The Jarawa tribals of the Andaman Islands have a population of 266 as enumerated in September 2002. They inhabit a region of roughly 650 square kilometres on the islands that has been reserved for them. A rare glimpse into the lifestyle of this little known community and the role of Jarawa women within it, is provided in the recent publication, ‘The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier: Cultural & Biological Diversities In The Andaman Islands’, brought out by the environmental group, Kalpavriksh, and edited by Pankaj Sekhsaria and Vishvajit Pandya.
Gathering wild edible plants is an important subsistence activity for the (Jarawa) women. The major edible plant resources are wild tubers, seeds of various plants and various seasonal fruits… The tubers are eaten after boiling or baking.
The Jarawas eat many kinds of seeds; the most common one is the oomin (Cycas rumphii). Some are eaten raw and some are processed before they are eaten. Most of this gathering and transportation to the camp is done by women, although men also help, particularly when the seeds are abundantly available…
Jarawa males and females climb trees, even the tall ones, cut the beehives and bring them down in containers made of wood. They use the leaves of the Canarium euphylllum as a bee repellent. The person who first locates a beehive enjoys the privilege of collecting it. If the person cannot collect the honey immediately, a few shrubs around the tree are broken to notify to others that the beehive has already been located. Both men and women collect honey; there is no gender difference in this pursuit. Honey is partly eaten on the spot by all the persons present and the remainder is brought back to the camp.
Fishing is a very important subsistence activity for the Jarawas. However, unlike some other tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands…the Jarawas have no knowledge of making canoes and steering them into deeper waters. The fishing activities of the Jarawas are confined to shallow coastal areas, creeks and fresh water bodies. In addition to catching (or shooting) fish, they also collect molluscs and other aquatic species. Both men and women take part in fishing. While men use the bow and arrow to shoot the fish, women use hand nets. Collection of molluscs and other shells is done with bare hands. While camping in coastal areas the Jarawas consume more molluscs and other aquatic species than while camping in the interior parts of the forest.
Hunting is primarily a male activity. Jarawa men carry out hunting individually as well as in groups. There are only three game animals available to the Jarawa hunters: the pig, monitor lizard and turtle. The feral pig is the most preferred of all. Interestingly, the Jarawa do not hunt the deer, which are found in plenty in the Jarawa reserve territory. The apparent reason is that this species was introduced in the forests of the Andaman Islands as recently as the twentieth century, and the Jarawas never accepted it as a game animal.
Earlier the Jarawas cooked much of their food in pit hearths called the aalaav. Such hearths are still used by them to cook jackfruit and sometimes meat. The pit hearths are made in the open in the dry season and most often inside a hut in the monsoons. A fire is created at the bottom and covered with pebbles. The food to be cooked is placed on those pebbles and then covered with another set of pebbles. If the item to be cooked is meat, it is packed in green leaves. The pit is then covered with loose earth. It normally takes about three to four hours to cook food in this manner in an aalaav.
When jackfruits are available in abundance, the fruits are cooked in the aalaav in large numbers. The rest is broken open, seeds are retrieved and packed in cane baskets. The baskets are then buried under mud in creeks and left there for about two weeks. Through the process the seeds are partly decomposed. These seeds are then collected and their outer skin is removed before storing them for more than a month. These seeds are baked and eaten during the rainy season.
Pig meat is often boiled in metal pans these days. Only occasionally is it cooked in the aalaav. A portion of the meat is smoked and kept for weeks or even months. Some pig fat is also stored for a longer period of time.
The skin of the oomiin (Cycas rumphii) seeds is removed and the kernel sliced. These slices are put in baskets, dipped in saline water for about two weeks, dried in the sun and stored for months. These slices are boiled in water to cook them and sometimes the boiled seeds are also mixed with stored pig fat.
Honey is also stored in wooden buckets covered with green leaves.
While the meat of animals is distributed among all the household units or single persons residing in one camp, other foraged items are generally shared within the household unit only.
(An excerpt from ‘The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier: Cultural & Biological Diversities In The Andaman Islands’; Authored by Umesh Kumar, B.N. Sarkar, K. Mukhopadhyay, K.M. Sinha Roy, Ramesh Sahani, S.S. Dutta Chowdhury; Edited by Pankaj Sekhsaria and Vishvajit Pandya; Published by Kalpavriksh; Pp: 212.)