King of the last few tribals tells tale of their survival

Associated Press

Port Blair, January 8:

The last few dozen remaining members of an ancient indigenous tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands said they raced up a mountain to escape a devastating tsunami — and avoid extinction. “No one was hurt. Everyone is all right,” Jiroki, the king of the Great Andamanese tribe, said yesterday from a hospital in Port Blair, the capital of India’s federally administered territories. “The water was rushing up very fast. It seemed to be following us,” said his wife, Surmayee. “We stayed in the forest for five days. There was some rice. We ate that. Then there was nothing, so we went hungry.”

The Great Andamanese were once the largest tribe in the region with an estimated population of 10,000 in 1789. The government says only 43 Great Andamanese remain, while Jiroki says there are 50, of whom 10 are his children. Anthropologists believe the five ancient tribes of the southern Indian archipelago — also including the Jarawas, Shompens, Onges and Sentinelese — date back 70,000 years. Rescuers last week brought the remaining Great Andamanese tribespeople to Port Blair in the wake of the massive December 26 earthquake and resulting tsunami. Jiroki, whose tribe lives in a forest on Strait Island in the south of the archipelago, seized the opportunity to seek treatment for epilepsy at a state-run hospital.

Speaking in broken Hindi, India’s national language, Jiroki and Surmayee said that when the earthquake jolted their homes on Strait Island, they ordered the tribe to flee.

“I am the king. They follow what I say,” said Jiroki, wearing a red T-shirt and shorts. “We asked the wireless operator to send a message to Port Blair. But the machine and battery had been flooded by the water. They were spoiled.”

The island’s jetty was smashed so no boats could land. The tribe members’ clothes, utensils and other household articles were all washed away, Surmayee said.

Contrary to speculation by some anthropologists, she said the Great Andamanese did not sense the impending arrival of the tsunamis. Some experts say the Great Andamanese are a sad example of how indigenous people quickly lose centuries of tradition and culture when they come into contact with the outside world.“I have written them off. They hardly have a culture or tradition of their own,” said Samir Acharya, head of the independent Andaman and Nicobar Society. “They have all forgotten their own dialect. They are mostly acting as copycats of the rest of us.”

The tribe maintains links with government officials. A wireless operator and a medical worker live with them on Strait Island. Some tribe members work in police and government jobs.