Chandamama, April 2006
Sugandhi was a peculiar young girl. Ever since she was an infant she would always want to know how something smelt. Whether it was a flower, something on her dinner plate or even her own clothes she would only accept something into her life if she liked the smell of it! Needless to say, as she grew into a young girl she was very concerned about the way she smelt herself!
In her little village in rural Tamil Nadu there were many smells that she came across. The smell of the earth when it first rained, the smell of cow dung, the smell of the fur on her beloved cat, Billu, and of course the smell of her mother cooking her favourite rasam! Sugandhi loved the smells of nature. Once in a while, when her father took her into the city of Chennai she would almost suffocate on the smell of the traffic. She could not believe that the people living in big cities could bear the acrid smells of pollution and she longed to return home and wake up to the beautiful smell of flowers in her garden.
One day, she had a surprise. Uncle Pankaj had just come back from a long voyage over the sea to the Andaman Islands. She had heard many mysterious things about these islands but this time she was about to learn even more! ‘Sugandhi, did you know that I have just visited a place where people are as concerned about smells as you are?’ said Uncle Pankaj, when they sat down together after a delicious meal. ‘Really?’ said Sugandhi,’ So I am not so unusual after all? Do they all have big noses?’ she asked!
Uncle Pankaj laughed and said ‘No, but the tribals of the Andaman Islands, the Ongees and the Jarawas, live in the forest, where there are many wild animals. Since most animals have a very strong sense of smell and can track down humans very easily, the tribals have to be very careful about the smells they leave behind them, unless they want to get caught!’
‘To be able to disguise the smell of their own bodies, the tribals have come up with some unique solutions. They apply white clay paint which cools their bodies or red clay paint which heats their bodies. This keeps their body odour in check. They also carry bones of dead relatives and hunted animals with them and this confuses the animals.’
What is most unusual is that the Andamanese believe that the winds which carry smell are actually the forms of spirits that move around in the forests. They feel that a part of the human being is carried away in the form of his smell and that in this way humans and spirits actually interact.’
Hearing all this Sugandhi became quiet and reflective. With eyes wide full of wonder she said, ‘You know, Uncle Pankaj, sometimes I feel that the jasmine tree is trying to tell me something through the smell of her flowers and I can always smell it, when Billu has been upto some mischief. Everybody is always so fascinated by what they see with their eyes, but for me the world of smells is so much more exciting!’
‘Well,’ said Uncle Pankaj, ‘if you lived amongst the Andamanese , they would say that you had found a way of communicating with the spirits in Nature!
The next time you go to a forest remember to be aware of what you leave behind. When you feel the plants brush against you, when you feel the winds blowing on your face remember that they are retaining a part of you. Remember that an Ongee in the Andamans will not even leave behind his own smell in the forest and this is how he can become a spirit!’