The Living Legend Who Befriended Deadly Uncontacted Tribe Of Andaman

Fascinated by a news article in The Telegraph which was about the birth of a baby in almost extinct tribe named Onges from Andaman, this 12-year-old girl from Kolkata ran to her father and expressed her desire to visit Andaman during her vacation. Her father thought it as a childish wish and rebuffed her by saying that only researchers can go there. But he didn’t realize that this will get stuck in his daughter’s mind and she will go on and create history. Years passed but she never let the idea of being a researcher vanish and went on to become the first woman in history to successfully establish contact with those tribes who had the reputation of being highly hostile.

To fulfill her wish

After completing her schooling, Madhumala Chattopadhyay took admission in University of Calcutta to pursue B.Sc honors in anthropology (the study of human societies and cultures and their development). Her parents were still in grey because no one in their family had studied anthropology till now but they didn’t constrain their daughter. After creating an outstanding academic record, she applied for Ph.D at Anthropological Survey of India for doing field research to know the tribes of the Andaman. 


But women were not allowed at that time to go on field considering the threat of these uncharted lands so her request was turned down. Yet her undisputed record made the committee to reconsider. So they prepared an undertaking for her parents which stated that she is solely responsible for whatever happens to her on the field including her death. But they were unaware that she will become a legend in the contemporary world and the lost tribe’s stories.

First non hostile contact ever made

January 4, 1991 was the day her childhood wish came true as she sailed to the North Sentinelese Islands with a purpose to establish friendly contact with the most hostile tribe. Earlier attempts turned out to be a disaster as the outsiders were welcomed with arrows there but this time Madhumala was onboard. As soon as the research team spotted the Sentinelese, they started dropping coconuts they brought as a friendly offering. Earlier the Sentinelese were pointing arrow at them but after the offerings they soon started collecting them in baskets and stared shouting “Nariyali jaba jaba” which meant more and more coconuts. 


(First non hostile contact)

When one of the Sentinelese youth tried to shoot an arrow at Madhumala, one of the Sentinelese women pushed him and made him miss his target. After several hours of persistent efforts, the team finally decided to get out of the boat and offered them coconuts with their hands and became the first team to have established a friendly contact with the Sentinelese. All because of Madhumala was the only woman in the team that symbolized no harm to the tribe. She went back again after one and a half months, but this time there was no hostility and both parties showed respect to each other.

Six years of anthropological legend

Although the government later abolished any contact with that tribe but it didn’t stop her from establishing relations with the Jarawas, Onges and Nicobarese tribes. She was welcomed with open arms. The Onges called her ‘Debotobeti’ which meant doctor because she treated minor injuries and wounds which they got during hunting. A Jarawa woman trusted her with her three month old baby which was perhaps the best way to show trust on her. No text book taught her that but  it was from her experience and curiosity to know more about them. 


(Madhumala with a Jarawa woman)

Some legends are lost but not forever

For her exquisite work, University of Cornell and University of California offered her prestigious research positions  but she chose to stay back to look after her family. She currently works as a senior researcher in ministry of social justice and empowerment but her heart belongs to anthropology and the tribes which she became of a part of during her magnanimous years of exploration. 

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