The Jarawas of Andamans have a rich knowledge and understanding of their ecosystem even as the debate on their integration with modernity continues

The aboriginal tribe of Jarawas living in forests of Andaman Islands recently came under the spotlight when untoward incidents about their exploitation got reported. But not many people know about these hunters and gatherers of the Negrito tribe, are extremely environmental friendly and the knowledge they possess about herbal medicines is believed to be vast.

Before 1998, Jarawas did not respond to overtures by local settlers and were said to be aggressive thanks to provocations in fringe areas or when poachers intruded their habitats to exploit territorial and aquatic resources. But an incident in April 1996 seems to have changed their attitude from “unfriendliness to friendliness” according to Anstice Justine, the superintending anthropologist at the Andaman and Nicobar Regional Centre of the Anthropological survey of India at Port Blair. Justine says that one day, about 15-20 Jarawas descended on one of the villages at Bamboo Tekri in Kadamtalla before day break to collect bananas, jackfruits, coconuts, betel nuts besides axes, hammers, knives, utensils and iron pieces, which they consider to be prized articles.

Unfortunately, one among them, Enmey, a young lad, suffered multiple fractures in his left ankle while crossing a rivulet and lay there in pain for almost 24 hours before he managed to crawl a few meters closer to the house of a settler. Baroi, a resident of Bamboo Tekri saw him behind the bushes and Enmey was taken first to a PHC at Kadamtalla and later to G.B.Pant Hospital at Port Blair. Enmey remained in the hospital for about six months where he learnt some Hindi words. Justine recalled that despite being provided basic amenities like bed, mattresses, bed sheet, TV, dresses and food, Enmey remained homesick. When he was able to walk, Enmey was taken back to Foul Bay in the western coast of middle Andaman Island as per his wishes. Justin says that although no one knows for sure what Enmey told his people after returning from the hospital, the incident was indeed a turning point. In January 1998 Enmey led a band of 25 odd Jarawas for the first time, braving the crocodile-infested creek as they swam across the narrow channel of Port Anson from Lakra Lungta to Uttara Jetty in Kadamtalla. Later on October 6 1998, a group of Jarawas came down from the forests without any implements. That was their first friendly response to the civilized world. As time went by the Jarawas started accepting lifts on ferries and allowed anthropologists and sociologists to interact with them.

According to Jarawa police protection personnel, Jarawas use only dead wood for fuel and they are not known to hunt or kill deer. Justine says the Jarawas also do not eat all varieties of birds as killing or eating of certain birds is tabooed. They selectively knock down trees for making wooden buckets, chest-guards, bark thread, arrows, and bows and raw materials required for building their large community and small type of huts as witnessed in their various campsites. According to Justine, the Jarawas traditionally keep the lighted torch-leaves with resin at the buttress of huge tree and as such the roots of such trees are slowly burned down. However, they have knowledge of preserving the tropical rain forest in its pristine form and the canopy of the tropical evergreen rain forest speaks volumes of their respect for their own “man-to-man ecology/environment”. Justine says that perhaps that is their way of preserving their habitats without harming the ecological balance.

Dr Kar who had at one time worked with Jarawas said that their knowledge about herbs to ward off Malaria is known but that has not been proven. The Jarawas tie garlands of leaves around their necks or heads as they believe this protects them from falling sick especially in the rainy season. Mr. Kar narrated an incident when some insects bit him causing itching and rash all over his body and only when one of the Jarawa girls applied a reddish paste on it, he got instant relief.

Sharing his own experience of intermittent fieldworks, Justin reveals that while Jarawas apply these herbs externally they have not been seen eating these ‘herbal medicines’. He says that the Onge tribe also pluck and chew Tonjoge leaf, smear its juice all over their bare bodies, especially when climbing trees for collection of honey. ‘Tonjoge’ has repellent aspect that prevents bees from biting them.

Another anthropologist Kanchan Mukhopadhya who had also worked with Jarawas, said, “Jodi Jo ban jata he tootta Nahi.” (when a couple decides to stay together, they do not separate). Justine adds that Jarawas are monogamous, marriage alliances are established with dissimilar territorial and band members. Family is a precious social unit that they seem to adhere to on their own norms.

The carefree life of the Jarawas who live happily without vices of modernity makes one envious of them raises the question of them being denied the fruits of civilization. The debate that began on the future of Jarawas after Enmey was admitted to the hospital, continues.

Justine says that during his visit to Lakra Lungta along with the then Chief Secretary Vivek Rae of A&N Administration in 2009, on being asked whether Enmey was keen to visit the settlement areas, his reply was “Nadem” (No). Though with regard to gift articles like bananas, coconuts, etc his reply was “may be occasionally.”

I met Enmey in 1999 along with some anthropologists working with Jarawas.

“You like jungle or the town?” Pat came the reply, “Jungle.” “Why?” I asked. “Maloom Nahi,” he said in Hindi meaning that he could not explain why.