themongoloid race, it is not known how and when the islands werepeopled. Many scholars trace their origin either to Sumatra, Burmaand Malaysia that evolved on its own with little or no interferencefrom outside for a long time until recently. Some literatures pointout the intermingling of the natives with that of the people ofBurma, China and Malaysia who often visited these islands for trade.This is quite apparent in the central and southern groups that haveChinese and Malay influence in the features of the Nicobarese.

The first island in the northern group is that of Car Nicobar, themost densely populated in all the islands of Nicobars and also nowthe district headquarter. Falling on an important ancient sea routeto South East Asia and having abundance of food and sweet watersupply for the replenishment of sailors, many a ships anchored nearCar Nicobar under the pretext of trade with the islanders. Hence, ofthe 12 inhabited islands, Car Nicobar has had the most outsidecontact with traders, mariners, colonisers and missionaries sinceolden days.

The islands of Chaura, Teressa and Bompoka fall next in line southof Car Nicobar. Chaura is the only island in the entire Nicobar groupof islands that mastered the art of making fine pottery and canoes.Besides, it carried a fearful reputation for possessing immensemagical skills which forbade anyone in the Nicobars from making orusing any other pottery other than that made in Chaura. In thisrespect, Chaura used to dominate inter-island trade where pottery andcanoes were concerned. To quote from the Andaman and Nicobar ImperialGazetteer of India of 1909, "Chowra is the holy land, the cradleof the race, where men are wizards, a belief that the inhabitants ofChowra turn to good account for keeping the control of the internaltrade in their own hands". Chaura makes even pottery today, butis primarily used on festive occassions for cooking food. Theindustrial aluminium pots are fast replacing the use of traditionalpottery of Chaura.

The central group, generally called Nancowry, consists of theislands of Nancowry, Kamorta, Katchal and Trinket. The Nancowryharbour, being one of the safest natural harbours in the world,attracted the attention of european colonisers since the16th century namely the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danesand finally the British before becoming part of Independent India in1947.

The southern group consists of the inhabited islands of Kondul,Pilomillow, Little Nicobar with the terminal point being reached inthe island of Great Nicobar. That part of Great Nicobar which iscalled Indira point represents the southern most tip of India.

The inhabitants of the Nicobars according to the estimates of theongoing 2001 census is a little over 30,000, the majority being thatof the Nicobarese tribe. Though the Nicobarese commonly belong to themongoloid race of people and have common language roots in theMon-khymer group of languages, they can be clearly classified intosix distinct dialect groups, such that the inhabitants of one groupcan hardly converse with that of the other. Starting from north tosouth, the first group consists of the inhabitants of Car Nicobar,the second being that of Chaura, third being that of Teressa &Bompoka together, fourth consisting of the inhabitants of the islandsof Katchal, Kamorta, Nancowry and Trinket together, the fifth beingthat of Kondul, Pilomillow and Little Nicobar together and the sixthbeing that of the Nicobarese settled on the west coast of GreatNicobar. Besides language variations, there are sometimes strongvariations in most forms of cultural expressions, socialorganisation, kinship system, art and craft, etc. among and withingeographically large groups as will be expemplified later in thispaper.3

IV

There exist several legends of origin for different islands. Forexample, the Car Nicobarese believe that

"a certain man, from some unknown country, arrived at the Nicobars on a flat, with a pet female dog, and settled in Car Nicobar. In course of time he espoused the bitch and begot a son. When this son was grown up, he concealed his mother by covering her with a ngong, a kind of peticoat made of coco-palm leaves, and after killing his father in the jungle, took his mother to wife. From such parents the Nicobarese believe they originated, and it is their progeny who now people the island" (Kloss, 1903).

The loin cloth traditionally worn by the men has an end danglinglike a tail; and the women still wear the ngong, the petticoatwhich was her first dress. Some of the head dress (eg.kamilee) worn by males during festivals have two horns,symbolic of their mother's ears. It is owing to this belief that theNicobarese treat their dogs very kindly and never beat them up.

In a myth recorded by Justin (1990)

"a pregnant Burmese woman landed at the sea beach in Moulmein, Seti village of Car Nicobar. She landed on the island with her pet dog. Later she gave birth to a boy who, when adult, had sexual intercourse with his mother. According to this the people of car Nicobar are supposed to be descendants of this incestuous or oedipal union".

The elderly persons of Car Nicobar also tell that their ancestorswere a group of exiles from the tenasserium coast of Burma, who hadto leave that land in the wake of a violent revolution(Syamchaudhuri, 1977).

