Culture Summary: Nicobarese
By Simron Jit Singh
- Identification (101)
IDENTIFICATION AND LOCATION
"Nicobarese" is a general term used by outsiders to refer to an indigenous community that inhabits much of the Nicobar Islands. The Nicobar Islands are part of the larger Andaman and Nicobar archipelago located some 1,200 km off the east coast of India in the Bay of Bengal. As a group, they fall within the latitudes 6° 45' to 13° 41' N, and longitudes 92° 12' to 93° 57' E, stretching from north to south in an arched chain nearly 700 km long. The Nicobar Island constitute a land mass of 1,841 km², which is about a fourth of the total area of the entire Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. Of the twenty-four islands in the Nicobars, twelve are inhabited.
- Identification (101)
- Location (131)
- Topography and geology (133)
The Nicobarese belong to the Southeast Asian cultural complex and speak an Austro-Asiatic language. However, they are far from being a homogenous group. The internal diversity among them takes the form of four distinct cultural groups. These are the islands of: 1) Car Nicobar; 2) Chowra (Chaura), Bompoka (Bompooka) and Teressa; 3) Katchal (Katchall), Nancowry, Kamorta (Camorta) and Trinket; 4) Little Nicobar, Kondul, Pulo Milo (Pilomillow), and Great Nicobar.
- Identification (101)
- Linguistic identification (197)
- Cultural participation (184)
The Nicobarese make a general distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous inhabitants of the islands—payuh refers to the former, while kaling refers to the latter. At the same time, they have local terms to refer to themselves as well as to the indigenous inhabitants of the different islands in the archipelago. For example, tarik is a term used by the inhabitants of Car Nicobar to refer to themselves, som pai (inhabitant of Chowra), sum luroo (belonging to Teressa), som ita (natives of Katchal, Kamorta and Trinket), sop piheun (belonging to Pulo Milo), sop panjang (belonging to Little Nicobar) or sop la heui (inhabitant of Little Nicobar), sap la mongshe (resident of Kondul), and sop kanalo (belonging to Pulo Bhabi in Great Nicobar.)
- Identification (101)
- Place names (103)
- Cultural identity and pride (186)
According to the 2011 census the indigenous Nicobarese number 23,681 (with non-Nicobarese inhabitants, the total population of the Nicobars was 36,842). The population is unevenly distributed, with nearly half the population living on Car Nicobar. Population density also varies greatly: Car Nicobar and Chowra have about 150 people per square kilometer, while Little Nicobar has only one person per square kilometer. There was a drastic drop in the Nicobarese population following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami when thousands of Nicobarese lost their lives (Table 1).
Nicobarese Population, 1951 - 2011 Source: Census of India 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011
- Population (161)
It is commonly agreed that the Nicobarese language belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family, which is dominant in Southeast Asia. There is some disagreement as to whether the Nicobarese is a direct sub-family of the Austro-Asiatic family or a further division of the Mon-Khmer sub-family.
- Linguistic identification (197)
It is hard to ascertain when the Nicobarese language became separated from its parent language, but dates vary from around 1000-2000 BC to approximately
- Linguistic identification (197)
The Nicobarese language can be clearly classified into six distinct dialect groups, such that the inhabitants of one group can hardly converse with that of another. These are, from north to south: 1) Car Nicobar; 2) Chowra; 3) Teressa and Bompoka; 4) Katchal, Kamorta, Nancowry and Trinket; 5) Kondul and Pilo Milo; 6) Little Nicobar and the west coast of Great Nicobar. The lingua franca is Car Nicobarese. With government efforts to promote education, Hindi is increasingly becoming familiar.
- Speech (191)
- Linguistic identification (197)
HISTORY AND CULTURAL RELATIONS
Some scholars trace the origin of the Nicobarese, at least those of the northern islands, to immigrants from the Malay-Burma coast following population pressure from southern China. The dispersal of the Mon-Khmer people from the Burmese and Malay hinterlands to the Nicobars occurred centuries before the Christian era, but no earlier than 1000 BC. It is probable that, following this wave of migration, connections were lost between the immigrant group and their original homeland. In view of the northeast winds that favor sailing from the south of Burma to Car Nicobar, the most likely place of origin for the Nicobarese is the Bago-Tanintharyi coast of Burma.
