The Onges, a negrito tribe they are inhabiting the Little Andaman Islands in Andaman District, a distance of about 100 Km from the capital Port Blair. The Onges may be considered only one of their kind in the present world of negritos in terms of their complexion, short stature, presence of steatopygia (extra growth of buttock) among both the sexes, always being in happy mood. They have very less body hair on their parts. Their eyes are bright and big.
Portman became the first person to establish friendly relations with the Onge, who were not allowing any outsiders to land and enter the interior part of the Island. The Onges were nomadic primitive people living in groups or bands in several parts of Little Andaman Island. They Byers (Onge hut) were constructed both near the coast and in the interior of the Island. Most of the Indian studies among the Onges have been conducted only after the 1950s. During that period the non – Onge total population was 11,062 against the Onge population of 99 only. Interestingly, Jarawas do not understand the word “Jarawa” because it is not derivative from the Jarwa themselves similarly “Onge” word is not an Onge derivation.
The Onges call themselves “Eniregale” which means ‘absolute man’. But intensive research is still needed in this regard to be carried out. The indigenous communal hut (Beyra) of the Onge was a common residence for the members of a band. The word ‘gaiborale beyra’ is composed of the Onge words, viz gaiborale i.e forest and bra i.e. hut, combining to mean ‘forest hut’ or a permanent type of hut in the forest. The hut appears like a huge umbrella or a beehive. Its framework made of wooden poles and canes.
The Onge were settled at Dugong Creek and South Bay in Little Andaman during 1976-77. In 1978-79, the target included the construction of 30 huts for the Onges and for the establishment of support staff. A scheme was taken up in 1979-80 for the improvements of huts at Dugong Creek. But in 1976, a resolution was passed by the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samithi in its General Body meeting that only building materials would be made available to the Onges for constructing their own houses. They might use indigenous methods according to their liking.
The Onges are pure hunter-gathers. They are not aware of agriculture. That they are an ancient people is evident, as already indicated from the presence of calcified shells at the base of their kitchen – middens. They catch mollusks, Crustacea, lobsters, crayfish, and crabs even some kinds of a hermit crab. They eat cicada too. They collect the pupae which are supposed to be a great treat. The Onges were mother naked earlier, besides the presence of loin, nylon, and cotton clothes among them, the Onge still had no proper concept of dress to cover the body for protection. After they came in contact with the outsiders, they adopted the habit of wearing modern clothes to some extend. Now, the Onge males started wearing colorful shirts, trousers, vests, etc and females wear lungies, blouse, axis, and skirts (young girls), etc. The Onge women still do not go for undergarments. They were thought to have a very special relationship with their spiritual world. The female genitals were believed to be that place wherein the power making the spirits of the dead dangerously dwell. The red ochre or white clay which is commonly used in painting is called ‘Alame’ by the Onge.
On ceremonial occasions, both men and women wear round their waist he traditional apparel ‘Keye’ made with a strip of cane and colored bark fiber. The headband called ‘Ataki’ is also worn by both the sexes. The potsherds collected from different places in Little Andaman are thicker, rougher, cruder, and plainer, without any decoration, compared to those found at Chouldari in South Andaman.
The Onges earlier used to take trips with their canoes to fish and hunt as far north as Rutland Island over 60 km of the open sea. Such trips were possible only because of a number of small Islands are placed conveniently like stepping stones on the way. Different varieties of the arrow are made by the Onges for hunting and fishing. Fishing lines and hooks have taken places of bow and arrow in use generally. After the British advent, the dog reached Little Andaman in 1887, and the Onges widely adopted this animal by the 1920s.
Earlier the Onges used nautilus shell for drinking water. To mark the first menstrual discharge of a girl, the rite of puberty is called ‘Tamleangabe’. “At the first sign of menses, the girl puts some ‘Batage’ leaves soft and soothing under her tassel and on the bed as well. As a part of the ritual, she abstains from eating any meat but can take fish, crab, honey, roots, and tubers during the period, while the face of the girl is always kept daubed with white clay paste. At the end of the menstrual period, the girl is led to the sea for a bath by a few women”.
The Onge were semi-nomadic and fully dependent on hunting and gathering for food. The Onge are one of the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands. Together with the other Andamanese tribes and a few other isolated groups elsewhere in Southeast Asia, they comprise the Negrito peoples, believed to be remnants of a very early migration out of Africa. Onge women rarely become pregnant before the age of 28. Infant and child mortality is in the range of 40%, The semi-nomadic Onge have a traditional story that tells of the ground shaking and a great wall of water destroying the land. Taking heed of this story, all 96 tribesmen of the semi-nomadic Onge survived the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake by taking shelter in the highlands, Onge used to be spoken throughout Little Andaman as well as in smaller islands to the north, and possibly in the southern tip of South Andaman Island. Since the middle of the 19th century, with the arrival of the British in the Andaman, and, after Indian independence, the massive inflow of Indian settlers from the mainland, the number of Onge speakers has steadily declined. Onge population numbers were substantially reduced in the aftermath of colonization and settlement, from 672 in 1901 to barely 100.