Justin (1990) also recorded that

"among the people of Chowra there is a belief that four persons were drifting on a wooden raft from some unknown country. They landed at Hiwah on the east coast of the island and established their first settlement here".

The Nicobarese of Katchal believe that a couple landed on a raftfrom China who later had a daughter. When the daughter reachedmaturity, the father had intercourse with his daughter and this ishow the population of Katchal grew.

The people of Nancowry have their own story of how they came toinhabit their island. It is believed that

"the inhabitants of Nancowry came from Great Nicobar. Before they came, Nancowry was inhabited by Som Chiyiha, cannibals with very hard tails with which they could even split hard wood. They lived in a village called Chiyiha. The Nicobarese of Great Nicobar were being invaded continuously by outsiders and so some fled into the interiors of Great Nicobar who are now Shompens, some remained behind on the west coast and about 100-120 of them came to Nancowry on four canoes. On reaching Nancowry, the four canoes landed in a place called Muah-hinmai. When they landed there, they found no water. Then one canoe shifted to Payuha, another to Hitui, the third to Laneatnga and the fourth to Hinem. The people of Hitui were tired of being killed by the Som Chiyiha. Hence they decided to get rid of them. They collected all the stinging bees and collected them in a hishoya, an empty coconut shell, which they presented to the Som Chiyiha. When they opened the shell, the bees bit them and chased them into the sea" (as narrated by Globus of Hitui village).

There exist still several legends and variations concerning theorigin of Nicobarese on their respective islands or villages. Thoughthe existence of such diverse legends makes it difficult to drawdefinite conclusions about their origin, it is apparent that theislands were not peopled at one point of time in migration or thatthey came from one source but that it has been a gradual process ofsettlement from island to island, whether from outside the Nicobarsor from within.

V

Before the advent of Christianity at the beginning of thiscentury, animism was the only religion of the Nicobarese. This wasmarked by spirit worship, existence of witch doctors and animalsacrifice namely of pigs and fowls. Besides this, elaborate birth anddeath ceremonies, ossuary feasts, rituals relating to ancestors,seasons and natural environment were observed. Within the Nicobaresecosmology, trees, plants, animals and humans were treated as asingle, spiritual, moral and regenerative system. For eg.

'the canoe is regarded as an animate being with supernatural power which abides in it, controls its destiny, ensures safety in voyages and protects it from natural calamity. This belief finds expression in the magical observances which the Car Nicobarese devoutly practice by feeding, sheltering and perching canoes as though they were living beings sensitive of treatment and attention' (Syamchaudhuri, 1977).

Their intimate connection to their non-human surroundings can befelt even today in the manner they treat their environment as livingand an extension of themselves. Such a participating consciousnessbecomes very tangible during the celebration of traditional festivalswhich consists of highly elaborate rituals to please the spirits ofthe forest, the sea and those of ancestors. This inseparable realmsof material and spirits formed the dominant feature of theNicobarese's consciousness.

Instinctive by nature, the Nicobarese live beyond the modernconstraints of the concept of time. Their needs are limited and atime budget study has shown that a household of nine members togetherneeds less than four hours of work everyday to meet their metabolicrequirements (Singh et al., forthcoming). As in mosthunter-gatherer societies, accumulation and long term storage of foodis rather unknown among the Nicobarese. They have adapted to theannual cycle of nature's bounty and know when it is time to harvest aparticular species, working only when there is a need for food,shelter or clothing. This has been invariably interpreted forlaziness and an indicator for being uncivilised by generalobservers.

VI

Traditionally horticulturalists, the Nicobarese raise pigs andchickens, and live off the abundant food resources available on theirislands and in the sea. Their gardens consists of a variety of cropslike bananas, yam, papaya and jackfruit. Besides, the Nicobareseselect from a large variety of wildly available range of edibleleaves, tubers and fruits (e.g. pandanus, cycas, coconuts, arecanutsetc.). Some of the food, from both sea and land, is available all theyear round, but there are yet many that are connected to the seasons,chiefly the dry and the rainy. The seasons are marked by a shift inthe direction of winds. The rainy season starts with the onset of thesouth west monsoon winds in the month of May-June and the partiallydry season is announced with the beginning of the north-east winds inOctober-November. The completely dry season is experienced only fromJanuary to April.

