Languages: Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and various tribal languages
Capitol: Port Blair
This string of over three hundred islands lies a thousand kilometres east of Sri Lanka in the Bay of Bengal. Stretching seven hundred and fifty kilometres from end to end, it reaches from near the coast of Burma almost to Sumatra. Temperatures range between the mid-20s and the low 30s Celsius all year round with high humidity, and between late May and October is monsoon season which is often accompanied by cyclones. The islands are covered with dense jungle and ringed with white sand beaches. In the surrounding seas are some of the most varied and colourful coral and marine life in the world, a powerful attraction to those who enjoy snorkeling and scuba diving.
The Ten Degree Channel divides the Andamans, which are the larger and more heavily populated northern islands, from the twenty or so Nicobar Islands in the south. On South Andaman, the most heavily populated island, is Port Blair which is the capitol and the only large town in the entire archipelago.
Travel to the Nicobar Islands is forbidden to non Indians, and they are also not allowed in some parts of South Andaman Island, though this does not rule out the beaches in the southern part of South Andaman Island or the Wandoor National Game Park on its south west coast which has some spectacular coral reefs.
Boats can be arranged to various of the outlying Andaman Islands though, for the smaller islands, tents, food and water must be brought along. Havelock Island, four hours from Port Blair by boat, has hotels and sandy beaches. This island supplies fruit and vegetables to Port Blair, grown on cleared jungle tracts. Cinque and Neil Islands require tents; Ross and Viper Islands can be reached in day trips from Port Blair. From Wandoor National Park organized tours go to Jolly Buoy and Red Skin Islands.
The Andaman and Nicobar islands are accessible by air and sea from both Chennai and Calcutta, with all visitors entering at Port Blair. Both sea and air tickets can be tricky to arrange. Apparently due to a short runway at Port Blair, flights can not carry a full load, and there is a lot of demand for the seats. Sea passage is easier to arrange but check the schedules carefully, and make arrangements as far as possible in advance.
Of the original twelve tribal groups that occupied these islands only six remain. Contact with foreign missionaries and the resultant spread of disease took a huge toll on the lives of tribals as they had no resistance to the bacteria and viruses carried by the outsiders. Destruction of their forest environment by an Indian government that has not at all prioritized their needs took a still further toll on the lives and lifestyles of these groups. The Indian government has caused yet more deterioration in their situation by encouraging the migration to these islands of large numbers of mainland Indians and Sri Lankan Tamils, to the point where the tribal population now constitutes only one fifth of the total number of people living on the islands.
Helpless against government neglect and the tides of change, some groups have begun to interact and integrate with the majority Indian population, while others stubbornly protect their separateness and their tribal traditions.
On the Nicobars, the southern group of islands, there are two main tribal groups, fair skinned and of Mongoloid descent. The Nicobarese are the largest of all the six groups, with 22,000 members. They have fairly cordial relations with the majority Indian population and have adopted some of their ways, though they still build grass huts on stilts and follow a village level social structure with the village headman as leader.
Of the other group on the Nicobars Islands, called the Shompens, only 180 remain. They live on Great Nicobar Island in the far south, shunning contact with the rest of the population except to carry on a small trade in forest products such as nuts and honey.
On the Andaman Islands to the north, the tribal groups are darker skinned. There are no accurate indicators as to their origins. They live inland as well as on the coast, subsisting mostly on products of the forest (honey, fruit, roots) and of the sea (fish and turtles).
On Strait Island only a few families of the Great Andamanese remain. Their numbers were decimated almost a hundred and fifty years ago when missionaries' attempts to 'civilize' the group resulted in their exposure to western illnesses such as influenza and mumps which became lethal among the till then unexposed population. Five years after their first significant contact with the foreigners, almost the entire population was dead.
The Onges are the largest group on the Andaman Islands, living on Little Andaman and Rutland Island. They still follow their tribal traditions though they have felt the negative effects of the influx of non tribals, particularly in the indiscriminate cutting of the forests of their traditional territories.
On the west coast of South and Middle Andaman Islands live the Jarawas, who originally lived on the east side of South Andaman where Port Blair is now. This group also has not escaped the encroachment onto their lands though they continue to struggle to maintain their traditional lifestyles away from the main Indian population. During the second world war when the Japanese occupied these islands some of the Jarawas homes were bombed, and some also were tortured and killed for being suspected British collaborators.
West of South Island is Sentinel Island and the tribal group here is known as the Sentinelese. There has been little contact with this groups and little is known about them.
Through the centuries the tribes on these islands gained a reputation as a cruel, barbaric, even cannibalistic race. While there are true accounts of looting of trading ships that landed at these islands and the murder of their crews, it is likely that the tales of the ferocity of their inhabitants are largely myths.
Missionaries who came here to convert the tribals to Christianity were on the whole dealt with courteously. These missionaries, who came from Holland and France, were quite unsuccessful in their work, eventually retreating from the disease and hardship of their lives there, leaving behind a population decimated by diseases these missionaries had themselves, if innocently enough, brought.
In the early 1700s these islands were the base for the Maratha admiral, Kanhoji Angre, who captured and looted many British and European merchant ships, but was never himself captured. He died in 1729, and the islands were subsequently taken over by the British to be used as a penal colony. In the late 1700s a Lieutenant Blair decided that South Andaman Island would be the location of the prison. It was not till more than a hundred years later that the 'Cellular Jail' was built in the town that took his name, Port Blair. Initial attempts to settle on the islands were unsuccessful because would-be settlers were defeated by malaria and other diseases. (Malaria is still common on the islands today.) Finally, after the 1857 Mutiny, the British began to bring political prisoners here. The clearing of the land for the prison and the construction of the prison buildings were accomplished by the prisoners themselves under appalling conditions. Of the first group of almost eight hundred prisoners, over one third died or were killed in the first few months, some by tribals whose land was being invaded. The number of prisoners grew into the thousands in just a few years. The Cellular Jail was constructed between 1896 and 1908 and used until just before Independence to confine political prisoners from India. It was a huge facility consisting of a central tower with six wings of individual cells projecting out from the centre (of which three remain). In the decades leading up to Independence many Quit India activists spent time here. The penal colony was finally and permanently closed in 1945. It is now a tourist attraction of Port Blair.
The influx of non tribals began after Independence when many Hindus in Bengal and Bangladesh were left homeless by Partition and so were given land on these islands. To this group, plus what former prisoners elected to stay, were added many more Sri Lankan Tamils, and together they far outnumber the tribals. Between the Indians and the tribals there is overall little contact. Recently, the Indian government has made some attempts to rectify the years of mismanaged development and neglect of the environment and of the tribal communities, though for the tribals
this will probably be too lttle too late.
Additionally, development of the islands for tourism, and up coming air links to other Asian tourist centers like Puket in Thailand, will strain the eco-system of the islands. So will the current rush of backpackers eager to sample the relatively untainted beaches and romantic life on a tropical beach. Carefree, and careless, hardcore backpackers have been arriving on the islands, camping on the beaches without proper water and sanitation and straining relationships with locals who live near the beaches, using their wells without permission and lounging naked on the beaches. Some become obsessed with the "surviving on a desert island" phenomenon and spend much of their time terrorizing the local fish and fauna, trying to snare birds, and catch fish with mosquito nets or spears. They leave behind beaches fouled with (their) human waste and makeshift shelters, bottles, and garbage, and even used syringes and other dangerous items. Paradise bespoiled.