Anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay recounts being first woman to establish contact with Sentinelese, Jarawa tribes

Sonal Matharu

In the Onge tribe indigenous to the Andaman and Nicobar islands, when a boy turns 16, he is sent off alone to hunt in the jungle. He has to kill enough wild boars so that the length of their severed heads arranged in a line matches his height. The community then washes the boy with boar blood and he is considered ready for marriage. A suitable girl is found, and the young pair is sent to the jungle to live together for a few days. If they agree to marry each other, they become a couple. If not, then another match is found.

This is just one of the many tribes' practices which then 27-year-old Madhumala Chattopadhyay, who was posted as an anthropologist with the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) at Port Blair, remembers vividly. She lived with the Onges for two months and studied them.

But that was 30 years ago. Today, Madhumala lives in a dilapidated government type 4 quarters in south Delhi with her 71-year-old mother. Once a brave young woman who was part of expeditions that made history, she now passes files and overlooks research projects as a joint director with the ministry of social justice and empowerment. The numerous reports she filed from each of her visits to all six Andaman and Nicobar island tribes now remain buried in AnSI's database.

At her home, she wades through heaps of files, papers and other household material tied up in bundles gathering dust and pulls out photographs from an album. In her salwar-kurtas buttoned to the top, she is seen passing coconuts to one of the most primitive tribes in the world €" the Sentinelese. "That was the first and the only hand-to-hand contact anyone had ever established with the tribe," remembers Madhumala.

Madhumala offering a coconut to a Sentinelese man

Madhumala offering a coconut to a Sentinelese man. All photographs courtesy of Madhumala Chattopadhyay

The North Sentinel Island is in the news again after a 26-year-old American citizen, John Allen Chau, ventured into the territory and was allegedly killed by the tribe's arrows and spears on 16 November. The Sentinelese have always fiercely protected their territory. Anyone approaching the island is showered with spears and arrows flying high up from the shore.

The only friendly human contact with the tribe was in January 1991, and Madhumala was part of that expedition as the only anthropologist on the team. She was also the first woman to be on any such expedition.

How it began

Hungry for quality research work on tribal groups, she applied as a researcher with AnSI after completing her Masters in Physical Anthropology from the University of Calcutta. At the job interview, when she requested to be posted at Port Blair, the-then director general, Dr Kumar Suresh Singh, asked her to step outside the room, drink a glass of water, call her parents, rethink and come back after five minutes.

"No one wanted to be posted in Port Blair. Even those who were there were always looking for an opportunity to get out," she says. But Madhumala was clear about what she wanted from that cluster of 321 islands.

She was 13 years old when she asked her father, an accounts officer with Indian Railways, to take her to see the Onge tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar islands on the family's annual vacation. The Onges were celebrating the birth of a new baby and she wanted to be a part of it.

The family didn't take that trip. But in the years that followed, Madhumala found herself sifting through books in libraries and clinging on to university admission windows, enquiring about the right mix of subjects which would eventually take her to the Andamans.

"I didn't know what anthropology was. I read in the dictionary that it is the study of humans. That is exactly what I wanted to do. I took Botany, Zoology and Anthropology as my subjects," she says.

Creating history

"I didn't drink that glass of water," she smiles, remembering the job interview. In 1989, she landed at Port Blair and in the next six years, not only the Onges, but the Car Nicobarese and even the Jarawas accepted her as their own and took her into their world.

In the first three years of her posting, she conducted several field studies on the genetics, health, hygiene, demography and ethnicity of the Car Nicobarese and Onges. She picked up the language and the tribal women recognised her each time she visited.

The tribe leaders offered her stay in the villages when she was occasionally kicked out of the government guesthouse to accommodate VIPs, the babies urinated on her, and she was granted beautiful insights into their communities.

In 1991, as part of a regular gift-dropping trip to the islands to establish friendly contact with the tribals, the Andaman administration organised a visit to the North Sentinel Island, considered the most dangerous and hostile. Two anthropologists could accompany the team headed by the administration. Madhumala knew she had to be on that ship.

"First, the authorities tried to reject me, saying I was a woman," she says. Such expeditions could turn dangerous and women had never been part of them. But she insisted, and had to give in writing that if something untoward happened on the trip, including if clothes were torn by the tribals, or even death, her family should not claim anything from the government. She submitted a no-objection certificate signed by her parents and was on board.

Little did the crew know that Madhumala's acquired skills would prove useful. The team of 13 left Port Blair on 4 January, 1991 and reached the shore of North Sentinel early next morning. They anchored their steamer at a safe distance and by 7 am saw smoke rising from one side of the islands, indicating human habitation. The team members sailed closer to the shore in a lifeboat.

