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Madhumala Chattopadhyay, the Woman Who Survived the World's Most Dangerous Tribe

Anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay is the only woman in the world to contact the Sentinelese, one of the most isolated and dangerous tribes. Inhabiting the North Sentinel Island.

Anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay is the only woman in the world to contact the Sentinelese, one of the most isolated and dangerous tribes. Inhabiting the North Sentinel Island.

The Sentinelese, the World’s Most Dangerous Tribe

He called it "Satan’s Last Stronghold" as John Allen Chau, a self-described "adventurer" from America, sought to convert the world's most notorious tribe to Christianity, trespassing on North Sentinel Island to do so.

He instructed the fishermen not to wait for him and told them to deliver his notes to a friend back in Port Blair, the administrative capital of the Andaman Islands in India. A day later, on November 17, 2018, the fishermen saw the Sentinelese, the tribe residing on the island, dragging a body and burying it on the beach. The body was that of John Chau.

The coral-fringed island known as North Sentinel Island harbors one of the most dangerous tribes in the world. No one knows how long the Sentinelese—the last demographically intact, uncontacted tribe in the world have lived there, but studies reveal that they have remained unchanged for more than ten thousand years.

And they are fiercely protective of maintaining it that way. Believed to number no more than a hundred, they kill anybody who even approaches close to their island. All previous attempts at contact have been met with showers of spears and arrows as the inhabitants have made it aptly clear that they want to be left alone.

And the only woman who managed to make contact with the notorious Sentinelese tribe is the anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay. Madhumala was part of the expedition in 1991 initiated by the Government of India to maintain friendly contact with the tribe. She was also the first woman to be on any such expedition.

And her experience was far different from others, as she says.

“Never ever in my six years of doing research along with the tribes of Andamans did any man ever misbehave with me. The tribes might be primitive in their technological achievements, but socially they are far ahead of us,”

The Sentinelese killed John Allen Chau for trespassing on their island.

The Sentinelese killed John Allen Chau for trespassing on their island.

The Story of Madhumala Chattopadhyay

A Ph.D. fellow with the Anthropological Survey of India, Madhumala got her first chance to go to North Sentinel Island in 1991 as part of the Government's initiative to maintain friendly contact with the tribes. But there was a catch; she was a woman, and the 'hostile' tribe was too dangerous for a woman.

As Madhumala recalls the time.

"I had to give a written undertaking saying that I knew about the risks involved and would not claim compensation from the Government for any injury or loss of life. My parents also had to give a similar written undertaking."

Little did the expedition crew know that she would turn out to be the star of the team.

The team of 13 left Port Blair on January 4, 1991, and reached the shore of North Sentinel early the next morning. The past trips just consisted of leaving sacks of tender coconuts on deserted sides of the island. If the tribals ever saw them, the team was attacked. There was no contact even attempted.

Madhumala, this time, wanted to do something new to break the ice.

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Instead of throwing the gunny bag of coconuts, she decided to offer the coconuts to them by rolling them one at a time in the water. It worked as the Sentinelese began treating it as a "game" and started participating. The men even came closer to the boat and started touching it. This was history in the making.

This was the first time ever a peaceful contact had been initiated with the world’s most dangerous tribe by a woman.

The Sentinelese kill anybody who even approaches close to their island. All previous attempts at contact have been met with showers of spears and arrows as the inhabitants have made it aptly clear that they want to be left alone.

The Sentinelese kill anybody who even approaches close to their island. All previous attempts at contact have been met with showers of spears and arrows as the inhabitants have made it aptly clear that they want to be left alone.

The Sentinelese Welcome Madhumala

Later the team returned in the afternoon with a second bag of coconuts. A young Sentinelese boy started aiming an arrow at her but was stopped by a woman from behind who told him to go ahead and collect the coconut, which he did quietly. There was no violence; one by one, the men came, collected the coconuts, and returned to the island.

The trip was a resounding success, thanks to Madhumala. She made a second trip again in February of that year, and this time her team was received with welcoming arms.

The Sentinelese climbed up on the boat to receive the coconuts, and no arrows were aimed at this time. There was no common language to converse, and it was only through physical gestures like curling of lips, warm embraces, and happy tapping of feet that the tribals appreciated Madhumala's presence among them.

While the ice was broken, the Government decided to stop all further trips as it was feared that outside contact might introduce diseases to which the Sentinelese had no immunity. It was a wise decision as the Government enforced a 3 miles no-entry zone around these Islands.

Madhimala was the first woman to initiate peaceful contact with the Sentinelese

Madhimala was the first woman to initiate peaceful contact with the Sentinelese

Just Leave Them Alone

When asked about the recent killing of John Chau by the Sentinelese, Madhumala offers a new perspective.

As per her, the Sentinelese are nature worshippers. They live, breathe, and absorb nature in their every activity. Nature is their world and god, and there was no point in preaching any other religion to them. As she says.

“The Sentinelese and other tribes do not need to be oppressed with religion, because doing so will make them more hostile. They understand nature, and that is all they need. What will they do with religion? They are very close to nature, and that is the only religion they understand.”

Madhumala has only one advice to anybody attempting to "convert" them or even trying to get them 'acquainted' with the world around them.

"The tribes of the islands do not need outsiders to protect them. What they need is to be left alone."

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Ravi Rajan

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