ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLANDS
Andaman and Nicobar Islands (1,000 kilometers east of the Indian mainland) are a group of 572 islands (38 of them permanently inhabited) spread out in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, which are arms of the Indian Ocean and lie between India and Southeast Asia and Indonesia. The island arc for 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar to 240 kilometers from Sumatra in Indonesia. Some of the islands are heavily forested and have beautiful beaches. Some islands are no more than islets and rocky outcrops. State Tourism Website: www.andamans.gov.in
The Andaman and Nicobar are home to 350,000 people and are ruled directly by New Delhi. Most of the inhabitants are settlers from mainland India. Only a few indigenous tribe members remain. Democracy, economic growth and press freedom are largely absent here. The islanders elect only one official, a parliament member, and otherwise are ruled by bureaucrats from New Delhi. Some of the islands were devastated by the December 2004 tsunami. Some have also been heavily logged.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a Union territory of India. They covers 8,250 square kilometers (3,190 square miles), is home to about 380,500 people and has a population density of 46 people per square kilometer. About 38 percent of the population live in urban areas. The capital and largest city is Port Blair, with about 100,000 people.
Largely untouched by modern civilization, with the exception of Port Blair, and produced by volcanos millions of years ago, the islands are the home of five groups of Negrito aborigines, who are one of the last groups of people on earth to be exposed to the modern world. Of the two main groups on the island, one maintains minimum contact, and the other is still hostile to efforts to "civilize them."
Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. The principal crops are rice and coconuts; some sugarcane, fruits, and vegetables are also grown. Some islands have a large number of rubber plantations. There is little industry other than a sawmill and plywood and match factories, but the government is making plans to promote tourism in the islands.These plans include the construction of a 1,000-bed hotel, a casino, and duty-free shopping facilities in Port Blair.
Early History of the Andaman Islands
DNA evidence from the Negrito tribes of the Andaman Islands spans back 70,000 years and suggests they originated from people from Africa who migrated to India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia. DNA evidence also indicates that they are direct descendants of the first modern humans to leave Africa but lack a distinctive feature of Australian aborigines, another early group to leave Africa.
The Onge from the Andaman Islands carry some of the oldest genetic markers found outside Africa. The tribes of the Andaman Islands are believed to be related the Negritos of Southeast Asia and the Philippines (See Malaysia and the Philippines). Some scholars theorize that they arrived in the Andaman Islands from Burma or Malaysia at some time in the distant past by sea, or perhaps arrived from Sumatra by way of the Nicobar Islands. However there are no firm evidence to back this up and is regarded mostly as speculation.
Negritos on the Andaman Islands were first reported by Arab traders in 871 and Marco Polo, who never set foot on the islands, said its inhabitants were savages with dog teeth that killed outsiders. The only traders who came here early on were Malay and Chinese pirates on raids to claim Negrito slaves. Beginning in the 1700 the winds in the area began to change and a number of shipwrecks occurred in the area of the Andamans. Most of the shipwrecked sailors were killed, in some cases ripped "limb from limb and cast into the flames to destroy evil spirits."
The handful of undeveloped cultures that reportedly have never waged war includes the Andaman Islanders of India, the Yahgan of Patagonia, the Semai of Malaysia and the Tasaday of the Philippines.
Later History of the Andaman Islands
The history of organised European colonisation on the islands began when settlers from the Danish East India Company arrived in the Nicobar Islands in 1755. In 1756, the Danish colony in the Nicobar Islands named New Denmark and and later changed to the Frederick's Islands (Frederiksøerne). From 1754–1756 the islands were administered from Tranquebar (in continental Danish India). The islands were repeatedly abandoned due to outbreaks of malaria between 1759 and 1768, from 1787 to 1807/05, 1814 to 1831, 1830 to 1834 and gradually from 1848 for good. From 1778 to 1784, Austria mistakenly assumed that Denmark had abandoned its claims to the Nicobar Islands and attempted to establish a colony on them, renaming them Theresia Islands. Denmark's presence in the territory ended formally in 1868 when it sold the rights to the Nicobar Islands to Britain
The British arrived in the mid 17th century and established naval base and a penal settlement on Chatham Island which was later shifted to Viper Island. In the late 1700s and early 1800s the British made several unsuccessful efforts to pacify the Andaman islander so they could establish a safe harbor for vessels. In the 1850s the British opened a Devil's-Island-style penal colony intended for political prisoners and criminals serving life sentences at Port Blair on Chatham Island next to Great Andaman island. The Great Andamanese that lived in the area were pacified and even helped the British track down escaped convicts. Some tribes resisted but their bows and arrows were no match for European guns and cannons, which the Negritos had never seen before.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied the islands and bombed Negrito camps. The Andamans were the only part of India to be occupied by Japan in World War II. After Indian independence land-starved Indians began arriving en masse, bulldozing down rain forests where the Negritos made their home, harvesting timber and setting up farms. The islands became a Union Territory in 1956. That same year, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Act came into force; this act, designed to protect the primitive tribes that live in the islands, prohibited outsiders from carrying on trade or industry in the islands without a special license.
Impact of Colonization and Indian Government Policy on the Andamanese
In 1800, the tribal population on the Andaman islands was estimated to be around 3,600. By 1901, there were only 1,900 indigenous people. In the early 1980s there were 160,000 settlers on the islands but only 270 Andamanese (of these only the count of nine Great Andamanese and 98 Ongees were deemed accurate).
Some tribes have been wiped out completely. In 1975 there where only 24 members of one tribe, all of them mixed blood. It is difficult to estimate how many islanders there once were, but, like Indians in the America, most succumbed to European diseases, particularly small pox, measles, syphilis and ophthalmia (eye disease which blind many of them). They also have problems with goiter, bronchitis and hookworm.
