Place names have always caught our fascination to the extent that there are people and communities who traditionally attach place names with their personal names as in Maharashtrian surnames such as Punekar, Ambedkar etc. In fact, place names tell us a lot about the culture and priorities of the people living there. Likewise, Andaman Islands also show a rich variety of place names ranging from the indigenous native names to the names kept by colonizers and settlers.
Place Names of Andamans
Starting with native names kept by the indigenous people of these islands, which are now a minority in their own land. Place names like ‘Putatang’, ‘Jirkatang’, ‘karmatang’ and ‘phultang’ are all indigenous names, which have stood the test of times. Notice that, all these names end in ‘tang’ which is an allomorph of a Great Andamanese word ‘tong’ meaning ‘tree’.
Great Andamanese who inhabited this whole mass of islands were people close to nature and their life was symbiotically connected with their surrounding ecosystem. The usual custom of naming places by these islanders primarily consisted, naming the place after the abundant natural resources of that area.
Therefore, we come across names such as ‘maro phong’ (= honey-hole) where honey was found in abundance. Similarly, names ending in tang/ tong showed that the place is abundant in that flora. Take the example of Baratang island, which is the only island which keeps its original indigenous toponym. The name Baratang is made up of Bara (perhaps a tree named Semecarpus kurzii) followed by the word for Tang (from tong = tree in one of the Andamanese languages).
Moreover, place names also showed the unique topographical feature of the camping area of the indigenous community. Therefore, we have ‘raetphor’ (literally big-bamboo-small bamboo), an area near today’s Mayabander. Likewise, an obsolete name like ‘bol phong’ was used by the Great Andamanese to show the region of present Long Island.
It is not to say that all the indigenous groups of the islands shared common place names. The reality is that each hunter-gatherer community kept a repertoire of place names according to their relationship to the region and area inhabited by them. In fact, we can still find a variety of names kept by Jarawa people for the landscape they inhabit.
Bea Men and their Place naming genius
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 Andaman Islands. An important thing to note down here is that ‘Bea’ people who inhabited the southern Andamans had provided place names even for the regions going beyond the northern limits of Andaman Islands. But that does not mean that they had already coined all place names. The truth is that, when they went with the British colonizers in their Island expeditions, they were asked to tell the place name, and the clever ‘Bea’ men instantly gratified them by keeping a new place name by looking at the visual and topographical landscape.
The native islanders usually kept themselves confined to their respective territory. When the British colonizers coaxed them to come out of their dwellings 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 ‘Saddle point’ the second highest hill in Andamans, they were convinced that it is none other than ‘pulugachang’ (the abode of the first man).
Jero place naming system
The traditional place naming tradition of ‘Jero’, another Great Andamanese group is equally interesting. ‘Jero’ who were primarily seacoast dwellers usually kept place names after the seascape. For example, we find place names like ‘toro-taec’(literally leaf of turtles) for a place near Mayabander implying that turtles were in abundance there.
‘Jero’ who were so fond of turtle meat to the extent that they would even risk their own life for hunting turtles, found it wittingly suitable to keep this name for the same area.
Also, In Jero’s language the name for Port Blair, the administrative capital of colonizers, ‘lao-ter-nyo’ (literally ‘house of evils’) sounds equally appropriate cause it reminds us of the misery Great Andamanese were brought to by their stay in Port Blair (when captured by colonial forces).
Place names by settlers
This saga of naming places by different people did not end just with the extinction of the Great Andamanese populations, but people from various settlers groups have given colorful names to places in Andamans. Be it Burmese Borang and Bajota of Mayabander area, Webi of Karen settlers, Baul Dera and Haridas Katai of Bengali settlers, Padnabhpuram and Tirur of Tamils, and Birsanagar and Hanspuri of Ranchi settlers.
Amazingly the new settlers of the islands are also adopting the practice of naming places after natural ecosystems. We now see place names such as Sagwan Nallah (creek of Sagwan trees), and Khatta Khadi (literally sour mangroves).
But the major place name givers were non-other British colonizers. They coined most of the English place names, be it Port Blair after the Archibald Port Blair or Atlanta point after the sailing vessel.
The saga of place names continues in Andamans, with new names being coined by the settler community.