Traditional Navigational Knowledge among Tribes
of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
D. P. Agrawal
In this note we discuss scientific navigational knowledge
of the tribal people of Andaman and Nicobar islands. These traditional societies
had developed their own science to eke out their livelihood through interaction
with nature. Science does not begin with Galileo or Newton, but from the very
advent of humans on this planet.
It is now recognized that Western criteria are not the sole
benchmark by which other cultural knowledge should be evaluated. In countries
with ancient cultural traditions, the folk and elite sciences were taken as
part of the same unified legacy, without any hegemonic categorisations. Colonizers
systematically undermined the local traditional science, technology and crafts
of the lands and people they plundered, because of their intellectual arrogance
and also to control and appropriate the economic means of production. Western
Science has created hegemonic categories of science verses magic, technology
verses superstitions etc., which are arbitrary and contrived. Many anthropologists
who have worked with the so-called ‘primitive’ peoples have been surprised to
learn of some of their highly evolved and sophisticated technologies, an example
of which we have given from the Caribbean islands also. The term ‘Traditional
Knowledge System’ (TKS) was thus coined by anthropologists as a scientific system
which has its own validity, in contradistinction to ‘modern’ science.
The United Nations
University proposal defines Traditional Knowledge Systems as follows:
“Traditional knowledge or ‘local knowledge’ is a record
of human achievement in comprehending the complexities of life and survival
in often unfriendly environments. Traditional knowledge, which may be technical,
social, organizational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great human
experiment of survival and development.”
Laura Nader describes
the purpose of studying TKS’: The point is to open up people’s minds to other
ways of looking and questioning, to change attitudes about knowledge, to reframe
the organization of science to formulate a way of thinking globally about
This article attempts a brief study of the traditional oceanographic
knowledge among the tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands comprising 306 islets are
situated in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, in the Bay of Bengal
over a distance of 700 km. These islands are separated into two groups viz.,
the Andaman group and the Nicobar group. These groups of islands are delimited
as Andaman and Nicobar districts, which occupy 6,408
sq km and 1,841 sq km areas respectively. The tribes named Great Andamans, Onges,
Jarawas and Sentinelese live in the Andaman group of islands, and in the Nicobar
group of islands reside two Mongoloid tribes viz., Nicobarese and Shompens.
Navigational Skills of Tribals
The island of Chowra is a revered place for all the southern
islanders. The people of Chowra are believed to have some occult powers over
winds, waves, tides, current, etc., and to manipulate them to their advantage
and are respected by everyone. Generally, they are experts in navigation and
boat building. However the tribes of different islands possess different navigational
skills. But the people of Chowra are considered to be masters in navigation.
The people of Car Nicobar, Teressa, Tilangchung, Nancowry, Trinket, Great Nicobar,
Camorta, Katchal and Little Nicobar visit Chowra every year and learn several
navigational techniques from the people of Chowra.
The tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands have acquired intricate knowledge
kinds of waves. However, they seem to identify
one particular type of wave, which is the principal wave of each set of waves
locally known as Nayange. They recognize that the sea is turbulent
during new moon and full moon days. They are very careful and do not go for
voyaging when the sea is too rough. Their decision is highly appreciated for
avoiding such voyages.
The Nicobarese on the basis of their flowing directions recognize four different
types of currents: (1) Heam Kudi - from north; (2) Heam Kulam
- from south; (3) Heam Kuli - from east; and (4) Heam Kuvath
- from west. These currents are very powerful during the four seasons namely
Chu, Kaba, Susam, and Lohaah, respectively. These currents are
generally useful to the Nicobarese for catching fish. They determine direction
and nature of the current by putting the Hallis (pedal) over the water
for sometime. The Nicobarese state that the currents are far fewer from the
9th day of full moon up to the 14th day and after that
the currents again gain momentum.
Tides are useful
for fishing activity. Having an exhaustive knowledge about tides and their usefulness,
the tribal seafarers and sailors apply this knowledge for fishing trips. They
authentically say that the low and high tides are caused by moon only. They
have however no idea of the exact time of their incidence. During new moon and
full moon days, they avoid fishing both in high and low tides. Generally low
tides are preferred for fishing trip.
