Haunting ruins of Ross Island

During British rule, Ross Island in the Andamans boasted of luxurious amenities like clubs, dance halls, swimming pools, open-air theatre, and splendorous gardens. Today the island, reports Tanushree Podder, resembles a ghost town with crumbling structures and overgrown vegetation

When one has seen the blue-green water, the silver sands and the underwater treasure, what more could there be left to see, I wondered after I had covered half the Andaman Islands. I was soon to be proved wrong as I made my way to Ross Island. Even as the boat docked at the pier, I knew I had landed on an unforgettable atoll. Goggle-eyed, I trudged through the ruins of the once splendorous structures.

This tiny island with dense rainforest, intertwining creepers and mammoth trees was once the power centre of the colonial rule, and a symbol of opulent imperial lifestyle. Once, perhaps exaggeratedly, called the Paris of East, the island today has ruins of the edifices of the British haven.

The island once glittered with blazing lights, and had music emanating from dance halls. There were swimming pools, open-air theatre, water purification plant, ice-making plant, splendorous gardens and manicured lawns. There were tennis courts, no less than three clubs, a bakery, post office, bazaar, churches, shops, printing press, hospital and barracks for the troops along with bungalows for the officers. It was a thriving township that provided all the modern amenities of the 19th century.

The open-air theatre
The open-air theatre

Ross Island was the centre of administrative control, covering penal settlements, for the entire region. Named after the marine surveyor, Sir Donald Ross, the island was a tiny one but it was to change the course of history of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. With about 500 persons occupying the island of Ross, it was a very vibrant place that buzzed with activity through the day and the night. The harbour led to the main pathway on both sides, with important buildings lining it. On the pathways within the island operated heavy high-wheeled double rickshaws with iron tyres that were pulled and pushed by men dressed in red coats and pugrees. Evenings saw the elegant English ladies in their finery, walking along the promenade or crowding the tennis courts while some opted to take a dip in the swimming pool.

Factfile

Reaching Port Blair

Air: Indian Airlines and Jet Airways run regular flights from Chennai and Kolkata to Port Blair

Sea: Regular passenger ship services ply between Port Blair and Chennai(1190 km), Kolkata (1255 kms). Details are available from the offices of the Shipping Corporation of India. Ross Island is just 30 minutes from Port Blair through boats from Phoenix Bay jetty.

Accommodation

Overnight halt is not permitted on the Island. You have to stay at Port Blair. There are many government guesthouses and resorts at Port Blair which are reasonably priced. The Andaman Teal House, Forest Guest House, Municipal Guest House are some of these. They are excellently located. Reservations can be done from the Andaman Tourist Office. There are also several upper-end hotels like Sinclairs Bayview, Bay Island and Peerless Resorts.

Best Season: October to April.

Life was leisurely and grand, for the officers and their wives while convicts and freedom fighters of India struggled to keep the island spic and span, working tirelessly on the lawns and gardens, labouring ceaselessly to provide for the luxuries demanded by their rulers. Pictures of the past fill the small museum Smritika, run by the Indian Navy, which controls the island today.

Of the three clubs ó Settlement Club, Subordinateís Club and Temple Club ó the first one was meant for the exclusive use of senior officers and is situated at the most picturesque site on the Island. The Subordinate Club, for the junior commissioned officers and other ranks of the British troops, had a teak wood dancing floor and windows with stained glass imported from Italy. The Temple Club, named after Sir Richard Temple, was meant for Indian troops and was modest in comparison to the other two clubs.

Since the British suffered several kinds of diseases like malaria, dysentery and typhoid, which led to many deaths on the Island, they invested in water distilling plant and a mineral water plant. Today, these plants stand embedded in roots, their huge boilers lying forlornly by the side.

The Presbyterian Church stands high on the island, swathed in roots of ficus. Built of stone, the church once had windows fashioned out of Burma teak. The church overlooks the harbour, providing a lovely view of the area.

Another imposing edifice was the Chief Commissionerís Bungalow, which occupied the northern summit of the island. The large wooden, gabled structure had been floored with expensive Italian tiles at one time. Grand ballroom, drawingrooms, diningrooms and several bedrooms made up the magnificent house. The bungalow had been surrounded by gardens of amaltas, and yellow laburnum adorned the pathway. The luxuries within the compound included a private tennis court at the back, an aviary on one side and a palm house on the other. Pictures and descriptions of the bungalow, which also functioned as the Government House, are available at Smritika.

Besides the clubs, the swimming pool and the open-air theatre were popular evening haunts. The pool still remains in surprisingly good condition, its blue tiles standing out prominently. It is recorded that the pool was supplied water by the rains, which come in plenty in the Island. For those who enjoyed a bath in the seawater, a special pool with anti-shark netting was made close to the fresh water pool.

The Presbyterian Church Photos by the writer
ONE OF THE RELICS: The Presbyterian Church Photos by the writer

The end of the golden era of the island began in June 1941 when it was rocked by a severe earthquake. Deep cracks were spotted in many buildings and rumours that the island was sinking added to the woes of the residents. Exodus began in earnest when the World War II began. By the spring of 1942, the British had disbanded the penal settlement and abandoned the island, anticipating Japanese invasion. Surprised at the lack of resistance, the Japs landed on the island and the Japanese Admiral took up residence in the abandoned Chief Commissionerís Bungalow. It is recorded that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose also stayed in this bungalow when he visited Port Blair, in December 1943, where he hoisted the Indian flag for the first time.

The Japanese army built many bunkers, which still occupy vantage points in the island. But it wasnít long before the victors turned into the vanquished and the Andaman Islands came under British control once more. Japanese forces surrendered to the British on October 9, 1945, after being defeated in World War II. This time, however, the Chief Commissioner preferred to stay at Port Blair. Rumours of the island sinking contributed to the decision and Ross remained abandoned. Once feted as the Paris of East, Ross Island became a ghost town occupied by crumbling structures hugged by vines.

The haunting magic of the island threw me back in time, into another age and time. I walked towards the harbour with visions about the time when Ross Island was bubbling with activity. Even as I perched on the seat of ficus roots, mulling over the fate of the island, a beautiful spotted deer passed me by. I woke up from my reverie and walked down the lovely paths shaded by the looming trees, urged on by the call of the peacocks. Indian Navy to whom it was handed over in April 1979 now maintains the island. The place is getting a facelift, with a new population of about 350 deers and 70 peacocks residing amidst the ruins and the greenery.



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