The shift in the winds are marked by elaborate festivals andceremonies. Although there are some variations on how the differentislands and also villages organise these festivals, even calling themdifferent names, the main idea being that to beg for abundance offish, pigs, chicken and forest produce for the coming season.

With the organisation of these festivals, several restrictionslike the consumption of some varieties of foods during the lastseason, hunting and fishing of certain species etc. are lifted, andnew ones imposed. These restrictions are invariably based on theoccurance and availability of the different food varieties. Suchregulations through cultural expressions ensures the availability ofresources all the time and prevents the overuse and eventualextinction of a particular food when it is scarce.

Hence, the importance of winds in the life of the Nicobaresecannot be understated. The north east winds are welcomed with thecelebration of the Kinleava festival during the Oliovmonths (i.e. from November to April) on the islands of Nancowry,Trinket and Kamorta. A main feature of this festival is the erectionof kanaya(s) &emdash; poles of approximately 20 mts heightdecorated chiefly with tender coconut leaves - in front of thevillage. Besides its ritualistic connotation, it also indicates thatthe village has already organised the Kinleava festival forthat season. An important part of the Kinleava festival is theconstruction of inyun, a big fishing trap, which is thenplaced in a quiet place in the sea near the village at low tide acouple of days before the construction of the first kanaya.From the moment the inyun is immersed in the sea, making noisein the village by everyone is strictly forbidden till the day whenthe first kanaya is erected. The silence is broken by thesimultaneous striking down the previous year's kanaya and theshouting of 'Esseal' (come on). Once the first kanaya(usually there are 4 to 6 for a village) is installed, the villagegathers in the community house and amidst an atmosphere of festivity,harong or the vociferous and ritualistic begging for abundancefrom their ancestors and the divine takes place. Every alternate day,the inyun is emptied of the fishes and consumed by the memberswho fetch them. This goes on until the first few days of the wanningphase of the moon. After the last inyun has been emptied,young men go to sea to spear flying fish (Cypselurus comatus)which in turn is used as a bait for catching the Giant Barracuda(Sphyraena barracuda) or danduse as locally called,which was hitherto forbidden.

Though the islands of Nancowry, Kamorta and Trinket belong to onelanguage group, slight variations in the celebration ofKinleava do exist even here. For example, on Trinket island,Kinleava is inaugurated by eating crabs caught on Katchalisland and Tapong village inaugurates the same with snails fromTrinket island. Though most, yet not all villages erectkanayas and make inyuns. The ceremonial food for thisfestival is humlem (made from the fruit of Cycasrumphii) together with boiled yams and bananas.

With the beginning of south west monsoon winds in May and June,Anuchoilu is organised by most villages in the central group.For 2-3 nights the village gathers on the shore and several canoes goto sea for catching Kauwa fish. Each canoe, representing ateam, gets 6 dry coconut leaves that burn from one end to the otherin the manner of a torch to help spear the fish. The team thatcatches the most number of Kauwa fish till the 6 torches areburnt out makes a record. The record is then compared with previousrecords and is treated with honour. From this day, danduse,humlem,some varieties of pandanus and some other previouslyeaten foods become forbidden. On the neighbouring Katchal island,Anuchoilu is celebrated rather elaborately and is an importantfestival.

The island of Chaura organises its annual pig festival orPanuohonot (in memory of their ancestors) at the onset of thenorth east winds. This is celebrated in an incomparably differentmanner from that of the other islands. The population of Chaura isdivided into 5 clans with a chief to lead it. Each year, according torotation system, a clan is responsible for organising the pigfestival, with some help from members of the other clans. Thepreparation period of the festival is for several months but theactual festival lasts for about 3 weeks. The Elpanam(community house on the sea shore) is the venue for the festival andis beautifully decorated with fruits, tubers, coconuts, bananas andtender leaves of coconuts for the purpose. Colourful flags, dependingon the number of tuhets (extended families) in the organisingclan, are hoisted in memory of the dead. During the first 4 days ofthe festival some 200 pigs are slaughtered and another 100 or so overthe remaining days of the festival. Before the slaughter of each pig,a fight takes place between that pig and usually a young male fromany family except from that of the owner of that pig. The festivalconsists of various stages with short intermittent periods of rest.Dancing, singing, drinking toddy and feasting all night are the moreimportant parts of the festival. Forbidden foods during the festivalare fish, lemon, papaya, jackfruit and partly coconut. The festivalends with a special pig sacrifice called hancheha whichincludes smearing of its blood on ones' bodies, drinking toddy,singing, with the grand finale, a canoe race.

