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ALTERNATE NAMES: Holchu (self-reference)
LOCATION: India (Nicobar Islands)
POPULATION: 28,785 (2001 Census)
LANGUAGE: Nicobarese;Hindi
RELIGION: Animism; Christianity mixed with indigenous beliefs; Islam; Hinduism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: People of India


The term Nicobarese describes the dominant tribal peoples of the Nicobar Islands, an island group located in the Bay of Bengal. Although the inhabitants of each island have their own specific name, the Nicobarese refer to themselves as "Holchu," meaning "friend." The people are of Mongoloid stock from mainland Southeast Asia, possibly originating in Burma (Myanmar). The date of their arrival is uncertain. The islands are mentioned in 11th century inscriptions from South India as Nakkavaram, the "Land of the Naked," suggesting that people were present by that time. The Nicobarese were probably not the first inhabitants of the islands. When they arrived, they came into conflict with peoples of Malay descent who were already there and forced them into the interior. The Shompen, another tribal group in the Nicobars, are believed to be the descendants of these earlier inhabitants. Though relatively isolated, the Nicobarese were exposed to contact with various European maritime powers as they expanded into Asia after 1500. Great Britain laid claim to the islands in 1869 and governed them (except for the 1942-45 Japanese occupation) until they passed to India in 1947. Today, the islands are administered by India as part of the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.


The 2001 Census of India recorded a population of 28,784 Nicobarese in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Because of population pressure, 163 families were resettled from the Nico-bars to Little Andaman Island in 1973 by the government.

The Nicobar Islands are a chain of 19 islands in the Bay of Bengal that runs southeast from the Andaman Islands towards Indonesia. Their total area is 1,841 sq km (710 sq mi), though only 12 of the islands are inhabited. The largest of these is Great Nicobar (863 sq km or 333 sq mi), which lies only 145 km (95 mi) from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Other populated islands include Car Nicobar, Little Nicobar, and Nancowry. Some of the islands have flat, coral-covered surfaces, but others are hilly. Great Nicobar, for instance, rises to 642 m (2,105 ft) and is the only island in the entire group that has permanently flowing streams. The Nicobar Islands lie between 6°n and 10°n latitude and experience a near-equatorial climate. Monthly temperatures vary from 33°c (91°f) to 18°c (64°f). Rainfall totals between 230 cm and 340 cm (90-135 in) a year, with maximum amounts coinciding with the two monsoon seasons. Dense tropical evergreen forest covers Great Nicobar Island.


The populations of different islands in the Nicobars speak different languages, which are all considered to be dialects of the Nicobarese language. These are usually classified into four (sometimes six) separate groups. The North Nicobar group, for example, includes the Car, Chowra, Teressa, and Bompaka languages. Nicobarese is a member of the Austro-Asiatic language family. Some linguists place Nicobarese in the Mon-Khmer branch of the family, while others consider the various languages spoken in the Nicobar Islands to form a separate branch of the Austro-Asiatic family. Most Nicobarese understand the Car dialect. A variant of the Roman script is currently used for writing. Hindi is used for intergroup communication.


The Nicobarese have many legends concerning their first arrival in the Nicobar Islands. One story relates that when the land was totally uninhabited, a boy came down from the sky and entered the earth. After a few days, the shoot of a lemon tree emerged from the ground. This soon grew into a huge tree, with flowers and fruits. Peoples of the northern islands, e.g., Kondul, Teressa, and Nancowry, originated from the lemon seeds of the northern branches of the tree. The people of Great Nicobar came forth from the seeds of the tree's southern branches. After many years, differences in opinion about how they should live split this southern group in two. Some of them (believed to be the Shompen) retreated to the dense forest of the interior, while the others are the coastal Nicobarese of Great Nicobar.


