Image and Text contributed by Anand Halve, Mumbai
India is more varied and diverse than reflected in the languages on Indian currency notes or in the number of states and Union Territories on our map. This is a piece about a group of ‘Indians’ that will probably vanish before most Indians ever even hear of them. The Ongee or Onge tribe, are one of the indigenous Andamanese tribes. A negrito tribe of the Andaman Islands. Petite and superficially ‘African’ in appearance, dark skinned and peppercorn hair, they are still genetically different from most modern African people.
Until the late 1940s, the Ongees were the only permanent occupants of Little Andaman, the southernmost island in the Andaman group of 324 islands. The Non-Ongees began to settle on Little Andaman in large numbers in the early 1950s. Among the earliest visitors – in the early 1960s – was a seven year-old boy (me) and his six year-old sister Jyoti. My father, Bhaskar Halve was posted as the Deputy Commissioner of the administration of the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar. His job took him to study various islands in the Andaman & Nicobar group, and we were only too happy to tag along.
The Ongees are a traditonally nomadic hunting and gathering tribe. I recall stories told to us by the sailors who visited the islands where the Ongees lived. The Ongees were masters of the bow – I recall watching an Ongee spear a fish through the refracted sea-water with his arrow. I recall stories of a strange plant whose leaves they chewed, and after rubbing the chewed juice on their bodies, were able to climb trees and pluck chunks of honeycombs, untroubled by the bees. I recall stories about the cannibal Jarawas (a tribe related to the Ongees), but the sailors laughingly told us that the Ongees were friendly. Yet you can see a certain trepidation in our expressions as we posed with Ongee kids for a photograph. However, they were friendly enough and we got along without knowing each other’s language, as only children can. It still makes me smile.
As of recent information I believe there are fewer than 100 Ongees left, and with their low fertility rates, are on the verge of disappearing forever into a footnote of history. But I hope there are a couple of old anonymous Ongees out there who remember playing with a couple of kids from the mainland…as I remember them.