Andamanese - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The basic belief system of the Andamanese may be characterized as animistic. All living things are believed to be endowed with power that affects human beings. The universe is a multilayered structure, a configuration of various places through which spirits and the smell and the breath of humans, animals, and plants move. Restriction of movement is regarded as a major threat to the order of nature, since each place within space is associated with a distinct type of spirit that permits or restricts the movements of all living things.

Formless, boneless, and smell-absorbing spirits live in different parts of the forest and the sea and may be divided into two main categories: those associated with natural phenomena and those of the dead. Natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, thunder, rainbows, waterspouts in the sea, and storms, mark the arrival at and departure from the islands of the spirits associated with the winds coming from different Directions. The second significant category of spirits, those of the dead, may be further subdivided into benevolent and malevolent spirits. When a person dies his body undergoes a sequence of burial rites; a secondary burial rite transforms a dead person's spirit into a benevolent spirit who helps the living. Persons who die and do not receive the appropriate burial rites become a class of malevolent spirits who cause harm. The Andamanese, and specifically the Ongees, share an identity and space with the spirits; that is, spirits are formed from dead Andamanese and both spirits and the living compete in hunting and gathering the same resources on the islands.

Religious Practitioners. The only distinguishable practitioner is the spirit communicator who communicates with ancestral spirits while dreaming or being in a state of unconsciousness. Frequent contact with spirits endows the okojumu or okopaid (medicine man) with supernatural powers. Among the Ongees such a specialist is called torale and he or she is consulted by the community to locate resources, cure the sick, and plan the group's routine and ceremonial activities. Ongees believe that anyone can become a torale, but only an apprenticeship under an experienced torale provides one with the skill to navigate to and from the spirit world.

Ceremonies. Major ceremonies are held for the initiation of young men and women and at the time of death. There is a continuity between these ceremonies: initiation completes the child, who is closer in identity to the spirits prior to initiation, and makes him a full human being; the funerary ceremonies transform the human being into a full spirit. Singing, dancing, and feasts form an integral part of these occasions and other rites of passage. These ceremonies entail certain food restrictions and prescriptions for the participating individual and his or her family. Ceremonial singing and dancing frequently accompany changes in residence, from forest to sea or sea to forest, and the change of seasons. The launching of a new canoe is also marked by ceremonies.

Arts. The primary art form practiced by the Andamanese is clay painting of the body and the face. Each lineage has its own distinct design that is painted on the faces of men and women. The paint is made of red, white, or yellow clay mixed with water and/or pig fat. Intricate geometric patterns are applied to the body and the face with fingers or wooden comblike instruments. Body painting accompanies almost all ceremonies; face painting is an everyday affair. Usually the woman paints each member of her family. Men and women make and wear ornaments made of shells and different plant materials to wear at organized singing sessions. The singing sessions are of the call-and-response style, and any individual may lead the songs. The elders will also sing traditional songs to which new lines are never added. The subject matter for traditional songs is historical and mythological events. Ongees regard traditional songs as a form of "weeping and crying" and the songs are sung in a formalized "crying" style. Storytelling, with dramatic enactments and highly stylized discourse, is another form of expression that brings campmates, especially the children, together. Among the Ongees some individuals are acknowledged to be better storytellers than others and are frequently called upon to perform. With the exception of the Great Andamanese who use sounding boards to accompany their singing and dancing, no musical instruments are used among the Andamanese. The dance steps are all a traditional body of choreographed movements that are performed on specific ceremonial occasions. Rhythm for dancing is usually accomplished by hand clapping and the slapping of the foot against the body and ground. Men and women always dance separately.

Medicine. The Andamanese believe that the body gets sick when it becomes either too hot or too cold. Extremes in body temperature result in the release (hot) or solidification (cold) of body fluids and smell. The spirit communicator diagnoses the illness and usually attributes it to spirits. Depending upon the diagnosis, an illness is cured through the application of clay paints, mixed with other substances, in conjunction with the body either being tied with a cord around the affected part or being cut to make it bleed. Massage is also used to cure. As a preventive medicine, the Andamanese wear amulets made out of the bones of dead relatives that are believed to ward off any malevolent spirit who may cause sickness.

Death and Afterlife. When a person dies his "body internal" is believed to escape into either the forest or the sea. Thus a dead coastal dweller becomes a spirit of the sea ( jurua ) and a dead forest dweller becomes a spirit in the forest ( lau ). Those who die in accidents or those whose dead body did not receive the appropriate ceremonial burial become malevolent spirits who cause sickness and death among human beings. Through secondary burial the bones of the dead person are recovered and made into amulets and body ornaments that attract the spirits of benevolent ancestors who will help and keep safe his living human relatives. The Ongees believe that the spirits of dead ancestors are attracted to the islands and, through a series of events, are transformed into the fetuses in human mothers. Thus the spirits of the ancestors become the children of the Ongees.

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