Indigenous Knowledge

Place Names

Place names have always caught our fascination as there are people and communities who traditionally attach place names with their personal names, as witnessed in South of India. Andaman Islands also represent a rich variety of place names ranging from the indigenous native names to the names kept by the colonizers and the settlers. Place names give us immense information on the culture and priorities of the people residing there. Place names like ‘Puta-Tang’, ‘Jirka-Tang’, ‘Karma-Tang’ and ‘Phul-Tang’ are all indigenous names. Notice that all these names end in ‘Tang’ which is actually a modified version of the Great Andamanese word tong meaning ‘tree’.

Great Andamanese who inhabited the Great Andaman Islands once upon a time, were people who were close to nature, their life was symbiotically connected with the surrounding ecosystem. The usual custom of naming places by these islanders primarily consisted of naming the place after the abundant natural resources of that particular area. Therefore, we come across names such as ‘Maro Phong’ (literally Honey-Hole) where honey was found in abundance.

Moreover, place names also indicated the unique topographical feature of the camping area of the indigenous community. Therefore, we find ‘Raat-Phor’ (literally big-bamboo-small bamboo), an area near today’s Mayabander. Similarlay, an obsolete name like ‘Bol Phong’ ( Bol fish-hole) was used by the Great Andamanese to indicate the region of the present Long Island.

The reality is that each hunter-gatherer community maintained a repertoire of place names according to their relationship to the region and area inhabited by them.

In E.H. Man’s dictionary of ‘Bea Language’ (a southern Great Andamanese language), we come across various place names across the length and breadth of the Andaman Islands. An interesting observation is that ‘Bea’ people who inhabited the southern Andaman had provided place names even for the northern regions of the Andaman Islands. The truth is that, when they accompanied the British colonizers in their Island expeditions, they were asked to tell the place names, and the clever Bea men instantly gratified them by uttering a new place name by looking at the visual and topographical landscape, which was fully descriptive of the new place.

The native islanders usually kept themselves confined to their respective territories. However, when the British colonizers coaxed them to come out of their abode and took them for various island expeditions, it also gave rise to strengthening of mythology and folktales in the communities. For example, when ‘Bea’ people were shown the present ‘Saddle point’ the second highest hill in the Andamans, they were convinced that it was none other than ‘Puluga-Chang’ (the abode of the first man).

The tradition of place-naming by the Great Andamanese tribe ‘Jero’ is equally interesting. Jero were primarily seacoast dwellers and usually kept place names after the seascape. For example, we find place names like ‘Toro-Tec’(turtles-leaf) for a place near Mayabander implying that turtles were in abundance in the sea near this area. It is not surprising that Jero, who were extremely fond of turtle meat so much so they would risk their lives for hunting turtle, found it wittingly suitable to keep this name for the area.

Also, their name for Port Blair, the administrative capital of the colonizers, ‘Lao-ter-Nyo’ (literally ‘house of evils’ or ‘house of foreigners’) sounds equally appropriate because it reminds us of the misery the Great Andamanese were brought to by their sojourn in Port Blair.

It is sad that Britishers replaced these names by English names which are very opaque as they fail to relate to the ecology of the land. Consider the following table.

Table 1.  Place names of the Andaman Islands used by the present Great Andamanese tribes

Indigenous Place names of Andaman Islands 2.pdf


Note: 1. These names are from the present language spoken by the Great Andamanese.

      2. Pujjukar is an extinct language once spoken in these islands.

3. Capital letters signify retroflex sounds used in Indian languages. Thus T is as in Indian English ‘table’ while t is as the    last sound in word ‘bharat’


baralo N a kind of smooth, shiny, non-poisonous green snake that lives in the coconut tree. The snake was known for its beneficial oily secretions that were supposedly very good for the skin. Girls would catch it to rub it on their bodies as a moisturizer. Generally, while one girl held the mouth, another would rub the struggling snake against her body and face. Apparently, the struggle increased and enhanced the secretion.

-from Nao Jr December 2006


1. /e:n/ ‘a creeper that grows on the top of a hill’. Is used to put in the water to make fish senseless/intoxicated. If eaten, produces rash all over the body. Bitter in taste.

2.  /jin-tεc/ ~ /jin-tεic/  ‘leaf that is rubbed on the lactating mother’s breast to produce milk’

3.  /jira-bal/ ‘a creeper used to produce cool air’. If the leaves of this creeper are put in the sea, the halfa [high wave/tide] reduces in intensity.

4. /pharako/ ‘a creeper’ is used for making rope to hunt turtles and dugong. It is believed that if a pregnant woman crosses over a creeper she will have miscarriage. The milk emitted by the leaf of the creeper is potent enough to blind a person if it touches eyes.

5. bɛcikluye N tonsure, equivalent of the Hindu mundan or the head-shaving ceremony, performed on a 14-day old, newborn baby. The present day use of the blade was preceded by a glass piece for the purpose in days gone by. The investigators were present for the ceremony of Jirake Jr. It was noticed that the ceremony has imbibed many traditional Hindu rituals, reflecting the influence of the mainstream culture on them. But the Hindu custom of the barber performing the rituals is replaced by the community members themselves take part in the shaving of the head. In this case, it was done by Reya and Prem Devi, the non-tribal wife of Loka.

6.   jirmu N mythic cow-like animal  Supposed to be as big as a cow and a mythical inhabitant  of Mayabander, North Andaman. It was supposed to have sticky hair because of which anyone who touched it would get stuck to it. It was supposed to produce the tinkle of bells when it walked.

How did Great Andamanese save themselves in Indian ocean tsunami of 2004?

While 7000 lives were lost in Andaman and Nicobar during the tsunami of 2004, not a single tribe from any of the groups faced any calamity as their indigenous knowledge saved them. Seeing the unusual fish that reside in the twilight zone of the sea coming to the surface, the Great Andamanese man in his fifties, Nao Jr shouted sare ukkuburuko ‘the sea has turned upside down. ' The elders responded to his call and ran to a nearby hillock and stayed there for the next three days till the government help came to rescue them. 

Nao Jr, however, was stuck near the sea as there were several children swimming near the seashore when the tsunami hit the island. He made six children go up a tree and kept swimming around the tree to monitor their moves up and down the tree. When the water would recede he would tell the children to come down a bit and when the water will rise he would instruct them to go up the tree. He told us that he kept on swimming for seven hours. On being asked why did he not mount any tree in such a situation he informed us that there was no other tree in the vicinity which could have held him up and the tree on which six children were mounted could not hold more weight.