Sharing pork and well-being
SOME years ago the notion of well-being sparked much interest amongst scholars across social and economic disciplines. While this led to the development of indices to measure, understand and communicate various notions of human well-being, it also entailed moving away from convention to comprehend what brought about contentment and happiness through individual and community notions of well-being. Much of the literature on the subject has referred to well-being in association with environment, natural and material assets, ecosystem services and self-determination, while the quality of life for individuals and community is the common thread defining well-being across such boundaries. The complex intertwining of hedonic and other value laden virtues mix to bring on its various definitions.1
Among the communities I have worked with in the Nicobar islands, food has always been associated with quality of life and, therefore, well-being. In the modern Nicobars, given the multitude of economic, cultural and social influences, transformations to this notion have taken place. Nevertheless, despite such socio-cultural change, among many islanders, it remains a defining characteristic to understanding well-being. In this article, I focus on the notion of well-being articulated through domestic and wild pigs in the Nicobar islands.
The Nicobar islands comprise twenty islands of which eleven are inhabited. The islands are dispersed in the Bay of Bengal bordering the southern Andaman Sea, connected to each other through links of language, shared cultures, trade and barter in local produce and through festivity. The traditional economy of the islanders has revolved around the horticulture of coconuts and husbandry of pigs and chicken primarily.
Over the last four decades, commodity markets have made a slow entry into their economy. The rehabilitation measures undertaken after the tsunami of 2004 brought the maximum socio-cultural change recorded so far, resulting in a new set of demands beyond subsistence by widening the goods and services the islanders have access to. Despite these influences, subsets of the human population on the archipelago remain relatively distant from regional markets, continuing subsistence based livelihood with minimal market interaction.
Before the 2004 tsunami, the islanders lived primarily along the coast, and used a range of natural resources some of which are governed within traditional systems of ownership and management. Families were seen as members of kinship collectives associated with production of meat and horticultural produce. Primary among these production systems was the cultivation of coconuts and maintaining livestock of chickens and pigs. Daily life traditionally revolved around the production and collection of food from coral reefs, harvesting and maintaining food gardens, husbandry of pigs and chickens, and hunts.
The islands are biologically unique with tropical forests and mangroves, turtle nesting beaches, grasslands, and extensive coral reefs. Most human inhabited islands are also habitat for wildlife that communities depend on. Wild produce from coastal waters and surrounding forests are harvested to sustain a variety of livelihood practices suited to their islands and requirements. While some agricultural practices have been documented as part of their subsistence economy, hunting, fishing and foraging practices as major contributions to the native diet and subsistence are not as well known. Hunts are normally limited to pigs, birds, feral cattle and rarely crocodiles. Villagers hunt fish using a range of techniques along the foreshore and within sight of the islands for a diverse array of species. Human communities on each island manage their own resource use and sharing arrangements of natural and domestic products derived from cultivated plots, forests and coral reefs.
The Nicobarese have experienced a transition over the past forty years from being a largely subsistence based community to one largely driven by trade.2 Over the years of colonization and acculturation, a cash economy has developed that is intricately linked to trade in copra and areca nuts.This economy crashed with the destruction caused by the tsunami of 2004, bringing much of life to a standstill for many years and inducing material, social and ecological changes in the archipelago.
Despite these changes, domestic pigs are still maintained as prized assets serving as indicators of wealth, a measure of exchange defining festal food and societal well-being. Households were required to maintain pigs to help negotiate economic and socio-cultural agendas across villages on each island. The availability of pigs determined the occurrence of feasts involving multiple households of extended families for ritual and island based events. The Nicobar wild pig, Sus scrofa nicobarensis,is widespread across the islands, though admixture with domestic pigs is common on large inhabited islands with natural forests. Only on Tillanchong island is the entire pig population wild, with no known introduction of domestic pigs.
Human mediation in the dispersal of Sus in the neighbouring Indonesian archipelago and further in Oceania is well understood and linked with models of human colonization of islands. Though little is known of their introduction into the Nicobar islands, their availability and use is central to social status and socio-cultural stability by facilitating the conduct of traditional rituals, especially when feasts are a customary rite. This association of pigs with feasting is viewed by local islanders as an absolute and required asset, facilitating a sense of normality through socio-cultural stability and, therefore, well-being.
Pigs along with coconut plantations are considered the two most important assets on the Nicobar islands given their multiple uses and values attached to them. Though they are not substituted for specific ritual and cultural uses, the fungibility of pigs as currency in barter or exchange attain the highest value. Every household is expected to maintain a manageable herd of pigs based on their access to coconuts. Coconuts are primarily pig food and are also used as part of trade with the outside world, thereby generating income for families. Payment of fines in terms of pigs by defaulters and for transgression of local rules is among the most severe of punishments meted to native islanders by tribal councils and heads of social groups.