In the 1950s a policy of protection was adopted towards all the tribal peoples in India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once wrote: "There is no point in trying to make them a second rate copy of ourselves...they are people who sing and dance and try to enjoy life; not people who sit in stock exchanges, shout at each other, and think themselves civilized." On the Andamanese Singh said that he had "never seen people so happy before." On one encounter with the Jawara’s women dances he said there was “an explosion of merriment that lasted for a several hours."
To make contact with the non-Westernized Andamanese Indian officials hired fiddlers to serenade them, used members of other tribes to tell them no harm was meant and left gifts on the beach like buckets, handsaws, household utensils, flashlights, matches and metal cups. The Andamanese were most interested in the metal items, from which they fashioned arrows, and indicated their willingness for friendship by leaving pig parts or arrows and finally swam to the boat with officials.
Assimilation, Outsiders and the Andamanese
In the 1970s, the Indian government began making more of an effort to assimilate the islanders and opened up the islands to outsiders. Some believe that the primary reason for this policy was to exploit the island’s resources. An effort to modernize the Onge in the early 1970s coincided with the opening of a forest reserve on their land to logging. The Onge were moved into houses with corrugated asbestos roofs in two settlements. These houses were not as cool as their traditional huts. They were also encouraged to take part in the money economy and work on palm oil plantations and buy goods from settlers.
Most of the outsiders have come from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Outsiders introduced smoking and drinking to the Onge. In some cases they sexually exploited their women. For the part, initially anyway, the outsiders didn’t like the tribal people and the tribal people didn’t like them. A marine biologist at Port Blair told AP, “There is an inherent mistrust and hatred for the tribals” among the mainland Indians. “But the tribals are a gentle, stoic people so they have quietly borne the discrimination.”
The Indian government has set up several social welfare and economic development organization to help the Andamanese. The Great Andamanese have the closest contacts with settlers. The Jarawas and Sentinelese remain hostile to outsiders. The Ongees are somewhere in the middle.
Many believe the Andaman and Nicobar islanders are being overwhelmed by outsiders. On the Onge, the anthropologist Madusre Mukerjee told the Los Angeles Times, “The children don’t smile. They were curious but also afraid. There’s a real sense that Onge are defeated and dying.” In 2002. the Supreme Court banned logging on the Andaman island but a great deal of illegal logging is reportedly still carried out.
Great Tsunami of 2004 in the Andaman Islands
The December 2004 tsunami that killed 220,000 people in Southeast Asia struck the southeast coast of India and hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands pretty hard. These island lie north of Sumatra and the epicenter of the earthquake, which was so powerful it shifted some of the Nicobar Islands 100 feet to the southwest. The tsunami ripped apart homes, tore up jetties, toppled coconut trees and smashed fishing boats. In some places there was so much damage simply figuring out how to dispose of the debris was a big problem. Many aftershocks occurred in the area which set off worries about more tsunamis.
As of late January 2005, 1,899 were confirmed dead and another 5,537 were missing on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Several entire communities were washed away Almost 300,000 of 356,000 people living on the islands were affected. More than 40,000 were left homeless and moved into refugee camps. 9,000 were evacuated to Port Blair.
Most of the damage was in the Nicobar chain, which lies closest to the epicenter of the earthquake. Katchal was the worst hit island. The island is barely above sea level and is believed to have been almost completely inundated by water. As of January 20, 4,310 of its 5,312 residents were missing. Another 345 were confirmed dead.
Thirty minutes after the earthquake in Sumatra Car Nicobar was struck by tsunami waves, which survivors said were 30 to 50 feet high. Car Nicobar is a flat island. Entire villages and an Indian Air Force base were swept away. An estimated 1,200 were dead or missing. A total of 102 air men at the base were killed, the majority swept out to sea. A distress signal sent from the base alerted government officials on the mainland that a tsunami hit the islands. Military planes were immediately dispatched to Car Nicobar but no one stopped to think that the tsunami was heading to the east coast of India.
The Katchal islands were devastated. Some villages were completely submerged and remained that way after the tsunami receded. The West Bay was partly submerged and surrounded by sea water. Many people were trapped there. Those that escaped negotiated some very difficult terrain. Large areas were described as slush. There was no safe drinking water. Survivors lived off bananas and coconuts.
People on the Andaman Islands
The native Andamanese and Nicobarese have been described as “arguably the most enigmatic people on our planet.” They are largely hunters and gathers that have many things in common with pygmies in Africa and Negritos in Southeast Asia and Oceania. The are short in stature have peppercorn hair, little body hair, dark skin and large buttocks—all features found among pygmies in Africa. They speak a language in the family of those spoken in Papua New Guinea and Polynesia. [Source: Raghubir Singh, National Geographic, July 1975; Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Most of the tribal people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are less than five-feet tall and wear only bark g-strings. Women are even shorter with "pert breasts," and "clad only in "tasseled belts of bark." They get almost all the food they need from the rain forest and never evolved agriculture. They are believed to have arrived on the Andaman Islands by dugout canoe.
Some of the Andamanese tribes have no concept of time, age or counting. One tribe never learned how to make fire until the concept was introduced by Europeans. When Europeans first arrived the only tools they possessed other than bows and arrows were digging sticks, stone scrapers and woven baskets. They apparently almost never started a fire from scratch; they kept an ember glowing all the time instead. After Europeans arrived they made arrowheads fashioned from metal they scavenged. Broken pieces of glass that washed ashore were used as razors.