For coastal fishing, during low tides in the inter-tidal region,
they dig small pits and fill them when the tides turn high. Water is logged
in the pits. Along with the receding water, women, small boys and girls splash
the water with small sticks. Sometime they sprinkle the extract of the seeds
of kanyov tree on water, which has a narcotizing effect on the fishes.
The Nicobarese also, like the mainlanders and settlers, have
recognized four different types of winds from four seasons on the basis of their
blowing direction. These different winds are identified just by feeling only.
Each wind is predominant in a particular season. These winds are: (1) West wind-
Chu- January to March, (2) North wind- Kaba- April to June, (3)
East wind- Susam- July to September, (4) South wind- Lohaha- October
to December. These winds are observed regularly. Among these four winds, the
East wind is considered to be good for navigation and fishing trip.
The Nicobarese practice of measuring depth is quite unique.
The first method they adopt is by observing the colour of water. They state
that a close relationship exists between colour and water. According to them
the blue colour of water is considered to be deep and shallowness is indicated
by green and pale colour water.
The second method depends upon the sound produced between
the vessel hull and sea surface. The depth at the spot is determined by hearing
the sound from underneath the vessel due to friction of hull bottom with water.
The friction sound produced at the interface of water and hull is different
at different depths according to them.
The third one depends upon simply looking at the water because
the water of Andaman and Nicobar islands is crystal clear. They just jump into
the water and confirm the depth of water. They never use any measuring device
for depth finding.
A large number of methods are used by the tribes of southern
islands for predicting the arrival of cyclone, bad weather, thunder and heavy
rain. They use several natural clues and behaviour of animals around them. They
tell that indication of arrival of cyclone and rough weather is predicted by
the agitation and behaviour of pigs, and by the rolling of marine snakes. If
they have any doubt regarding the cyclone or bad weather, they closely observe
the pigs at home.
Many southern islanders state that if the dark clouds meet
together in large masses with heavy lighting and thunder, it is a sure indication
Time, Duration and place of Navigation
They have no standard pattern for fixing fishing times and go for fishing trips
according to their food requirements, mood, phase of the moon, nature of tide,
etc. They generally go for fishing in the low tide period.
The duration of fishing seems to be similar among all islanders.
The duration of their voyage or fishing time never exceeds 3 to 4 hours. The
fishermen go up to 10-15 km from the shore.
Direction Finding and Stellar Knowledge
The Nicobarese and other tribes never exceed 10 km distance
from the shore for fishing so that they do not impose any necessity to know
the exact position and direction. They have definite words for four directions,
which are tangale (north), tangange (south), tanganae (east),
and tangiche (west).
They find the direction with the help of natural objects like
sun, moon, and stars in their navigational activity. Generally they use the
following stars during night hours.
Onchiana (Centaurus): A constellation, which appears in south during February to April.
Thyan (Orion): A constellation appearing in
the east. One star in it is very bright.
Mahayuvan (southern cross): Visible in the south from December to April.
Sama (Al de Baron): it is a bright red coloured star visible in the East from May to
Balangkaruvya (Venus): single planet in the East.
Musaha (Ursa Major): it is a constellation appearing in the North.
Gna gna hyyam (Pleiades): Visible in the East from September to February.
Seafaring in Different Seasons of the Year
All the seasons of the year are not good for seafaring activity.
The Nicobarese have definite seasons for navigation according to their own calendar.
The seasons of Mukyop (December-January), Ranecaba
(January- February) and Tutch (February-March) are generally good
for navigation and fishing. In Bach (March-April), the wind force is
greater and the sea becomes rough and this season is not suitable for navigation.
After this comes the Amu (April-May), during this season seafaring and
fishing are altogether forbidden and nobody should go for fishing. The end of
this season is perceived by the Trinket islander. When they start seafaring
and fishing, every body knows the season of Amu has ended. After this
the wind force becomes normal and fishing and seafaring are started again from
the month of Tukai (September-October).
