Coral past and present: The Andamans (part1)

Ross island path-wm
The path on Ross island, where the British and European infantries had barracks
Commissioner's bungalow tiles-wm
Chief commissioner’s bungalow that was.. note the tiles, Ross island

If you are an anthropologist, or if you are a student of colonial rule and its effects on the natives, or someone into scuba diving, or maybe someone in love with corals, or simply someone who likes the wild and untamed: the Andaman and Nicobar islands archipelago must get on your radar, if it isn’t already. This is a place with mysterious ties of human society’s evolution to the sea and the forests. More recently in history, this is the place where Indian freedom fighters were sent to prison, and as August 15th, our independence day approaches, this place will remind hundreds of visitors of the sacrifice and more importantly the ardor, Indian freedom fighters had for Indian sovereignty. A sovereignty that is once again in dire straits as we remain spectators. But this is not about modern Indians. This IS about the Andamans..

Early this year while planning my trip to India, my dad told me that we would be going to the Andamans and I could do the pick the type of trip I wanted once I got there. These days he always tries to make the India trip sound enticing. The Andamans is a popular destination for all Bengalis, if not all Indians, being in the Bay of Bengal, a short flight or even not so long sail from Kolkata and full of British Raj History and close-to-home food. Naturally, it is one place my dad has always wanted to see and I have always been intrigued by. He had decided that we would take one of the package tours offered by Thomas Cook, an international travel company quite popular in India. In India, people rarely use large touring companies and only do so for remote destinations: like the Andamans. Thomas Cook is perhaps the oldest, multinational, travel company in India (or the only one we had heard of while growing up).

Picking a tour

Thomas Cook has several types of tours of varying length (2-3 days to 7-9 days) that can cater to beginner divers or casual travelers. Avid divers would probably be better off choosing their own times and not go in package tours, or go with specific diving companies and pick Neil and Havelock islands only (many threads on trip advisor).  This post is more for the casual, interested traveler and the packages cost between 25-40K rupees, depending on time of year and length of stay (in 2017). I should mention that while it is unlikely to be on the list of birders, on account of being remote and lacking any real kind of real publicity, it SHOULD be on their list though and while it will be far from convenient birding, there is a well-known birder who lives in Port Blair and does take people on birding tours at a very reasonable cost, by international standards. I hope to be able to return to do this, at some point and for more information on that, Nikhil Devasar of Enchanted India would be a great source and tour operator, he seemed like someone who knew his stuff. The scanty information of the birds found there is still enough to let one know that our lives will not be the same once we see some of them! And that, is the point. Isn’t it?

I chose a tour that did the obligatory Port Blair tours with the cellular jail tour in the morning and light and sound show (ONLY available in Hindi) in the evening, some anthropological and some natural history museums. Along with the Ross islands, North Bay and two days in Havelock island.

Transport and Accommodation

Port Blair is pretty easy to reach, by sea or air. Flights are not that expensive, in Indian currency and in the package tour the flight cost is included. In the package, there was an option of a private vehicle, and I took it because I imagined I may need to stop between for photographs and also because, I always like to talk to a local. Of course, not having to spend mental power on small talk is always a big plus for me, I am so out of touch! So, once at the airport, we were picked up by our local driver, John. Unlike in other tours that I have been to, we didn’t actually have the car with us the entire time, he would drop us and do other routes and come back, so basically all our bags stayed with us, not in the car. He was great and knew a lot about local sites. The streets are narrow and winding and hilly, in Port Blair and it is India. But as usual, professional drivers in India are magic. The hotel we stayed in Port Blair (TSG) was sub par to say the least. The service was ok, the food was fine, just the rooms looked out to nothing or walls, were a little cramped and had dodgy internet (which I won’t normally use if there had been anything else to do there!). In between closer islands, we took ferries, that we usually had to stand in line or wait to board. It took long to very long  and for ones not used to the tropical sun it can seem longer, still. The best bet is to forget about time. All of them had life jackets and seemed to have at least average safety measures. One of the ferries did start letting out smoke while we were not that close to the destination  (North bay island). India, is a trip for the brave, and Andamans, no doubt, is a trip for the lucky and brave.

