The tide has gone down over the reef. I walk round the world. There is great wind and rain. 
 –  
Great Andamanese song, in The Andaman Islanders, 1922 

The chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes felt ‘anguished’, noted the Andaman Herald in April 2000, that little attempt had been made to civilize the Sentinelese. ‘No citizen of India can be allowed to live in the wilderness or as savages after more than fifty years of country’s independence,’ he was reported as saying.

‘That was just for the public,’ Mishra assured me when I asked about the statement. The administration had a new, hands-off policy on North Sentinel: no one, not even the contact mission, was allowed near it. Predictably, people did go. ‘There was a navy exercise last month,’ he said. ‘They took the ship very close to shore. The Sentinelese were on the beach, with taut bows and arrows, waiting. Signalled to them to go-away.’

Two years earlier, three rather unusual men had visited Kadamtala along with some Jarawa. ‘They were pointing arrows, were very violent, and unused to interaction with outsiders. I have a suspicion they might have been from Sentinel. It’s only a four-hour swim.’

‘The Onge are great swimmers,’ asserted Harry Andrews, a researcher with the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team. ‘They couldn’t have drowned.’ I was asking everyone who might have a clue about the deaths of Prakash and his companion Entogegi. Andrews was convinced that the youths were murdered: ‘We were there that day, near South Bay. The sea was calm.’ Evidently one of the young men had complained about the depredations of poachers.

‘They went to catch fish and didn’t return,’ related a pharmacist who was posted at Dugong Creek shortly after the deaths. ‘No one made much of it, seems that sometimes they’d be away for days,’ Ramu, one of the Onge men, had found the bodies on a northern beach; he’d also said that the young men were drinking.

‘Prakash and Entogegi went turtle-hunting at night, three other dugouts went too,’ explained Kanchan Mukhopadhyay, an anthropologist. ‘The weather was cyclonic. The other boats returned, they did not. I heard one report that they were both drunk.’

I didn’t know what to make of the alcohol rumour. I’d been in Prakash’s hut on three evenings and seen no sign of liquor. Neither could I find real evidence of foul play, nor think of any motives: Onge complaints, however vocal or specific, hardly posed a threat to anyone’s interests. I had to believe it was an accident, if only because the alternative was too horrible.

One evening I visited some divers at their haunt; they’d had a good day and now looked very merry and tipsy. ‘This shark was so close, swimming so slow,’ said one, his face aglow with the ecstasy that divers on the Andamans floated about in. ‘We were at a wreck. New corals were growing in it, it was so beautiful.’

‘We saw a large trawler very close to North Sentinel, four to five kilometres from land,’ another interjected. He feared that fishermen were being tempted by the shoals in the island’s pristine waters.

‘How are the corals there?’ I asked. ‘Have you seen them?’ The two exchanged glances.

‘They’re dying, like everywhere else,’ the first one finally volunteered. In 1998, the extraordinarily hot summer – caused by an El Nino on top of global warming – had killed, off half the world’s corals, including many on the Andamans. ‘But we also see new growth.’

The divers clearly had been at North Sentinel, not South – the latter is known more for its surfing. They were checking out a wreck, I was told, and fled when four dugouts, each with three men, approached them very fast.

North Sentinel Island. NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided by the NASA EO-1 team.
North Sentinel Island. NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided by the NASA EO-1 team.

The first glimpse of the Sentinelese was evidently in 1867, when Jeremiah Homfray, a keeper of the Andaman Homes, went to their island in pursuit of escaped convicts: ‘We saw some ten men on the beach, naked, long haired, and with bows and arrows, shooting fish.’ They hid on seeing the boat approach. The Great Andamanese on board were frightened of the men and told Homfray that they hailed from Little Andaman and were very fierce. He did not land.

Maurice Vidal Portman. Photo reprinted in Satadru Sen (2009) Savage Bodies, Civilized Pleasures. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Maurice Vidal Portman. Photo reprinted in Satadru Sen (2009) Savage Bodies, Civilized Pleasures. Source: Wikimedia Commons

[Maurice Vidal] Portman, as Officer in Charge of the Andamanese, went ashore on North Sentinel in 1880 to search for natives. He found the island was composed mostly of limestone and coral, the jagged edges of which made walking difficult. ‘The soil is light and admirably suited for the growth of coconut palms,’ he observed, the surface drainage being excellent. ‘The jungle is in many places open and park like and there are very beautiful groves of bullet-wood trees.’ His party came across magnificent specimens of Bombax malabaricum and measured the buttressed root of one to be ‘27 feet long and 15 feet high where it left the trunk.’

