| Licho gestures as her elder daughter Lepai, carrying her sister, watches. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Port Blair, Dec. 23: They lost a king but, on the eve of the tsunami anniversary, the stone-age aborigines have defiantly set aside centuries-old tradition to elect a queen.
After the death of king Jirake in April this year, the Great Andamanese ' one of the world’s oldest living tribes of aboriginals ' found themselves short of a suitable male candidate.
They have now decided to vest Surmai (55), the wife of the dead king, with the power to rule the dwindling tribe.
When the idea of a female ruler was mooted, it sparked a heated debate among the Great Andamanese, whose numbers had fallen from 10,000 in the 1760s to 23 in the 1980s before inching up to 51.
The tribe boasts a fine tradition of good kings like Jirake and before that Loka, tribal welfare officials said. But none of the four tribes in the Andamans has ever had a female ruler ' unlike Nicobar, where the queen of Nancowrie has held court.
On Friday, The Telegraph caught up with a group of excited Great Andamanese near Port Blair, who explained why they had supported Surmai’s claim. “We want her because (most members of) the tribe do not want Paji (the old king’s understudy). No one listens to him, but everybody respects Surmai,” Gullat, a senior member of the tribe, said through an interpreter.
Gullat, 35, a short and dark man with features similar to people of African origin, said all the Great Andamanese would sit together soon to decide the date of the coronation.
“The consensus is to have a ruler who is wise and not a dictator. We think Surmai fits the bill,” said Gullat’s wife Licho, 32, with her two daughters, three-month-old Paji and seven-year-old Lepai, on her lap.
The group of Great Andamanese had at first turned suspicious when this correspondent approached them. But once they were convinced that no one else was around, they opened up.
“Jirake was a great king, and he told us two days in advance that the sea was getting warm and there would be a flood. How right he was!” said Licho, a light-yellow cloth wrapped around her.
The tribe, however, had escaped harm. A group of about 14 who were near the shore when the tsunami struck had managed to scamper to safety.
“We’ll do it fast, but let us go back and finalise everything,” added Gullat, who wore only an old pair of trunks given to him by the tribal welfare department.
The department officials, too, are excited at the prospect of a coronation. “After the death of Rani Lakshmi, the only official queen of Nancowrie, the islands haven’t had a queen,” department director S.A. Awaradi said.
“We have given the Great Andamanese time to think about the coronation date and have left everything for them to decide. We will just assist them.”
Welfare officials, who will be in close touch with the tribals until the coronation is over, said plans had been drawn up for a big feast of wild boar meat, fish and vegetables.
Licho explained the ceremony: “The likes of Loka, Rangi and Ria (all Great Andamanese women) will dance to drumbeats. Later, Surmai will emerge from her hut and sit in a community hall on Strait Island, where she will be asked to take a special seat earmarked for the queen.”
The Great Andamanese are known for their bitter battles with the British near Port Blair and their rivalry with the Jarawas, another endangered tribe. They were slaughtered by the British forces and later fell in large numbers to pneumonia (1868), syphilis (1876) and influenza (1877).
A 1901 survey had counted 624 of them but the 1971 census rang the alarm, showing their number had dwindled to 24.
“Their population is slowly increasing and we wish them all the luck,” Awaradi said.