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Jarawa Tribe of the Andamans – The People and Culture

Published on July 20th 2016 by staff under Tribe Facts

The Jarawas are one of the oldest aboriginal tribes, native to the Andaman Islands in India. Their current population is estimated to be around 250-400 individuals, with their numbers surpassing that of other indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman Islands.

History of origin and present-day population

They are believed to have first occupied the islands several thousand years ago, while their ancestors, along with other tribes of the Andaman Islands are thought to have migrated out of Africa. Since they lived in complete isolation for a long period, much of their culture, lifestyle, traditions and society are vaguely known.

Today, the population of Jarawa community is diminishing day by day, bringing them to the brink of being endangered. In 1999 and 2006, there was an outbreak of measles which could have wiped away a major chunk of the population. It is thought that the measles spread following contact with the outsiders. At present, they occupy the west portion of South and Middle Andamans.

Jarawa Tribe

Jarawa Tribe

Early settlement and relocation

Prior to the 19th century, the Jarawa tribe was confined to the Southeast area of the South Andaman Island. After 1789, there was a substantial decrease in the Jarawa population due to an outbreak of diseases – the spread of which is believed to be caused by the early British settlement, who introduced opium and alcohol among the community. This was done deliberately to reduce the Jarawa population. And eventually, they were made to occupy the western part as their new home.

First encounter with the outside world

They first came in contact with the outside world in the year 1997. Before this, they remained aloof, foiling any attempt to come in contact with the outsiders. In fact, years back they were known to attack outsiders with their bows and arrows if they came too near.

However, since 1998, they exhibited great enthusiasm to come in contact with the outside world. In spite of the fear of contaminating diseases, the Jarawa people are currently in constant touch with the outside world through settlements bordering the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. They are also seen along the Andaman Trunk Road, often visiting marketplaces close to the road, or begging for food on the highway. Some Jarawa children even turn up in schools requesting to get educated.

Occupation and survival

Their way of life is simple as they bank on the forests and sea for food. Their primary occupation revolves around gathering fruits, fishing, and hunting.

Food gathering

Fruit gathering is mainly done by the women, and they consume a wide variety of fruits (both raw and cooked) found in abundance in the forests. It is also common for them to climb trees and collects honey from beehives, with the person who locates a beehive being entitled to collect the honey. Both men and women take part in honey collection.

Fishing

Fishing happens to be an important part in their endeavor for survival. However, they do not venture into deep waters, confining themselves to shallow coastal areas, streams, and water bodies.  Both, men and women take an active part in fishing. Men target the fish with bow and arrow while women use hand nets. Mollusks are consumed in plenty, while they also eat other sea foods. They use pit hearths known as aalaav for cooking.

Hunting

Hunting is mainly carried out by men as they mainly hunt wild pigs, turtles and monitor lizards, using bows and arrows. It can be carried out in groups as well as individually. Although deer are found in abundance in the forest, the Jarawas refrain from killing them. One reason may be that the species was introduced in the forest much later, probably as late as the twentieth century.

Jarawa People

Jarawa People

Culture and lifestyle

They are simple people who bank on nature for survival, engaging themselves in various rituals and ceremonies, with song and dance being an integral part of most festivals. Marriages take place among the adolescents and according to their custom a widow or widower can remarry. The average height of men is around 150 cm, whereas the women are about 140 cm tall. At present, their average life expectancy has dropped to 60 to 65 years from the previous range of 80 to 90 years.

Language

According to the Great Andamanese language, the term Jarawa means ‘stranger’. Their native tongue is also known as Jarawa, which belongs to the Ongan language family.

Clothing

As far as their clothing is concerned, they use various kinds of ornaments made from forest products to adorn their body

Impact of the outside world on their lives

Effects of the Great Andaman Trunk Road

The construction of the Great Andaman Trunk Road in the 1970s posed a major threat to the Jarawa population, as with other intrusions. The lands were commercially exploited for things like poaching, which led to a lawsuit being filed with the Calcutta High Court, the judiciary authority of the islands. A landmark judgment was read out, ordering the administration to take urgent steps to protect the tribes from intrusions and poachers, prohibiting any plan to shift them to a new location. The order also prohibits the highway from expanding any further.

Threats from media and tourism

At present, there are numerous private operators who take tourists to the reserve area to interact with the tribe. Tourists view, take photographs and try to mingle with them, which is illegal under the Indian Law, but, rules are being flouted almost daily.

People traveling to the protected area hurl food from their vehicles, while sometimes, tourists even exploit the Jarawa women by asking them to dance and taking photographs. Cases of sexual abuse also unfolded before the administration, which prompted them to take action. In various interviews, the tribal people have explicitly stated that their women are sexually exploited by outsiders.

A documentary titled “Organic Jarawa” on the life of Jarawa people was made by French filmmakers Alexandre Dereims and Claire Beilvert, who were booked for it under the law of the land, as they went to the reserve area to shoot without permission. The Indian police are investigating the matter.

