Shompen is the only mongoloid primate tribes of these Islands. They are 250-300 in the number approximately today and inhabited in different terrain in Great Nicobar. They are semi-nomadic people shifting their camps from one location to another depending on the availability of food and water. The Nicobarese of this Island call the Shompens “Shamhap”. It is a Nicobari term meaning “those who live in the forest”. Some Nicobarese and other settlers call them “Champion”. The Shompens do not identify themselves as Shompen. The west coast Shompen call ‘Kalay’, whereas the east coast Shompen call themselves ‘Keyet’. One Shompen band call people of other Shompen bands Buaeia. The Shompen or Shom Pen are the indigenous people of the interior of Great Nicobar Island, part of the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Shompen are a designated Scheduled Tribe.
The Island tribe is split into two main divisions viz those who inhabit the interior parts of dense forest and those who from camps near to the coast. The Shompens coastal area is generally called ‘Mawas’ who are in frequent contact with the Nicobarese and fishermen. They are short-statured with yellow and yellow-brown skin and wavy hair. The Shompen in one Island only of the group is due to the determination of those who showed themselves hostile to them in other Islands, so they became fugitives, finding refuge where they could be sure to live without fear of molestation. Many say that the Shompens were the original inhabitants of Great Nicobar and that a later date they were driven into the interior by aliens more powerful than themselves who were wrecked on their coast.
Shompen Tribes in Nicobar Island
In terms of the blood groups, the Shompen present a picture so far unknown in any of the primitive tribes of South-east Asia. All the 55 Shompens tested belong to the ‘O’ group. The complete absence of p and q genes in the Shompen population who had migrated to this Island in a small group can be explained if we presume that the ancestors had a very high frequency of ‘O’ genes. The sickle cell trait is almost entirely absent in the Shompen population. The general pattern of housing among the Shompens is adapted to the physical character of the ground. They build their houses as near as possible to the source of fresh drinking water. The Shompens of east coast remain close to the sea-shore or in the valleys while the west coast Shompens prefer the interior and the slopes of hills. The settlement pattern of the Shompens is of the fragmented type. They build their huts on raised platforms with the support of piles at height of 1-3 meters from the surface. The hut is carefully constructed with the roof of palm leaves. They use bamboo, cane, and fiber in making walls of the hut.
Sometimes they build their hut adjacent to a tree for the strong support. Houses are mostly rectangular in shape but can also be seen in the square shape. Sometimes they build a temporary hut at a place where along with fishing or hunting or both they take rest. The flesh of the frog is also consumed by the Shompens. Shompens of the interior forest. Komba stem is eaten raw. The Shompens drink cane water during the days of water scarcity. Pandanus, crab, fish, and reptiles are simply boiled or roasted. The use of lemon, chillies, papaya, and tobacco, etc has evidently been acquired from the outsiders.
Shompens of coastal areas has started to prepare and consume rice-dal, as a result of their outside contact. They keep dogs and small piggeries. The Shompens do not know the art of preparation of any alcoholic beverage but often collect toddy (Coconut beer) from the neighboring Nicobarese. The doors and windows can also be seen in a Shompen hut called ‘Kachaam’ in their language. The door is called ‘Kanau’ in the Shompen language while ‘Aegania’ is said for the ladder. The roof of the hut is called ‘Tawaef’. The Shompens wear indigenous cloth called ‘loe’ in their language which is prepared from bark sheets of trees (Ficus and Sterculia macrophylla). But they almost entirely gave up the wearing of bark cloth which now has substituted by the textile. The women started wearing ‘lungi’ after it has been introduced to them by the outside world. With lingo, they go topnaked quite often but sometimes blouses can be seen on them. The men wear ‘langoti’ only. The Shompens of Dagmar, Galathia, Trinket, and east coast area wear second-hand shirts with langoti while women second-hand blouses.
Non-Shompens in illegal barter system some cases of such exchange have been noticed in which the Shompens gave them their canoe, honey, and Rudraksha of their collection and received second-hand loin or cotton cloths, implements and vessels, etc under the illegal barter. The Shompen do not use any footwear both the sexes adorn themselves with bead necklaces, bangles, and bind strip of spathe or piece of cloth around the head. Their earlobes are pierced almost commonly to enable them to wear long strips of bamboos or canes called ‘ahav’ in Shompen language. They are very fond of the necklaces made of Oysters and grains of grass. During his visit, the author noticed every one demand ‘mala’ (garland made of plastic pearl, fiber, etc). They wear another type of garland also which is made of Rudraksha (Eliocarpus gangestus). Thrie conical earplug is made of cane or soft wood with front pointed.
A Shompen family generally consists of a husband’s wife and their unmarried children. After marriage, a couple constructs a new hut and live separately. When a Shompen marries more than one woman then both the wives and their children share the same hut and hearth. Shri Mingi, Shompen of Trinket bay after the death of his brother kept his wife with him along with his own one. The practice of polygyny is quite often in vogue among the Shompens. The family size varies between one and ten persons. In the Shompen community is concerned they are believed to be the most sensitive members, the safety of whom is the prime concern for the Shompens. They do not allow outsiders generally to see their adult female members with the fear of possible abduction. The women are not allowed to move freely outside their camp premises without the permission of the head of the family. There are many divisions and bands among the Shompens but how and on which basis the divisions have been formed, yet not know to us. It is observed that some bands deliberately live having no link with certain bands for the reason unknown. It is probable that band interaction exists among them.