Owing to their location on a historically important sea route between India and Southeast Asia, the Nicobar Islands were often used by passing sailors and traders as a layover to replenish food and supplies, and later as a strategic military location. Barter was the main form of interaction between the islanders and passing traders. From the middle of the eighteenth century, the islands were under intermittent, informal control by the Danish. The late the eighteenth century brought growing British domination of maritime trade, along with colonial expansion in India. The British officially took over the Nicobar Islands in 1869 and set up regular colonial administration. The Japanese briefly occupied the islands during the Second World War, between 1942 and 1945. The Nicobar Islands became part of the Indian Union upon independence from Britain in August, 1947.
- History (175)
- Acculturation and culture contact (177)
- External trade (439)
- Routes (487)
- External relations (648)
The Nicobar Islands have remained a sensitive military area since colonial times, a policy continued under the Indian government with the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR) of 1956. Thus, contacts with the Nicobarese have been limited to specific forms of interactions, namely with government employees and their contractors, traders from the neighboring Andaman Islands (who sometimes stay on illegally), and occasional researchers with special permits from the government. Under this protectionist policy, the local population has been subject to public welfare programs such as primary health and education, copra price support, inter-island ferry service, construction of wells, and the (partial) electrification of villages. The humanitarian aid that followed the 2004 tsunami brought the islands in contact with large aid organizations that introduced additional material goods, infrastructure and new institutions to the islanders.
Nicobarese villages characteristically are located along or near the coast, usually sheltered behind mangroves or within a bay. Outrigger canoes provide easy access to villages along the coast or to nearby islands. A typical Nicobarese hut is perched on stilts facing the sea, with coconut palms behind. Traditionally, all Nicobarese huts were beehive-shaped, though the style varied from island to island. At the turn of the twentieth century Nicobarese houses increasingly became rectangular due to the influence of Indian and Burmese traders who set up shops and trading posts on Car Nicobar. Rectangular huts are easy to construct compared to round ones that require special skills and materials; nevertheless, huts representing a lineage are still largely constructed in the traditional beehive shape. Such huts can be distinguished from standard ones by the presence of kareau (ancestral statues), an assortment of hentakoi (ritual objects), and the jaws of pigs sacrificed at the last feast. Other than shape, architectural details of indigenous structures have remained more or less consistent. For example, the entrance to the hut is invariably through an opening in the floor, accessed by a ladder made of bamboo; some still prefer instead a wooden beam with deeply cut footholds on either side for climbing. The interior of the hut is simple, with only a hearth at the far end. Wooden beams supporting the roof serve as shelves for belongings.
- Topography and geology (133)
- Acculturation and culture contact (177)
- Dwellings (342)
- Public structures (344)
- Building interiors and arrangement (353)
- Heating and lighting equipment (354)
- Settlement patterns (361)
- Boats (501)
- Water transport (505)
- Lineages (613)
- Sacred objects and places (778)
After the 2004 tsunami, the Indian government contracted out for some 7,000 mainland-style, single-family houses with attached toilet and a kitchen as part of the rehabilitation package. The layout of the villages, house design, and the mostly imported materials used, had very little in common with local tradition. Initially, there was strong resistance among Nicobarese to accept these houses but they eventually complied out of necessity. Some families have built adjacent structures in the traditional style as materials and labor become available.
- Settlement patterns (361)
- Housing (362)
- Public works (653)
- Disasters (731)
Largely self-sufficient, the Nicobarese practice a mix of hunting-and-gathering, fishing and raising pigs. Some Nicobarese maintain gardens where they grow an assortment of crops such as bananas, pineapples, yams, sugarcane, oranges, lemons, papaya and jackfruit. They also forage for a variety of widely available edible leaves, tubers and fruits from the forest, and protein-rich seafood from the mangroves and coral reefs that surround the islands.
- Topography and geology (133)
- Flora (137)
- Collecting (222)
- Hunting and trapping (224)
- Fishing (226)
- Domesticated animals (231)
- Vegetable production (244)
- Diet (262)
- Grounds (351)
COMMERCIAL ACTIVITIES AND TRADE
The main cash economy of the Nicobarese is the coconut trade. For centuries, coconuts have been bartered for items from passing vessels. Since the 1950s, coconuts have been dried into copra and marketed through local co-operatives or sold to private traders for cash or for rice, sugar, cloth and other necessities. The government also offers to buy the copra through a special price support program to shield the Nicobarese from exploitation. Although their dependency on the market has increased considerably, capital accumulation is still largely absent. Copra is produced only when required in order to obtain food or other commodities from the market. Some islands have areca (betel) palms, the nuts of which also are exported.
