Pearls in a Sea of Blue
With shimmering turquoise waters fringed by luscious fauna and sun-toasted beaches that melt into purple sunsets – the far-flung Andaman Islands are a perfect respite from urban clutter
Out in the brilliant blue waters of the Arabian Sea lies this Indian archipelago, collectively known as the Andaman Islands – a group of beautiful islands which the British made the headquarters of the penal colony they had constructed in India. So you have Port Blair, Havelock, Neel and Ross islands, which are very often visited by Indian tourists who are enchanted by the open places where you can see the sea and feel its tranquility. Yet, it was not always like this
These islands were occupied by the British back in the late 1780s. Ross Island (lately renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island) became the administrative headquarters and remained so until the massive earthquake of 194. The remnants of an opulent past can be seen in the ruins of the bazaar, bakery, stores, water treatment plant, church, tennis court, printing press, secretariat, hospital, cemetery, swimming pool, the Chief Commissioner's residence with its huge gardens and state grand ballrooms, the Government House. They certainly knew how to make themselves comfortable!
The rooms were built by Indian political prisoners from the mainland, who were kept hungry and chained to each other to dredge the marshlands around so walls could be built. After they did their stint, they were sent off to Viper island which was the official prison and hanging place. One of the most amazing sights in Viper island is the one square foot wooden beam which was used for hanging – no termites, no overgrown foliage in or around it, while the rest of the islands are all overtaken by vegetation!
The Cellular Jail at Port Blair and its seemingly endless cells can make you relive the horrors our revolutionaries endured to give us the freedom we cherish today. Viper Island and Ross Island are great points of interest, if you are a history buff. Havelock island(now renamed Swaraj Dweep) is a little paradise.
The Cellular Jail is now a national museum that is open to the public from 0900 hrs in the morning till 1700 hrs in the evening. Then all visitors are asked to leave before the show begins.
There are two shows everyday, one at 6pm and the next at 8pm. The open air auditorium seats approximately 500 people. It makes good sense to have your tickets booked early if possible.
The central courtyard you face as you settle down for the show, was for public flogging for any 'upstart' prisoner who refused to eat or generally disobeyed orders. In the courtyard, there is a long rectangular tiled cottage-like structure, which is not as innocuous as it looks. When you step inside, you are told that the prisoners were tied to a primitive machine to extract tons of oil from the unending supply of coconuts. Visualise if you can, human beings tied where oxen are normally, pushing and pulling to do the extraction. If you did not complete your quota for the day, you were likely to be tied to the post and flogged at the courtyard.
When you listen to the heart rending sound and light show, you are reliving history: You have to laud the attempts of the political prisoners who wanted decent food without stones and weevils. You have to salute the courage of all those Indians who were imprisoned for a single cause – the freedom of the country!
You come away overwhelmed! As a soldier's wife, I had this surge of patriotism and gratitude to all those who got us our precious freedom.
At the Rajiv Gandhi sports complex, you can ride a water scooter as fast as you want; take a shot at water skiing and parasailing. If you are truly brave and have no problems of blood pressure or have had no heart surgery, then a walk on the sea bed is an exhilarating experience like none other!
For sea bed walking, you have to take the ferry out of the water sports complex towards the North Bay, where you see a fixed platform. You walk up the steps of the floating deck of Sea Link Adventures and strip down to swimsuits – a heavy pressurised oxygen mask rests on your shoulders and then you get off the deck and slowly step lower and lower into the sea. The ears block up and since you have been told how to unblock them, you descend even lower till your feet touch the ground! Unusual, to say the least!
This is a full day's trip because the ferry from Port Blair takes six hours to reach Havelock Island, which is a really peaceful place – lots of white sandy beaches, comfortable cottages and plenty of fish to eat. We chose to spend two nights at the Havelock Beach Resort, which was a comfortable walk away from the Radhanagar Beach, which has been voted by Time magazine as 'Asia's best open expanse of soft sand under your feet' – dig in and watch the sun setting in the midst of grey clouds while people turn into silhouettes! It was restful to watch everyone watching the sun set into the sea! A collective sigh went up from the crowd when the golden orb finally settled into the sea.
See if you can fit in snorkeling at Elephant island which is an amazing place, only a short boat ride away. You look down into the sea and you can see the most colorful corals even before you have stepped out of the boat. It is an amazing place where the trees that were uprooted in the tsunami of 2006 are still lying – people are using them to dry out their clothes! The water is crystal clear and the young Bengali boys are ready to take you snorkeling even if you don't know how to swim! For a non-swimmer like me, it was an exhilarating experience!
You can catch the evening ferry back to Port Blair and get dazzled by the setting sun.
After Independence, Pandit JawaharLal Nehru felt that the Jail should be razed to the ground but a group of young Bengali freedom fighters who had been incarcerated in the Cellular Jail, petitioned the PM to preserve the jail as a national memorial, on the lines of the Bastille in France.
The Cellular Jail is a forbidding structure which was commissioned in 1896 and was finally completed in 1906. It consisted of seven wings, fanning out in a circle and no two wings faced each other. Each wing had a 100 cells and the prisoners were kept in isolation so that communication was minimal. It was built by the Indian prisoners themselves who were at that time imprisoned on Viper island.
Skin care: Those with sensitive skin need to take precautions – lots of sunscreen, hats and scarves please!
Best time to go: Between December and March.
How to go: You can catch a flight from either Kolkata or Chennai. SpiceJet , IndiGo and Jet Airways have regular flights from both cities. IndiGo now has a direct flight fro
m Hyderabad to Port Blair
What to eat: Fresh coconut water. They are sweet, cheap and filling – I made lunch of one whole coconut by myself! Of course, you have to eat fish!