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Traditional Navigational Knowledge

Traditional Navigational Knowledge among Tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
by D.P. Agrawal

Posted 7/9/03

In this note we discuss scientific navigational knowledge of the tribal people of Andaman and Nicobar islands. These traditional societies had developed their own science to eke out their livelihood through interaction with nature. Science does not begin with Galileo or Newton, but from the very advent of humans on this planet.

It is now recognized that Western criteria are not the sole benchmark by which other cultural knowledge should be evaluated. In countries with ancient cultural traditions, the folk and elite sciences were taken as part of the same unified legacy, without any hegemonic categorisations. Colonizers systematically undermined the local traditional science, technology and crafts of the lands and people they plundered, because of their intellectual arrogance and also to control and appropriate the economic means of production. Western Science has created hegemonic categories of science verses magic, technology verses superstitions etc., which are arbitrary and contrived. Many anthropologists who have worked with the so-called ‘primitive’ peoples have been surprised to learn of some of their highly evolved and sophisticated technologies, an example of which we have given from the Caribbean islands also. The term ‘Traditional Knowledge System’ (TKS) was thus coined by anthropologists as a scientific system which has its own validity, in contradistinction to ‘modern’ science.

The United Nations University proposal defines Traditional Knowledge Systems as follows:

“Traditional knowledge or ‘local knowledge’ is a record of human achievement in comprehending the complexities of life and survival in often unfriendly environments. Traditional knowledge, which may be technical, social, organizational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great human experiment of survival and development.”

Laura Nader describes the purpose of studying TKS’: “The point is to open up people’s minds to other ways of looking and questioning, to change attitudes about knowledge, to reframe the organization of science – to formulate a way of thinking globally about traditions.”

This article attempts a brief study of the traditional oceanographic knowledge among the tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands comprising 306 islets are situated in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, in the Bay of Bengal over a distance of 700 km. These islands are separated into two groups viz., the Andaman group and the Nicobar group. These groups of islands are delimited as Andaman and Nicobar districts, which occupy
6,408 sq km and 1,841 sq km areas respectively. The tribes named Great Andamans, Onges, Jarawas and Sentinelese live in the Andaman group of islands, and in the Nicobar group of islands reside two Mongoloid tribes viz., Nicobarese and Shompens.

Navigational Skills of Tribals

The island of Chowra is a revered place for all the southern islanders. The people of Chowra are believed to have some occult powers over winds, waves, tides, current, etc., and to manipulate them to their advantage and are respected by everyone. Generally, they are experts in navigation and boat building. However the tribes of different islands possess different navigational skills. But the people of Chowra are considered to be masters in navigation. The people of Car Nicobar, Teressa, Tilangchung, Nancowry, Trinket, Great Nicobar, Camorta, Katchal and Little Nicobar visit Chowra every year and learn several navigational techniques from the people of Chowra.


The tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands have acquired intricate knowledge about different kinds of waves. However, they seem to identify one particular type of wave, which is the principal wave of each set of waves locally known as Nayange. They recognize that the sea is turbulent during new moon and full moon days. They are very careful and do not go for voyaging when the sea is too rough. Their decision is highly appreciated for avoiding such voyages.


The Nicobarese on the basis of their flowing directions recognize four different types of currents: (1) Heam Kudi – from north; (2) Heam Kulam – from south; (3) Heam Kuli – from east; and (4) Heam Kuvath – from west. These currents are very powerful during the four seasons namely ChuKabaSusam, and Lohaah, respectively. These currents are generally useful to the Nicobarese for catching fish. They determine direction and nature of the current by putting the Hallis (pedal) over the water for sometime. The Nicobarese state that the currents are far fewer from the 9th day of full moon up to the 14th day and after that the currents again gain momentum.


Tides are useful for fishing activity. Having an exhaustive knowledge about tides and their usefulness, the tribal seafarers and sailors apply this knowledge for fishing trips. They authentically say that the low and high tides are caused by moon only. They have however no idea of the exact time of their incidence. During new moon and full moon days, they avoid fishing both in high and low tides. Generally low tides are preferred for fishing trip.