Portman also found some villages and managed to capture a woman with four small children. After a few days he released the woman and one child with the usual gifts. Some days later – and after one snake-infested night on shore – his group encountered in the jungle an old man with his wife and child. The man drew his bow but was thwarted by Portman’s convict orderly, who jumped on him. The three captives, along with the children taken earlier, were transferred to Port Blair. But they became ill and the two adults died. `[S]o the four children were sent back to their home with quantities of presents’ – and, undoubtedly, germs.

Recommending that the government convert North Sentinel to a coconut plantation, Portman suggested a familiar course of action. ‘Search parties should go through the jungle and catch some of the male [Sentinelese] unhurt, and should keep them in the camp.’ As always, the danger of disease did not cause him anxiety.

‘In features the North Sentinelese most closely resemble the jarawas on Rutland Island, and there is a peculiarly idiotic expression of countenance. and manner of behaving, common to both.’ That was his last word on them.

In 1896 the corpse of an Indian was found on the shore of North Sentinel ‘pierced in several places by arrows, and with its throat cut.’ Remnants of a bamboo raft and clothing bearing numbers of three convicts were also floating about. Evidently two of the escapees had drowned while the third had made it to land, only to be killed by the natives.

Lieutenant-Colonel MJ Ferrar landed on the island in 1926, where he glimpsed three of its inhabitants. Taking bows, arrows, a paddle, and a skeleton for research, he left in their place the usual medley of files, mugs, plates, red cloth, and so on. The Sentinelese seemed to shoot birds, for the arrows were unusual in being barbed with birds’ bones and decorated with feathers. Ferrar, who explored the island for six hours, estimated that it sheltered about sixty heads. Based on calculations of food supply, anthropologists estimate that the island can support no more than one hundred individuals.

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‘In 1967 we landed on Sentinel,’ related Triloki Pandit.

First went a large force of police, armed and in uniform. The Sentinelese, who were on the beach, vanished. The intruders followed a path into the forest and came to a village of eighteen huts. Four or five fires burned in the corners of each hut, being fenced off from the centre for safety. ‘We didn’t take anything,’ Pandit continued. ‘But the police – you know how they are – they took some things. I told the chief commissioner we should confiscate.’

‘Are those the things in the museum?’ I asked.

He nodded. ‘But we couldn’t get everything. They had an arrow tipped with bone, we couldn’t get them to give it up.’ The chessboard displayed at the museum must have floated onto North Sentinel from an upturned fishing boat or some other wreck and been picked up by the islanders.

A team from the Anthropological Survey of India visited North Sentinel in March 1970. After anchoring the ship off the island, some men went ashore on a small boat but were chased off by determined natives approaching from two directions. In the morning many islanders were visible on the beach, displaying their weapons and shooting some arrows that fell into the water. But on being thrown some fish, they picked them up and gestured for more. Women came out of the forest’s edge to watch the goings-on.

‘In their height and stature they were equal to the men except that the lines were softer and they carried no arms,’ noted an anonymous observer – who thought the natives to be about six feet tall, ‘akin to the African Zulus.’

Intriguingly, local fishermen who’d glimpsed the islanders from afar also held them to be much taller than other Andamanese. Just as all of those seen in recent times had cropped hair, unlike the ones described by Homfray: a different tribe might now be inhabiting the island.

The survey team dropped a few fish farther along the beach and tried approaching the men again. But though they picked up the gifts and shouted ‘some incomprehensible words,’ they remained threatening. The visitors shouted back, equally incomprehensibly, that they wanted to be friends.

‘At this moment a strange thing happened – a woman paired off a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were,’ wrote the observer. It’s likely, however, that the scene represented not a mating ritual but the meeting ritual: men and women from all over the island had gathered to fend off the new threat and were greeting one another by sitting on laps.

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Around 1974, Pandit took Tambolai, his father Kanjo, and another Onge man on a contact mission, with the idea that the Sentinel islanders might understand their language. Raised high on stools, Kanjo and the others shouted one words of friendship. But the Sentinelese replied with a barrage of curses. ‘We could see their faces through our binoculars, they looked very angry, were giving them hell,’ Pandit recalled. The Onge men seemed to understand their threats: terrified, they hid in corners of the boat.

Another time some Sentinelese men raced out of the forest toward the contact team, which was loitering on the beach, causing a VIP to fall flat on his face in the rush back to the boat. His bodyguard fired into the air, upon which the natives shot an arrow that missed him by inches. After that the contact mission tended to stay away from shore, only landing to drop gifts: ‘Aluminium and plastic pots and pans, a live pig and iron tools were left there each day,’ wrote Pandit in a newspaper article, ‘Close Encounters with the Stone Age’. One time the islanders killed and buried the pig but took the other gifts.

