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Nicobarese

Nicobarese

ETHNONYMS: none


Orientation

The Nicobarese are the majority ethnic and linguistic group living in the Nicobar Island group, a district of India's Andaman and Nicobar Union Territory in the Bay of Bengal. Located between 6°50 and 9°10N and 92°10 and 93°55 E, the Nicobar group comprises 2,022 square kilometers of surface area, strung along a 262-kilometer NNW-SSE line. The principal islands are Car Nicobar (north); Kamorta, Chowra, and Nancowrie (center); and Great and Little Nicobar (south). The district population was 30,454 in 1981 including about 22,200 Nicobarese and Shampon.

Car Nicobar has the only important city of the district. Also on Car Nicobar is Big Laputi village, thought to be the parent village from which all other Nicobarese settlements originated. This island is flat, with fertile soils, and is home to the majority of the district's population. The other islands are hilly. The islands are densely forested under coconut and betel-nut trees, pandanus, mangoes, margosa, and casuarina. They receive heavy monsoon rains230 to 330 centimeters annuallyand because they lie along one of the Earth's major fault lines, they are subject to severe earthquakes.

Nicobarese is a Mon Khmer language of the Austroasiatic Family. There are three divisions: Car, Central, and Southern Nicobarese. Each of the latter two have four dialects. Chowra and Teressa are related but separate languages.


History and Cultural Relations

Tradition and linguistic evidence suggest that the Nicobarese originated in Myanmar (Burma). The first certain reference to them is in the 1050 Tanjore inscription of the Chola dynasty of south India, which calls the islands "Nakkavaram" ("Land of the Naked"). First and unsuccessfully missionized by the Jesuits, they also resisted Christianizing efforts by the Danish, Austrians, British, and French. In 1869, the British claimed the islands and held them until India gained independence in 1947. Christianity made real progress only on Car Nicobar, largely because of local respect for Bishop Richardson, a Nicobarese whose bravery during the 1942-1945 Japanese occupation of the islands inspired whole Villages to convert. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, passed in 1956, restricts entry of outsiders to tribal areas and regulates trade in the territory.


Settlements

Settlements are invariably located on the coast. Nearest the shoreline are three community houses. Behind these are a number of "birth" huts, in which a new mother, her husband, and their baby live for about a year after delivery. Behind these huts are the dwelling houses, usually on stilts, clustered around a sand-covered dance and sports ground. These huts are usually single-roomed and dome-roofed or rectangular with sloping roofs. Both house types are made of thatching woven through a frame of branches. There usually is a separate hut built near each dwelling that serves as a kitchen.


Economy

Nicobarese are agriculturalists and fisherfolk. Their main crops are rice, maize, fruits, vegetables, and, most Importantly, coconuts and betel nuts. Their principal industries are copra making and oil pressing. Each Nicobarese household maintains a coconut and betel-nut plantation that can range in extent from one-quarter hectare to several hectares. The coconut tree is valued for more than its fruit: its wood is used for building, and its leaves are used for making mats, torches, and canoe covers. All Nicobarese households also raise pigs and poultry. Chowra Islanders specialize in the construction of canoes and earthenware pots. As the Chowra Islanders have a reputation for being great magicians, the Nicobarese will use only Chowra pottery for ritual food preparation and hold that canoes must be Chowra-made, or at least blessed by a Chowra ritual specialist (menluana ). Men and women enjoy equal economic rights and position, although household tasks are largely performed by women and heavy work tends to be male-dominated.

Land Tenure. General rights to land are vested in the joint family, under the control of the household head. However, since land is abundant, use rights are easily gained by anyone willing to clear a bit of forest. As long as the land is worked, its use right may pass along from parent to child.


Kinship

The Nicobarese employ an extreme form of joint-family System. The family consists of a husband-wife pair, their Children, brothers and/or sisters (and their offspring) of the core couple, and even cousins, uncles, etc.: the total number of household members can reach as high as a hundred, living in a cluster of neighboring dwelling houses.


