Distant refuge of Gora Sahibs
K. Himmat Singh/Port Blair

This is the state of the “Paris of East” today
This is the state of the “Paris of East” today

Amidst the languid and idyllic tropical paradise of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands lies the almost hauntingly beautiful Ross Island. It is an 87-acre island where time stands still, where the sea breeze whispers about a bygone era of a debauched and charming walk down the Raj days, where sadness seeps through the decrepit ruins of a place once aptly called the "Paris of East".

In 1857, post the revolt; the British government established a penal settlement in the Andamans. Ross Island, named after the marine surveyor, Sir Daniel Ross, became the chosen place for the settlement of the Gora Sahibs for themselves as it had plentiful water and was located at a comfortable distance from the Aberdeen jetty of Port Blair (just one kilometre across) and the Viper Islands, where the "hardcore elements" from the mainland Hindoostan were sent to the infamous Kalapaani jails.

Life at Ross Islands, however, was another story! The 80-year saga of the British years saw no fewer than 25 Chief Commissioners starting with Sir Donald Martin Stewart ensconced in the "Government House" — a regal and towering structure embellished with the finest Italian tiled flooring and the most exquisite household finery.

Today, the ghost civilisation can be repatched along the elegant layout of what was once the Officer’s Mess of the famed upper lipped sahibs, the bakery which churned out the choicest of confections for babalogs, the rare padauk wood (used extensively in Buckingham Palace in London) floored ballroom, the mandatory bazaar and hold your breath, even an opera house for the sahibs & memsahibs!

For leisure, a clubhouse for the evening cuppa tea and de rigueur cucumber sandwiches, salt water swimming pool nestled between swaying palms, tennis courts, squash courts and oh so important, a croquet area for whiling away the lazy evenings.

Opulence even touched the godly matters in the form of a lovely church with its elegance personified, etched Italian glass murals!

The infrastructure onboard was replete with a granary, a desalination plant, boilers imported from the Queen’s very own England for running hot water, steam. And please note, even as early as late 1800s, ice-cream making facilities!

A rather gloomy and sad cemetery records the lives of the people dwelling then.

Today the ruins of the then-bustling cantonment of the Gora Sahibs on the verdant isles are just bricks and mortars under the shadows of humongous banyan trees, with their vines tightly and lovingly embracing and supporting the edifices and relics of the past — a silent and almost eerie reminder of the times that once existed.

Today, it is uninhabited hut for a small detachment of the Indian Navy and a not very small detachment of some deer (Spotted deer, introduced to the Islands by the English colonisers)!

They say the ghosts of the islands come alive at night when the islands are lit up in a scandalous riot of multi-hued colour for a light-but-no-sound show, as visible from Port Blair. Sounds of the heavy hoofs of the horse-drawn carriage and the crinkle of the elegant floral long dresses of the many quintessential English "Roses" brushing the crisply starched three-piece suits of the swaggering, swashbuckling, thorough-bred English commander, can be well imagined.

Propah Yorkshire accents, the tingle of fine Wedgewood china over piping hot mulligatawny soup or tipsy puddings would be intermingled with the hush-hush talk about the so cheee natives just across the islands!

The brazenfaced imperialism and its attendant racial attitudes dictated the debauched life at Ross Island. The incarcerated Indians across the island, the misery and suffering at the Cellular Jail not withstanding — "Paris" was rebuilt across the globe for the empire for which, they then famously and rather naively said, the sun would never set.

But, the sun did set and how! First came the nature’s fury in the form of a devastating earthquake in 1941 and then came the Japanese in 1942 (albeit, for a brief period of three years but with a lot more ruthlessness and ravage!) Finally, the proverbial tryst with destiny let Ross Islands along with the other Andaman & Nicobar Islands to its rightful place under a free India.

Today, Ross Islands seem to be lost, far out of step of times that be, but it is exactly that timelessness and that charming snobbery of the Raj days that give a character to the isle in the midst of emerald blue sea and whispering palms.

A proud tricolour gracefully embraces and forgives the past (and if anything, celebrates yet another amalgamation of a peaceful reconciliation with history) of a forgotten abode of the Gora Sahibs, once called the "Paris of the East".