Book: The Land of Naked People: Encounter with Stone Age Islanders by Madhusree Mukerjee (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003)
Andaman and Nicobar Tribes
Six different tribes live in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the largest being the Nicobarese. There are lesser numbers of Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas, Sentinalese, and Shompens in the dependency. Access to tribal areas is prohibited. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]
The term Andamanese was first used in 1908 to describe 13 distinct tribal group, each with a different dialect and geographical location. Today only four of these tribes remain: 1) the Ongees of Little Andaman Island (97 members in 2005); 2) the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island (32 members); 3) the Jarawas of the Middle Andamans (250 members); and the 4) Great Andamanese of Strait Island (50 members, down from 10,000 in 1789). There are also two tribes on the Nicobar Islands: 1) the Nicobarese (15,000 members) and 2) the Shompen (200 members).
The Great Andamanese have largely been assimilated. They have forgotten their own dialect and have abandoned hunting with bows and arrows. The used to eat roots, seafood, turtles and turtle eggs. Now they fish, hunt pigs with spears and mostly eat rice, pulses and bread—food usually associated with India. The tribe is linked with the Indian government: an Indian police officer, a wireless operator and a doctor’s assistant live on the island.
The Jarawas are isolated by topography and hostile to outsiders. Armed with bows and arrows, they fade into the jungle when strangers appear. They are almost naked. Men wear chest guards made of folded bark. Women dress in girdles made of leaves.
The Onge have traditionally been a rain forest people that hunted wild boar with poison arrows, collected jackfruit in the forest and gathered the honey of giant rock bees. They have been assimilated to some degree. Their village has a health center, schools, a police camp, electricity and a television set that receives one channel (a of the mid 2000s). Onge means "the perfect man" in the tribe's language.
Geography and Nature of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie in the Bay of Bengal closer to Southeast Asia than India but are Indian territory. The bigger islands have undulating topography and are covered with dense rain-fed, damp and evergreen forests with a variety of flora and fauna. , Thirty-seven of the islands are inhabited. About 550 of the 572 of the Andaman and Nicobar are in the Andaman Group. The smaller Nicobars, comprise some 22 main islands (10 inhabited). The Andaman and Nicobars are separated by the Ten Degree Channel which is 150 kilometers wide.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands contain two of the world’s 218 endemic bird areas. Over 270 species and sub-species of birds have been reported in these islands, 106 of them being endemic. The Andaman Wood Pigeon, Andaman Padauk and Dugong are the State Bird, State Tree and State Animal respectively. There are about 96 Wildlife Sanctuaries, nine National Parks and one Biosphere Reserve in the islands. These islands are affected by both southwest and northeast monsoons.
Coral Reefs: Andaman and Nicobar Islands is home to over 560 species of corals, with amazing color and diversity. Coral reefs cover about 2,000 square kilometers of the marine area of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, about is almost six per cent of the total area. The fringing reefs on the eastern side and the barrier reefs on the western sides make for a beautiful sight. In a typical reef, one will find corals, clams, sponges, snails, anemones, crabs, starfish, worms, shrimps and lobsters. You can also spot various species of fish like damselfish, groupers, surgeonfish and butterflyfish. Nemo Reef, off Beach No. 3 at Havelock, is one of the most popular with snorkelers and beginning divers. This shallow reef is mainly used for discovery dives. While diving, lookout for colorful schools of fish, shrimps, and sea cucumbers in the pristine blue-green water.
Mangroves of Andaman: Mangroves are trees and shrubs that grow in swamps and have adapted to the saltwater environment. These are abundantly found in Andaman. The Dhani Nallah Mangrove Nature Walk in Andaman is located around 20 kilometers from Rangat, an island in Middle Andamans. It has a long wooden walkway that meanders through the mangrove creek so that tourists can enjoy the biodiversity of nature here. It finally leads to a beautiful long beach called the Dhani Nallah, where Olive Ridley turtles gather and lay eggs. Yerrata, about eight kilometers from Rangat, also has large mangrove areas. To create awareness about mangroves, the Department of Environment and Forests has established a Mangrove Interpretation Center, which has attractive display panels depicting various species of mangroves found on these islands. A mangrove view watchtower has also been set up to provide a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.
Tourism in Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Laws prohibit foreigners and mainland Indians from visiting most of 38 inhabited islands. The Nicobars are closed to foreigners and only certain islands in the Andaman chain are open to outsiders. The laws are intended primarily to protect indigenous islanders for the influence of outsiders. Among the main tourist attraction in the islands that are open to visitors are coral reefs, mangroves, eco-friendly resorts, tropical rain forests, beautiful silver sandy beaches, serpentine mangrove-lined creeks, bountiful marine life, rare species of plants and animals, freedom fighting days’ and historically significant landmarks such Cellular Jail, Ross Island, Viper Island, Hopetown and Mount Harriet. Among the activities that one can engage in swimming, a variety of water sports, trekking, island camping, nature trail walking and scuba diving. State Tourism Website: www.andamans.gov.in
Visitors come the islands for their crescent shaped beaches, magnificent coral reefs, ocean-swimming elephants, mangrove forests and palm-lined rocky shores. One of the most popular tourist destinations is Wandoor National Marine Park, which stretches over 15 major island and several islets of the Labyrinth chain. It embraces white sand beaches, lush vegetation, coral reefs, mangrove swamps and marine water ways. Jolly Buou Island is fringed by isolated beaches and superb coral reefs. Glass bottom boats, which offer rides, magnify the coral about five times its normal size. Cinque Island offers good scuba diving and hiking.
Boeing 737's fly to Port Blair on the Andaman Islands from Kolkata (Calcutta) and Chennai (Madras). It is possible to take long walks on the islands. The beaches are narrow but the water is shallow next to the shore. Tourist sights include the historic Cellular Jail, the Anthropological Museum, the Chantham Saw Mill (where elephants are used), Bird Island, Mt. Harriet, Ross Island, Sippighta Farm, and Wandoor Beach, and the jungle headquarters of a former Scottish communist near Fort Blair. Some of the hotels have facilities for snorkeling surfing, scuba diving, sailing and deep sea fishing.