Types of Crafts
Different types of dugouts and outrigger canoes were used
by the tribals of Andaman and Nicobar islands. The dugouts used by the great
Andamanese and Nicobarese were different. The Andamanese used small dugouts
with an outrigger. The racing canoes are solely meant for recreation and never
used for fishing by Nicobarese.
Onge’s dugouts with outriggers are mostly similar but stronger
than those of great Andamanese while the Shompen’s dugout with outriggers greatly
resembles that of Nicobarese, but smaller in size than other tribal canoes.
The Jarawas neither make nor use dugouts canoes or outriggers; instead they
use a raft made of bamboo or tree trunks.
The Occupation of Fishing
The tribes of all islands practice fishing for food. Arrows,
spears, hooks, and lines are the traditional fishing instruments of these tribes.
The Malaysian and Burmese merchants had introduced nets before the arrival of
English colonists. The tribes also hunt crabs and shells for food. During such
trips they generally use different types of pedals and oars for propulsion besides
sails. Their favourite occupational interest is octopus fishing. They generally
carry spears, arrows, and the seeds of kanyov tree as narcotic, coconuts,
and lime for catching octopus. They go in the night time irrespective of the
phase of the tide. They sprinkle the extract of kanyov tree and sometimes
seeds of Baringtonica racemosa in water which narcotize octopuses and
Trip to Chowra and other Islands
The tribes of southern island consider the trip to Chowra
as the most important event of their life. Boys make their maiden voyage to
the Chowra Island. This is partly because of the fear instilled by the Chowra
islanders who claim to have special powers to alter winds, currents, and even
direction, if anybody goes against them. They have also created a dependency
so that the people of other islands come to them for cooking pots and building
of big racing odis.
The odis built by Chowra are used to sail to Chowra
and are prepared by adding a strake to the gunwale to prevent water splashes
before starting their voyage The blood of cocks is anointed on the head of boys
who are taking their maiden trip. The common village canoes are also to be taken
in this trip.
The journey is started during ebb tide. The distance of Chowra
from any southern islands is approximately up to 30 km. Each member on board
carries food, tinder, coconut, lime, and some material for presenting to their
Chowra friends and for their own consumption during their long journey. They
mostly consume coconuts and yams. They find the direction with the help of stars.
After a stay of around ten days they return back.
The tribes of Andaman and Nicobar islands have a comprehensive
and detailed knowledge about the seas of the islands. They also depend on the
sea for their livelihood. Their navigational practices are quit interesting
and intricate. Mostly the tribes are settled on the seashore. Their traditional
knowledge about sea is unique and the seafaring activity of tribes is different
from of the settlers. At present the Nicobarese, especially the people of Car
Nicobar are actively involved in seafaring and fishing.
Goodenough (1987) has reported on the intricate navigational skills of Micronesians
of Western Caribbean islands. Though it is an oral tradition, it contains massive
amount of discrete information…which has to be committed to memory. It involves
highly abstract thinking: the compass as a set of imaginary points at equal
intervals around the horizon, named for the stars and abstracted from their
motions, but not identical with them; the use of drags as imaginary divisions
of one’s course of travel; the use of imaginary places of references to calculate
‘drags; and schematic mapping in the form of ‘trigger fish’. This is as good
a science as one expects.
We are sure that a detailed study of the Andaman and Nicobar
navigation systems, especially of the Chowra people, may indicate similar intricacies
and may be worth learning from.
Sivakumar, R. and G.V. Rajamanickam. 1999. Oceanographic knowledge
among tribes of Andaman and Nicobar islands. In Maritime Heritage of India(Ed.)
K. S. Bahera. New Delhi: Aryan Books International. Pp. 143-154.
Goodenough, Ward H. and Stephen D. Thomas 1987. Traditional Navigation in the
Western Pacific. Expedition 29(3): 3-14.
Nader, Laura.1996. Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries,
Power and Knowledge. New York: Routledge.