On all Nicobar islands, domestic pigs continue to hold status as most prized assets due to their value as festal food and as visible assets of wealth. The number of pigs husbanded by any family is directly dependent on the number of coconut plantations available to the extended family, and thus an indicator of the wealth available to them.
These domesticated pigs are used to fulfil obligatory contributions required for various festive, ritual and religious events and feasts organized by social groups and the island council. They function primarily as sources of protein, required festal food, and also as currency. Feasts at events such as the patron saint day, customary rituals, healing, religious festivity such as Christmas and venerating ancestors are organized through community contributions of consumable resources, primarily pigs. Feasting as a consumptive activity is seen as a necessity of livelihood to celebrate and display human well-being.
Ritual feasts are central to many communities and have been linked to fertility rites, funerary traditions, transcendental or metaphysical beliefs and ancestor veneration. For all such feasts in the Nicobars, pork as festal food importantly signifies the success in conducting the event. Such food is also significant especially during ritual rites, when pork bits and toddy are also served to ancestral spirits. Serving pork from domestic pigs to ancestors exhibits the availability of these assets and is suggestive of well-being for both people attending the feast as well as in keeping with traditions of ancestors who look over from other realms.
In the Nicobar, given limited island based resources, husbanding herds of pigs to desired quantities, quality and harvestable size for large feasts is dependent greatly on the availability of coconuts. They are among the most expensive articles traded through barter and cash and maintain an iconic status. Pigs are often jointly owned by members of an extended family and this makes available the human and coconut resources required to maintain pigs and coconut plantations. The cooperation that pig husbandry elicits for such economic activity is complex as social organization overlaps various other livelihood requirements as well, among which is maintaining coconut plantations and a herd of pigs to cater to various feasts as a primary social and economic requirement.
While domestic pigs retain this iconic status, wild pigs are a delicacy and source of pork beyond festivity and ritual. Found across island forests, wild pigs are hunted throughout the year in areas adjacent to human habitation, mostly after the rains when they are fattened by fruit and food from the forest. Domestic herds maintained by families free range in the village and are fed coconuts either daily or on alternate days, determined by availability of coconuts to fatten them as preferred pork for feasting. Most domestic boars are castrated to keep a control on the pig population to facilitate agriculture, and wild boars in the vicinity of any village are allowed to impregnate domestic sows. Wild pigs are referred to as ‘saroal’across much of the Nicobar archipelago, and though they are a delicacy they are not valued as highly as domestic pigs. Saroal are never used for feasts involving ritual events of healing, celebration or religious ceremony. Devoid of human husbandry and of the forest, wild pigs are associated as pork accessible to islanders from adjacent forests with few restrictions of access. As domestic pigs are jointly owned and maintained at much cost by families and kinship groups, they are accessible only during feasts and when elders and heads of joint families decide on their harvest. Wild boars thus fulfil the requirement for pork at any other time dependent on the success of a hunt (höyerth).
Hunting has been and continues to be an important food provisioning method by accessing the limited but delectable fare from the natural ecosystems of forest and seas around the islands. Wild pigs are the primary prey hunted on the islands and are considered original food. Along with former beliefs in animism and its associated practices, wild pigs are not considered vermin or pests but as food resources. As delectable fare they are hunted and consumed but not traded or transacted in. Skilled hunters depend on the tenacity of their hunting dogs for successful hunts. Hunters use traditional spears (sannaih) and machetes (enouii) as the only tools, assisted by their dogs; clothing is often restricted to a traditional loin cloth (nighn) while skilled hunters traverse the forest barefoot. Noose traps are not generally used, and a wild pig is killed using spears once it is cornered by the pack of hunting dogs.
The quality of pork from a hunt is judged by the fat, age and tenacity of the animal hunted. Often if too lean, or if the pack corners a pregnant sow, the hunt/meat is abandoned. Each island has its tales of boars that killed a prized dog from the pack, or which were difficult to hunt. These are recognized as qualities befitting both wild pigs and determined, tenacious hunting dogs. Wild pigs are distributed across virtually all Nicobar islands excepting small and distant islands with insufficient habitat.
Traditions observed across the central and southern islands while hunting pigs vary little and have much in common. While on the island of Tillanchong, one among a host of customary norms is to tuck the ends of loin cloth into the waist band, while at all other locations and occasions the ends are worn long. Wearing loin cloth during a hunt is a norm maintained as sartorial habits of ancestors. On Little Nicobar island in the southern Nicobars, a tradition unique to the island is upheld while consuming wild pigs. Wild pigs (and other food collected from the wild) are also recognized as ancestral food when subsistence was the norm.