Sometimes they shot arrows at the boat and ‘acted out insulting gestures, such as turning their backs towards us and sitting on their haunches as though defecating.’

Two ships were wrecked on North Sentinel in the 1980s. The crew was rescued and the wrecks sold to salvage companies whose labourers spent months hammering and blasting in full view of the islanders. Just what interaction they had with the natives – who also wanted iron from the wrecks and who must in any case have resented the presence of outsiders – is obscure. Some said they gave coconuts to the Sentinelese; others claimed to have shot them indiscriminately. Whatever the cause, during that decade the Sentinelese became noticeably less hostile. In 1988 they picked up gifts just ten yards from the contact boat. ‘The long and patient efforts carried over two-and-a-half decades jointly by the Andaman and Nicobar administration and the Anthropological Survey of India has slowly but steadily made its impact,’ Pandit stated.

In January 1991 came a ‘historic moment’ when a Sentinel islander came up to the boat and took the gift handed to him. In February of that year the Sentinelese came on board and picked up bagfuls of coconuts. The contact trips never progressed further, perhaps because some observers pointed to the harm they might inflict. In recent years the islanders had tended toward hostility.

In 1991, TN Pandit, far left, presented gifts of coconuts to the Sentinelese people. Photo courtesy: The New York Times
In 1991, TN Pandit, far left, presented gifts of coconuts to the Sentinelese people. Photo courtesy: The New York Times
TN Pandit and his colleagues were able to socialise with the isolated Jarawa tribe after a breakthrough. Here, members of the tribe visited a ship anchored off their land. Photo courtesy: The New York Times
TN Pandit and his colleagues were able to socialise with the isolated Jarawa tribe after a breakthrough. Here, members of the tribe visited a ship anchored off their land. Photo courtesy: The New York Times

Nasim, who’d helped with my trips to see the Jarawa, was late by a full hour. I’d been pacing up and down the whole time my bag hidden behind a doorway. I was surprised to see a woman with him; it turned out he’d persuaded her to come along with us. He’d learned over the years that being spotted alone with a female was more dangerous than going to North Sentinel.

At Wandoor jetty to the southwest of Port Blair, two boatmen greeted us at 5 am, then promptly got on a motorbike and vanished. ‘They had to get something,’ Nasim reported. ‘Maybe they hid the boat somewhere, have to fetch it.’ I walked to the water and looked in. It was pitch dark except for winking points of light, which turned out to be the reflections of stars. A bird started to call loudly on the other side of the creek, hoarse and staccato like a frog. Chuck chuck chuck.

We thought the men would be gone only minutes, but when they got back three-quarters of an hour later, it was light. I was awfully annoyed; it turned out they’d gone for headache pills, which both Nasim and I had packed.

The boat was large, with two motors, but we still took ages to get from the shore. We passed an island I’d photographed years ago, the hands-clown winner of the Cute Island Contest. It had a white beach and a green grove and looked exactly large enough for one shipwrecked mariner.

The sun peeped over the horizon. To my surprise, I spotted a long shadowy outline to the west: North Sentinel was only eleven miles from South Andaman. It sat low and flat, with dark green edges and a slightly elevated centre that was redder or browner. Global warming would surely drown it.

For the next two hours I watched the island approach. White trunks of tall trees showed up as the first detail, silhouetted against unbroken green. Then brilliant spots of light flashed on and off behind the rolling waters, resolving into bits of beach. They finally merged into a peaceful, unbroken white corona surrounding the island. Off to the south was what looked like a ship; it turned into a tiny spit of land abutting the main island.

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North Sentinel was larger than I’d imagined and more luxuriant, brushed with myriad hues of green. The mangroves looked like they’d been combed uphill, their canopies lining up into sloping bands. Under us the water was a brilliant aquamarine, in its depths visible the streaks of corals. It was the purest, lushest, most serene environment I’d ever seen. A turtle surfaced, ponderously gulping air before it dived again .

Please, please, please, let us not destroy this last haven.

I had decidedly mixed feelings about the trip. The Sentinel Islanders should be left alone, I completely believed. On the other hand, many fishermen approached the island because of its rich waters, and one heard of foreign poachers as well. I felt I needed to know if the islanders were interacting with outsiders, for that was the beginning of the end. But I recognized that most anyone could construct a rationale for why she and no one else should have access to an endangered people.

The boat was now circling the island clockwise, and I strained to look for figures on the beach. We might not see anyone, I finally decided. Past the islet to the south the sea was calm with odd bits of detritus floating on it; the depths were dark green. Three dolphins dived in unison and vanished under the surface. Beneath the boat was a whole universe I was blind to.