Travel tips: In India, if the plane is stalled on the tarmac for any reason, the toilets will not be open. So, it is best to use the facilities at least once during the flight, because planes get stalled for hours on end all the time.
The Andaman and Nicobar islands is an important military base for India, therefore,  I believe a special pass is needed to enter the islands for all non-Indian passport holders, please check on that before planning a trip.  Also, it has significant military personnel on every port of entry and even in between islands putting in all bags through X ray is needed, so travel light if traveling with seniors.

Tales and story

Our trip’s story actually began when three days before the trip, when my mom was bit by a street dog (feral dog). She was on her way to her yoga class and I was at home, I was supposed to have gone with her. She came back 5 min after leaving and I heard only part of the sentence that said ‘kutte ne kaat diya. a dog bit me..’. I thought I misheard, but I go in the door to see clear bite marks where her skin had broken. Only some blood, but that is still considered to require anti-rabies vaccine. I was walking through a cloud, yet happy that at least I was with her, when we got her first shot from a clinic nearby, the doc said 5 shots for a period of about 2 months. She would need a booster of -temperature sensitive vaccine shot, when we were in Havelock, a remote island (the Havelock island is in part 2).

After no other major incidents other than a little let down in terms of the hotel in Port Blair, our first destination was the Cellular jail. We had a guide who probably is a government employee go through the history and show us different points of interest in the jail. He went over the mental and physical torture that each ‘political’ prisoner went through, in the solitary cell and while being made to do hard physical toil of being yoked to grinding 30 lbs of oil from mustard seeds per a daily quota. The atrocious jailer: David Barry, who believed in flogging, manacles, and tortures that are most inhumane. In fact, on hindsight, the place where the prisoners were hanged or given their last rites may have been almost serene, compared to the cells- that had one wooden bed, 1 iron pot and pan for food and clay pot for toilet cleaned by the prisoners themselves, or the oil mill where they worked. Thousands of famous freedom fighters did their time in the cells, keeling over from exhaustion, malnutrition and disease and their names are listed on one of the walls in the central building. The wings of cells spread out like prongs from the center. The tended lawn and gardens and the monument for those who died in this prison, also called Kala Pani, not named for black colored water, but for death (‘kaal’, in Sanskrit), definitely mellow the otherwise starkly morbid monument.  I was not moved to the core by a nationalist fervor, I am with Tagore on that, but at the depths of cruelty, of tyranny, of how much loss can be incurred when nations, and individuals or groups start to believe in self-righteousness based on misguided sense of superiority. How low we can get in the rungs for sentient beings when our minds have been monkey trained to be impervious to other humans as long as we are certain that our purpose is bigger, better and above humanity: as a principle, a noun and even as a metaphor.

A statistic of life and death in the Cellular Jail
Cellular Jail from the top-wm
Cellular jail wings from the terrace
A cell in the Cellular Jail, you see all of it here
Last rituals site
Last rituals
Gallows, the ropes made of coconut shell thread was made by the prisoners themselves
Oil mill
A model of the oil mill to which the prisoners were yoked

In the evening light and sound show, Om Puri’s voice impersonates an old tree in the prison yard as he(it) told us about the individual freedom fighters like Savarkar, Mahavir Sigh who died while resisting being force-fed and the tyrant jailer Barry,  how Barry too suffered a painful death as some sort of pay back for his cruelties. I do believe that some people do get what they give out, but not often enough. Prisoners used to go on hunger strikes asking for some leniency in their condition, for medical attention, for being spared from flogging and this was after thousands of political prisoners had died during the building of this prison that started after the first mutiny in 1857. Killed by tropical diseases, attacks by the ferocious aborigines and later due to force feeding as they went on hunger strikes, in this land of untenable forest and sea. Of course, those ferocious aborigines were shown who’s d-man, and are mostly all close to extinction.