Traditional religion in the Nicobar Islands is animistic in nature. The Nicobarese of Great Nicobar, for example, believe in the existence of the soul, ghosts, and spirits. The soul (iyum) has no form and is immortal. A person turns to a ghost (huihe) when the soul leaves the body after death, and there are ghosts in and all around the island. Spirits (shaitan) are thought to be the cause of storms, natural disasters, and disease. Sha-mans are called upon to identify the spirits responsible for a bad storm or an illness and to pacify them with rites that include the sacrifice of a chicken or a pig. The island of Chowra is known particularly for the skill of its shamans. All young Nicobarese males are expected to pay a ritual visit to Chowra for their initiation into manhood.

Few Nicobarese follow their ancient religion today. The 1981 census records that 94.23% of the Nicobarese identified themselves as Christian. The spread of Christianity in the islands was in large part due to the work of the Nicobarese Christian John Richardson in the early decades of the 20th century. He was responsible for the idea of educating the Nicobarese in their own language, produced the first Nicobarese primer, and translated the New Testament into Nicobarese. Richardson emerged as a respected leader of the Nicobarese, particularly during the Japanese occupation, and eventually attained the rank of bishop. However, Christianity in the Nicobar Islands embraces many elements of the pre-Christian beliefs of the people. For example, all Nicobarese keep kareus in their huts. These are human figures made from clay, old clothes, straw, and wood that serve to scare away ghosts.

There are small numbers of Muslims and Hindus among the Nicobarese.


Religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated by the Christian Nicobarese, while Muslims observe Id ul-Fitr and Id ul-Adha. On the other hand, traditional festivals are mostly seasonal events, held for the community's benefit and to protect it from evil spirits and from outsiders. In January of every year, for instance, a ceremony is performed by the shaman in the gardens to increase their yields. This is accompanied by a communal feast, along with singing and dancing. Specific rituals are kept to mark events such as the first sailing of a canoe. Hānu-cheroi is the worship of the canoe before it sets out on its maiden voyage. The shaman enters the house of the canoe's owner, where he sets out a green coconut and covers it with a betel leaf. He then sacrifices a chicken and marks the coconut and betel leaf with the chicken's blood, at the same time chanting spells. A boy is sent to stand in one end of the canoe. He grasps a stick in the middle with both hands, so that it is horizontal and aligned at a right angle to the hull. Starting at one end, he walks the length of the canoe moving the stick up and down so it touches the two side walls of the boat. He chants incantations while doing this. The coconut and betel leaf are then placed in the canoe. The ritual ends with the slaughter of a pig and a feast for the relatives. The shaman receives a leg of the pig for his part in the ritual.


Many of the magical beliefs of the Nicobarese come into play during critical times in the Nicobarese life-cycle. Although the traditional idea that pregnancy is caused by a shaitan (spirit) is no longer widespread, a pregnant women takes precautions to avoid the attention of evil spirits. Among the Nicobarese of Great Nicobar, a woman carries an artistically designed, thin, perforated wooden plaque during her pregnancy. It is given magical potency by the shaman and is used as protection against harmful spirits. A pregnant woman cannot enter a garden, nor can she eat foods such as lemons, eggs, and certain kinds of fish. Delivery takes place in a birth-hut, which is located on the outskirts of the village. Various birth pollution rituals are observed in Car Nicobar, but these are absent among the central and southern peoples. The naming ceremony, accompanied by a feast for friends and relatives, is held when the baby is around one year old.

Boys and girls are brought up together. From the age of 12 onwards they are taught about sexual matters by the village elders and also learn about it indirectly, as the entire family sleeps in the same room. Puberty is known as cho-cho among the people of Great Nicobar. The first appearance of menstruation is a cause for grief, because it means the daughter will soon be married and gone from the family. Relatives from distant villages are informed and gather within 25 or 30 days for an elaborate feast to mark the occasion. This is quite unlike marriage, which is not associated with any ceremony. Boys and girls mix freely, and premarital sexual relations are not uncommon. This often leads to marriage, which usually reflects the choice of the girl. As soon as the parents of a boy and girl agree to a match, the couple are accepted as husband and wife. The Nicobarese are endogamous and can marry anyone within the group, although marriage between close relatives is considered incestuous and is forbidden.