For coastal fishing, during low tides in the inter-tidal region, they dig small pits and fill them when the tides turn high. Water is logged in the pits. Along with the receding water, women, small boys and girls splash the water with small sticks. Sometime they sprinkle the extract of the seeds of kanyov tree on water, which has a narcotizing effect on the fishes.


The Nicobarese also, like the mainlanders and settlers, have recognized four different types of winds from four seasons on the basis of their blowing direction. These different winds are identified just by feeling only. Each wind is predominant in a particular season. These winds are: (1) West wind – Chu – January to March, (2) North wind – Kaba – April to June, (3) East wind – Susam – July to September, (4) South wind – Lohaha – October to December. These winds are observed regularly. Among these four winds, the East wind is considered to be good for navigation and fishing trip.

Measuring Depth

The Nicobarese practice of measuring depth is quite unique. The first method they adopt is by observing the colour of water. They state that a close relationship exists between colour and water. According to them the blue colour of water is considered to be deep and shallowness is indicated by green and pale colour water.

The second method depends upon the sound produced between the vessel hull and sea surface. The depth at the spot is determined by hearing the sound from underneath the vessel due to friction of hull bottom with water. The friction sound produced at the interface of water and hull is different at different depths according to them.

The third one depends upon simply looking at the water because the water of Andaman and Nicobar islands is crystal clear. They just jump into the water and confirm the depth of water. They never use any measuring device for depth finding.

Cyclone Prediction

A large number of methods are used by the tribes of southern islands for predicting the arrival of cyclone, bad weather, thunder and heavy rain. They use several natural clues and behaviour of animals around them. They tell that indication of arrival of cyclone and rough weather is predicted by the agitation and behaviour of pigs, and by the rolling of marine snakes. If they have any doubt regarding the cyclone or bad weather, they closely observe the pigs at home.

Many southern islanders state that if the dark clouds meet together in large masses with heavy lighting and thunder, it is a sure indication of cyclone.

Time, Duration and place of Navigation

They have no standard pattern for fixing fishing times and go for fishing trips according to their food requirements, mood, phase of the moon, nature of tide, etc. They generally go for fishing in the low tide period.

The duration of fishing seems to be similar among all islanders. The duration of their voyage or fishing time never exceeds 3 to 4 hours. The fishermen go up to 10-15 km from the shore.

Direction Finding and Stellar Knowledge

The Nicobarese and other tribes never exceed 10 km distance from the shore for fishing so that they do not impose any necessity to know the exact position and direction. They have definite words for four directions, which are tangale (north), tangange (south), tanganae (east), and tangiche (west).

They find the direction with the help of natural objects like sun, moon, and stars in their navigational activity. Generally they use the following stars during night hours.

Onchiana (Centaurus): A constellation, which appears in south during February to April.
Thyan (Orion): A constellation appearing in the east. One star in it is very bright.
Mahayuvan (southern cross): Visible in the south from December to April.
Sama (Al de Baron): it is a bright red coloured star visible in the East from May to September.
Balangkaruvya (Venus): single planet in the East.
Musaha (Ursa Major): it is a constellation appearing in the North.
Gna gna hyyam (Pleiades): Visible in the East from September to February.

Seafaring in Different Seasons of the Year

All the seasons of the year are not good for seafaring activity. The Nicobarese have definite seasons for navigation according to their own calendar.

The seasons of Mukyop (December-January), Ranecaba (January-February) and Tutch (February-March) are generally good for navigation and fishing. In Bach (March-April), the wind force is greater and the sea becomes rough and this season is not suitable for navigation. After this comes the Amu (April-May), during this season seafaring and fishing are altogether forbidden and nobody should go for fishing. The end of this season is perceived by the Trinket islander. When they start seafaring and fishing, every body knows the season of Amu has ended. After this the wind force becomes normal and fishing and seafaring are started again from the month of Tukai (September-October).