As we went to the anthropology museums and saw model displays of their homes, their customary outfits, with some photographs of the ‘civilized’ humans who found them and killed them by bringing flu, sexual contact and other diseases. These aborigines include the well-known and once hostile, Jarawas who are hunter gatherers who live in the protected reserve forest belt of south and Middle Andaman. They live in communal huts and use coral, palm leaves for clothing and ornaments and have a population of around 240, said the fading print on the undated boards containing information on these tribes. The other tribes are the Onge, the extinct Jangi and the soon to be extinct, the Great Andamanese, 43 of the remaining live on the Strait island; then the mysterious and hostile Sentinelese who are the only occupants of the Sentinel island and have a population of less than 39, if that can be called a population. The aborigines are believed to have reached from south east Asia and bear strong relation to Semangs of Malaysia and Aetas of Phillipes, and DNA analysis has revealed a direct connection to the pygmies of South Africa.  The Nicobarese have integrated with Indians who moved from the mainland. Finally, the Shompens are a tribe that live in the Great Nicobar island and are not hostile but keep to themselves, have polygamy and monogamy with the oldest male being the head of the tribe. They have a population of around 400. It is no longer possible to visit any of the locations where the tribes live without a permit and given the general paperwork involved in everything in India, I have no doubt that takes long-term planning and some serious reasons to visit. I obviously would like to go, if you are a certified anthropologist and can somehow take me with you to the tribal villages, then I will be your cook, cleaning lady and photographer, if you need one.

Deer in Ross island-wm
Where the tea parties happened in Ross island

Our original plans were changed as we visited the Ross island earlier than planned, I had been really looking forward to it because the entire island is basically ruins of barracks, and mansions and shops where the British personnel and military stayed to guard the Cellular Prison. The boat ride was not very long, however the stay was a measly hour and a half!! There was no guide available that day, apparently there is one some times though. There is a nice paved trail to walk on, even if it has quite a slope and despite the mansplaining ( I am going to abduct this term and use it anywhere I feel utter lack of insight, total overflow of callousness is displayed with pigheadedness) by that idiotic boat guy, an hour and a half is not nearly close enough for covering a whole  settlement! In a hurry, I decided on trying to get to the Commissioner’s bungalow which seemed promising and would also take me by the cafeteria, and the church. Our tour manager, Siddharth (a very pleasant guy perfect for the job) had told us that deer and peacock roam around the island and get quite close. I handed over my bag to dad, I probably shouldn’t have: it was heavy, but I couldn’t have carried it with me in the speed I was intending to run. And run I did.

peahen-correct wm

Church front-wm

Church corridor-wm
Church, engulfed

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The place didn’t disappoint, there were even signs to mark and explain the ruins, the baker’s in front of this island, also called the ‘Paris of the east’, held tea parties. The figs were taking over all the bricks and mortar in most of the buildings and really, I was in heaven, a sweltering one, but heaven nonetheless. I did make it to the bungalow and there was no one there, except a peahen. It was jutting into the ocean in the back, it had its own power house and its mosaic tiles reflected on what used to be. The Presbytarian church was taped off, but must have been a majestic one, with high walls and arches. Right in front of the church, I saw my first wild peacock since I bought the camera. He didn’t dance, but what a beauty. He and two peahens walked on the lovely trees and ruins as I tried to shoot in bad light. Came back to the boat on time, after persuading a nice guy with a DSLR to take a photo of me by the red wall of the bakers. He was most kind and wanted to change a lot of settings and took several shots. I hope his wife didn’t kill him later, because like I said, 1.5 hrs is all anyone got if they wanted to return to Port Blair.


Hospital in cellular jail-wm
Government hospital next to Cellular Jail, Port Blair

Port Blair is a gateway to wonderful natural history and a porthole looking at the past to find the acceptance and hope of a future, for everyone. The Cellular Jail was bombed by the Japanese in WWII and lost one of its wings. A government hospital has been built in its place and seems to be catering to a lot of patients. The prisons walls, painted several times over, bear witness to a colonial rule, by ‘outsiders’, who looked distinctly different. It should however remind us, that for outsiders to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty on our fellows, they needed tools: our minor differences, outrage at being deprived of entitlements, our inherent feelings of superiority and finally, our disregard of humanity. In the silence that followed when the screams of the tortured prisoners died off, part of the light and sound show, I knew that we don’t really need outsiders, do we.

And then I hear, Inqalab zindabad!










2 Comments on “Coral past and present: The Andamans (part1)

  1. Pingback: Coral present: The Andaman and Nicobar islands (part 2) – Implicit Self

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