Despite the British colonial expansion and spread of urbanization, Onge is one of the prominent indigenous tribes residing in the Indian Archipelago of Andaman island. It is one of the ancient four Negrito tribal communities that are natives of the tropical paradise known for its beautiful tourist locales. They are nomadic Adivasis. With the passage of time their demographic structure, sustenance manner, ecology, culture and the social arrangement has modified. Owing to factors such as changes in their food habits, sterility in women, high rate of child mortality, forest resource depletion and contact with the outside world, their population is on a decline. The Tsunami of 2004 that suck Andaman and Nicobar islands also decimated their population.
Population and Causes of Their Decline
Their population has dwindled in recent years. In 1901 the population of tribal people stood at 672, now it has been found that barely 100 individuals exist. They had an inhabited area of around 732 sq km of the thickly forested island of Little Andaman. To prolong the existence of the tribal community, the government has taken preventive steps and arranged two reserve camps. One is in little Andaman, Dugong Creek and another one is South Bay.
The high mortality rate in children due to unknown diseases and malnutrition is considered to be the main reasons behind their decline in population. Sterility of women is another reason behind their dwindling population.
A majority of the tribal Onge women cannot conceive and give birth to children. It has been found that half of the couple in this social group belongs to the sterile category. Even if they do get pregnant, it does not happen before the age of 28. The net reproductive index for the Onge is less than 1%.
On the other hand, depletion of valuable forest resources has given rise to malnutrition. Clearance of dense forests and deforestation is leading to loss of habitat for the community.
The indigenous groups loved to eat the meat of the wild boar and turtle, fruits, fish, seafood, tubers and honey. Primary harvests include rice, coconuts, betel (areca nuts), fruits, and spices (such as turmeric). Roasting, baking, frying and boiling are the some of the ways they cook and process their food to get ready for eating.
Since they live on an island, fish is considered a rich source of protein. Fishing is being done by them with efficiency by using bows arrows while standing in the deep with the water reaching the knee, particularly when the tides are low in the sea. Skilled hunters can catch six to seven fishes simultaneously. Occasionally lines and hooks are used. Hand-held nets are used to catch crabs and other shellfish in the island’s streams.
Pigs formed a major nutrition. They relished eating the head of a pig and those who hunted it often got the reward of feeding on it. Raisin, shellfish, coconut were also included in their diet.
Source of Livelihood
The native groups are fond of hunting and food gathering. They practice agriculture for their livelihood. They hunted wild animals which they killed and cooked for meals.
The Onge consider that pregnancy in a woman is only possible with the help of a spirit that lives in the sky over Little Andaman and soul of the baby is transferred to the spirit.
The tribal people believed that the universe is a multi-layered structure with isolated places for spirits, the smell and breath of humans and plants and animals. Spirits are detailed as shapeless and said to have the power to assimilate smells. They fall into two basic categories: those associated with natural phenomena such as earthquakes, thunder and wind; and those associated with dead ancestors.
They feared nature yet worshipped it to keep all natural catastrophes at bay including earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis. They also worshipped nature to seek its benedictions for their welfare, upliftment and health.
They welcome a friend whom they are meeting after a long time by sitting on his/her thigh or lap. When introduced to Westerners they wrap their arms around the huge pot bellies they witnessed to see if they were real and rubbed their hairless chins against the whiskers of European because they couldn't believe the facial hair was real. Since European involvement, many of "exceptionally happy tribes no longer sing and dance."
Communication with large bright pigeons in the forest was another popular custom of the native Adivasis in Andaman. The birds too reciprocated by answering. Call-and-response songs are sung at necessary occasions. Elder people in the group sings conventional songs that callback the history and legends of the tribal people. The songs are sung in such a way that it seems that the singer is crying. Most Onge singing is performed without the musical instruments.
Storytelling and dancing are executed individually by men and women. The dances are created and frequently feature hand clapping and slapping feet against the ground or the body.
It is very difficult to decipher facts about the ancient Onge people living in Andaman Island. Far from embracing modern human civilization, they have chosen a life where desolation looms large along-with decline in population.
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