The islanders aver and uphold their ancestral patterns of subsistence on the bounty within their forests and of the few practices of horticulture and food cultivation prevalent amongst their population. While pork from domestic pigs is cooked and flavoured in various ways, served with cultivated and purchased products, pork from wild pigs on Little Nicobar is boiled without any condiments and supplements. This practice affirms the place of wild pigs as an important food of ancestors, by consuming the meat as their ancestors did. A separate hut (nyi oum) is constructed for the purpose of consuming wild pigs in villages which practice the tradition on Little Nicobar; this is unique to Little Nicobar island.
The ‘nyi oum’ is a small hut raised on a platform within which meat of the wild pig is boiled and consumed. After a successful hunt when pork is brought into the village, the carcass is brought to the nyi oum. The entrails are fed to the hunting dogs, while some boiled meat is fed to the leader of the pack. Villagers who consume the boiled meat are expected to observe restrictions in their cuisine for three to seven days. Food articles not native to the island are not consumed during the period of restrictions. These include rice, lentils, tea, lime, salt etc. Even fish from the sea are not to be consumed by participants for at least a day. Consumers subsist on the boiled pork and locally sourced pandanus paste, bananas and coconuts, until the taboo wears off over the stipulated period.
Men restrict clothing to a loin cloth and women their sarong just as their ancestors did. On such occasion, according to tradition, the person who feeds the dogs resides in the ‘nyi oum’ until the meat is consumed over the next days. Wild pig is seen as significant food of their ancestor’s subsistence which is not to be defiled with food from outside and that which came about through colonization of the archipelago. Consumers of ‘saroal’ are expected to use only the native language for communication. These observances allow the community to reminisce and reinforce links to their ancestral past, an animistic world enclosing spirits and people subsisting off the sea, shore and forests, secluded for the most part from the outside world.
Pigs have played a significant part in Nicobarese life from when (in all probability) they arrived on the islands with human colonizers. Having persisted over the past centuries, pigs have evolved into iconic assets of the islander community. As economic resources with multiple functions for the islander community, pigs provide pork for feasts involving island society, while ancestors and spirits are appeased to ensure the well-being of islanders. Ensuring the availability of pork brings the population to work together as a community, and as units within social groups to produce and harvest food for themselves and for pigs for feasts.
For a population living on islands with inherent resource limitations, cooperation and mechanisms to avoid conflict are of great significance for their peaceful coexistence. Nicobarese islanders have evolved a suite of livelihood sharing practices that tend to elicit cooperation through shared livelihoods and interdependence. A principle mechanism was the communities’ dependence on feasts and celebration, many of which involve pork from domesticated pigs; wild pigs fill in gaps of access and availability not fulfilled by domesticated pigs. These shared livelihoods are not easy to maintain among a growing population dependent on limited resources. Increasing individualisation and options to access various other goods and services with the introduction of markets are changes constantly being experienced.
A decade after the tsunami of 2004 there has been a greater influence of governmentality to facilitate modernization and diversification in contrast to reliance on local institutions that have promoted subsistence and shared living. The traditional economy of the islanders was based on incentives for islander society in sharing and cooperating over common resources; rearing and hunting pigs have played an important role in eliciting cooperation among members of kinship groups and social collectives as primary festal food celebrating cooperation and shared living. Local institutions from the tribal council to heads of social collectives and extended families elicited cooperation from islanders through the traditional economy in producing food collectively and by maintaining assets to avoid conflict over shared livelihood resources.
Building community cooperation and sharing limited resources over individual gain in a society with growing market dependence is not trivial. Pigs have played an important role in maintaining sharing systems by ensuring compliance and cooperation over individual gain in the short term. While individual gain in the short term constantly accompanies decision making in economic transactions, the persistence of these sharing systems is due to the benefit experienced for the greater common good in the long term. The pay-offs in shared livelihoods are manifested through the collective production of food in Nicobarese gardens and in maintaining coconut plantations to generate income and maintain pig herds. These resource sharing systems may be difficult to maintain as populations and market dependence grow, making some of them impractical.While economic and cultural changes infuse this once relatively isolated community of islanders, such traditional mechanisms will be contested by the onslaught of changes the islands will witness in the coming decades.
* Manish Chandi was a research scholar with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, from where much of this work emanated for his thesis.
1. R.M. Ryan and E.L. Deci, ‘On Happiness and Human Potentials: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-being’, Annual Review of Psychology 52(1), 2001, pp. 141-166.
2. S.J. Singh, In the Sea of Influence: A World System Perspective of the Nicobar Islands. Lund University, Lund, 2003. Retrieved from https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/publication/21185