At the time of death, the corpse is bathed and dressed in pieces of cloth provided by family members. The body is then placed in a wooden box, along with items such as a basket and a spear that are provided for the future use of the deceased. (It is believed that after death, everyone goes to another world where they hunt, fish, and garden, living very much like they did in this one.) The coffin is taken to the funeral ground, where it is buried. Death rites are performed by the shaman. The mourning period usually lasts for 30 days, and its end is marked by a feast for family and friends. The funerals of Christian and Muslim Nicobarese follow the normal patterns of their respective religions.


The Nicobarese of Great Nicobar welcome strangers to their village with coconuts. The village captain greets the visitor by extending the right arm and shaking hands (possibly learned from visiting naval officers in the past!). When kin meet, they raise their right hands above their heads and shout "Ho!" meaning "Hello." Both host and guest partake of food and drink, usually toddy (fermented palm sap). When leaving, Nicobarese again raise their right hands above their heads and say "Kāyengose!" which means "Goodbye."


The Nicobarese villages on Great Nicobar Island are strung out along the island's western shoreline. Although tracks link the villages, the only practical means of transport between these settlements is the canoe. Each village has a headman called a captain, selected by the village elders. In the past, the captains of the villages selected one of their number to be the chief captain, although this has now become a hereditary post. A council, made up of the village captains, is responsible for maintaining law and order in the community.

A village on Great Nicobar is usually a shapeless cluster of huts and also may contain a church, a school, a store, a burial ground, and perhaps a sports field. Traditional huts are round in shape, with the walls and dome-shaped roof built of thatch. They are constructed on poles at a height of about 120 cm to 150 cm (4-5 ft) above the ground and are reached by a short ladder, which is drawn up at night. Each hut consists of only one all-purpose room, with an area set aside for hearth and kitchen. Furnishings are simple and, except for the kitchen utensils, are most likely made by the hut's inhabitants. They may consist of a few stools, a table, and some storage cabinets. Most families sleep on the floor on sleeping mats. There are no arrangements for sanitation; people use the beach or nearby gardens for their daily bodily functions.


Both nuclear and extended families are found among the Nicobarese. Rules of residence after marriage are not closely followed, and both patrilocal (residence with the husband's family) and matrilocal (residence with the wife's family) patterns are found. Women are considered a valuable economic asset, and the birth of a daughter is as welcome as that of a son. Besides her household duties, a woman spends much of her time tending the garden and the coconut plantation. In Nicobarese society, women enjoy almost equal status with men in the social, religious, economic, and political spheres of life.


Traditional dress for the Nicobarese is a brief loincloth for men and a girdle of leaves for women. This has changed, however, and nowadays the usual dress of the male is a pair of shorts called paijam, sometimes worn with a vest. Women wear a blouse (kānjut) and a long skirt known as a lungi . Weaving is not known to the Nicobarese, so they have to purchase clothes or buy cloth and sew the clothes themselves. People commonly go barefoot but may put on sandals when leaving the village. In the past, women wore ornaments made from local products such as wood and bamboo, though cheap costume jewelry is now popular. Both men and women are fond of tattoos and have pictorial designs indicating their name inscribed on their forearms.


The staple foods of the Nicobarese are the coconut (koā) and pandanus (lārop). The kernel of the coconut is cut into pieces or grated and eaten with a paste made from the nuts of the pandanus, the Nicobar Island's breadfruit tree (Pandanus lerum). Previously unknown to the Nicobarese, rice and wheat (in the form of rotī or unleavened breads made from wheat flour) form part of the modern diet. Naturally, for an island people, fish, turtles, and octopus are important foods for the Nicobarese. These are usually eaten with curried vegetables and lentils (dāl). Vegetables include yams, eggplant, okra, and various types of gourds. Chicken and pork are also consumed, often after the animal has been offered as a sacrifice. The water of the green coconut is drunk, and so is tea (sometimes with honey), but milk is totally absent from the diet. Toddy, an alcoholic drink made from fermented coconut water and palm sap, is popular with both men and women. Toddy is also drunk as a part of ceremonial rituals. Both men and women chew betel nut and tobacco.