The south west monsoons are welcomed on Chaura with yet anotherfestival but less elaborate than the pig festival. It is calledKancheuollo or the chicken festival celebrated in the month ofMay. The festival begins with the chasing away of the devil and allevil spirits that may be hiding on the island. On a full moon night,all the grass is burned down and a decorated raft (hanton)made of three yaman trees is constructed with a sail forconveying captured evil spirits. The raft is brought to the sea andis allowed to be carried away by the south west winds towards theuninhabited island of Tillangchong, where a lot of evil spirits arebelieved to live. Once the hanton has set sail, a stick fightamong the people is organised to scare off disease and evil spiritsthat may be clinging to the body. A week later or so, three daysbefore the no moon night, Kancheuollo festival begins. Forthree days everyone is supposed to walk with their hands foldedbehind and speaking (except Euchtore pung pungkalav, meaningexcuse me), making loud noises, lighting or cooking outsidethe house is forbidden. The main food during this period is chicken.On the fourth day, at the crack of dawn, with the breaking of acoconut, the restrictions are removed and the festival draws to aclose.4

The Nicobarese have survived thousands of years of remote andisolated existence and intimate relationship with their environment.They have unfolded the secrets of nature, whether benign or fatal,and have used it to their advantage. They have mastered the languageof the forests, the sea, the sky, the wind, and the moon. They havelearnt to tune in with the harmony of their natural surroundings, itsnuances, vicissitudes, opportunities and availability of resources.Such knowledge about the environment has been passed down acrossgenerations in the form of sayings, folktales, cultural expressions,rituals, taboos, etc. It is against this backdrop of celebratingnature and its varied forms that gives the Nicobars its semantic andcultural richness. 

VII 

These, however, are rare sights today. Many a times the winds gounattended. They come and go, as faithful as ever, but they do notreceive the same welcome as before. Even when they are, it lacks theenthusiasm and the warmth as in former times. The gradualdisintegration of the metaphysical realm that once formed an integralpart of their daily lives and way of thinking is now replaced by aharsh physical reality. Their belief and role of the supernaturalelement in their lives is disappearing. Elaborate burial ceremonies,ancestor worship, old practices connected to child birth, ritualsrelating to the winds, nature and the spirits are on the decline.These are replaced by christian celebrations like Christmas andEaster.

Christianity had started to take roots in the early 1920s when thefirst group of Nicobari boys returned to Car Nicobar from Rangoon(Burma) after receiving education and training in missionary work.John Richardson, later Bishop in 1950 and first Member of Parliamentfrom Nicobars in independent India, was prominent among them. Hebecame the most dynamic force in the lives of the Nicobarese andbecame responsible for what the Nicobarese are today. In 1936 thefirst Anglican Church was constructed on Car Nicobar and an era ofChristianity and social transformation hetherto unknown began.

The introduction of currency in the 1950s, growing contact withthe global economy together with the development efforts by theadministration have had an adverse effect on the delicate,self-regulatory relationship of the Nicobarese with theirenvironment. There is now little need to keep in tune with naturesince life resources are easily available from the outside worldthrough trade and aid. Hence, with the gradual eclipsing ofindigenous values and knowledge systems by those based on therationality of science, unsustainable trends on the islands havetriggered off.

From an entirely subsistence society, the Nicobarese are todaydependent on a large amount of imports and exports with mainlandIndia. Coconuts, which in olden times were only used as part of theirdiet, feeding their pigs and occasional bartering with passingtraders in exchange of rice, iron and cloth is now the main casheconomy together with arecanuts. Coconut today is heavily exported inthe form of copra (dehydrated coconut ready for oilextraction) in exchange for food supplies and other previously not sonecessary commodities. While exports consists of renewable andbio-degradable products, the imports are mostly just the oppositelike fossil fuels, metals and ores and other construction material, awide range of electronic gadgets, chemical products, vehicles,plastics, batteries, pesticides etc.

The new material culture representative of todays industrialisedworld presently acts as a powerful dynamic force for the constantincrease in the material and energetic throughput of the islands.Annual domestic material consumption has risen from 1.5 tons percapita to 2 tons per capita on Trinket island over a period ofhundred years, more so in the last decade. The annual energeticthroughput for the same period has risen from 21 Giga Joules tonearly 30 Giga Joules per capita, most of the increase being thatfrom imported fossil fuels necesssary to run boats for handlingimports and exports of commodities (Singh et al.,forthcoming). The use of traditional building materials forconstruction of huts are on the decline and are being fast replacedby imported concrete. The switch from the direct bartering ofcoconuts as in olden times to the new production method of makingcopra has further imposed a drain on the ecosystem since ahuge amount of wood energy (900 grams of firewood to produce one kiloof copra) is required to bake the coconuts over fire beforeexporting.