Types of Crafts

Different types of dugouts and outrigger canoes were used by the tribals of Andaman and Nicobar islands. The dugouts used by the great Andamanese and Nicobarese were different. The Andamanese used small dugouts with an outrigger. The racing canoes are solely meant for recreation and never used for fishing by Nicobarese.

Onge’s dugouts with outriggers are mostly similar but stronger than those of great Andamanese while the Shompen’s dugout with outriggers greatly resembles that of Nicobarese, but smaller in size than other tribal canoes. The Jarawas neither make nor use dugouts canoes or outriggers; instead they use a raft made of bamboo or tree trunks.

The Occupation of Fishing

The tribes of all islands practice fishing for food. Arrows, spears, hooks, and lines are the traditional fishing instruments of these tribes. The Malaysian and Burmese merchants had introduced nets before the arrival of English colonists. The tribes also hunt crabs and shells for food. During such trips they generally use different types of pedals and oars for propulsion besides sails. Their favourite occupational interest is octopus fishing. They generally carry spears, arrows, and the seeds of kanyov tree as narcotic, coconuts, and lime for catching octopus. They go in the night time irrespective of the phase of the tide. They sprinkle the extract of kanyov tree and sometimes seeds of Baringtonica racemosa in water which narcotize octopuses and fishes.

Trip to Chowra and other Islands

The tribes of southern island consider the trip to Chowra as the most important event of their life. Boys make their maiden voyage to the Chowra Island. This is partly because of the fear instilled by the Chowra islanders who claim to have special powers to alter winds, currents, and even direction, if anybody goes against them. They have also created a dependency so that the people of other islands come to them for cooking pots and building of big racing odis.

The odis built by Chowra are used to sail to Chowra and are prepared by adding a strake to the gunwale to prevent water splashes before starting their voyage The blood of cocks is anointed on the head of boys who are taking their maiden trip. The common village canoes are also to be taken in this trip.

The journey is started during ebb tide. The distance of Chowra from any southern islands is approximately up to 30 km. Each member on board carries food, tinder, coconut, lime, and some material for presenting to their Chowra friends and for their own consumption during their long journey. They mostly consume coconuts and yams. They find the direction with the help of stars. After a stay of around ten days they return back.


The tribes of Andaman and Nicobar islands have a comprehensive and detailed knowledge about the seas of the islands. They also depend on the sea for their livelihood. Their navigational practices are quit interesting and intricate. Mostly the tribes are settled on the seashore. Their traditional knowledge about sea is unique and the seafaring activity of tribes is different from of the settlers. At present the Nicobarese, especially the people of Car Nicobar are actively involved in seafaring and fishing.

Goodenough (1987) has reported on the intricate navigational skills of Micronesians of Western Caribbean islands. Though it is an oral tradition, it contains massive amount of discrete information…which has to be committed to memory. It involves highly abstract thinking: the compass as a set of imaginary points at equal intervals around the horizon, named for the stars and abstracted from their motions, but not identical with them; the use of drags as imaginary divisions of one’s course of travel; the use of imaginary places of references to calculate ‘drags; and schematic mapping in the form of ‘trigger fish’. This is as good a science as one expects.

We are sure that a detailed study of the Andaman and Nicobar navigation systems, especially of the Chowra people, may indicate similar intricacies and may be worth learning from.

Main Source:

Sivakumar, R. and G.V. Rajamanickam. 1999. Oceanographic knowledge among tribes of Andaman and Nicobar islands. In Maritime Heritage of India(Ed.) K. S. Bahera. New Delhi: Aryan Books International. Pp. 143-154.

Other References:

Goodenough, Ward H. and Stephen D. Thomas 1987. Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific. Expedition 29(3): 3-14.

Nader, Laura.1996. Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries, Power and Knowledge. New York: Routledge.