Many of the older Nicobarese are nonliterate. Today, however, education is free and available to the Nicobarese through government-run schools. Education is seen by many as a means of obtaining employment in government service or in local businesses. The 2001 census showed the literacy rate for the Scheduled Tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to be 46% and that for women to be 40%. The last data available for the Nicobarese are in the 1981 census and showed literacy to be 31.46% (38.84% for males and 23.54% for females), though no doubt these values have increased over the last three decades.


The Nicobarese have a tradition of oral literature, embodying the legendary history, customs, and beliefs of the people. They also have a complex system of magical beliefs and practices that influence many aspects of their lives and daily behavior. Music and dance are elements of traditional culture and a necessary part of festive and ceremonial occasions. On Great Nicobar, young and old dance together, irrespective of sex, but on some other islands men and women dance separately. Dancers lock arms with their neighbors and move in a circle with rhythmic steps, lifting the right and left legs alternately. The beat of the dance is kept on the tallag, a big metal gong that is struck with a padded stick.


The traditional economy of the Nicobarese is horticulture, based on the growing of coconuts, pandanus, areca palms, bananas, mangoes, and other tropical fruits. In the past, the collection of wild roots and tubers supplemented the food supply. Fishing and hunting wild game are important activities. Dogs are kept for the hunt. The Nicobarese rear pigs, and any important occasion is marked by the slaughter of a pig and a feast of pork (except among the Muslims). The inhabitants of Chowra Island specialize in the making of earthen pots and large seagoing canoes. As more Nicobarese acquire the necessary education, they move into jobs as teachers, clerks, and similar occupations.


Canoe-racing, pig-fighting, and wrestling are popular pastimes among the Nicobarese. They have also taken to modern sports, such as soccer, volleyball, and track-and-field with enthusiasm.


The Nicobarese find their entertainment primarily in the music, song, and dance that accompanies their festivals. Some listen to Hindi film songs on their transistor radios, but most Nicobarese do not understand the language well enough to do other than enjoy the music.


There are no specialist carpenters in traditional Nicobarese society, and everyone develops skills in woodworking. Men build huts and make spears, harpoons, digging implements, furniture, and other wooden objects (the metal heads are purchased from traders). They are efficient canoe-builders, constructing dugout outrigger canoes that are capable of crossing the stretches of ocean that separate the islands from each other. The outer hulls of the canoes are decorated with carved geometrical designs. A sense of aesthetics is seen in the miniature canoes they carve for pleasure and in the wooden effigies made for various ritual purposes.


Largely because of their isolation, the Nicobarese have managed to preserve much of their traditional way of life. They have maintained a sense of cultural and linguistic identity, as well as their social and political institutions. They have not yet experienced the dramatic changes brought about by rapid contact with outsiders that other tribal peoples in South Asia have undergone. Change, however, is inevitable and is occurring. The advent of Christianity has brought new religious beliefs and practices. The traditional barter economy has been replaced by a cash economy. Contact with the outside world has brought with it schools and better health facilities, but it has also brought concerns such as alcohol addiction and fear of theft. Only time will tell how well the Nicobarese will adapt to the modern world they are now entering.

In December 2006, as a result of the adivasis of India's long struggle for rights, the Indian Parliament passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2005, seeking to recognize and vest the forest rights and occupation of the land in forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwellers. Yet some see the act as a potential disaster for the Nicobarese rather than as one protecting India's forests. The Nicobarese already enjoy total and unfettered rights over the tribal reserves of Nicobar Islands, accorded them by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes (ANPTR) Act, passed in 1956. The new federal act could pose a potential danger to their enjoying these rights. At a later day, some could argue why can't the Nicobarese be content with 2.5 hectares of land in the forest, as the New Delhi bill allows, like all the other tribes of India? Why should so few Nicobarese have such a large chunk of land available to them? It is even possible that since the central act is being passed to protect tribal rights, the ANPTR could even be declared null and void or rescinded. Even now the Defense establishment is eyeing the Nicobars for possible firing ranges.