- Arboriculture (245)
- Medium of exchange (436)
- External trade (439)
- Mercantile business (441)
- Wholesale marketing (442)
Post-tsunami, the copra and areca nut trade collapsed; most of the coconut palms along the coastline had been washed away. As part of rehabilitation, major replanting efforts to reestablish the groves were undertaken. The government also encouraged cashew plantations alongside the coconut palms as an additional cash crop. Some enterprising Nicobarese are experimenting with other products to export, such as pickled fish, vegetables and handicrafts. However, the export infrastructure as well as the market for these products is underdeveloped.
DIVISION OF LABOR
As in most traditional societies, Nicobarese men and women have distinct tasks. Women are largely homemakers, caring for children, the sick and the elderly in addition to cooking, cleaning, washing, and fetching water and firewood. Some women join the men in making copra (usually once or twice a month). Men are responsible for maintaining the gardens, coconut plantations, and making copra as well as transporting and trading it in the market for rice, sugar, kerosene, toiletries, etc. Men also go fishing, hunting and gathering. Children help in the household by fetching water and firewood. According to time use studies on Trinket Island (Central Nicobars) in 2001, the labor time of men and women in the household and economic system together was 3.6 hours and 6.9 hours a day respectively. Children contributed 39 percent of the total labor needs to Trinket society (Ringhofer et al. 2014). The overwhelming humanitarian aid that followed the 2004 tsunami led to increased consumption of goods such as electronics, motorbikes, mobile phones, and junk food. Changes in lifestyle has resulted in higher cash demand per household, leading to higher workload in productive activities, with working times going up to eight hours per day for adults.
LAND TENURE AND INHERITANCE
Ownership of land is vested in the kamuanse (lineage) which is the basic socioeconomic unit in the Central Nicobars. However, usufruct rights may be defined across smaller units within a kamuanse. Plantations are invariably owned by those who planted the trees. The Nicobarese make a distinction between land ownership and plantation ownership. A family may own the land, but the harvest will go to the one who actually planted the trees. This obviously does not happen unless the land-owner permits another family to plant trees. The right to a plantation remains with the planter until the trees are old and cannot bear fruit any more. Severe conflict may arise if someone attempts to plant coconut trees on another's land without permission. If a guilty verdict is passed, the trees have to be removed immediately. However, if the trees are allowed to stand, it will be the planter who has the right to harvest the produce and not the owner of the land.
The equivalent of a kamuanse is called a tuhet in Car Nicobar. The property is owned by the tuhet; individual families within the tuhet retain usufruct rights to portions of the property that they must manage themselves. As a rule, families cannot dispose of tuhet property and wealth. Unlike the Central Nicobars, the landed property of each tuhet stretches from the shore to the interior of the island like a pie slice to include all ecological zones from which food and raw materials can be extracted. At the elpanam, or beach, a community hall is erected for meetings, festivities and hosting guests. A little further into the island from the elpanam is the tuhet, or principle homestead and some coconut trees. The next zone is the tu-long (garden, coconut plantations and dwellings). Further inland is the tavat, comprised of forest, garden and pigsties. The innermost zone is the rinval or forest.
KIN GROUPS AND DESCENT
The Nicobarese most closely identify themselves with their named tuhet or kamuanse. These are not necessarily named for the founder (for example, a well-known kamuanse in Nancowry is called Nyi-Halek, meaning "house of tremendous hospitality"). These joint-family units are generally composed of a couple and their children, their brothers, sisters, spouses, grandparents, cousins and possibly other distant relatives. Membership in this unit is determined by ancestry. The Nicobarese family is patrilineal; the lineage is traced through the male members of the tuhet or kamuanse. The residence pattern can be either matrilocal or patrilocal and the emphasis varies between island groups; matrilocal predominates in the Central and Southern Nicobar Islands, while in Car Nicobar both are possible.
