Katchal in Andaman and Nicobar struggles to rebuild its tribal lifestyle even eight years after Tsunami devastated the island

It was in the year 1999 that a remote island, Katchal, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands suddenly attracted global attention. The Royal Observatory in London had declared that the first ray of the sun will fall on the island of Katchal to usher in the 21st century. Katchal again grabbed the headlines unfortunately when Tsunami devastated theisland.

It takes about two and a half days by ship from Port Blair to reach the island of Katchal.Originally known as Tihunya, the Katchalis in the ancient times werecalled Payus and the island was ruled by Queen Changa. Queen Changa was a devout Hindu who had built a temple inKatchal. Later she embraced Christianity. Although 90 per cent of the people inKatchal are Christians, the tribals in Katchal maintain their own traditional lifestyle.Coconuts, pigs, rituals and festivals arewhat their life is all about.

The picturesque island of Katchal has an aura ofan inexplicable mystique about it. What is really intriguing about the people of Katchal is their obsession with the dead and their ‘souls’. Perhaps it has something to do with a Tsunami that is believedto have hit the islands hundreds of years back and the premonition that another was going to strike.

As one wades through a sea of coconut trees, a strange feelingof the presence of the unknown and the invisible descends. This is an island where people have a strong belief that the spirits of their ancestors have great power and influence over humanbeings. The original Katchalis who follow animismdo not go to temples or churches, they worship the Evis. Evis are wooden structures carved as different spirits. There is a different Evi for everything. For example the Sea Evi, the LoveEvi, the Wind Evi, even an Evifor Medicine. The faces of these wooden Evis arepainted with the blood of either pigs or hens. Some of the Evis with hats also havecigarettes in their mouths. The witch doctors called the Melonas are considered the spiritual mentors of the people. They ward away evilspirits using totems and are said to even cure diseases. The Melonas, who are held in great reverence, performvarious kinds of rituals in special huts built atop bamboo pillars.

The Pig Festival is considered to be a big event in the life of Katchalis. This festival is variedly held in the memory of the dead, at the start of new plantations or for any other celebration or special occasion. Wildpigs are caught live by a groupof men .Then they are bound upside down on wooden rods that are carried by four men who singa special traditional song as they carry the pigs tothe venue of the celebrations. These pigs are kept in cages specially madefor the festival. As dawn breaks the following day tribalmen and sometimes even the captainsof the village fight with these wild pigs. It is amock fight really for the pigs are already tired and have no stamina left inthem to give a fight. All the invited guests then sing, dance and drinkthe country brew to their fill. Then they are invited to dine at the Gole Ghar, decorated with banana and coconut leaves. Here, huge pieces of the pig meat are kept in a singlebasket, sometimes as big as a room. These are then given to theinvitees as a gift to carry home together with coconuts, papayas and sometimes even jack fruit.

Whenit comes to marriage, Katchalis are quite practical. Earlierthere was no concept of marriage on these islands. Any young boy or girl having a liking for each other would start livingtogether.But with time, things have changed. Where the boy or the girl would live after marriage isdecided by the status of their families. This isunlike most Indian societies where invariably the girl goes to live with the husband’s family. Thestatus of the family is determined by the number ofpigs and plantations they have. If the girl comes from a high statusfamily the boy goes and lives with the girl’s family where he hasno right over the property. In the same way if the boy’s familyhas more pigs and coconut trees, the girl lives with the boy’sfamily and has no right over the property or much say in thefamily. There are no panchayats in Katchal and it is the tribal captains who rule the roost and are held in great awe by the Katchalis.

When Tsunami hit the islands, Katchal was worst hit, a number of people lost their lives and many parts of the island were submerged. Almost eight years after the Tsunami, the people are still trying to rebuild their lives and struggling to find their roots.