The Tribes of Andaman & Nicobar Islands

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Tribes can be thought of as “uncivilized” by a societal definition but what’s impressive to note is that these people have knowledge of the area and biodiversity like no other. They can look at a coconut and tell apart the variety, the amount of juice and the taste of it. They can shoot down the fastest of fishes and birds in one attempt. Their skills will forever remain unmatched. 

It is safe to boast that the original population of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands consists of aboriginal indigenous people, i.e. tribal people. These indigenous tribal groups, the original inhabitants who have inhabited these lands since long before the arrival of the so-called “civilians” that only came later, earliest a few hundred years ago. 

They have lived in isolation for thousands of years now and some still continue to do so. Their presence offers a glimpse into humanity’s ancient past, characterized by a reliance on hunting and gathering and a harmonious coexistence with the natural world, relatively untouched by external influences.

Hence, the tribal communities serve as a living link to our ancestral heritage, offering insights into the earliest forms of human existence. Their traditions, ceremonies, and daily practices fascinate us everyday and spark curiosity.


How many tribes are there in Andaman and Nicobar Island?

The total population of all the tribes combined sums to just a tiny 28,000. Colonization, civilization, natural disasters, endemics and a few other causes have affected the population of these tribal groups immensely. Yet there are a few groups that remain.

  • The Andamanese and Nicobarese can be split into two broad tribal groups mainly based on their place of origin.
  • The Andaman Islands are home to four ‘Negrito’ tribes – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinelese.
  • Whereas the Nicobar Islands are home to two ‘Mongoloid’ tribes – the Shompen and Nicobarese.

The ‘Negrito’ tribes are believed to have arrived in the islands from Africa up to 60,000 years ago. The term comes from their dark skin and diminutive stature. All are nomadic hunter-gatherers, hunting wild pigs and monitor lizards, and catching fish with bows and arrows. They also collect honey, roots, and berries from the forest. The ‘Mongoloid’ tribes probably came to the islands from the Malay-Burma coast several thousand years ago.

Meet The Largest Tribal Group- The Great Andamanese.

The Great Andamanese is a collective term used for around 10 different tribes that lived in the widespread islands in the Andaman. These tribes spoke different but related languages of Negrito origin and were related by culture and geography.

Until the late 18th century, the Andamanese peoples were preserved from outside influences by their fierce rejection of contacts (which included killing any shipwrecked foreigners) and by the remoteness of the islands. But after the coming of the British, things changed.

When the British first tried to enter the island in around 1788-89 the Andamanese tribes, with their total population of 5,000-8,000; were able to resist them, resulting in the British to move to Port Conwallis, a port situated on Ross Island, off the NE coast of North Andaman. (This should not be confused with Ross Island, which is opposite Port Blair, South Andaman) 

As a result of this, they had to withdraw from all attempts to obtain Port Blair and Ross island (the one opposite to Port Blair in South Andaman) for about 60 years.

However, they made another attempt to capture Port Blair in 1858 and succeeded, only to be met by the soldiers of the Great Andamanese tribe in 1859. The battle between the great Andamanese and the British regime is known as ‘The Aberdeen war’.

The tribe organized a well-planned attack on the high-ranking British officials but they were betrayed by an escaped convict Dudhanth Tiwari who had lived with the tribals for several months. As a result of the betrayal, the great Andamanese suffered heavily. They were fighting with bows and arrows against guns and artillery. Most of the young male population was killed in the battle. The population dwindled as and threatened the genes for the future survival of the tribes. Imported diseases, to which the islanders had no immunity further affected the population and by 1901 only 625 great Andamanese were left.

They shifted base to Strait island and that is where they live presently. Today only two tribes (Jeru and Bo) remain an insignificant number. The others, namely Chariar, Chari,   Kora, Tabo, Yere, Kede, Bea, Balawa, Bojigiyab, Juwai, Kol have been mostly extinct. The cultural and linguistic identities of the individual tribes have largely been lost; their members now speak mostly Hindi.

Although the Great Andamanese on Strait Island still obtain some of their diets from hunting, fishing, and gathering, they now consume rice and other Indian food and are dependent on support provided by the Indian government for survival. They now practice some agriculture and have established poultry farms as well.

The Onge- The Oldest of the Old.

Onges are one of the most primitive tribes in India. They belong to the Negrito racial stock and they have been mainly seen near the Dugong creek in Little Andaman. They are dependent on the food provided by nature and are a semi-nomadic tribe.

The Onge population fell drastically post British colonization from 672 in 1886 to 92 in 1901 but has remained stable since. The population of this tribe is stable and over 100.

The group has been provided with pucca houses, food, clothes, medicine etc. by the Administration. They have developed artistry and crafts. These tribes can make canoes. A primary school has also been functioning at the Dugong Creek settlement of Onges. 