The food culture of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is refreshing and heavily dependent on sea. Seafood preparations dominate the culinary scene and fruits also make a popular part of the menu. One of the popular dishes one can try here is curried prawns, which is made of prawns caught fresh from the Bay of Bengal. The Andaman Island King prawns with red and yellow curry make for a hearty meal, along with the decorated grilled lobster that is flavored with parsley, butter, chilli flakes, cloves. These can be easily found in many local joints. Another must-try dish is biryani, which is made of marinated chicken or vegetable and basmati rice. These are layered to give a great flavor and topped off with saffron that enhances the aroma.
Activities in the Andaman Islands
Snorkelling And Scuba Diving are the among greatest attractions of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The best months for diving are from December to April. One can enjoy the underwater marine life and view the rarest of corals by snorkelling and scuba diving at North Bay, Carbyn's Cove, Chidiya tapu, Havelock, Jolly Buoy, Redskin Island and Ross and Smith islands. The coastal belt surrounding these islands is the abode of one of the richest coral reef ecosystems in the world and most of this area is still untouched by human activity. Many of the islands are surrounded by reef fringes, often several hundred meters wide and are separated from the shore by a lagoon of even width. Cinque Island is one of the best diving sites in the islands, with its clear emerald waters providing a visibility of up to 80 feet. The deep dive offers views of a variety of marine life, including black coral, and is ideal for the experienced diver. For others, there are trainers who can help you get the hang of the sport.
Deep Sea Fishing can be enjoyed in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, especially around the coasts of Havelock Island where fishermen have landed fish exceeding three meters in length. Some of the fish that have been caught here are black marlin, blue marlin, dorado and dogtooth tuna. The fishing community has a catch-and-release policy that helps preserve the aquatic fauna while letting visitors test their fishing skills.
Trekking and Hiking are popular activities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The trek from Mount Harriet to Madhuban is a gorgeous route where exotic flora and fauna can be seen. Tourists can also go trekking through the evergreen forests from Bamboo Flat to Mount Harriet. The Dhani Nallah Mangrove Nature Walk in Andaman is located around 20 kilometers from Rangat, an island in Middle Andamans. It has a long wooden walkway that meanders through the mangrove creek so that tourists can enjoy the biodiversity of nature here. It finally leads to a beautiful long beach called the Dhani Nallah, where Olive Ridley turtles gather and lay eggs.
Sea Plane Rides from Port Blair to Havelock Island are an exciting and lot of fun and take about 25 minutes. Flying and landing and taking off in the water is an exhilarating thrill. time and is a must-try on your visit to these islands. Parasailing can be enjoyed in the more developed resort areas.
Andaman Islands is comprised of 348 islands, which cover 7,464 square kilometers (2881 square miles) and are covered by tropical rain forests. The northen and central islands are hilly, while the southern ones are surrounded by offshore coral reefs and crisscrossed by tidal creeks. The islands are struck by both the southwestern and northwestern monsoon and thus receive rain ten months out of the year. The dry season runs from February to the end of March. The islands receive 275 to 455 centimeters of rain a year.
The Andaman Islands extend more than 354 kilometers (220 miles) between 10° and 14°N latitude and 92°12 and 94°17 E longitude. Of the 204 islands in the group, the three largest are North, Middle, and South Andaman; since these are separated only by narrow inlets, they are often referred to together as Great Andaman. Little Andaman lies to the south.
Little Andaman Island (about 120 kilometers from Port Blair) is located south of South Andaman Island. Known for white sandy beaches and beautiful waterfalls, it belongs to the Little Andaman Group and is separated from Rutland Archipelago of the Great Andamans by the Duncan Passage. Hutbay in Little Andaman is the island’s headquarter and main entry and exit point. White Surf Waterfall is about 65 kilometers from Hut Bay Jetty in a tropical rainforest. Whisper Wave, another waterfall, is about 25 kilometers from the Hutbay Jetty and a trip here includes a trek through beautiful rainforests. One can either cruise through the island creeks in a boat or opt for an elephant safari. This island is slowly gaining recognition as a surfer’s haven and there are small resorts that have surf camps, which rent out equipment near Butler Bay Beach, whose waves are ideal for surfing. It is a low lying island with rainforest and rare species of marine turtle.
Port Blair (a plane flight from the Indian mainland) is the capital and largest city in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, with about 100,000 people. Most traveler to the islands arrive in Boeing 737' flights to Port Blair from Kolkata (Calcutta) and Chennai (Madras). In the 1850s the British opened a Devil's-Island-style penal colony intended for political prisoners and criminals serving life sentences at Port Blair on Chatham Island next to Great Andaman island. There have been plans to construct a 1,000-bed hotel, a casino, and duty-free shopping facilities in Port Blair.
Port Blair has silver sandy beaches and several historical sights and serves as a gateway to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Eco-friendly beach resorts have been set up along the meandering coastline. These offer activities such as boating, swimming, snorkeling, sea cruises and sightseeing. The Aberdeen Bazaar forms the center of the town and is its cultural hub. Most of the restaurants and hotels are in this area. All entry and exit points from Port Blair are best accessed from this bazaar. The main bus station lies west of this bazaar and the airport lies towards the southwest. The main passenger dock for ferries, Phoenix Bay Jetty, is about a kilometer towards the northwest.
Port Blair has a lot of Tamil and Bengali population so the influence of both these cultures is clearly visible here. It is a quiet and serene place with very clean and clear waters that enjoys a pleasant climate. For those who enjoy long walks, there is a walkway along the sea and if you head far enough out of town, stretches of empty beach. Golgappa (puchka) sellers dot the roadsides seeling snacks made with spiced mashed potatoes, onions and tangy water. Sea Plane Rides from Port Blair to Havelock Island are an exciting and lot of fun and take about 25 minutes.
