Please tell us about yourself
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.
On 4 January, 1991, more than 1,200 kms from the Indian mainland in the Bay of Bengal, a young Indian woman anthropologist waded waist-deep into the coral reefs to hand over a coconut to a man from the Sentinelese tribe. This was the first-ever friendly contact with this hostile tribe of the Andamans.
Perhaps no people on earth remain more genuinely isolated than the Sentinelese, one of the few un-contacted people in the world, who have lived in the North Sentinel Islands of the Andamans for the last estimated 60,000 years, shunning any contact with the outside world. Their antiquity, traced to the Palaeolithic age, makes them the first inhabitants of India. There have been many attempts previously to establish contact with the Sentinelese, which however failed with contact parties being received with arrows, some even finding their mark. Given the hostile nature of the Sentinelese, the contact parties would avoid approaching the tribe directly and watch them from the safety of their ships or leave gifts in remote part of the island.
This was the first time a woman was a part of a contact expedition with the Sentinelese, and they put their guard down. The presence of a woman indicated that the contact party meant no harm. This braveheart anthropologist is Dr Madhumala Chattopadhyay, then a researcher (initially a fellow and subsequently research associate) with the Anthropological Survey of India, who went on to spend six years researching the various primitive tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Madhumala is also the first woman to be accepted by another Andaman tribe, the Jarawas, with whom she established a friendly relationship, especially the women folk. Unfortunately, her accomplishments remain forgotten.
Madhumala Chattopadhyay is a senior research officer with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment today. But on January 4, 1991, she was the first woman anthropologist to establish friendly contact with the traditionally hostile Sentinelese tribe in the North Sentinel Island in the Andamans, 1200 km off the coast of the Indian mainland.
Nowadays, there is a feeling that this tribe is violent and dangerous. However, the actions of Chattopadhyay prove – this is far from the truth.
Living in the North Sentinel Island for an estimated 60,000 years, the Sentinelese are among the most genuinely isolated tribes in the world.
However, for Madhumala, the only woman in the expedition which arrived close to the shores of North Sentinel island on January 4, 1991, the experience of establishing contact with the Sentinelese didn’t end in an attack or hostility.
“Never ever in my six years of doing research alone with the tribes of Andamans did any man ever misbehave with me. The tribes might be primitive in their technological achievements, but socially they are far ahead of us,” she told this Bengal publication back in 2015.
Madhumala now works in the mid-level bureaucracy of a central government ministry in Delhi handling routine government files, an unseemly situation for a woman who built our first bridge to an unknown world. Madhumala does not wear her success on her sleeve, and is humble to the point of being reticent. Her book Tribes of Car Nicobar and journal papers remain standard reference texts in universities worldwide. We at Probashionline.com met Madhumala and heard her incredible story. She concluded by saying, “Never ever in my six years of doing research alone with the tribes of Andamans did any man ever misbehave with me. The tribes might be primitive in their technological achievements, but socially they are far ahead of us”. We could not but agree.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
A twelve-year-old girl one morning in her home in Shibpur, Howrah, a suburb of Kolkata, happened to chance upon a small news item in The Telegraph newspaper, which informed of the birth of a baby amongst the almost-extinct Onge tribes of the Andamans. Excited, the girl ran to her father, an accounts officer with the South Eastern Railway, and demanded that on their next vacation they visit the Onges’. Her father in order to brush off his pestering daughter remarked that only a researcher or a journalist is allowed to visit the tribes of the Andamans. This remark stuck and the little girl, Madhumala, was subsumed with the thought of becoming a researcher. The rigour and the hard work of being a field anthropologist – a branch of science which studies primitive tribes – was far from her mind. The romance and adventure of an unknown world beckoned this young girl.
Madhumala’s fascination with the tribes of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands began as a 12-year-old when she came across a news clipping at her home in the Shibpur suburb of Kolkata talking about the birth of a child among the nearly-extinct Onge tribes.
After successfully navigating university studying anthropology, she applied for a PhD fellowship to the Anthropological Survey of India for conducting field research in these remote islands.
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.
With very few Indian women in the field, however, there were fears in the committee overseeing Madhumala’s application that it may not be safe for her to conduct research in these islands.
A solution came when the committee asked Madhumala’s mother to sign an undertaking that the ASI would not be liable in the event something unfortunate happened to her during research.
Willing to further her daughter’s dream, Madhumala’s mother Pronoti Chattopadhyay signed the dotted line. For the next six years, she conducted research on the tribes of the Andamans.
What did you study?
“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.
After completing her schooling from Bhabani Balika Vidyalaya, Shibpur, at the top of her class, Madhumala took admission in BSc (Hons) Anthropology, University of Calcutta. At the university admission counter, Madhumala had enquired which department dealt with the study of tribes and was informed it was anthropology. Back home, her parents were a bit disconcerted with their eldest daughter taking up anthropology. They enquired “what on earth is anthropology?”, to which Madhumala had replied, “this is my passport to the Onges”. Knowing how stubborn and steadfast their daughter could be, her parents did not object despite not being entirely convinced.