The Onge population over the years has opened up to the locals in the island. They have now experienced the impact of outsiders, as efforts at befriending them have proved successful. But unfortunately, a major drawback here is the addiction of the Dugong males to alcohol. 6 deaths have been reported because of this already. Enquiries into ways of controlling this addiction are taking place.

The Jarwa- The Infamous Tribes of Baratang trip.

With a population between 250 to 400, the Jarwa tribe is one of the largest tribes in the Andaman Islands. For centuries this tribe has shunned all interaction with outsiders and therefore their name means “The hostile ones” or “people of the earth”.

The Jarawa are still at the primitive stage of life on earth. They mostly depend upon forest and sea for food. Wild boar and monitor lizards are consumed here. Various kinds of fruit, honey, and tubers are parts of their diet too. 

This tribe originally lived in the southeastern part of Andaman but after the British regime, they shifted to the western region of the island. They have forever been hunter-gatherers in the true sense however things have changed since the 1990’s especially after the building of the old trunk road.

The great Andaman trunk road is a 360 km long road that connects Port Blair to the western regions of Andaman. This road passes through the jungles that are home to the Jarawa community. 

The Jarwas of both sexes go completely naked. Some ornaments made with shells and palm leaves are worn by them but these are not in the sense to cover their nudity. However, in recent times, especially after the construction of the Great Andaman Trunk road, the interaction with the outer world has accelerated and induced changes in the community.

The Sentinelese- The Deadly Ones.

The Sentinelese people are said to be so hostile that their home has been named the ‘hardest place to visit in the world.

They inhabit the North Sentinel island and are the only remaining tribe in the Andamans to still maintain their isolation from the rest of the world. Nobody knows exactly how they look, the population, or how they live. 

Since 1967, the Indian governments with the help of anthropologists have tried to make contact with the tribe. They tried giving gifts of food, coconuts, etc but they were always met with hostility. The tribe showers arrows and stones at whoever comes near the island. Hence anyone who has to pass, must do so beyond the 3 nautical miles boundary.

In 2006, 2 fishermen who were fishing illegally near the island were shot by Sentinelese archers. The helicopters which were sent to retrieve the bodies were also greeted by arrows. After the tsunami, the government again tried to help them by sending a few employees to the island with gifts but again, the same response followed. Another story follows John Allen Chau, an American evangelical Christian missionary, was attacked and killed by the Sentinelese, a tribe living in isolation, when he illegally journeyed to North Sentinel Island with the aim of spreading Christianity to the tribe.

After all these incidents, the present policy of the Indian government is to leave the Sentinelese alone. Any access to North Sentinel island is strictly forbidden. 

The video below is documentation of an attempt to contact the Sentinelese:

Courtesy: Dale Andrews

The Shompen- The Semi-Nomadic Tribes.

The Shompens live in the Great Nicobar Island, are a semi-nomadic tribe. Steen Bille, a Danish admirer, was the first to witness the presence of the Shompens in 1846. One of the least studied Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) in India, The Shompens reside in the tropical rainforests of Great Nicobar. Because of their isolation for the longest period of time, very little is known about this tribal community.

Untouched, the Shompen habitat has abundant biodiversity. Campbell Bay National Park and Galathea National Park are two national parks in this region. The one and only Biosphere reserve of this UT, the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve is also here. 

In the span of 10 years, from 2001 to 2010, the population of the Shompens reduced steeply from 300 to 50. In addition to this, a few places where Shompens live, those towns also house the other Nicobarese tribes which makes it difficult to understand the lives of Shompens in isolation. 

This group practices hunting and gathering. Men and women wear minimal clothes, though ornamentation made up of the flora and fauna is quite famous. They’re made up of beads, and bamboo. The Shompens walk barefoot.

Courtesy: Charles Sagigi

The Nicobarese- The Abundant Ones.

Nicobarese constitute the larger part and they reside in all the inhabited Islands of the District. They’re also the highest in number in the entire Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Nicobarese families as a rule live jointly and these joint families are known as Tuhet. There is no individual ownership, but the Tuhet owns land, coconut and pigs. Contrary to traditional practices, love marriage is very common and the age of marriage is quite high. 

Families possess ration cards to obtain rice, wheat, sugar, and kerosene oil from Fair Price Shops, which are accessible across all the islands. Pigs and fowls are raised for celebratory gatherings. The Nicobarese have a strong affinity for stimulants, often indulging in frequent tobacco smoking. Betel nut, commonly known as pan, is the preferred stimulant and is consistently consumed.

Skilled in artistry, a lot of occupations revolve around Pottery, basketwork, making canoes and spears. People are also involved in the education sector, medicine and government jobs. 

Another interesting thing to note is that Nicobarese love to “party”. They feast, sing and dance. Hence Nicobarese often celebrate festivals together. They also participate in Sports and have even represented at the international level.

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