The subsistence economy is a predominant activity, barter economy is subordinate activity and gift economy had no activity on the part of Shompen. Now providing of gift items by the AAJVS to the Shompens has been stopped completely under a firmed policy. But the gift economy particularly still exists in their contact with the neighboring settlers. All efforts are made by the local Administration to stop such illegal contact. The subsistence economy and the Barter economy have a close relationship with each other.
These commodities are bartered by the Shompens with the Nicobarese while some commodities are bartered with the administrative representatives and in this system, the representatives give them their required items like rice, pulse, cloth and implement, etc. Under the subsistence economy arboriculture, hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture, and domestication of animals are included Aboriculture is one of the major occupations of Shompens.
They raise colocasia, lemon, green chilli, banana, tobacco, betel, betelnut, tapioca, and coconut around their huts. The dogs now have become of great relevance for the Shompens in their hunting. They generally fish in the river, shallow water, and the creeks with the help of indigenous spear. Their outrigger canoe is used in navigation and fishing. The game of hunting, fishing, and gathering are major activities in their subsistence economy. While moving in the forest along the shoreline miscellaneous objects are found by them, if they think those of their use further in any respect they bring them to their camp; such items are halves of the drum, buoy, plastic bottle, and cane, etc. There is a high demand of items like Rudraksha (Eliocarpus gangestus) and buoy etc in the local market. The Shompens do not kill the piglings but adult pigs and sows. Apart from the simple direct barter, the Shompens have another barter system ‘Indirect Barter’. Under this system, the tribes place the commodities at a certain spot and return back and after few days or hours, they come there and find some commodities of their requirements such as machetes, cloth, tobacco, a bundle of beedis, daos and other items while in the process the tribes keep honey, lemon, resin, buoy, rudraksha, etc on the spot. This system is practiced by the neighboring Nicobarese with the Shompensince long period.
Shompens do not know the art of making bow and arrow. They generally use spear which is made with bamboo wood and cane for the purpose of hunting and fishing. They make a spear with iron also which is called ‘hanoom’ in their languages. For making outrigger canoe the Shompen use following wood speies – Amoora Wallinchi king, Barringtonia Asiatica (L) Kurtz, Autocarpus chapleosha rexb, Calaphyllum Sonlattri burm etc. Their dao of iron is of immense importance to the Shompens. Chisel, hammer, and axe are the other articles they use. The Shompen has no special ritual related to pregnancy. However, there are some restrictions on the pregnant woman during her later stage of pregnancy. A separate hut is constructed for the delivery of the child. At the time of delivery, old women are the special attendants to look after the mother and newborn child. On the second day of birth, the lime paste is applied on the forehead of the child and of the mother as well.
A mark or cross is made on the baby’s stomach to protect him/her from the evil spirits. Open fire is placed near to the sleeping mother and baby. The first semisolid food for the baby includes pandanus paste and honey mainly. Abduction, exchange, and negotiation are the ways of choosing a life partner among the Shompens. Along with monogamy, polygyny is also practiced. One can easily monogamy, polygyny is also practiced. One can easily observe the huge disparity between the age of husband and that of his wife. They don’t have any special ceremony pertaining to marriage. The incidents of marriage between Shompen and non-Shompen have also been noticed. During my visit to Shompen camps in 1998 many such ways of marriage, mug a Shompen girl who was adopted by Shri Sitaram, head of Chingen village married a Ranchi labourer who used to come to the village frequently. But soon after his marriage, he left her alone and ran away. Then a Shompen youth namely Girth became the second husband of the mug. In another case, a Shompen girl got married to a costal Nicobari boy. This girl too had been adopted by Shri Sitaram. In one case of Ranganathan Bay, a window got married to nephew.
A dead is buried among the Shompens. When a person dies, the dead body is immediately brought out of the hut and placed on the ground in open. Then the body after the wooden bier is prepared, is tied to it with cane or fiber. Remarkably the hands are kept open not tied. A small group goes into the deep forest to hunt a pig. Meanwhile, the path bearers bring the bier out of the village camp. Before burying the corpse a hunted pig is sacrificed. The corpse is then untied and placed inside the grave on Komba leaves. Again Komba leaves in large quantities are thrown into the grave. All the materials, especially the implements belonging to the dead person, are kept inside the grave along with the corpse and then the grave is closed. On the next day, the Shompen leave the place where the death occurred. The Shompens believe in the existence of malevolent and benevolent spirits. The supposition generally is, that a supernatural power causes and controls all those phenomenon. They believe that the Moon is the Supreme Goddess responsible for the creation of the earth, heaven, and universe as a whole, so the Moon is their Godmother. As the Shompen belief, the Goddess has no husband but all the creatures including Shompens are her issues. They propitiate the spirits while preparing food, going to the forest for hunting, and while going out to sea to fish. The members at work in the canoe and while bringing out the canoe to the sea for the first time propitiate the spirits. Two orphan children namely Koken and Abo were brought to Chingen village after their parents died of food poisoning at the Pilokunji area. They are now being taken care of by Shri Sitaram. The social organization of the Shompens is based on tradition, kinship, and locality. In a family, the eldest male member becomes the head who keeps control over all the family affairs.
Note: The Shompen family members have adapted themselves to the traditional Nicobari life style.