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Negrito Religions: Negritos of the Andaman Islands


The Andaman Negritos are extremely primitive hunter-gatherers representing a prelithic stage of cultural development. They fall into two separate divisions, the Great Andamanese and the Onge-Jarawa-Sentinelese. As a result of colonization and the introduction of syphilis and other diseases, the Great Andamanese tribes have already become extinct; only a hybrid group of some twenty-eight individuals survives on a tiny islet called Strait Island. The Jarawa and the Sentinelese live in complete isolation and eschew all external contacts. Consequently, nothing is known about their religion. The remaining tribe, the Onge, lives on Little Andaman Island.

The universe as conceived by the Onge is a multilayered structure with Little Andaman at its center. There are six layers above Little Andaman and six layers below, and each is inhabited by a different class of spirit. These spirits are neither divine nor immaterial. They eat, drink, marry, multiply, and die just like human beings. The most important among them are the onkoboykwe, a class of benevolent spirit inhabiting the first layer above Little Andaman, and the eaka, a class of harmful spirit living immediately beneath the island. Above the Onge universe there is a limitless void and below there is Kwatannange, the primary sea, which is full of turtles.

The sun, moon, stars, and clouds are believed to be the creation of the onkoboykwe. The Onge do not personify and worship the heavenly bodies. There are two monsoons in the Andamans, the southwest and the northeast; spirits living in distant islands across the sea send the monsoonal winds.

The Onge believe that one's life after death depends on how a person has met his death. If he dies of illness, he becomes an eaka and goes below the earth. If an Onge is killed by a wild boar, by snakebite, or by a fall from a tree, he becomes an onkoboykwe and lives above the sky. If drowned, he becomes a sea spirit.

The Onge hold that all non-Negrito people are the spirits of dead Onges. The term inene is collectively applied to them. In the event of death from illness, one day before the emergence of eaka from the dead body, another miniature human form called embekete comes out from the corpse and swims across the sea to the land of inene where he soon transforms himself into another inene. Thus, according to the Onge, we the outsiders were Onge in our previous birth. The belief in the existence of two spirits, embekete and eaka, in one individual probably emanated from their attempts to rationalize the origin of non-Negritos and find a place for them in their scheme of the universe.

From the fragmentary data that are available on the religion of the Great Andamanese, it appears that they, like the Onge, believed in different classes of spirit living above the sky, below the earth, and in the sea. There is, however, an important difference between the Great Andamanese and the Onge. The former believed that the sun was the wife of the moon and that the stars were their children, whereas the Onge hold that the sun and the moon are flat, disc-shaped, inanimate things created by the onkoboykwe. Concepts of a superior spirit or high god, heaven and hell, virtue and sin, are conspicuously absent among the Andaman Negritos.


Although the literature on the religious life of the Andamanese Negritos is small, the reader may profitably consult John M. Cooper's "Andamanese-Semang-Eta Cultural Relations," Primitive Man (now Anthropological Quarterly ) 13 (April 1940): 2947.

New Sources

Basu, Badal Kumar. The Onge, Negrito Hunter-Gatherers of Little Andaman. Calcutta, 1990.

Ghosal, Samit. "Past and Present of the Negrito Tribes in the Andaman Islands: A Critical Appraisal." Journal of the Anthropological Survey of India (Calcutta) 43, no. 12 (1994): 2530.

Sudarsen, V., and D. Venkatesan. "Life Cycle Ceremonies among the Onge of Little Andaman." In Religion and Society in South India: A Volume in Honour of Prof. N. Subba Reddy, edited by V. Sudarsen, G. Prakash Reddy, and M. Suryanarayana, pp. 163173. Delhi, 1987.

Pranab Ganguly (1987)

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