A wreck came into view, the red rusted skeleton of a small ship, cleanly broken into three pieces and beached. Past it the sea got rough, and we spotted the first waves I’d seen on the Andamans. They crashed on shore, their raised heads all froth and, blue glass.

A cloud was hanging over the island, and suddenly the sea was gray and weather threatened. A funnel had dropped all the way down, wispy clouds twisting and rising within it. ‘The cloud is drinking water,’ said the boatman. It wasn’t quite a waterspout, but spray from the waves did seem to be rising up, the Onge goddess Dare climbing to the sky to tell her angry children of the antics of humans. Monsoon was near.

Just as suddenly we passed into a realm where the sea was sunny and calm. Close to shore black posts stuck out of the water, the remnants of another wreck, mostly submerged. It was likely the one overgrown with coral.

There they were. Some figures perched in a boat by the beach, barely visible against the towering dark trees behind them. Another two men stood in a dugout, poling it over the breakers toward the sea. The men seemed tall and slender, and in the middle of the dugout was a small form that looked like a seated child. They were between one-quarter and one-half mile away.

Our boatman pulled off his shirt and waved it. The men in the dugout saw us and responded; they seemed to be coming toward us. ‘Ao, ao!’ shouted the boatman, Come! The Sentinelese replied with a musical yell. From under the boards the boatman pulled out a dao. And I spotted Nasim transferring a large revolver into his trousers. I stared at the men in alarm. The motors were too loud to shout over so I made my way to Nasim.

‘We can’t let things get to that stage.’

‘It’s just a precaution,’ he assured me.

But I was frightened. I was responsible for the situation and had little control over it. The boatmen wouldn’t listen to me but to him alone. ‘Let’s go away,’ I pleaded.

‘Let them get a bit closer,’ Nasim said. ‘We should take out the cloth.’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘We shouldn’t give them anything.’ Rather late, I’d remembered that I didn’t want to teach the Sentinelese to take gifts, to let them think we were friends. In the excitement of planning the visit I’d forgotten my own strictures and we’d brought cloth and nails, I’m ashamed to record, at my suggestion.

‘People are doing it anyway,’ said the woman.

The Sentinelese solved my problem. As our boat moved toward them, they turned around and poled back to shore. Thank heavens, their curiosity was tempered by fear.

We moved away and the dugout tried once more to traverse the reefs near shore. But the moment we turned around, they went back. Clearly they just wanted to fish, and we were an irritant. Two figures were on the beach, keeping an eye on the encounter. When we finally took off, they returned to the forest.

I was elated and relieved. They were there. It was a curiously prosaic moment, just a few men fishing. But for me it had magic, this glimpse of a people whose defiance – of airplanes, computers, answering machines, and everything else that made up my world – I’d come to worship.

The return trip took forever. The sun’s glare, the diesel stench, and the rolling nauseated me. I sat on the prow and watched the water. Frothy patches signalled shoals of jumping fish, churned from below by a darting predator. Small lavender-coloured jellyfish floated about, their receding forms giving a sense of the depths underneath.

I wondered what the Sentinelese made of the coral die-off, and whether it made fish hard to find. I wondered if their streams had dried out in 1998, for on such a small island the freshwater supply must be exceedingly fragile. I wondered if the monsoon came with uncommon violence, throwing down trees that crushed them and throwing up storm surges that washed them away. Scarcity of seafood and water, coupled with ever more violent hurricanes as the earth heated up, would make the island unlivable long before the flood formally drowned it. In 2003, when El Nino again added its strength to global warming, temperatures would probably peak even higher. How would they cope?

What would kill off the Sentinel islanders, ultimately, would not be the impoverished populations nearby, which are now held at bay. It would be the flatulence of the wealthy society where I lived, at the other end of the globe.

After about an hour the hot sun suddenly vanished. A dark cloud had been hanging over Middle Andaman, and the boat was now under its fringes. Rain began, and I unfurled my red umbrella while the others sheltered under blue plastic sheets. The raindrops stirred up the sea, studding its surface with zillions of tiny crowns tipped by foam drops. I sat under the umbrella, water dripping down my back, and watched the downpour as the sky got darker and darker.

I wasn’t afraid, for the dinghy was big and had two engines. But the frothy heaving surface and heavy gray skies made my thoughts drift to another time. In the pitch darkness of a cyclonic storm uncoiling at night, two young men fought lashing waves in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. And spent, they sank into the inky depths of the waters that after tens of millennia had finally failed to shelter them.

Prakash, rest in peace.

A Sentinel tribesman aimed with his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flew over the island in 2004. Photo: Reuters
A Sentinel tribesman aimed with his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flew over the island in 2004. Photo: Reuters

Excerpted with permission from The land of Naked people: Encounters with stone age islanders, Madhusree Mukerjee, Penguin India.