Madhumala

In 1991, a female anthropologist named Madhumala Chattopadhyay wanted to join a team that would make one of last tries to contact the Sentinelese. She had wanted to study the tribes of the Andaman Islands since childhood. Now, as an adult, she had spent years researching them. So Chattopadhyay tried to join a team going to North Sentinel.

But there was a catch: women were not included in groups that went to establish contact with the “hostile” tribes the islands. “I had to give a written undertaking saying that I knew about the risks involved and would not claim compensation from the government for any injury or loss of life,” Chattopadhyay recalls. “My parents also had to give a similar written undertaking.”

With another Andaman Islands tribe – Jarawas

Permissions granted, Chattopadhyay went on to become the first female anthropologist to make contact with the Sentinelese. She recalled her first-hand encounters.

Holding a Jarawa child

We were all a bit apprehensive because a few months earlier the team sent by the administration had encountered the usual hostility. Her group approached the island in a small boat, steering the vessel along an empty beach toward a spire of smoke. A few Sentinelese men, four of them armed with bows and arrows, walked out to the shoreline. They were apprehensive at first but as we started floating coconuts over to them; some of the Sentinelese came into the water to collect the coconuts. They started distributing those among themselves. Soon, I was handing over coconuts directly to them. They were in quite a playful mood.

Close encounter with Sentinelese

Suddenly, one of our team members shouted, “Teer Uthaya! Teer Uthaya!”. Startled, we found that a young man was aiming his bow and arrow at us. Instantly, I spotted a woman beside him, who seemed to be the boy’s mother. I addressed her as “Kairi Sera (Mother, come near)” in Onge and conveyed to her “Nariyali Jaba Jaba (More and more coconuts).” The woman gave the boy a nudge and his arrow fell to the water. At the woman’s urging, he too came into the water and started picking coconuts.

They were in quite a playful mood.

In the two to three hours that followed, Sentinelese men waded from the beach into the water repeatedly to collect the coconuts. They do not grow on their island. Some women and children watched from a distance. Yet the threat of an attack on the anthropologist outsiders remained present. Later some of the tribesmen came and touched the boat. The gesture, we felt, indicated that they were not scared of us now.

Chattopadhyay returned with a larger team a month later. This time, our team was bigger because the administration wanted to make the Sentinelese familiar with all the team members. They watched us approaching and came to meet us without their weapons. The Sentinelese actually climbed into the team’s boat to take an entire bag of coconuts. They even tried to take the rifle belonging to the police, probably because it was made of metal they value highly. One of the team members then tried to take an ornament made out of leaves worn by a Sentinelese man but the man got angry and whipped out his knife. Then he gestured to us to leave immediately so we left.

Chattopadhyay’s visits to North Sentinel island in 1991, where coconuts were distributed to the island’s inhabitants, are considered the only ‘friendly’ encounters between the Sentinelese and outsiders. She now works in India’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. She has not returned to the islands and has no interest in returning to North Sentinel. She says that the tribes have been living on the islands for centuries and the tribes do not need outsiders to protect them, what they need is to be left alone.

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