- Cultural participation (184)
- Residence (591)
- Household (592)
- Lineages (613)
Some of the kinship terms in Car Nicobar are as follows: Nicobarese Kinship Terms
Terms of Reference
Terms of Address
Source: Justin 1990
ka no nyo
ka na no
Both parents brothers and sisters and their spouses
Grandparents both sides
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY
Marriages are usually decided by the candidates themselves. Traditionally, when a couple declares their love, their union was recognized by the village council without any rites but with a grand feast. In the Central Nicobars, marriage within the same kamuanse is forbidden but those belonging to the same kamunchia (clan) may marry if they so desire. The residential pattern followed is uxorilocal. When a man wants to marry a woman, he is expected to go live with his wife as ungrung and must be willing to follow her instructions in economic matters. It is the woman who decides when the pigs should be fed or when copra needs to be made. Only under special circumstances does a woman go live with her husband. This happens if the man is economically powerful and can negotiate with the wife, or if the man is employed elsewhere (e.g. by the government) and cannot move into his wife's home. Consequently, the woman must forego all rights to her ancestral property. In Car Nicobar, matrimonial unions are permitted as long as there are no consanguineous relations for at least two generations. Here, there is no fixed rule whether a man should reside with his wife or not. The consensus of the couple and the parents are taken while negotiating the place of residence. Dowry is absent but some sort of bride-price is prevalent in Chowra and Teressa. Remarriage is not a stigma at all. With increasing outside influence, and with the spread of Islam and Christianity, marriages are increasingly held in mosques and churches, and matrilocality is becoming a thing of the past.
SOCIAL ORGANIZATION AND DOMESTIC UNIT
The social organization of the Nicobarese varies by island group. In the Nancowry Islands the kamuanse is the basic socioeconomic unit. Each kamuanse consists of multiple nuclear families extending across three or more generations and is led by a head called chial nyi. It may thus be spoken of as an extended or joint family. In choosing a chial nyi, members of a family consider the person's knowledge of cultural norms and history of land ownership, ability to mediate in conflicts, and competence in managing the family's resources. Ownership of property, including land and pigs, is vested in the kamuanse, but usufruct rights are defined across smaller units within a kamuanse. A kamuanse can split into two or more with the increase in members over time, and the property distributed by the chial nyi accordingly. As a rule, only uncultivated forest land can be given away. Related kamuanse together constitute a kamunchia. A kamunchia is not an economically functional unit like a kamuanse. Nonetheless, members of the same kamunchia assist each other in times of need, such as in contributing resources towards an ossuary feast (Kinruaka), which a kamuanse must organize. It is nearly impossible for a single kamuanse to hold such a large feast on its own.
Car Nicobar has a somewhat different pattern of social organization compared to the central islands. Society is largely male-dominated, consisting of patrilineal lineages, and the question of residence after marriage is flexible. The smallest unit of a Car Nicobarese society is a named tuhet. A tuhet is not comprised of merely those members living in the primary homestead, or a close cluster of houses. Instead, a tuhet is a large lineage group residing in their individual houses (with separate kitchens) built either adjacent to the primary homestead or in its gardens and plantations. A tuhet thus includes not just close family members, but also cousins, collateral distant relatives and adopted children. The head of a tuhet, usually a male, is referred to as ma kuo tuhet, and is selected for life on the basis of seniority, skills, able leadership, and a profound knowledge of customary laws. The membership of some tuhets may well exceed a hundred individuals.
The concept of a central leadership of one person in a village has been found to be absent in traditional Nicobarese society. Each family had their own heads, and elders discussed village matters. Around the seventeenth century there emerged the institution of "captain," a term apparently borrowed from ship captains who clearly had the final say in barter with the natives. Originally, the Nicobarese captain's role was limited to negotiating barter prices upon the arrival of a ship, with otherwise little or no social authority. However, the institution of captainship expanded steadily, encouraged as a matter of political convenience by the Portuguese in the seventeenth century and subsequently by the Danes, Austrians, and British. The British in particular endowed captains (as well as other influential Nicobarese such as the doctor-priest) with special powers and privileges and, as a consequence, their authority grew. Since the 1980s, the institution of captainship is an instrument of social control on the islands, cutting across political, economic and judicial spheres, and captains are elected democratically through a ballot box. Every village has a captain who is assisted by a second and a third captain. While the tenure of a captain on Car Nicobar is for life and is largely hereditary, Nancowry Islanders elect their captains for a period of five years.
Through much of the twentieth century, the Central Nicobars has been led by two strong women, Rani Ishlon and her daughter, Rani Lachmi. In one defining historical moment during the First World War, Rani Ishlon displayed courage and presence of mind in diverting a German warship away from the islands by hoisting the British flag to indicate the presence of British forces. This incident, together with her exceptional ability to settle disputes earned her island-wide authority which was recognized by the British, who conferred on her the title of Rani ("Queen"), a title her daughter, equally revered by the Nicobarese, inherited.