Sights in the Port Blair Area
Anthropological Museum is an ethnographic museum established in 1975. It showcases the four Negrito tribes of the Andaman: the Jarawas, Sentinelese, Great Andamanese and the Onges and two Mongoloid tribes of the Nicobar - the Nicobarese and the Shompens. Since these tribes maintain very little contact with the outside world, the museum is a great opportunity to understand their culture and lifestyle. The major exhibits including shamanic sculptures and Jarawa chest guards. This museum is closed on Mondays and government holidays.
Fisheries Museum (9 kilometers from Port Blair, near the Rajiv Gandhi Water Sports complex) is one of the most popular attractions in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is known for housing over 350 species of marine life found in the Asia-Pacific region. Parts of the museum feel like a biology laboratory as there are various installations of plants and animals. The museum houses live animals like crabs, sharks, starfish and huge table corals. Among the other interesting sights are life-size displays of a saw fish and dolphin, and the skeleton of a sperm whale. Taking pictures is prohibited inside the museum. The museum was partially destroyed in the tsunami but has been rebuilt since.
Rubber Plantations In Wandoor is a scenic place and the largest rubber plantation in the Andamans. Covering an area of about 931 hectares, it has around ten thousand trees and lies in the South Andaman region. One see thousands of golden rubber sheets and collecting jars fitted on each tree. A guided tour offers information on the process of converting raw rubber into sheets. The process called tapping involves the collection of rubber from trees. The rubber is then rolled into sheets through manual rollers. The whole procedure is interesting.
Chattam Saw Mill is one of the oldest and the largest saw mills in Asia. It was established in 1883 to meet the local requirements of sawn timber for construction works. The mill has witnessed a rich history and was damaged by a Japanese bomb that fell here when they were trying to invade the area. Today, the mill is managed by the State Government. As one nears the mill, one can see large wooden logs piled across the region. The mill also has a museum that exhibits wooden crafts made by skilful artisans. There are displays of some flora and fauna inside the museum as well. While visiting here tourists can witness the various manufacturing processes that used to convert heavy logs into small and intricate chunks of wood.
Nature and Wildlife Areas Near Port Blair
Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park (29 kilometers west of Port Blair) stretching over an area of 281.5 square kilometers and comprises open sea, creeks and 15 small and large islands. Tourists can view rare corals and underwater marine life through glass bottom boats and also go scuba diving and snorkeling. Private ferry operators give guided tours of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park from Wandoor. Tourists are also allowed to spend two and a half hours in Jolly Buoy Island or Red Skin Island as part of the conducted tours. It is advisable to take a packed lunch (along with water) before heading to the park. The Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park was created to protect marine life, especially sea turtles and corals.
Mount Harriet National Park (55 kilometers by road and 15 kilometers by ferry and a short trek from Port Blair) used to be the summer headquarters of the chief commissioner during the British raj. Housing the highest peak in South Andaman (365 meters), this place provides an ideal vantage point for the nearby islands and the sea. The park is spread over an area of 42.62 square kilometers and shelters diverse flora and fauna, including birds like Andaman treepie, Sunda teal, Nicobar megapode, Nicobar parakeet, Andaman black woodpecker, black-naped tern etc. One can also find king cobra, green sea and Olive Ridley turtles, Andaman cobra, robber crab, saltwater crocodiles, turtles and wild pigs. The complete area of the national park is spread over a cluster of hills on the eastern side of South Andaman. The park has been named after the wife of the superintendent of the Convict Settlement in Port Blair from 1862 to 1864, who discovered it.
Chidiya Tapu (28 kilometers from Port Blair) is an area of thick mangrove forests that host numerous species of birds. Also known as Andaman’s Bird Island, this This eco-park is situated at the southernmost tip of South Andaman Island. There are regular bus services from Port Blair to Chidiya tapu. In addition to being a birdwatching haven, this place is also popular for its picnic spots, trekking trails and sunset views. The biological park at Chidiya tapu, has rich and diverse flora and fauna. One of the main attractions of Chidiya tapu is its Sunset Point. Chidiya tapu also has a mini zoo.
Cellular Jail (100 meters from the sea at Atlanta Point in Port Blair) is a prison where Indians fighting for freedom from the British were exiled and incarcerated under very inhuman conditions. Now a national memorial, this colonial prison was completed in 1906. It is called cellular because it was constructed to host only individual cells for the purpose of solitary confinement. Originally, the building had seven wings, at the center of which was a tower with a large bell, manned by guards. Each wing had three storeys and each solitary cell was about 15 feet by about 9 ft, with a single window at a height of 9 feet. The wings were built like the spokes of a bicycle and the front of one wing overlooked the back of the other so there was no way a prisoner could communicate with another. Out of the seven cells only three remain today. The rest have been turned into a hospital and government offices. The cell in which freedom fighter Veer Savarkar (Vinayak Damodar Savarkar) was housed has his rough blanket, a bowl, his bare bed, etc., to show how the inmates lived. His cell overlooked the hanging yard, where prisoners condemned to death were executed.
This jail is now a place of importance for visitors seeking to understand that dark period in India's history and pay homage to the martyrs who suffered there. The Jail Museum is open from 9:00am to 12 noon and from 1.30pm to 4.45pm everyday except national holidays. A visit to the Cellular Jail is like reliving all the old Hindi classic patriotic movies, particularly Kala Paani. Considering its history you expect a dark and dingy jail but the complex you enter is a bright, sunlit courtyard. Walking through the cells and the hanging yard gives one goosebumps at the thought of how people were confined inside a place from where there was no escape. The sound and light show organised every evening is a crowd-puller and relives the history of the prison and its inmates. The emotive voice-overs by veteran actors like late Manohar Singh, late Tom Alter and late Om Puri, make the show even more poignant.