Nicobarese tribals are growing increasingly uneasy with people settling on their islands, outnumbering them and putting pressure on scarce land and water resources. They have now formally demanded that thousands of illegal settlers from the mainland leave the islands. Traditionally represented by tribal councils that work along with the government, the Nicobarese have formed an alliance known as the Federation of Tribal Councils of Nicobar. The remote Andaman and Nicobar islands have for long been targeted by poachers and pirates and are geographically much closer to several Southeast Asian nations than to the Indian mainland. Illegal settlements are threatening to overwhelm indigenous people on islands that are supposed to be strictly protected tribal areas. In 2005 the Indian government repatriated 129 Myanmarese fishermen who were involved in poaching, illegal fishing and illegal immigration in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Burma.

On the morning of 26 December 2004 the Andaman Islands were struck by a devastating tsunami originating as a result of the earthquake of Indonesia. At least 850 people died on Car Nicobar Island and another 3,000 Nicobarese were missing (some put this figure as high as 7,000). Many villages were literally wiped off the map, and the core of the Nicobarese economy was virtually destroyed. Many Nicobarese fled inland to escape the tsunami and still remain there in relief camps. The Nicobarese used to fish, diving from dugout canoes with harpoons and masks, or casting lines in deeper water for bigger fish. Thousands of coconut trees, the lifeblood of the Nicobarese economy, were uprooted by the tsunami, and it will take 10 years for the plantations to grow back. The very cultural traditions—e.g. their economic activities, their villages, and the communal huts where family life was focused—of the Nicobarese are under threat.


Nicobarese women experience the freedom of most tribal women in South Asia and enjoy a status almost equal to that of men.

Although there is no institution such as the dormitory of other tribes, young people mix freely and pre-nuptial affairs are quite common. These often end in marriage. There is no such thing as an arranged marriage, the latter being the outcome of courtship initiated by either sex, although the families of the parties involved make the necessary arrangements, and child marriage is not practiced. There is no payment of either bride price or dowry. Widow re-marriage is permitted, and divorce, sometimes accompanied by payment of compensation determined by the village headman, is not uncommon. Grounds for divorce include adultery, incurable disease, chronic ill-health, a proneness to crime, misconduct, and insanity. Since the payment of a dowry or bride-price is not involved in a marriage, no repayment is necessary.

Women are considered a valuable economic asset, because of their assistance in economic activities. In addition to running the household, they spend much of their time tending gardens and working in the coconut plantations. There is no preference for male children in Nicobarese society, and, though few women enter politics, they have essentially equal status with men. They also have the right to participate actively in religious ceremonies, although there are restrictions during pregnancy and at the time of menstruation.

Property can be considered as communal, familial or personal. Every Nicobarese has the right to fish, hunt in the forest or draw water from a well, as these are considered communal property. Huts, canoes, gardens, weapons, and livestock are familial property and are to be used by the family. Women maintain the right to personal property such as ornaments, even after marriage, and after marriage they have the right to a share in the products of their parent's garden. A woman has the right to inherit property as long as she remains with the family and the marital tie is intact.


Gautam, R. K. and A.N. Sharma. "The Nicobarese of the Harminder Bay, Little Andaman, India." South Asian Anthropologist Vol. 4, No. 1, 2004: 1-11.

Justin, A. The Nicobarese. Calcutta: Seagull Books on behalf of the Anthropological Survey of India, 1967.

Malhotra, Om P. Tribal Education in Andaman and Nicobar Islands . New Delhi: S. Chand, 1986.

Mann, Rann Singh. Andaman and Nicobar Tribes Restudied: Encounters and Concerns . New Delhi: Mittal, 2005.

Mathur, Kaushal K. Nicobar Islands. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1967.

Nandan, Anshu Prokash. The Nicobarese of Great Nicobar: An Ethnography. Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 1993.

—by D. O. Lodrick

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