Dietary patterns too have undergone tremendous transformation.Pandanus, the main source of carbohydrates in olden times is replacedby imported rice. Horticulture, or the planting of food gardens islimited only to a few households since the young generation aregradually taking a strong dislike for yams, potatoes, tubers,bananas, jackfruit and other garden and forest produce. There is astrong affinity for rice, lentils, spicy curries and cooked seafood.

And the most unfortunate of all changes is the fast colonisationof their lands and economy by mainland south Indian immigrants.Originally coming to the islands as contractors, temporaryconstruction labourers and government employees for variousdevelopment projects and for local administration, most of them havestayed behind by starting their own small enterprises, marryingtribal girls or becoming employed with those who already becameestablished. In the central group, the population of non-tribals haverisen from 1401 in 1971 to 4268 in 1991, (official census) almost thesame as that of the tribals now. It has been calculated that theinflux of non-tribals is growing at the rate of 15% per year. This isdespite the fact that the Nicobars is a strictly prohibited areaunder the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (PATR) of1956.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that these illegal settlers havepowerful political clout because of their number and have been alwayspatronised in establishing trading enterprises to export copra,arecanuts and other marine resources from these islands and in turnimport food and other necessary commodities. Needless to say thatsuch economic monopolisation have rendered the simple tribalshelpless who have little knowledge of the tactics of mainlandbusiness. Under these circumstances, copra and arecanut prices arearbitrarily fixed by the traders and so the more simpler ones haveforever entered a cycle of debt.

At the same time, the growing population of the Nicobarese havenot been left with many economic options within their own islands. Nolonger subsistence, they are dependent to a large extent on the whimsand fancies of the world market. Fluctuation of prices and demand forcopra and arecanuts far from their islands affect their everydaylives. Due to lack of enterpreneurial skills and knowledge of trade,they stand nowhere as compared to the opportunistic non-tribalsettlers. Additionally, they face an evergrowing threat to be exiledfrom their own lands by the immigrant population.5

Besides external threats, there are undercurrents of internalcultural colonisation and building up of a social heirarchy as aresult of inter-group and inter-island dynamics. For example, CarNicobar, that has been exposed most to the outside world since longis considered socially and culturally superior to all other groups.To have the knowledge of Car Nicobarese language has the sameimportance as one that knows english in mainland India. Similary,Nancowry is considered socially superior to that of Kondul andPilomillow of the southern group.

VIII

The covetous gaze of western style development, missionary work,the global economy and the consequent triumph of the cartesianparadigm over the metaphysics of participating consciousness has setthe Nicobars to experience a new kind of material and social culture.Are the Nicobarese happy? This would be an appropriate question toask.

The winds of change have no doubt opened up a whole new horizon,opportunities and to a certian degree material prosperity to thepeople of Nicobars. However, it has also set them in a race of evergrowing discontentment and existentialism of modern life once unknownto these islanders. The enticements of consumerism offered by cinemaand television clash with the harsh reality of everyday life, therebycreating grounds for disillusionment. The young generation are nolonger interested in their traditional occupations, nor can theycomprehend the problems and difficulties of modern life. Their needshave grown as a result of acculturation and cannot be met withunchanged technology and an old form of metaphysical and socialconsciousness (see also Justin, 1990).

Their acceptance to this change has made an everlasting dent intheir original perception of their environment that they onceregarded as sacred to the one as being a repository of resources tobe exploited. A kind of ambiguity has been thrust upon them asChristianity, development projects and increasing outside contact hasobliged them to defy divine prohibition of nature.

The destruction of their psychological landscape is not, as wehave seen, a scientific but a political and historical process. Thereis no logic of scientific discovery but rather a slow institutionalgrafting manipulated by an act of faith that the process will lead tosuperior knowledge which will in turn lead to their well beingthrough control over their environment. This is what guides muchdevelopment thinking in todays industrialised world &emdash; the ideaof environment not as ontologically part of the people who give anddraw sustenance from it, but resting on its separation andsubordination. The result is not only the disintegration and abuse ofman-nature relations and raising questions about sustainabilty, butalso pyschological dismemberment among and within individuals.