Among the Onges after death, the corpse is buried under the bed of the deceased person, generally in the temporary hut. The married gallakare or guarani or any substitute of the decreased mainly performs the rituals particularly in the disposal of the corpse. The grave place is selected under the bed of the dead person. The dead body is positioned with folder knees, eyes covered with palm leaves then tied with ‘Kubo’ strips.
Licuala palm which is called ‘Tumeroe’ in Onge is thrown over the corpse in the grave before closing it with the earth. After months they dig up again the grave to receive the lower jaw of the skeleton of the dead. A mandible is made with this jaw part and worn around the neck. It roates from one relative to another after a few days. The duration of death mourning completes with a communal dance by the male and female members.
In dancing the Onges have no accompaniment, not even the sounding board like that of the Great Andamanese. Both men and women participate. They go round and round holding each other’s hands and while they dance, they sing. They migrated out of Kalapahad because some supernatural power did not want them to stay there. After passing a long distance they reached a place called ‘Tambegey’ and they did not stay there and moved further, they reached a beautiful place called ‘Tokobuley’ which is now known as “Dugong Creek”.
They started living in this place. In 1886 the Onges were for the first time came in contact with an outsider who was Portman. He became the first person in history to land on Onge land successfully stay. He found the existence of Syphilis among the Onge. The primitive tribal groups of decreased very sharply, in 1858, the number of population of the Great Andamanese was established around 5000. No enumeration was done on the Onges before 1903, the Onges along with the other tribals of the Union Territory. To protect health and prevent the extinction of the primitive tribal groups namely Great Andamanese, Onges, Shompen, Jarawas, and Sentinelese inhabiting Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
To promote the economic and social development of the said primitive tribal communities. To take a comprehensive view of the problems of these tribal groups and to develop and promote programs in pursuance of the problems of these tribal groups and to develop and promote programs in pursuance of the national policy of their development and to develop measures for the co-ordination of governmental institutional and voluntary action for the protection of their economic and social environment essential to their survival and growth.
In the 55 year plan of the territory a new sector called “Welfare of Backward Classes” was created. Under this section, the following was an essential task of the authorities to the tribesmen before implemented any welfare programs. Therefore, Samiti in its General Body meeting decided that restriction must be imposed on the Great Andamanese, so that they could come out of the Strait Island only on passes issued by the Deputy Commissioner, Andaman through the Social Workers of the settlement for a specific purpose. Similarly, entry into the Onges reserve specially in the Dugong Creek settlement by anybody had been completely banned. Only those of the Government officials having a direct bearing on the developmental work at Dugong Creek would be allowed to go there. The tribal people in these Islands are, therefore, able to take advantage of various social-economic programs of the Government. But the primitive tribal communities of these Islands were not in a position to take advantage of any sophisticated plan schemes for their benefits like the tribal people in West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Nagaland, Mizoram, and other such tribal areas in the mainland of India.
A Guest House had been built fir the Onges at Hutbay for their short period staying purpose. Whenever they come to Hutbay for their own purpose, they can stay here for some time or for some days. In the Onges settlement, 26 semi-pucca independent houses at Dugong Creek and 6 similar at South Bay were constructed. 26 houses at Dugong Creek were modified with A.C Sheet roofd and plank floors for which an expenditure of Rs 4.26 lakh was incurred. Besides this, 26 Onge huts the staff quarters and community hall etc were constructed. In the same way 8 houses with a community hall were also constructed for the Great Andamanese. Under the rehabilitation and welfare schemes, modern food items were supplied since 1974 by the administration the Onges free of cost. Every adult male and female of both the ethnic groups have been receiving a certain quantity of foodstuffs. The Onges would become self-supporting communities in due courses it is expected they would utilize the coconuts as an item of their food as well as the cash crops i.e nuts would be sold to purchase their other requirements in their future life. The Onges are very much found of honey and they collect it from the jungle for their personal consumption and sale. The Onge of South Bay did not get milch cow and piggery units for domestication. All the cows at Dugong Creek and a Strait Island are now roaming like a wild animal, the Onges did not know milking and so they were not interested in consuming the milk at all. It is reported that the milk is consumed by the field functionaries posted there.
Even during the 75 years plan periods, the Samiti proposed to provide with training the Onges at Dairy Farm at Port Blair. But the training schemes were not organized. The failure of the above schemes gives the impression that the welfare schemes of the Onges were formulated according to the personal whim of one authority or the other with no knowledge of the tribal culture and tradition without the willingness and lack of proper guidance, welfare schemes failed to serve any real purpose. Medical facilities are the first and foremost measures, provided to the Onges by the Administration the urgent task of the authority was to prevent the tribals from fatal diseases, which caused a high rate of mortality among them, they also suspected to be suffering from diseases like venereal and Tuberculosis, skin diseases, loss of fertility and syphilis.