In 1982, Rani Lachmi decided to introduce the system of electing village captains through the ballot box. In 1992 tribal councils (also referred to as "island councils") were established in the Nicobars. Functioning like a mini-government of an island, the tribal councils are the only institutions officially recognized by the Indian government. All the major islands (such as Car Nicobar, Chowra, Teressa, Katchal, Kamorta, Nancowry, etc.) have a tribal council with members comprised of village captains and with a chief or chairperson at the apex. Islands with small populations do not have their own council but fall under the jurisdiction of one nearby. Trinket, for example, with a population of only four-hundred inhabitants, is part of the Nancowry Tribal Council.
The smooth running of the kamuanse depends considerably on the chial nyi. They must ensure that the productive potential of the kamuanse is realized insofar as ritual obligations are fulfilled and social standing maintained. Often they become part of a wider conflict resolution process in which disputes are settled by mutually acceptable arbiters chosen for their wisdom and integrity. The village captain is responsible for defining a process when a conflict across kamuanse arises, which can be referred to the tribal council if needed. It is very rare that matters go beyond the indigenous council, to the police or a government agency.
RELIGION AND EXPRESSIVE CULTURE
Culturally, the Nicobarese show affinities to other Southeast Asian cultures, but only traces remain due to the long period of isolation from the mainland. Cultural characteristics include layered cosmologies, spirit mediumship, carved figures to attract or ward off spirits, and secondary burial of the dead. However, one finds wide variations in cultural expressions between the different islands.
Spirits have had an important role in Nicobarese cosmology. Appeasing spirits through the agency of a menluana (doctor-priest), ritual healing, and observing rites of passage mark the main elements of Nicobarese religion. Within the Nicobarese cosmology, trees, plants, animals and humans are treated as a single, spiritual, moral and regenerative system. For example, canoes are regarded as animate and sensate beings with inherent supernatural powers guarding and guiding them. Even before a tree can be felled for a canoe, local spirits need ritual placation. Sea spirits are treated similarly when a canoe is launched, and before and after major voyages. The weather is controlled by either or both kinds of spirits or perhaps by none at all. Thus, betel leaves bring on thunderstorms while the lime with which they are chewed (prepared from burnt shell) does the opposite.
Nicobarese spirits are apparently of two kinds. "Nature" spirits are associated with the open sea, forest, or the uncultivated interiors of larger islands. The ghosts of ancestors, in contrast, shadow the living where people go on a daily basis, and it is therefore the spirits of the dead who get most attention. Nature spirits or the spirits of the dead may be helpful or capricious according to circumstances and are open to appeal for favors. Encroaching on their territory brings out the worst in local nature spirits so they must first be propitiated. Left alone, nature spirits normally pose no threat to people and if necessary can be controlled by rituals. Among the spirits of the dead, the real danger is from those who died violently, atypically, or away from their own community; distance is associated with danger.
With the arrival of Christianity in the islands at the beginning of the twentieth century, the belief in, and role of, the supernatural element in the lives of the Nicobarese is fast disappearing. Elaborate burial ceremonies, ancestor worship, traditional practices connected to childbirth, rituals relating to the winds, and belief in nature and ancestral spirits are all on the decline. Still, on some islands we find an amalgam of the archaic religious forms with that of Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter. On Chowra for example, the pig festival has been shortened to accommodate the feast of All Souls, and to allow time for Christmas preparations. The last ossuary feast on Kamorta, in 2003, was held partly before and partly after the Lenten period.
Christianity started to take root in the early 1920s, when the first group of Nicobarese boys returned to Car Nicobar from Rangoon (Burma) after receiving education and training in missionary work. One of these was John Richardson. Apart from undertaking many official assignments in the pre-independence period under the British, such as school teacher, medical compounder, and tahsildar (revenue officer), Richardson was ordained as a bishop in 1950 and was later nominated the first Member of Parliament from the territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in independent India. He became a dynamic force in the lives of the Car Nicobarese, influencing who they are today. In 1936, the first Anglican church was constructed on Car Nicobar and an era of Christianity and social transformation began. This was accompanied by the delivery of several welfare programs by the local administration such as education, health, communication, etc., in order to integrate the Nicobarese into the Indian mainstream.