Cellular Jail was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Cellular Jail was constructed during the phase in Indian history when the discontent against the British rule was on rise which was evident through the various civil movements all over India. The colonial rulers were making desperate attempts to suppress the freedom spirit. They resorted to penal hardships which involved complete isolation on the remote area like Andaman along with the brutal physical tortures and brutal punishments as one of the ways to crush these uprisings. This isolation from each other as well as from the main land was intended to repress nationalist feelings amongst the prisoners and the people rebelling in mainland India. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]
“The design of Cellular Jail which included seven (now 3 standing) wings radiating from the central tower containing 698 cells as well as remains of execution room, fetters, crossbar fetters, neck ring shackle and leg iron chains bears the testimony to the ways of extreme solitary confinement and physical hardships that were resorted to suppress the Indian freedom movement by British colonial rulers. The jail became infamous for the inhuman treatment meted out to the inmates by the jail officials which was reinforced through the architecture based on the Separate System and Panopticon theories.
History of Port Blair and Cellular Jail
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The idea of establishing a permanent penal settlement in these islands was germinated in the minds of the British Rulers in 1857 to curb India’s First War of Independence. A Committee of experts visited the islands for a survey in December 1857 and submitted a report to the Government in January1858. The first batch of 200 convicts arrived on the island on 10th March 1858 under the overall charge of Dr. J. P. Walker. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]
“Though the First War of Independence was quelled, the flame for achieving freedom could not be suppressed. Soon, freedom fighters taking part in various movements including Wahabi Movement, Manipuri Revolt, and a large number of Burmese from Tharawadda against British rule were also deported to the penal punishment in the Andaman. The prisoners were initially kept in the open enclosures.
“As the time passed and the settlement grew in size, the authorities found it difficult to enforce strict discipline. A high security jail that could hold a large number in solitary confinement became necessary. A two-member committee headed by Sir Charles J. Lyall and Sir, A. S. Lethbridge visited Port Blair in 1890 and recommended the construction of penal facility near Port Blair. The construction of Cellular Jail building started in 1893 by the settlement order No.423 dated 13th September 1893. It was completed in 1905-06 using prisoners only as construction labour. The construction was carried out by the prisoners deported from the main land. Building material was brought in from Burma. The accommodation for the officers including Jailor and Assistant Jailors was provided within the building.
“The Japanese occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during World War II from 1942 to 1945. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose visited Cellular Jail as Head of the Provisional Government of India on 29th December 1943. He called it, Indian Bastille. The four out of original seven wings of the Jail had to be demolished after the damage during the earthquake in 1941. After Independence in 1947, many of the political prisoners visited the islands. Their association - "Ex-Andaman Political Prisoner's Fraternity Circle" put up a proposal to preserve remaining three wings. Then, Cellular Jail was declared a National Memorial by the then Prime Minister of India on 11th February 1979.”
Cellular Jail Facility
Originally, the building had seven wings, at the center of which was a tower with a large bell, manned by guards. Each wing had three storeys and each solitary cell was about 15 feet by about 9 ft, with a single window at a height of 9 feet. The wings were built like the spokes of a bicycle and the front of one wing overlooked the back of the other so there was no way a prisoner could communicate with another. Out of the seven cells only three remain today. The rest have been turned into a hospital and government offices. The cell in which freedom fighter Veer Savarkar (Vinayak Damodar Savarkar) was housed has his rough blanket, a bowl, his bare bed, etc., to show how the inmates lived. His cell overlooked the hanging yard, where prisoners condemned to death were executed.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Cellular Jail is a massive three-storeyed structure with seven wings of unequal lengths, radiating from a central watch tower, shaped like spokes of a wheel. The architecture of Cellular Jail was conceptualized on the basis of ‘Pennsylvania System or Separate System’ theory in which separate confinement is necessary for each inmate for complete isolation from other inmates. No communication of any kind was possible between prisoners in the same or different wings. The design of Cellular Jail is heavily influenced by ‘Panopticon’ theory where radiating wings allowed a single guard to keep watch on all the prisoners from the central tower but without the prisoner being able to see him. Prisoners deported to Cellular Jail for long term imprisonment for opposing British rule in India included eminent political convicts; revolutionaries. Therefore, the Cellular Jail was designed to check exchange of ideas and to enhance the penal character of the settlement so that it could be considered as next to capital punishment. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]
“The individual cells in the Jail are placed in one row along the 4’ wide verandah running the whole length of every wing. Each cell measures 13 1/2 ‘x 7’, secured by a heavy iron grill door with specially designed latch system. Confinement in the small cells gave this facility its name ‘Cellular Jail’. About 20,000 cubic feet of local stone and 30,00,000 bricks made by prisoners were used to construct the jail. The infrastructure for hard labour such as Iron grills, chains, fetters, shackles, flogging stands, and oil mills was brought from England.”
Hard Life in Cellular Jail
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Cellular Jail was designed to incarcerate the political prisoners in utter isolation to prevent exchange of ideas in order to suppress the increasing discontent against British Government in India. The isolation and hardships inflicted upon these inmates failed to curb down the freedom spirit and had to be closed down. The stories of atrocities against the inmates in Cellular Jail became stories of freedom struggle. They took no time to spread all over India and contributed to the nationalists sentiments against colonial rulers. The direct association of Cellular Jail with Indian Freedom struggle has been significant in the independence of India and establishment of the largest democracy in the world. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]
“In Cellular Jail, extreme solitary confinement of every prisoner was achieved through the layout based on ‘Separate System’. The influence of ‘Panopticon’ theory on the architecture of the Jail allowed British rulers to keep effective surveillance on the large number of inmates with less number of guards. The design based on the combination of the concepts involving isolation and effective surveillance through minimum labors resulted in the dreaded penal facility on the remote island to further isolate whoever attempted jeopardize British colonial rule in India in order to stop exchange of nationalist ideas. Infrastructure employed for physical hardships like gunny bag uniforms, working on kolhu (oil mill) as well as execution room, fetters, crossbar fetters, neck ring shackle and leg iron chains as part of brutal punishments points out to the inhuman treatment given to the prisoners. Such was the terror of the facility that it became famous as ‘Kala Pani’.”