The past trips were limited to leaving sacks of tender coconuts on deserted sides of the island. If the tribals ever saw them, the team was attacked. In one such trip, an arrow came flying from the shore and pierced through the lieutenant governor's chest, missing his heart by a few inches. He took months to convalesce.

As the Sentinelese men appeared on the shore, the team started offering them coconuts. Instead of the usual practice of throwing away the gunny bag, the team decided to roll coconuts, one at a time, in the water. "It was like encouraging them to play with us," Madhumala says. And it worked. There were no arrows or spears pointed at the team. Eventually, the men started coming closer to the boat and touched it.

This was the first time in history that there was hand-to-hand contact with the Sentinelese.

When the team returned in the afternoon with new sacks of coconuts, they saw a young boy aiming an arrow at them. A woman was behind him. Madhumala, in the few tribal words she had learnt, called out to her, asking her to come and collect her coconut. The lady diverted the arrow which the boy unleashed and asked him to take the coconuts, which he did. "I have always believed that women can control violence," says Madhumala. She feels that the presence of a woman in the team really made a difference.

In Delhi, Singh, overjoyed at the young researcher's achievement, welcomed her. "Your Sentinelese prince was waiting for you," he said to her. Their trip was a success.

Her second visit to the island was on 21 February. She wore the same clothes, to be recognised easily. This time, there were temporary huts on the shore and the men had left their bows and arrows in the jungle. But the Sentinelese were in no mood to play. Two men jumped on their boat, picked up the sacks of coconuts and left. "As they jumped onto the boat, they saw the rifles, which to them was mere iron. They tried to take that as well, but the cops on the boat prevented them," she laughed.

The harmless contact with the Sentinelese suddenly turned tense when one of the crew members tried to snatch a set of leaves hanging from the chest belt of one of the Sentinelese to take home as souvenir. "He became furious and out came his knife from his chest belt. He instructed us to leave," says Madhumala. The team departed immediately. Soon after, the government stopped the contact trips. It was decided that the tribals shouldn't be disturbed, unless absolutely necessary.

Jarawa contacts

While the Sentinelese were touch and go, the Jarawas opened their doors to her and took her in.

On her first trip to the Jarawa settlement, Madhumala was dressed in five layers of clothes. Contact had been made with the tribespeople before and they were notorious for tearing off visitors' clothes.

When the team reached closer to the island, all other members boarded a boat and went to the shore. They asked Madhumala, the only woman in the team, to stay back in the ship. They assured her that they would come back to get her once it was safe.

No one returned. Madhumala took another boat and, along with the boatman, started sailing ashore. As she inched closer, six Jarawa men swam towards her boat and climbed on to it. Fearing they would attack her, the boatman asked her to jump into the water.

"I am not a good swimmer, so I decided to stay in the boat," she says. Soon, they were pinching the exposed skin on her hands, comparing it with their thick, dark skin. They touched her hair, feeling the texture. "I could see that they meant no harm. They were simply curious," she says.

This was the first time the Jarawas were seeing a woman from the outside world. Their eyes popped and they kept staring at her in awe.

"Soon, a Jarawa woman entered the boat. She sat close to me and started explicitly showing her body parts, in a way, trying to tell me that she is a woman and asking me if I am too," she says. Madhumala embraced her. That was her gateway into the world of the Jarawas.

The woman ordered all the men to leave, and they obeyed. Within minutes, Madhumala was surrounded by Jarawa women. One chubby one even came and sat on her lap. They brought her ornaments for her head and neck, made of jungle leaves, which Madhumala happily accepted.

She made several trips to the Jarawa islands after that. Each time, the women would see her boat approaching, and they would start dancing. After her first trip, in anticipation that she would visit again, the tribal women had made ornaments of her size with sea shells and tree barks, which would last longer. These Madhumala later donated to a museum in Kolkata.

She learnt about the Jarawas and most other tribes on the Andaman and Nicobar islands mostly through observation and sign language. She picked up knowledge of local words for gestures like "thank you", "come", "take it" and items like "coconut", which proved useful wherever she went. For instance, the word for coconut in Onge is also understood by the Car Nicobarese, Jarawas, and even the Sentinelese.

Madhumala could neither get permission to stay overnight with the Jarawas, nor venture into either the Sentinelese or Jarawa territories. Yet, she observed and documented how the mothers mouth-feed their babies, how the tribal babies can hold their necks straight within three months, unlike the ones in the world outside. And in all her working years on the islands, she never saw any child born with congenital deformities or disabilities.

Her work gave deep insights into the practices of tribes of the islands, on how within each community, territory for hunting is marked and how each tribe has a "king", mostly an elderly, able-bodied man whose command all obey. And how on a full moon night, Onge couples take turns to stay up and sing to the moon.