Ossuary feasts are among the most important celebrations to revere the dead. There are marked differences in the way in which the various islands observe this quite lengthy and elaborate ritual feast. In the Nancowry Islands, upon the death of a member the surviving members of the household are forbidden to harvest coconuts from plantations that were owned by the deceased. Such restrictions are lifted once the ossuary feast—Kinruaka, as it is called in the central islands—has been held, after which the inheritors can become rightful owners of that property. Preparations for Kinruaka start a year in advance, once sufficient pigs have been raised or have been pledged by relatives. Then the gardens are planted with fruits and vegetables such as yams, taro, and bananas. Months later, several large canoes are constructed that are used to transport the first harvest of the coconuts from the plantations of the deceased as well as for canoe races that make up the colorful part of the ceremony. Amidst dancing, singing, pig sacrifices and stick fights, the skull of the deceased is dug up and reburied after three days of lamentations and elaborate rituals. At the end of Kinruaka, a sign is hung in the house to inform visitors that the household is no longer under obligation to the deceased.
The seasons are marked by a shift in the direction of the winds (southwest and northeast) and by elaborate festivals and ceremonies. Although there are some variations on how the different islands and even villages organize and name these festivals, the main idea is to pray for an abundance of fish, pigs, chicken and forest products for the coming season. Restrictions in harvesting certain varieties of foods from forests and sea that were imposed during the previous season are lifted, and new ones imposed; restrictions based on the occurrence and availability of the different food varieties at different times of the year. Regulations such as these, manifested through cultural expressions, ensure the continued availability of resources.
The northeast winds are welcomed with the celebration of the Kinleava festival during the Oliov months (November to April) on Nancowry, Trinket and Kamorta. A main feature of this festival is the erection of one or more kanaya in front of the village (usually there are four to six). Kanaya are poles, approximately twenty meters in height and decorated chiefly with tender coconut leaves, that additionally indicate that the village has already organized the Kinleava festival for that season. An important part of the Kinleava festival is the construction of an inyun, a large fishing trap, which is then placed in a calm spot in the sea near the village at low tide a few days before the construction of the first kanaya. From the moment the inyun is immersed in the sea, everyone in the village is strictly forbidden from making noise until the day when the first kanaya is erected. The silence is broken by the downing of the previous year's kanaya while shouting "esseal" (come on). Once the first kanaya is installed, the village gathers in the community house amidst an atmosphere of festivity and vociferously prays (harong) for abundance from their ancestors and other divinities. Every alternate day, the inyun is emptied of fish, consumed by those who fetch them. This goes on until the first few days of the waning phase of the moon. After the final emptying of the inyun, young men go to sea to spear flying fish (Cypselurus comatus) used as a bait for catching giant barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda, local name danduse), which was hitherto forbidden.
With the beginning of the southwest monsoon winds in May and June, the festival of Anuchoilu is organized by most of the central villages. For two to three nights, the villagers gather on the shore and several teams go to sea in canoes to catch kauwa fish. Each team gets six coconut leaf torches, and the team that spears the most kauwa by their light before they burn out wins. Their tally is compared with previous records for the degree of honor they receive. From that day forward, danduse, humlem, certain varieties of pandanus, and some other previously-eaten foods are forbidden. On neighboring Katchal Island, Anuchoilu is an important festival, celebrated rather elaborately.
The island of Chowra organizes its annual pig festival or Panuohonot in memory of the ancestors at the onset of the northeast winds, around November. It is celebrated in a quite different manner from the other islands. The population of Chowra is divided into five clans, each with its own head. Each year, according to a rotation system, one clan is responsible for organizing the pig festival, with some help from members of the other clans. Preparation for the festival takes several months and the actual festival lasts for about three weeks. The elpanam (community house on the sea shore) is the venue for the festival and is beautifully decorated with fruits, tubers, coconuts, bananas and tender coconut leaves for the purpose. Colorful flags, representing the number of tuhets (extended families) in the organizing clan, are hoisted in memory of the dead. During the first four days of the festival, some two hundred pigs are slaughtered and another hundred or so are killed during the remaining days of the festival. Before the slaughter of each pig, a fight takes place between the pig and a young male, usually from any family other than the one that supplies the pig. The festival consists of various stages with short, intermittent periods of rest. Dancing, singing, drinking toddy and feasting all night are the more important parts of the festival. Forbidden foods during the festival are fish, lemon, papaya, jackfruit and, partly, coconut. The festival ends with a special pig sacrifice called hancheha that includes smearing the pig's blood on the participants' bodies, drinking toddy, and singing, with a canoe race as the grand finale.
