If winter in Kolkata is a tease, an Andaman winter is a myth. Temperatures in late December and early January remain at a warm 25 to 28 degrees. This is the first stark difference you experience, as a man shivering at the Calcutta Airport two hours ago, the moment you step out of the Veer Savarkar International Airport in Port Blair.
Andaman is an unbelievably beautiful place. This was my first time on a trip to an island, and I absolutely loved it. The Andaman archipelago is dotted with several islands, 572 to be exact, with only 37 of them being inhabited by humans. The islands are home to some of the most glaring relics of British dominance over colonized India, as well as provide mesmerizing avenues for natural beauty with flourishing beaches, mangrove forests, lush green vegetation and surrounding it, a sea that seems to keep changing colour from emerald to blue to almost a thick black. It is this sight of black waters from ships that brought inmates to the Cellular Jail in colonial times that gives Andaman the name “Kalapani”.
The capital, Port Blair, lies in South Andaman and boasts of several museums showcasing wonders from the sea such as corals, shells and a million different kinds of fishes. The main attraction, though, is obviously the iconic Cellular Jail – a structure symbolizing the epitome of intolerance and cruelty that the British showed to Indian freedom fighters.
The Cellular Jail
The Cellular Jail is one of India’s greatest symbols of the freedom struggle. The Jail was used entirely to incarcerate political prisoners. It has seven wings radiating out from a central tower which was the only intersection. Each wing was three stories high and was lined with cells. A total of 693 prisoners could be kept in the Jail, with every prisoner in solitary confinement. The design was such that prisoners in one wing did not even know that more than two wings existed in the structure, and had no way to communicate with prisoners in any other wing. Their confinement was so well-guarded that the Savarkar brothers took two years to realize they had both been imprisoned in the same Jail!
Three of the seven wings remain standing today, along with the central tower and the gallows. These form a National Monument under the Government of India, the only testimony to any tangible evidence of persecution for thousands of patriots. The name of every prisoner has been etched on to the walls of the Central Tower to commemorate their sacrifice, and a torch burns bright every night and day to symbolize the immortality of their sacrifice. Most of the political prisoners who were jailed at Andaman were Bengalis, followed by Punjabi, Marathi, Tamil and North-West Frontier Province Bravehearts.
A light-and-sound show is organised twice every evening for tourists at the Cellular Jail which talks about the atrocities committed by the British at the Jail, the heroics of the prisoners, the tales of unconditional love and sacrifice for their motherland, and how despite all the subjugation, the prisoners at this fortification 1200 kilometres from the mainland managed to impact the Indian freedom movement and eventually contribute to its success in a significant manner. You are bound to feel a sense of pride and glory once you spend a little time knowing the incidents which happened within those walls.
The Deep Blue Sea
Travel between two islands via ferry or small steamers is fairly common. Some places, on the other hand, are only accessible by small speedboats which can accommodate 6-10 people. One of these rides took us to an island called Baratang – where you see a limestone cave, adorned with the typical stalactites and stalagmites in different shapes and colours. To get there, you have to cross a wide stretch of sea (about 30 minutes on a speedboat) following which the rickety, swirling boat suddenly cuts into a mangrove overgrowth with a very friendly “Crocodile-Infested Area” warning sign. What better way to ease your nerves as the waves sway your boat to alarming angles!
There’s also a queer phenomenon called a “Mud Volcano” which is like a really small volcanic structure with small amounts of liquid mud erupting from the top of the surface. This eruption is continuous, caused by gas trapped between layers in the earth. There’s apparently 11 such mud volcanoes spread over the Andamans, but the rest are in uninhabited zones.
The Beaches of Andaman
On our second night at the Andamans we stopped at this place called Mayabunder, very close to a couple of beautiful beaches called Amkunj and Mycedera. Both are rocky and rugged beaches with cliffs and boulders extending into the sea. (We later learned they weren’t exactly extending into the sea, all of that used to be land which is now engulfed by the ocean after the Tsunami.)
On the next day we drove to a small town called Diglipur in North Andaman. From here, a 20-minute speedboat ride takes you to two islands called Ross and Smith Islands. The beach at Smith Island was my most memorable experience from this entire trip.
Ross and Smith Islands are only about 200 metres away from each other. During low tide, the water between these two islands backs away, exposing a beach that is submerged at high tide. This beach thus boasts of an unprecedented phenomenon of beauty – it has the sea on both sides! You can literally dip your toes in the waters of the ocean, then take a dozen steps away from it only to find another sea waiting for you! I was captivated like I had never been before. The water on one side was rough with waves crashing into shore, while the other side remained comparatively calm and pristine. The water looks crystal clear as it laps up on shore. In the distance, it has a dazzling emerald hue, and when you look farther into the horizon the water turns dark blue. It is a magical feeling, sitting on the sand with the sun shining down on your back and strong gusts of wind wreaking havoc with your hair, and look forward to an infinity of changing colours.
The Andaman experience is by no means over. Stick with me as I come back with descriptions of the beautiful Havelock Island and the unforgettable experiences of scuba diving and snorkeling. There’s also the Chatham Saw Mill, which is an entire island dedicated to the manufacture of timber products and remains functional on a massive scale even today, more than 130 years since its establishment by the British. Don’t forget Ross Island, which was the British capital in the Andaman islands, and is today home to a variety of flora and fauna as well as relics of British lifestyle. Also, did you know that Nicobar is home to the only known tribe that has refused any contact with civilization even today?