Will the Nicobarese ever heed the winds again, rejoice and revelin their tranquil surroundings. Will they ever hear the slow longdrawl of the old Nicobari songs that warned the people to listen tothe sounds of nature and live with it in harmony? Or will they everhear the courtship music or the complain of a friend through thenotes of Tinkang (an extinct single stringed instrument)? Howlong will there be the sounds of the fluttering of flags or that ofthe leaves on a Kanaya in the north east winds? The answerperhaps, is blowin' in the wind.

 

Selected References

ANET, 1998. ANET News, Newsletter of the Andaman &Nicobar Environmental Team, Number 1, February 1998, Port Blair.

Chakravarti, Adhir (1994), 'Andaman and Nicobar Islands: EarlyHistory' in Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Challenges ofDevelopment, Edited by Suryanarayan, V. & Sudarsen, V.(1994), Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd. Delhi, India

Das, H.H. & Rath, R.N. (1991) 'Impact of Modernisation on theTribals of Andaman and Nicobar Islands', in The Tribals of Andaman& Nicobar Islands, Delhi, Ashish Publishing House

Gupta, Arun Das, (1994), 'The Andaman-Nicobar Islands in the Tradeand Navigation of the Bay of Bengal 1500-1850' in Andaman andNicobar Islands: Challenges of Development, Edited bySuryanarayan, V. & Sudarsen, V. (1994), Konark Publishers Pvt.Ltd. Delhi, India

Justin, A., 1990. The Nicobarese. Seagull Books, Calcutta,on behalf of the Anthropological survey of India.

Kloss, C.B., 1903. Andamans and Nicobars &emdash; the Narrativeof a Cruise in the Schooner 'Terrapin'. London (reprint 1971. NewDelhi: Vivek Publishing).

Sankaran, R. 1998. The Impact of Nest Collection on theEdible-nest Swiftlet in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. SalimAli Centre for Orinothology & Natural History, Coimbatore,India

Singh, S.J. et al., re-published on this web-site.'Society's Metabolism and Labour in a Local Context: Trinket Island',in Population and Environment, Vol. 22, issue 5, May 2001.Kluwer Academic/Human Sciences Press, Inc. NY, USA

Syamchaudhuri, N.K. (1977), The Social Structure of Car NicobarIslanders, An Ethnic Study of Cognation, Anthropological Surveyof India, Calcutta

 

Endnotes

1 This paper is based on several months of field work over thelast 2 years within the framework of an ongoing INTACH project fundedby the Government of India (Department of Culture, Ministry of HRD).The paper contains several local terms which were recorded as itappeared to sound to the author during field work. Since the Nancowrylanguage has no script of its own and use only that of Car Nicobar,it is not possible to have universally accepted spellings of localterms in Nancowry.

2 The Jarawas and the Sentinelese have survived the colonial erabetter than the other groups. While both of them have resistedstrongly with bows and arrows, the Sentinelese have been ensured acertain level of security mainly because they live on a small islandsurrounded by a raging sea. The Jarawas, having been befriendedrecently following obsessive contact missions by anthropologists andlocal administration in a bid to civilise them since the early 1970s,have not been so lucky lately.

3 A large number of studies, it has been observed, seemed to havefocussed only in the documentation of the culture of Car Nicobarwhich has been many a times mistakably generalised to be the cultureof the entire Nicobar group of islands. The current study on whichthis paper is based discovered incredible variations among a race ofpeople apparently so alike and living so close together, so much sothat it would be an act of injustice to classify them as one. Moreurgently stated, there has been little effort to 'sensitively'document these sometimes strong, sometimes subtle cultural variationsbetween these six groups. With growing outside contact and in a bidto accomodate them into the 'mainstream' society through variousdevelopment programs of the local administration, a lot of thesecultural expressions has been and is being fast lost to unrecordedhistory.

4 The paper presents only a summary of some of the festivalsconnected to seasons. Review of written literature reveals anexceptionally desolate picture of what has been recorded of festivalsconnected to seasonality as celebrated by the Nicobarese.Additionally, it was found that interview methods that have been usedto record the festivals were completely unreliable. Sequences,ritualistic details and occurances of some events recorded throughactual observations were quite different from what was documentedthrough interviews before the festival. The Nicobarese tend to followan instinctive social pattern that unfolds while the process ison.

5 Very recently, the local administration had fixed a minimumsupport price for copra through a co-operative called NAFED. Thepositive results of this are yet to be seen because the contestorsare no small bet.

 

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