On both the Jarawa and Onge islands she saw the same couples on different visits, sitting with their children, roasting food, which could mean that they were a family.

When the Onges hunt a wild boar, they mix the fat with clay and apply patterns with the concoction on their faces and body parts. It's a sign to show that a boar was hunted. This mix also protects them from insect bites and acts as sun protection.

The Car Nicobarese would kill the second child if twins were born. They believed that the second baby was an evil spirit. But now they give the second child to a relative who doesn't have a baby to take care of. She noted that the children who are given away grow up weaker than the twin who is with the mother.

Madhumala fondly remembers how once in a Jarawa settlement, the women would just not let her return. "Their king had to intervene. On his command, the women bid goodbye to me for the day," she says.

In the absence of a common language, it was through their gestures of curling of lips, warm embraces and happy tapping of feet that the tribals expressed how much they liked Madhumala's presence among them. Madhumala reciprocated.

Her forgotten past

Despite her contribution to understanding the tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Madhumala's name remains lost. Today, with her timid, wavering speech and slow physical movements, it is hard to guess that in her young days she fiercely defied notions of patriarchy and fought gender discrimination at every step.

She was constantly compared to her male counterparts. In her Master's programme, she was the only woman in a class full of men. She fought for her space on expeditions, which she feels she rightfully deserved. Even in the ministry, her colleagues sometimes chided her: "You work just like a boy", alluding to her efficiency. "I would pin up my dupatta and move swiftly to finish the work that was assigned to me," she says, pointing at the two safety pins holding her dupatta to her sweater.

But perhaps she could never fight the hierarchy at her workplace. Madhumala found a mention in Singh's People of India survey's Andaman chapter. But her senior in Port Blair, Dr T N Pandit, never sent her name for commemoration, while the Andaman administration rewarded its team members after the successful North Sentinel trip.

She has left the baggage in her past, calling it professional jealousy. She remembers her father's words with a calm smile: "When people don't recognise your work, stay silent and save it. Because if your work is important, it will be relevant even after 100 years."

Dr Pandit, however, claims that Madhumala's contributions were not sidelined. He says that the achievement on North Sentinel Island is the result of effort put in over several decades. "It is not a one-day story. The outcome of 1991 is a series of visits which she (Madhumala) was not a part of," he said, referring to the January friendly meet with the Sentinelese.

He adds that Madhumala, though a junior anthropologist in those days, is even a co-author with him in a paper published in one of the well-known journals in Kolkata where we wrote on the 1991 trips. "Her name is very much there in all the reports," he says.

Dr Pandit was part of several expeditions to the North Sentinel Island since 1967, but he was not part of the team that made the first friendly contact with the Sentinelese in January 1991. He was in the second team which went a month later on 21 February.

Her mother, a Bengali poet, always insisted that Madhumala go to the US where her work would be recognised. She had offers from three universities, including Cornell and Michigan, but living and travelling would be expensive and she had two younger siblings to take care of after her father passed away in 1993.

"When I was leaving for my posting at Port Blair, I told my mother, 'Forget the US, I will go to places where no one has gone before'," Madhumala says.

She left Port Blair in 1996 and moved to the Nagpur centre of the AnSI. In 1998, she joined as a researcher with the ministry of social justice and empowerment in Delhi and accompanied the secretary, also a woman, to the Jarawa settlement where a measles epidemic had struck. "A few old tribal women who recognised me tapped on my cheek, as a friendly gesture," she remembers. In 2001, her book €" Tribes of Car Nicobar €" was released.

The first friendly contact with the Sentinelese was made at Allen Point. "The American who is killed was also named Allen," she recalls the strange coincidence. She is sure that Allen force-entered their territory, which the tribals fiercely guard. "Bringing his body back will be risky. There will be more killings if the authorities force their way into the island. The Sentinelese will attack them and the Sentinelese will also be killed," she says.

She remembers the Sentinelese, slightly taller than the rest of the island tribes, as the strongest men she has ever seen. "They can split a tender coconut into half with one hand-chop, and nothing will happen to their hands," she says. "If sent to the Olympics, they will bring back gold medals for sure, as their arrows and spears fly high and far."

The inhabited islands, she feels, should remain closed for tourists. "Only those who want to study the tribes should be given access," she says.

Looking back at the days where she would return from each trip, having lost at least 10 kilos of weight, she says, "You feel that you are there to study them, but actually, they are the ones who study you. You are new in their lands."

Also See: India should abandon 'incredibly dangerous' efforts to recover US citizen John Chau's body, says tribal rights group

John Allen Chau's death: Officials seeking to locate body withdraw after long-distance face-off with Sentinelese people

John Allen Chau killed by Sentinelese tribe: NCST team to visit Andaman islands to review incident of American's death

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