03 January 2005

Great Andamanese Survived Tsunumi

Some good news, a tribe of 50 survives in Andamans
PORT BLAIR, JANUARY 2 The king and queen live. So do their 48-odd subjects. After days of search, the Great Andamanese—the tiny aboriginal tribe believed to have been the first to come in direct contact with the British—have been found.

All 50 of them were spotted sitting huddled together on a hillock on the desolate Strait Island in the Andamans, their little kingdom for decades together, having miraculously survived the killer tsunamis last Sunday.

‘‘They are alive! I can’t tell you what a loss it would have been had they too been lapped up by the surging waters,’’ said an elated Tribal Welfare Officer Shabnam. ‘‘An entire chapter would have been erased from history.’’

An extremely tight-knit tribe that rarely ventures out of the thickly wooded Strait Island or marries outside the community, the Great Andamanese have fascinated anthropologists and researchers worldwide. Ruled by a king and queen, the tribe however is in danger of losing its unique identity with its numbers dwindling and with the modern world knocking at its doors. Of the 50-odd Great Andamanese living today, about 10 are in contractual jobs with different government agencies.

Shabnam, who has been working with the tribe, was there on the island when the waves struck Sunday morning. ‘‘I was working in the laboratory when suddenly I could hear the water, as if it was racing forward every passing moment. By then the ground too had started shaking and my first thought was to preserve the documents on the Great Andamanese, which have priceless information. I hurriedly tried to put them on the upper shelf, but within no time the water had reached where I was; it was gushing in from everywhere. The door burst open and I could see that the Great Andamanese too were being swept up by the waters. There was no escape.’’

Shabnam says she felt herself too being pulled away when she saw the bark of a coconut tree and hung on. ‘‘I saw that by God’s grace, some of the tribe members too had clung to floating coconut barks.’’

An old man from the tribe then signalled to all of them to come towards a coconut tree. Around 14 of them climbed up, holding children close to their chests, and stayed there waiting for the sea to recede.

‘‘We ran. I don’t remember where, but all of us were together on the hill,’’ a child says, busy playing with others of his age at Adi Basera, where the district officials have evacuated them. A bare-chested man stops by to listen to the conversation. ‘‘Thank God we are all safe. The hill saved us,’’ he adds.

Pointing to an old man lying on a bed inside the room, an official says: ‘‘He is Jirake, the king. Surmai, his wife, is the Queen. As is customary, the senior-most member of the clan becomes the king.’’

However, the official adds, ‘‘The institution of the king is slowly losing its sheen. Youngsters don’t want to adapt to their ways of life. Many of them have studied till about Class VIII and don’t really take much interest in what the elders care about. While they want the children to learn their traditional arts of drum-making, crafting waist bands etc, the youngsters want to move out.’’

The tsunamis, many fear, may prove the final blow. Taking every precaution from its side, the district administration has settled the Great Andamanese in Adi Basera for now, in a little-explored corner of the Andaman Islands. The zone has been declared a ‘Restricted Area’, guarded by security men, and placed out of bounds of the public.

The Government has also stepped up efforts to locate the other aboriginal tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Joint Director of Tribal Welfare Department Dr N K Ghatak rushed to Port Blair from Delhi this afternoon while other senior officials are expected soon. The team would tour all the islands where the aborigines are known to exist.
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/full_story.php?content_id=61997


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