The spirit of the Onges

Print edition : October 21, 2005

The Onges, the nomadic hunters of Little Andaman. - BITTU SEGHAL

LITTLE ANDAMAN, the southern most island in the Andaman group, is clothed in some of the finest tropical evergreen rainforests. It has magnificent creeks, mangroves and fresh water ecosystems. Little Andaman has been the traditional home of the Onge, the indigenous community of Negrito origin whose population today is only about a 100 members.

Nomadic hunter-gatherers, Onges are thought to have inhabited the island for thousands of years. In 1957 the entire island was declared the Onge Tribal Reserve under the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR), 1956.

But a `colonisation' plan put together in the 1960s resulted in about 30 per cent of the island being freed up for the creation of settlements of migrants from mainland India, for agriculture, horticulture, and timber extraction activities. This started the process of marginalisation of the original inhabitants. According to the 2001 Census, the total population of Little Andaman is 17,528.

When the tsunami struck, the majority of the Onge population was based in the Dugong Creek, in the northern end of the island. The community did not suffer any casualty. But the moment the water receded, the Onges started moving into the forest, away from the coastline.

Senior anthropologist, Dr. Vishvajit Pandya, who has worked with and studied the community for over two decades, visited them a few weeks after the tsunami.

In a paper published on the web site of the American Anthropological Association, he describes the story of the Onges thus:

"I had a chance to visit the Ongees in the last weeks of January to find out how my old friends explained the tsunami and what they planned for their future. On January 18, 2005, I reached the Ongees of Dugong Creek, who were by now living in the deep forests northwest of the creek. Totanagey, who is now over 60, and whom I've known since 1983, was delighted to see me in the forest after a lapse of a year.

"He responded immediately to my questions: Why do you get so concerned! Earth tremors are frequent, you should know you have lived with us long enough in the forest to know that... it is just a thing that happens again and again, it's just that on the day when giyangejebey [tsunami] came, the water went away from the land very quickly and like the breathing in and out of the body the sea water had to come back very rapidly and in a big way. We saw the water and knew that more land would soon become covered with sea and angry spirits would descend down to hunt us away. But our ancestral spirits would come down to help us if we continued to be together and carried our ancestral bones [ibedangey] with us to ensure assistance from good spirits. See, if the water decreases then it has to come back and claim land, and much in the same way if humans outnumber spirits, then spirits too want to add to their community by bringing death upon humans...

"So on the morning of December 26 when the water line receded, the Ongees immediately gathered on the shores with their baskets, bows and arrows and hurled stones at the sea, for they wanted `the spirits to believe the community was still left behind submerged under the rising water level and provided evidence of what we had hunted'. They also did this so that the spirits `remained at the spot looking for those who had hurled stones at them while other spirits continued to shake the earth and throw large boulders at sea'. Once doing this, the Ongees rapidly left Dugong Creek to move far away from the coasts... "

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor