The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 8, 2001

Andaman & Nicobar islands: Multi-hued Kala Pani
Minakshi Chaudhry

ANDAMAN and Nicobar islands are popular for their exquisite, untouched beauty and famous for a history of pain, terror and, ultimately the death of hundreds of patriotic men.

Colourful marine life and underwater corals make for a pretty picture
Colourful marine life and underwater corals make for a pretty picture

These islands, popularly known as Kala Pani from the days of the erstwhile British Raj, are now one of the most sought-after destination for foreign and Indian tourists. Being quite far from the mainland, (it takes nearly three days by ship both from Chennai and Kolkata) they still retain the unspoilt charm that nature’s benevolence had showered on them.

Unlike Goa, which is more a commercial tourist spot, these islands with their clear beaches, dense tropical forests, and flowers of every colour beckon eco-friendly tourists. A group of 572 islands, known as the emerald isles, are located in the Bay of Bengal. They are spread over an area of 8,249 sq km. Of the 36 inhabited islands, 24 are in Andaman and 12 in Nicobar district.

In the early 18th century, Andaman and Nicobar Islands were owned by Kanhoji Angre, the Maratha Admiral whose Navy frequently harassed and captured the British, Portuguese and Dutch merchant vessels. In 1713, Angre captured the yacht of the British governor of Bombay and was released after the delivery of ransom of powder and shot. Angre remained undefeated right up to his death in 1729, despite several combined attacks by the British and Portuguese.

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The islands were finally annexed by the British and the first settlement took place in 1789 at Ross Island. But this settlement was abandoned in 1796. Ross Island is located at a strategic location, merely a 21-minute boat ride away from the Phoenix Bay Jetty of the capital seat of power, Port Blair.

This island is one of the main attractions. A small museum, Smritika, is located here, showcasing the past glory of the seat of power.

Following the first War of Indian Independence in 1857, the British India Government founded the penal settlement in these islands in 1858 for the transportation of mutineers, political prisoners and dreaded criminals from the mainland. This settlement continued till World War II. During the war, the Japanese forces occupied the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The occupation ended with their surrender before the Allied Forces. Later, the islands became a part of independent India.

One of the islands with a sand beach
One of the islands with a sand beach

Sunset at Chidia Tapu
Sunset at Chidia Tapu

You can find Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists living in the same locality. A majority of settlers in the islands are Tamils, Bengalis, Punjabis and people from Myanmar and esrtwhile East Pakistan.

Original inhabitants of the islands comprise six tribes that are divided into two categories. The first group is of Negroid stock that includes the Jarawas, Ongies, Sentinelese and Andamanis. The other two tribes, namely Shompens and Nicobarese, are of Mongoloid origin. The Jarawas and the Sentinelese have not yet learnt the concept of covering their bodies.

Indians do not require a permit to visit the Andamans. Permits are needed for visiting Nicobar Islands from the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Port Blair. However, foreign tourists are required to have a permit to visit and stay in the Andaman and the Nicobar Islands .

Port Blair is connected by air from both Chennai and Kolkata. It is a two-hour flight from both places. Indian Airlines and Jet Airways operate flights to the isles regularly. Jet Airways flies daily to and from Chennai. It is advisable to book tickets in advance. The capital town is also connected by sea to Chennai, Kolkata and Vishakhapatnam. In a month there are four sailings from Chennai, two from Kolkata and one from Vishakhapatnam.

The ideal season to visit is from October to March.

Cellular Jail, Port Blair
Cellular Jail, Port Blair

These isles offer a rich and wide variety of attractions. Beautiful beaches and creeks, marine life and underwater corals, turtle nestling grounds, bird-watching, water sports, adventure sports like snorkelling, scuba diving, trekking and island camping are just a few offerings.

The Cellular Jail, for which the islands are popularly known as Kala Pani, was built by the Britishers in 1906. It was a seven-pronged structure having a dominant central tower with a honeycomb of corridors. In all, there was 696 small cells of to keep the prisoners in solitary confinement. The great patriot, Veer Savarkar, spent 10 years in one of these cells. The confinement was such that he came to know after two years that his brother Ganesh Savarkar was also in the Cellular Jail. Today, only three prongs are left standing — a crude witness to the inhuman torture and horror inflicted on the freedom fighters by the British rulers during the colonial period.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose unfurled the Tricolour near the jail on December 30, 1943, and declared Independence. The excursion trips around the capital include Harbour Cruise and a visit to Ross Island; Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Wandoor; Chidia Tapu and Mount Harriet. A trip to Cinque Island, Neil Island, Havelock Island, Rangat, Mayabunder; Diglipur, Barren Island or Little Island has to be planned.

The Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Wandoor, 29 km from Port Blair, is spread over an area of 281.5 sq km and include 15 large and small Islands. It is an abode of magnificent coral reefs, colourful marine life and dense mangrove forests. Ferries to Jolly Buoy Island are taken from Wandoor Boats with a glass bottom and are the best way to see the colourful marine life, including the corals. Snorkelling equipment is available at reasonable rates on hire and you do not need to know swimming for it. Guides who can assist you are also available.

A visit to Cinque Island is a memorable experience. The best part of this island, which has been declared a sanctuary, is the unique sandy beach with a sand bar that connects the islands of north and south Cinque. No regular boat service is available, so chartered boats have to be hired.

Chidia Tapu or the Bird Island is located some 25 km from Port Blair. The small park on top of a hill offers a bird’s eye view of isolated islands and the picturesque sunset.

The Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park is worth a visit
The Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park is worth a visit

Both Neil and Havelock Islands (36 km and 54 km from Port Blair, respectively) are popular for their clear blue beaches and are definitely worth a visit. On Sundays, there is special day-long, to and fro, trip to the Havelock Island. It takes nearly four hours by ship to reach Havelock from Port Blair.

Rangat, 170 km from Port Blair is known for the Curtbert Bay beach, which is a nestling ground for turtles. During the nestling period during January-February turtles of varied size come out on the beach in large numbers and watching them is a pleasure.

Mayabunder is 242 km from Port Blair and it takes an adventurous, 10-hour-long bus ride through middle Andamans. The fascinating tropical forest lush green numerous villages and the ferry ride is an enthralling experience. The territory of Jarawas a ferocious tribe that means "other people" has to be crossed with police protection. There is a beautiful beach at Karmatang. Mayabunder is inhabited by people who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan, Burma and ex-convicts.

About 40 km from here by sea is Diglipur. Andaman’s only river, Kalpong, flows from here and this place is popular for its exotic rice, juicy oranges and marine life.

India’s sole active volcano is situated at Barren Island. This volcano erupted in 1991, after remaining dormant for 177 years. One can visit this place by special boats that are not allowed to land ashore.

Nicobar consists of a group of 28 islands in an area of 1841 sq km. Indira Point in Great Nicobar Island is the southern-most tip of India (not Kanyakumari, as is generally considered). Dark, crab-eating monkeys are a common sight here. This island is famous for the Megapode — a rare bird —and is also the nestling ground for giant leather back turtles. It has a biosphere reserve area and it takes more than 60 hours to reach here by sea from Port Blair.

At Car Nicobar Island, you can catch the colour of nature in its primitive glory. Coconut palms swaying in the fresh breeze and unbelievably clear golden sand beaches enthral one. Huts built on stilts which have an entrance through a wooden ladder are a unique feature. It takes about 16 hours to reach here by sea from Port Blair.

Taxis, bicycles, mopeds and local buses are easily available for commuting in the islands. Andaman is a friendly tourist destination with spell-binding beauty and welcoming people. The accommodation is reasonable and food is good and inexpensive by north Indian standards. The best places to stay are the hotels and rest houses built by Andaman and Nicobar Tourism. These are located at beautiful places and both AC and non-AC rooms are available at reasonable rates.