Controversy surrounding the Jarawa tribe

A light skinned, few months old baby was found dead in the Jarawa reserve area which led the police to investigate. Because of the complexion, which is quite unusual for the tribal people, the baby was believed to have been fathered by an outsider, and it was thought that this might have prompted them to carry out a ritual killing. But, it was believed that outside hand was involved, leading to the arrest of two non-tribal men.

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The Jarawa

‘Human safaris’ to the Jarawa

Although India’s Supreme Court in 2002 ordered that the highway through the Jarawa’s reserve should be closed, it remains open – and tourists use it for ‘human safaris’ to the Jarawa.

Poachers enter the Jarawa’s forest and steal the animals the tribe rely on for their survival. They have also introduced alcohol and marijuana and are known to sexually abuse Jarawa women.

In 1999 and 2006, the Jarawa suffered outbreaks of measles – a disease that has wiped out many tribes worldwide following contact with outsiders.

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URGENT: please e-mail the Indian government asking it to stop the ‘human safaris’ now

A Jarawa woman and boy by the side of the Andaman Trunk Road

A Jarawa woman and boy by the side of the Andaman Trunk Road
© Salomé

The tribes of the Andaman Islands – the Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Onge and Sentinelese – are believed to have lived in their Indian Ocean home for up to 55,000 years.

They are now vastly outnumbered by several hundred thousand Indians, who have settled on the islands in recent decades.

The Jarawa

Today, approximately 400 members of the nomadic Jarawa tribe live in groups of 40-50 people in chaddhas – as they call their homes.

Like most tribal peoples who live self-sufficiently on their ancestral lands, the Jarawa continue to thrive, and their numbers are steadily growing.

They hunt pig and turtle and fish with bows and arrows in the coral-fringed reefs for crabs and fish, including striped catfish-eel and the toothed pony fish. They also gather fruits, wild roots, tubers and honey. The bows are made from the chooi wood, which does not grow throughout the Jarawa territory. The Jarawa often have to travel long distances to Baratang Island to collect it.

Both Jarawa men and women collect wild honey from lofty trees. During the honey collection the members of the group will sing songs to express their delight. The honey-collector will chew the sap of leaves of a bee-repellant plant, such as Ooyekwalin, which they will then spray with their mouths at the bees to keep them away. Once the bees have gone the Jarawa can cut the bee’s nest, which they will put in a wooden bucket on their back. The Jarawa always bathe after consuming honey.

The Jarawa thatch their shelters with leaves from the forest.

The Jarawa thatch their shelters with leaves from the forest.
© Survival

A study of their nutrition and health found their ‘nutritional status’ was ‘optimal’. They have detailed knowledge of more than 150 plant and 350 animal species.

The Jarawa of the Andaman Islands enjoy a time of opulence. Their forests give them more than they need.

“Anvita Abbi, Professor of linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University”

In 1998, a few Jarawa started to emerge from their forest for the first time without their bows and arrows to visit nearby towns and settlements.

In 1990 the local authorities revealed their long-term ‘master plan’ to settle the Jarawa in two villages with an economy based on fishery, suggesting that hunting and gathering could be their ‘sports’. The plan was so prescriptive it even detailed what style of clothes the Jarawa should wear. Forced settlement had been fatal for other tribes in the Andaman Islands, just as it has been for most newly-contacted tribal peoples worldwide.

I am civilized and they are not civilized.

“An Indian lawyer making her case for the forcible settlement of the Jarawa, in 2001”

Following a vigorous campaign by Survival and Indian organisations, the resettlement plan was abandoned, and in 2004 the authorities announced a radical new policy: the Jarawa would be allowed to choose their own future, and that outside intervention in their lives would be kept to a minimum. This was an enormous success for the international and Indian campaign.

No attempts to bring them to the mainstream of society should be made.

“Indian government Jarawa policy, 2004”

What problems do the Jarawa face?

Of the four Andaman Island tribes, it is the Jarawa’s situation that is the most precarious.

The Jarawa face many threats:

  • The road that cuts through their territory brings thousands of outsiders, including tourists, into their land. The tourists treat the Jarawa like animas in a safari park.

  • Vehicles queue to enter the Jarawa reserve along the Andaman Trunk Road

    Vehicles queue to enter the Jarawa reserve along the Andaman Trunk Road
    © G Chamberlain/ Survival
  • Outsiders, both local settlers and international poachers enter their rich forest reserve to steal the game the tribe needs to survive.
  • Poachers

    Jarawa denounce poachers who invade their land. This group was filmed as they voluntarily came out of their reserve to complain to local administration officials about the poaching.

  • They remain vulnerable to outside diseases to which they have little or no immunity. In 1999 and 2006, the Jarawa suffered outbreaks of measles – a disease that has wiped out many tribes worldwide following contact with outsiders. An epidemic could devastate the tribe.

  • Jarawa women have been sexually abused by poachers, settlers, bus drivers and others.

  • The girls say, that the outside boys pressure them to do a lot. They pressure them with their hands and fingernails, when the girls get angry. They chase them under the influence of alcohol. They have sex with the girls… They drink alcohol in the girls’ house. They sleep in the Jarawa’s house. They smoke marijuana and then chase the girls.