Marriage and Family

Nicobarese select their own partners, but parental opinion of a prospective match carries some weight. There are no endogamous or exogamous groups other than the immediate Nuclear family unit, and both cross and parallel cousins are appropriate marriage partners. Attitudes toward premarital sex are benign; marriages are often the simple regularization of a longstanding sexual relationship. Age at marriage is usually 20 to 28 for men, 16 to 20 for women. Marriage ritual involves the shaving of the couple's heads, after which the marrying pair don white clothes and are fed a meal of roast pig. A menluana then takes them to the sea for a ritual swim, and upon their return to the village there is a great feast. The pair goes into hiding for four to seven days, and then they return to the community as a married couple. There is no stigma attached to illegitimacy, and divorce seldom if ever occurs. Nicobarese are now monogamous, though they once were not. Widow remarriage is common. After marriage, the couple goes to live with whichever of their two joint-family groups has the fewer members.


Inheritance. Property is nominally vested in the joint Family. Personal goods are not generally inherited, because they are buried with their owner upon his or her death.

Socialization. Traditionally, the child would not be named until it began to walk, when a naming ceremony and feast would be held. Today naming will often occur earlier, and among Christian Nicobarese a small feast is held at the infant's baptism. Children are highly valued by the Nicobarese, and both parents are engaged in their upbringing. Teaching is done by example and by admonition. Formal schools have been available on Car Nicobar for quite some time now, and in recent years have spread to some of the other islands.

Sociopolitical Organization

Village heads are chosen from among the joint-family heads. Headship is an achieved position, but it tends to remain in a single family for several generations. One of the village heads will serve as island head. Women are assumed to be fully as qualified for headship as men, but they are less frequently motivated to act as such. Village and island councils, formed of family and village heads, once had the sole formal authority to judge and punish offenses and only met to adjudicate specific problems. Today, serious crimes are no longer handled on the local level but are turned over to government representatives headquartered on Car Nicobar. Today, punishments are usually laid on in terms of fines (to be paid in pigs), or corporal punishment (caning).



Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although Christianity has achieved some success among the Nicobarese, traditional beliefs and practices are still strong. The Nicobarese are animists, and they have a rich tradition dealing with natural spirits and spirits of the dead.


Religious Practitioners. The menluana (witch doctor) is a ritual specialist and healer who begins as a disciple/apprentice to an established menluana. Although anyone can become a menluana if they express the desire and aptitude, ritual knowledge most often passes from parent to child. The most respected ritual specialists come from Chowra.


Ceremonies. There is an annual feast held to drive evil spirits away from the village and several seasonal festivals intended to promote the growth of crops. The biggest Ceremonial event, involving several villages, is the ossuary feast, which honors the spirits of the dead. A great many pigs are killed for this feast, and it is the only time that pig fights are held. It occurs approximately every two or three years, Whenever village heads agree that they have the necessary resources (in pigs) to host one.


Arts. Nicobarese songs are sung unaccompanied by instruments. Dancing is done in groupson some islands males and females dance in separate groups. There is no Nicobarese traditional drama. Popular sports include canoe races, pig fighting, stick fighting, wrestling, and volleyball.


Medicine. The menluana cure sickness by controlling the spirits who cause it. Herbal remedies are used, as is curing by "sucking" out bits of stone or bone, etc., from the body of the ailing person.


Death and Afterlife. The Nicobarese believe in an afterlife in which the dead conduct themselves similarly to how they did in life. For this reason, the personal belongings of the dead are buried with the body and food is left at the burial site. Certain coconut palms of the deceased's former plantation are marked with a sign, designating their fruit as solely for the use of the dead person's spirit for about six months. The body of the deceased is interred, then exhumed and reburied after about a week, at the time of which final burial a feast is held.

Bibliography

Chak, B. L. (1971). Andaman and Nicobar Islands. New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Publications Division.


Mathur, Kaushal Kumar (1967). Nicobar Islands. New Delhi: National Book Trust.

NANCY E. GRATTON

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