“Other than isolation, the work quotas given to these prisoners were frequently impossible to complete within the time and the dire punishment followed for those who failed to meet them. Often punishment was inhuman. Torture and flogging were frequently resorted to on iron triangular frame, bar fetters, crossbar fetters and neck ring shackle.... unhygienic diet were other deterrents for those who refused to submit to the brutal wardens. No cells in the Cellular Jail had toilet facilities. The punishment varied from handcuffs for a week and fetters for six months to solitary confinement. Remoteness and terror of the facility gave it a name, ‘Kala Pani’ (Black waters).
“Distressed prisoners in Cellular Jail frequently rebelled against the tyranny of the jail officials. Mass hunger strikes were resorted to especially between 1932 and 1937. The last strike began in July 1937 continued for 45 day. The strike was terminated only on the intervention of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. The Government decided to close down the penal settlement and all the political prisoners of Cellular Jail were repatriated to their respective states on mainland India by January 1938.”
Islands Near Port Blair
Ross Island (right across Port Blair) is a small island, less than a square kilometer in size. Also known as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island, it served as a capital to the British from 1858 to 1941, when the Japanese occupied it and converted it into a Prisoner of War (POW) site. The main attractions are the remnants of a church, the chief commissioner's house, a cathedral and the graveyard of Britons. The Aberdeen jetty in Port Blair has ferries that take visitors to Ross Island everyday except Wednesday. A sound and light show narrating the history of the island and its many inhabitants gives a very informative insight into the part of history that the textbooks often miss. The tickets for the boat ride, island entry and sound and light show can be purchased from the reception counter of Directorate of Tourism. Ross Island was named after marine surveyor, Daniel Ross. It was renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island in December 2018.
Long Island (47 nautical miles from Port Blair) boasts rich marine life, scenic beaches, ancient caves, green hills and magnificent marine ecosystem. With its tropical and swampy rainforests, this place is a nice spot for birdwatchers. Lalaji Bay, a remote swimming and snorkeling spot in Long Island is the main attraction. One can take a boat from the Rangat Jetty to reach this beach and the ride, which cruises through scenic mangroves, takes around 90 minutes. Concrete footpaths connect different parts of the area and islanders and tourists cover most of the island by walking on these tree-lined trails. Exclusive beaches, caves, lush green tropical forests and hills, mangroves, etc., are some of the places of tourist interest.
Havelock Island (39 kilometers northeast of Port Blair) is a popular tourist destination with three major beaches — Radhanagar Beach, Vijaynagar Beach, Elephant Beach — as well as clear blue waters, lush forests, rich coral reefs and multi-colored aquatic life. One of the more populated islands in the Andaman Group, it covers an area of 113 square kilometers. Radhanagar Beach, on the south coast, is about 2 kilometers in length and is popular for its white and very fine sand. It is so beautiful and clean that just walking on the beach with the water swirling at your ankles can put both your mind and body at rest. It has been rated as one of the best beaches in Asia by the TIME magazine.
Vijaynagar Beach, on the east coast, is a white stretch lined with mahua trees, whose trunks grow in a tangle on the ground for many feet before they rise up vertically. The beach is ideal for swimming and watching marine life. Kayaking, birdwatching and trekking are some of the other activities one can engage in. Elephant Beach is perfect for snorkeling because the shallow water brings the coral reef very close to the surface. Kalapather Beach, about 12 kilometers from the Havelock jetty, remains largely unexplored and is perfect for those seeking to unwind while lazily watching a sunset. The rocks on the beach are all black in color.
Barren Island: the Home of South Asia’s Only Active Volcano
Barren Island (135 kilometers northeast of Port Blair) contains India’s and South Asia’s only active volcano. Situated on seismically active area in the Andaman Sea, the island can only be seen from afar while on a ship as no one is allowed to disembark on the island. Barren Island is a craggy rocky island, about 3 kilometers in diameter. The volcano erupted in 1991 and then again in 1994-95 and most recently in 2017. About a half kilometer from the shore, the crater of the volcano often spews smoke and occasionally lets out bursts of light in the sky. Travelers can view the volcano from a cruise ship with deck chairs near the bow. The island is uninhabited. The volcanic island is uninhabited and the northern part of the island is, as the name suggests, barren and devoid of vegetation. Citizens of India can visit volcanic island by chartered boats after obtaining permission from the Forest Department in Port Blair.
The Barren Island volcano is the only active volcano along a chain of volcanoes from Sumatra to Myanmar. The island covers an area of 8.34 square kilometers (3.22 square miles) and 3.4 kilometers (2.11 miles) long and 3.1 kilometers (1.93 miles) wide. The coastline extends for 12.38 kilometers (7.693 miles). The volcano is 354 meters (1,161 feet) high. The Andaman Basin is an active back-arc spreading basin and is known for its strong seismicity and many submarine volcanoes and hydrothermal activity. Indian scientists surveying the Andaman Basin have identified many small submerged volcanoes. These volcanoes have been formed due to the rising magma formed deep in the mantle due to the melting of the subducted Indian Ocean plate. A few of these submarine volcanoes have been dredged for samples and pumice has been recovered.
