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Apeksha Bagchi

IWB Blogger

Meet Madhumala, First Woman Anthropologist To Establish Friendly Contact With The Isolated Sentinelese Tribe

  • IWB Post
  •  December 1, 2018

The Sentinelese Tribe in the North Sentinel Island in the Andamans is termed as the most hostile tribe and have consistently refused contact with the outside world. But there was someone who made it possible to have a friendly interaction with the tribe- it was Madhumala Chattopadhyay, a senior research officer with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

Madhumala was 12 when her interest in the tribes of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands was triggered after she came across a news clipping of the birth of a child among the nearly-extinct Onge tribes. After successfully becoming an anthropologist, she, in order to conduct field research in remote islands, applied for a PhD fellowship to the Anthropological Survey of India. It was only after her mother signed an undertaking that ASI won’t be held liable if something unfortunate happened to her during the research that she was allowed to conduct research on the tribes of the Andamans.

Earlier, the attempts by the ASI to establish contact with the Sentinelese in the 1970s were futile as the tribe associated them with British colonialists, who were brutal and dangerous when it came to approaching the tribe. But the iconic day came on January 4, 1991, when all this changed.

That day, after the MV Tarmugli dropped its anchor near the southwest part of the North Sentinel Island, a crew of 13, via a small boat, reached the island and were greeted by the Sentinelese – armed with bows and arrows. As a friendly approach, the visiting party starting dropping coconuts in the water for the tribe and a small group of Sentinelese approached them to take the offering.

But when the 13-member team returned with a second set of coconuts, the Sentinelese approached their boat, touched it and directly collected the coconuts from them. All this positive change was because of the presence of a woman in the team- Madhumala. Seeing her assured the tribe that the visiting party was non-threatening. In fact, Madhumala jumped in the water and handed over the coconuts to the people directly. The Sentinelese, fiercely protective of their women, saw Madhumala as a sign of truce and welcomed them with open arms.

“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,” Madhumala said.

But the fear of an epidemic spreading among the Sentinelese led the Government of India to put a stop on such interactions and established a 3-mile no-entry zone around these islands. Recently, American missionary John Allen Chau tried to visit the island and was killed by the tribe.

“But it’s not like they attack first-off, they show warning signs — through facial gestures, knives, bows, and arrows — and then take action if those are disrespected. John Allen Chau must have faced a similar situation,” Madhumala said. Stating that tribal communities are mostly animists or nature worshipers, she said, “The Sentinelese and other tribes don’t need to be oppressed with religion, because doing so will make them more hostile. They understand nature, and that’s all they need. For instance, when I was with the Jarawas, I was traveling one day from one village to another, but they asked me not to go since it was going to rain. This was a bright sunny day! But it did rain within half an hour, such as their understanding of nature.”

H/T: The Better India




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