    “Jarawa man speaking out against the abuse in 2014”

  • There is pressure from some, including the island’s MP, to force the Jarawa to integrate into the ‘mainstream’ of Indian society.

  • The fate of the Great Andamanese and Onge peoples serves as a vivid warning of what may happen to the Jarawa unless their rights to control who comes onto their land and to make their own decisions about their ways of life are recognized.

Attempts to ‘mainstream’ the Jarawa

In India, ‘mainstreaming’ refers to the policy of pushing a tribe to join the country’s dominant society. It has a devastating effect on tribal peoples. It strips them of their self-sufficiency and sense of identity, and leaves them struggling at the very margins of society. Rates of disease, depression, addiction and suicide within the tribal community almost inevitably soar.

In 2010 the Andaman Islands’ member of parliament called for ‘quick and drastic steps be taken to bring the Jarawa up to the basic mainstream characteristics’ and for children to be sent to residential schools in order to ‘wean’ the children away from the tribe. He described the Jarawa as being ‘in a primitive stage of development’ and ‘stuck in time somewhere between the stone and iron age’.

Influential figures in India, including government ministers, have often called for the Jarawa to be assimilated, believing that they are ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’. This request, however, has not come from the Jarawa, who show no sign of wanting to leave their life in the forest.

The outsiders are bad men. They abuse us. I prefer to stay in the jungle.

“Enmei, a Jarawa man”

Such an attitude can stem from racist disdain or from a genuine concern for the tribe’s welfare; either way it is always based on a misunderstanding of both the Jarawa’s current excellent quality of life, and the miserable experiences of tribal people who have been forcibly assimilated.

Since 2004, the Indian government’s policy towards the Jarawa has been very positive: the general principle is that the tribe themselves should control their future, with minimal intervention from the state. However, there are still many who are clamoring for this to change.

What is Survival’s position on ‘mainstreaming’?

Survival advocates neither isolation nor integration, believing – as with all tribal peoples – that they themselves are best placed to determine what, if any, changes they wish to make to their lives. Crucial to having the time and space to make these decisions is that their land is properly protected from outside incursions.

Land Encroachment and poaching

The principal threat to the Jarawa’s existence comes from encroachment onto their land, which was sparked by the building of a highway through their forest in the 1970s. The Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) brings outsiders into the heart of their territory.

The ATR has also encouraged ‘human safaris’, where tour operators drive tourists along the road in the hope of ‘spotting’ members of the tribe.

Illegal hunting, fishing and gathering, from both local and foreign poachers, remains a serious threat to the Jarawa’s survival. The theft of the food they rely on risks robbing them of their self sufficiency and driving the tribe to extinction.

What is Survival’s position on land encroachment and poaching?

Since 1993 Survival has been lobbying the Indian government to close the Andaman Trunk Road, believing that only the Jarawa should decide if, when and where outsiders traverse their land.

Leaflet given to tourists arriving on the Andaman Islands about the 'human safari park' boycott.
Leaflet given to tourists arriving on the Andaman Islands about the 'human safari park' boycott.
© Search/Survival

In 2002, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the closure of the road, yet it still remains open.

In 2013, following a campaign from Survival and local organization ‘Search’ to ban ‘human safaris’, the Supreme Court banned tourists from travelling along the ATR for seven weeks. After the Andaman Authorities changed their own rules in order to allow the human safaris to continue, the Supreme Court had no choice but to reverse the ban.

In October 2017, the Andaman Authorities opened the long-awaited alternative sea route to Baratang. This sea route was supposed to stop the human safaris. But despite the authorities’ commitment to ensuring all tourists would have to use the sea route, very few currently do, and the market in human safaris along the road is flourishing.

Survival has been calling for the Andaman authorities to clamp down on poaching and to ensure that those arrested are prosecuted. Although in recent years many poachers have been arrested, none have been been sentenced by the courts, despite the offence carrying a prison term of up to seven years.

Act now to help the Jarawa

Survival’s Andamans campaign focuses on the Jarawa, because their situation is the most precarious of the four tribes. Your support is vital for the Jarawa’s survival. There are lots of ways you can help.

  • E-mail the Indian government asking it to stop the ‘human safaris’ threatening the Jarawa
  • Donate to Survival’s campaign for the Jarawa and other threatened tribal peoples
  • Write to the Indian government using Survival’s online letter-writing tool
  • Write to your MP or MEP (UK) or Senators and members of Congress (US).
  • Write to your local Indian high commission or embassy
  • If you want to get more involved, contact Survival

News from the Jarawa

  1. Outrage as tour operators sell “human safaris” to Andaman Islands October 17, 2017
  2. End in sight for India’s notorious human safaris September 18, 2017
  3. India misses deadline to end Andaman ‘human safaris’ April 20, 2015
  4. Major investment in ‘human safaris’ road sparks fears for tribe July 15, 2014

News from the Jarawa »

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