The southwest monsoons are welcomed on Chowra with yet another festival, less elaborate than the pig festival. It is called Kancheuollo or the chicken festival and is celebrated in the month of May. The festival begins with the chasing away of the devil and all evil spirits that may be hiding on the island. On a night with a full moon all the grass is burned down and a decorated raft with a sail (hanton) is made from three yaman trees for conveying captured evil spirits. The raft is brought to the sea and is allowed to be carried away by the southwest winds towards the uninhabited island of Tillangchong, where many evil spirits are believed to live. Once the hanton has set sail, a stick fight among the people is organized to frighten off diseases and evil spirits that may be clinging to the body. A week or so later, three days before night of the new moon, the Kancheuollo festival begins. For three days, everyone is supposed to walk with their hands folded behind, and speaking (except for the phrase, "Euchtore pung pungkalav," meaning "excuse me"), making loud noises, lights, and cooking outside the house are forbidden. The main food during this period is chicken. On the fourth day, at the crack of dawn, with the breaking of a coconut, the restrictions are removed and the festival draws to a close
Kareau are human figures carved out of wood found mainly in the central and southern islands. Generally life-size, all kareau represent a male figure who is mostly dressed in a loincloth called a ning. The ning is wrapped tightly around the waist and between the legs, with one end dangling behind like a tail. A few kareau can be seen wearing Western attire along with a hat or a sailor's cap. The kareau are made only by skilled artisans and are usually of two types—standing or sitting. The standing kareau are (or were) made at the request of the head of the family to represent his presence and authority when he is not at home. The main purpose of these standing kareau is for scaring the devil or evil spirits so that they may not enter the house while the head of the family is away. In this sense, these nearly life-size figures invariably have the right arm held upwards in a gesture of shooing away undesired spirits. Upon the decision of community elders, a sitting kareau is made posthumously for a good person, such as a benevolent menluana. In most cases, either the skull of the dead person is placed inside the wooden head or some of his bones are put inside the chest of the kareau. This figure is then believed to retain some of the spiritual powers of the dead person; it is worshipped and blessings are sought from the spirit of the good menluana in times of trouble. As in the case of hentakoi, kareau are invoked every new moon (in a ceremony called Kumlaich-kareau) as well as during family rituals to appease the spirits of ancestors.
The Nicobarese of the central islands have their own system of healing. During an illness, herbal medicines are usually tried first. If the patient does not respond, or in the event of major misfortune or an epidemic, a specialist, the menluana, may organize a ritual and may "activate" and use an object, such as a carved and painted wooden figure (hentakoi), to identify or expel the spiritual culprit(s). Found mainly in the central and southern islands, hentakoi may be naturalistic (i.e. birds, fish, dogs, snakes, turtles, etc.) or mythical (i.e. mermaids, mermen, two-faced fish, etc.). Menluana generally follow a certain logic when instructing the artisan for a particular model of hentakoi. They first try to assess the source of illness—whether it has come from the sea, air or foreigners—and then decide upon the design. There are some common patterns that are followed and accepted. For example, if the menluana believes that the illness of his patient may have come from the sea—which may happen in cases where the patient was trying to kill a big fish that escaped somewhat injured (it is believed that injured fish captures the soul of the one who causes the injury)—he orders a model of a fish. The menluana seeks the assistance of these figures to locate and bring back the soul of the ailing person. Once the person has recovered, the hentakoi is kept (perhaps hung) with appropriate respect inside the house of the patient. Traditionally, the hentakoi is invoked every new moon to ensure the good health of the individual (in a ceremony called Hapai-hentakoi ), and for communal or family festivals it is re-decorated and sprinkled with chicken's or pig's blood. The hentakoi is expected to act as a repellent to keep the bad spirits from causing further illness to the person. In case of subsequent illnesses, they can be used again by the menluana for healing. On the eventual death of a person, the hentakoi may be put aside or buried under a tree that is never cut, e.g. the peepul tree (Ficus religiosa). They are also made to protect the well-being of the community as a whole, and for rites of passage.
This culture summary was written by Simron Jit Singh in October, 2014