After a brilliant academic track record as an undergraduate and a post-graduate student, including a seminal dissertation on “Genetic Study among the Aborigines of the Andaman”, Madhumala applied for a PhD fellowship to the Anthropological Survey of India for doing field research with the tribes of the Andamans. The committee tasked to decide on the fellowship demurred — the prevalent notion being that it was not safe for a woman researcher to do field work amongst the tribes. However, Madhumala’s impeccable academic record, her previous research work and a sterling approach paper for the fellowship was hard to overlook. So, a way was proposed by the fellowship committee: Madhumala would be allowed to work in the Andamans on an Anthropological Survey of India fellowship if Madhumala’s parents were to sign an undertaking that if anything untoward happened to their daughter while doing research amongst the primitive tribes, including loss of life, Anthropological Survey of India was not to be held responsible. It is to the credit of Madhumala’s mother Pronoti Chattopadhyaya (her father being no more) that she signed the dotted line fully aware of the dangers involved, refusing to let her daughter’s childhood dream go unfulfilled. Little was it known then that Madhumala would go on to create history.
Madhumala for the next six years would continue to research the various tribes of the Andamans, which had in store many startling events and stories, some of which we will allude to in this article. Let’s fast track to the most seminal work done by Madhumala i.e. the first human contact with the Sentinelese.
Tell us about your experience meeting the Sentinelese
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.
Perhaps no people on Earth remain more genuinely isolated than the Sentinelese. They, to date, resist outsiders and are prone to attacking them. In 1880, a heavily-armed British expedtion led by Maurice Portman landed on North Sentinel Island and made what is believed to be the first exploration of the island by outsiders. Several days passed before they made contact with any Sentinelese. An elderly couple and four children were captured and brought back to Port Blair. While the elderly couple died in captivity, the four children were given gifts and released back to the Sentinel Islands, never to be seen again. The British did not pursue any further expedition to this island.
Small contact parties sent by the Anthroplogical Survey of India in the early 1970s were turned away with arrows. A documentary team from the National Geographic accompanied under police protection got the same fierce welcome in 1974. The documentary was interestingly titled ‘Man in Search of Man’. The film’s director took an 8-foot-long arrow in the thigh.
On 4 January, 1991, MV Tarmugli, the Andaman Nicobar Administration ship, put down its anchor off Allen point on the southwest part of the North Sentinel Islands. The purpose was to attempt a friendly contact with the Sentinelese. Not much was expected, probably like many futile missions in the past, this would also to go down in the file as another wasted attempt. However, unlike in the past, this mission had one difference, there was a women anthropologist in the contact team. At around 8 am in the morning, the team of 13, including Madhumala, set sail for the island in a small craft. The key team members were team leader S. Awaradi (director, tribal welfare, A&NI administration), medical officer Dr Arun Mullick (for providing medical attention in case of sickness or injury) and anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay. The rest were support crew.
As the craft approached the island, three huts came into view. The dreaded Sentinel Island, Madhumala had read so much about, was now in front of her. As the boat inched closer to the shore, Madhumala’s heart beat went up a notch — will the tribe show up? However, the shore looked deserted. Seeing smoke coming out from another part of the island, the contact party steered their boat towards that direction. Suddenly, the Sentinelese were there behind the trees — the most secluded tribe in the world had come into view. Most were men, four of them armed with bows and arrows.
It was now up to the contact team to take initiative, and they started dropping coconuts in the water, which they had brought with them. Then something that had never been seen before happened. After a bit of trepidation, a few Sentinelese men came sprinting and waded through the shallow continental shelf to collect the floating coconuts. The team was awestruck; the Sentinelese had accepted a friendly gesture. The team leader instructed that more coconuts be dropped, and this time the Sentinelese brought a canoe to collect the coconuts in cane baskets. The women and children, however, maintained a distance and remained on the shore. An invisible wall stood between the islanders and the contact team. No party made the first move to bridge the gap further. Four hours rolled by, the contact party kept floating coconuts and the Sentinelese kept collecting them. Perhaps this was the farthest that the Sentinelese would go.
With their stock of coconuts over, the team went back to the ship to replenish. It was 2 pm when the team returned. The process of dropping coconuts started again, and this time the tribe welcomed the contact party with shouts of “Nariyali jaba jaba”. Madhumala recognised this cry to mean “more and more coconuts”, a distinct Onge dialect, given her knowledge of a number of Andamanese languages. The Sentinelese in the second round had become bolder. A young Sentinelese youth waded up to the boat and touched it with his hands. Following him, more men closed in to collect the coconuts.
In this moment of ice-breaking, a Sentinelese youth who was sitting on the shore got up and aimed his arrow at the contact party. Fazed but not betraying fear, Madhumala gestured at the youth to come over and take his share of the coconuts. This was a moment of standoff — Madhumala refusing to remove eye contact and the arrow refusing to go down. The arrow was released but Providence intervened. As the marksman was about to release, a Sentinelese woman standing nearby gave a push to the marksman, and the arrow missed its mark and fell harmlessly in the water. The woman had done that on purpose, thus saving the contact party from severe injury or even death.