The first recorded eruption of the volcano dates back to 1787. Since then, the volcano has erupted more than ten times. Eruptions were recorded in 1789, 1795, 1803–04, and 1852. After nearly one and half century of dormancy, the island had another eruption in 1991 that lasted six months and caused considerable damage. The 1991 eruption was particularly harmful to the island's fauna. Scientists who visited the island after the eruption found that the eruption had reduced the number of bird species and their population. The team only observed 6 of the 16 known species of birds on the island. Eruptions in 2005–07, the latter considered to be linked to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. A Lighthouse that was established on 1993 was destroyed by the recent eruptions.
A team from the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) spotted the volcano erupting on 23 January 2017. Abhay Mudholkar, the head of the team, said, "The volcano is erupting in small episodes of about five to ten minutes. During the day, only ash clouds were observed. However, after sundown, red lava fountains were spewing from the crater into the atmosphere and hot lava flowed streaming down its slopes."
Baratang Island and Its Mud Volcano
Baratang Island (between South and Middle Andaman) has beautiful beaches, mangrove creeks, mud-volcanoes and limestone caves. The limestone caves can be explored with the permission of the Forest Department at Baratang under proper local guidance. From Baratang Island (Nilambur Jetty), the limestone caves are about a half an hour boat ride through a wide creek, which leads to Nayadera Jetty and a further one and a half kilometer walk through the tropical forest.
The boat ride that connects the location of these caves with Baratang Jetty passes through a narrow mangrove creek. Massive sedimentary limestone formations can be seen in the caves, some of which are hanging from the top and others are growing from the ground. Interestingly, these caves are constantly evolving in shape and size! There is also a small uninhabited island located near Baratang Jetty, best visited in the evening to see thousands of parrots descending every evening, earning it the name, Parrot Island.
The mud volcano, which is formed by natural gases emitted by decaying organic matter underground, is accessible by roads leading from the Nilambur jetty. As the mud is pushed upwards by the gas, it deposits and hardens above the ground. As more mud oozes out and spills over the edge, it grows in size, gradually forming a miniature volcano with a rich and creamy mud crater at the top. These mud volcanoes have erupted sporadically, with recent eruptions in 2005 believed to have been associated with the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. The previous major eruption recorded was on 18 February 2003. The locals call this mud volcano Jalki.
Nicobar Islands (150 kilometers south of Port Blair) is a group of islands with a land area of 2,022 square kilometers. They extends for 262 kilometers. The principal islands are Car Nicobar (north); Kamorta, Chowra, and Nancowroe (center); and great and Little Nicobar (south). About 40,000 people live on the islands. Car Nicobar is the only island with a large town
The islands are flat and have fertile soil and receives 230 to 330 centimeters of rain a year, There are dense forest and coconut, betel nut trees, panadus, mangoes and csuarina. The islands lie a major falt lines and are occasionally rocked by large earthquakes. Cat Nicobar is off limits to foreigners.
The Nicobars extend south from the Andamans between 10° and 6° N latitude and 92°43 and 93°57 E longitude. Of the 19 islands, Car Nicobar, holds more than half the total population; The largest, Great Nicobar, 146 kilometers (91 miles) northwest of nw of Sumatra, is sparsely populated.
Neil Island (37 kilometers south of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) is a tiny island and beautiful, remote place with unexplored coral reefs, magnificent bio-diversity, deserted sandy beaches and tropical forests and vegetation. Neil Island produces fruits and vegetables, earning it the epithet of vegetable bowl of the Andaman. The widest part of the island is about five kilometers. It takes about two hours to see the island end to end. Jet-ski rides and scuba diving can be enjoyed. Glass bottom boat tips and cruised to natural rock formations are offered. For fishing enthusiasts, many organizations offer guided fishing tours with professional equipment.
Among the main tourist spots are: Bharatpur Beach with coral reefs full of tropical fish; Sitapur Beach for its impressive sunrise; Laxmanpur Beach for its sunset view; Howrah Bridge for its natural rock formation accessible at low tide; Neil Kendra village for its curving, sandy bay dotted with boats and Sir Hugh Rose Island, also called Chotta Neil or Small Neil that is a sanctuary for turtles.
The secluded beach of Laxmanpur in Laxmanpur village, lies 2 kilometers north of the Neil Island jetty. The beach is carpeted by white shell sand and has shallow water, making it ideal for snorkeling and studying the coral reef. Visitors can find several corals and sea shells that can be collected as souvenirs scattered across the beach. A natural rock formation at Laxmanpur Beach is locally known as the Howrah Bridge. The best time to visit the place is during low tide as the retreating sea leaves behind many secrets from its treasure trove.
This is the beach where one can often see fishermen setting sail in their boats to earn their daily living. Laxmanpur Beach is much larger and longer than Bharatpur Beach, located nearby. One should ideally plan a trip between the months of December and May, as the archipelago enjoys pleasant weather during this time.
Narcondam Island (240 kilometers northeast of Port Blair was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Narcondam Island is a 6.8 square kilometers oceanic island of volcanic origin located about in the Andaman Islands. Narcondam is unique for the occurrence of the endemic Narcondam Hornbill (Aceros narcondami), which is found only in Narcondam. This Narcondam hornbill has the smallest range among the 31 species of Asian hornbills. The species is recognised as endangered in the IUCN Red List. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]
“The stratovolcanic Narcondam Island represented with porphyritic dacite, amphibole–andesite and andesite, is a dormant inner arc volcano of the active Andaman–Java Subduction Complex in the Andaman Sea, and an outstanding example representing major stages of earth's history, with significant geomorphic features.
“Narcondam is an outstanding example of ongoing ecological and evolutionary processes. The Narcondam Hornbill evolved as an endemic because of the isolation provided by the island. In addition to the Narcondam Hornbill, the island also provides habitat for the Andaman Scops Owl, Nicobar Bat, Andaman Dwarf gecko and Andaman day gecko, all of which are species endemic to the Andaman and Nicobar group of islands.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020