Undeterred, the team persisted. It was now the turn of the Sentinelese to be surprised. The contact party, including Madhumala, decided to jump into water. Knee-deep in water, the space-age man (woman) was looking eye-to-eye with one of the most primitive people on earth. It was not a meeting with a finger on the trigger or with a bow string pulled, it was a meeting between equals, with dignity and respect. The coconuts were not being floated in the water anymore, but were being handed over in person. This was the making of anthropological history.
What probably changed the equation on that fateful day was the presence of a woman in the contact team who maintained her calm and took the initiative. A woman in the contact party indicated to the Sentinelese – who are extremely protective of their women – that the boat people meant no harm. For a brief moment, the Sentinalese let their guard down, and allowed outsiders into their world.
Madhumala came back to the North Sentinel Islands as a member of another contact party on 21 February, a month-and-a-half after the first contact. This time the welcome was enthusiastic. The Sentinelese climbed up on the boat to receive the coconuts. Thankfully, no arrow was aimed.
While the ice with this hostile tribe was on the verge of being broken, the government of India decided to stop any more contact with the Sentinelese, even for academic purposes. It was feared that outside contact might introduce diseases in the tribe. A justified move given the epidemics introduced by outside contact in other tribes of the Andamans. Today, the Sentinelese remain secluded and hostile despite the early contacts made. The 2011 census of this tribe was done from a distance of 1.5 kms from the seashore through observation, given the risks involved in sending enumerators ashore. As recently as 2006, two fishermen who had strayed close to the shores of North Sentinel Islands werekilled by the Sentinelese. The government of India enforces a 3 mile no-entry zone around these islands.
How about the Jarawas?
Madhumala continued her research for many more years in the Andamans, primarily with the Jarawa tribe. The first friendly contact with the Jarawas had been made in 1975 by a joint team from the Anthropological Survey of India and the A&NI Administration. Since then, systematic contacts were made by administration, who took bananas, coconuts etc. as gifts. However, there were instances of hostile reactions from the tribe, and authorities had banned inclusion of women in contact parties.
In 1991 when Madhumala went, she was the first woman from outside to visit the Jarawas. As a precaution, Madhumala remained in the motor boat while the men went ashore to meet the tribe. Seeing Madhumala, the Jarawa women began to gesture her to come ashore with the shout “Milale chera (friend come here)”. They started an impromptu dance to express their joy at seeing a woman in the contact team. This unexpected welcome from the Jarawa women for Madhumala prompted the team leader to send for the boat to bring Madhumala ashore.
As the boat neared the shore, five Jarawa men climbed on to the boat and sat across Madhumala looking at her with curiosity. Heart beating hard, Madhumala maintained her composure. Other members of the contact team were not sure how to react; a wrong move could have been disastrous. It was at this juncture that a Jarawa woman climbed onto the boat and sat besides Madhumala. The Jarawa woman gestured to the five men that the visitor like her was a woman. Madhumala embraced the woman, which signified a gesture of friendship. No anthropology text book had taught her this, it came from experience, empathy and a sense of self preservation. The Jarawa woman was thrilled at this gesture and made all the five Jarawa men lie down on the floor of the boat like admonished children.
On landing, other Jarawa women surrounded Madhumala and started examining her skin texture and long hair with their fingers. The inspection involved pinching and scratching, which had to be endured to earn lasting friendship. Satisfied, the women offered Madhumala a hair band and an arm amulet as a token of acceptance in the community. With the initiation ceremony over and Madhumala getting a friendly welcome, she became a regular visitor to the Jarawa territory. Her anthropological research with the Jarawas was mainly through observation. No sophisticated instruments could be used since the Jarawa had a propensity of claiming things which Madhumala brought as their own, including the pencils which Madhumala used for taking notes.
An interesting bond developed, and the Jarawa women would keep the Jarawa men at bay from Madhumala. She would be invited to the Jarawa huts, play with the children, share their food and sometimes be asked to even lend a hand with the household chores. Madhumala also became the resident doctor and would apply ointments to the injuries that the Jarawas would get with during their forays into the jungle for hunting and gathering. Despite her requests, the administration refused to give Madhumala permission for night stay with the Jarawas. The visits revealed to the Jarawas the modern man (woman), as much as it revealed to Madhumala about the Jarawas.
Madhumala also did seminal work with the Onges’ and the Car Nicobarese. Amongst the Onge tribe, Madhumala was known as Debotobeti (doctor), because her anthropological research entailed checking the health status of the Onges, including taking of blood samples. Many years later, when at the request of the government of India, Madhumala accompanied then secretary for social justice and empowerment, Asha Das, to the islands, the Nicobarese recognised Madhumala and told the secretary that their daughter had come back.
Given her seminal work, universities including University of Cornell and University of California, Berkley offered Madhumala research positions. However, her responsibilities towards her two younger siblings and aging mother kept her from taking up these assignments. She took up a regular job with the ministry of social justice and empowerment, where she is now employed as a senior research officer.
The government colony in Laxmibai Nagar in New Delhi where she lives is orderly and predictable, far from the verdant surroundings of the Andamans where every turn revealed something new. Her work remains forgotten. Ruth Benedict the famous anthropologist said “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences”. Madhumala has been true to her professional training.