July 23, 2015
April-May being the most sought after months for vacations I was fortunate to put together the time table of all for a family vacation and hop to Andaman and Nicobar islands. Even luck was on my side as I was able to get tickets without hassles, may be because it was the 4th week of May and end of the vacation period. Once the tickets were booked I was prioritising my wish list of places to visit there.
The very mention of the Cellular jail (also known as Kala Pani) of Port Blair gives goosebumps to all those who know the history of this colonial prison. Naturally a visit to this prison, now declared a national monument, topped the list of my itinerary during my recent visit to this archipelago. Though I had seen the pictures and had and read about it especially the agony and cruelty suffered by the inmates and had conjured a vision of it, there is nothing like seeing it face to face.
The crystal clear waters of the spotless beeches, getting a close look at the underwater marine life, trying to get a glimpse of the indigenous Jarawa tribes in the thick forests and having a look at the historical ruins of the British at Ross Island and enjoying the clean environs topped the list of my priorities. This visit to this non-polluted island where crime rate is zero remains an unforgettable experience of my life.
We left Mangalore on 20th May and our Air India flight to Port Blair was scheduled at 5 am on 22nd. The driver of our Innova taxi who had taken us around Chennai the previous day almost ruined our holiday plan as he came 35 minutes late and we had to cover a distance of 15 km to the airport. Even that early morning the route to the airport was quite busy and we managed to reach the airport at the nick of time and frantically barged into the check in counter and heaved a sigh of relief.
It is a two hour journey from Chennai to Port Blair over the Bay of Bengal covering a distance of 1190 kms. It is interesting to note that the distance to some South East Asian countries is much less than from India. The closest country from Andaman Indonesia which is 147 kms, Burma is 193 kms and Bangladesh is 805 kms from this archipelago.
Though Andaman Islands comprise 572 islands only 37 islands are inhabited. My colleagues in Port Blair had suggested that could spend five days in Andaman Nicobar islands and my traveller also had arranged the itinerary accordingly. Our schedule did not include visit to Nicobar Islands. The first day of the tour began on the arrival day in the afternoon with a visit to coconut palm fringed Carbyns Cove Beach just 9 kms from Port Blair followed by a visit in the evening to the much awaited Cellular Jail.
Mesmerizing yet nauseating
Though outwardly the jail fails to impress, once inside what we see is a massive three-storied structure. We were told by the guide that four of the original seven wings of the jail were damaged in the 1941 earthquake and were subsequently demolished. The remaining three wings have been preserved and it has been declared as a national monument. But even this truncated structure looks massive and deadly and I did feel a bone-chilling moment when the guide began to give explicit details about the torture and brutality inflicted on the political prisoner’s nay our freedom fighters. The cellular jail was called so because it had 698 solitary cells measuring 4.5X2.7 meters. Standing down the guide showed us the cell that had housed Veer Savarkar for 12 long years in solitary confinement. His cell was the last in the row in the third storey and was intentionally given to him so that he could see and hear the cries of those prisoners who were sent to the gallows.
It was really sickening to see the “Fansi Ghar” with three ropes with noose standing testimony to the merciless and brutal treatment given to prisoners, who sacrificed their lives. A visit to the dark room down from where the wooden board was displaced to hang convicts was quite a nauseating experience. Every inch of the Cellular prison is a stark reminder of the sacrifices made by these freedom fighters, be it the sight of the flogging stand, the oil mill, the sight of different kinds of iron chains, uniform made of gunny bag or the neck ring shackle. Interestingly most of the freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives in this Cellular Jail were from Bengal and Punjab, clearly showing that these people were in the forefront of freedom movement. A sound and light sound show late in the evening was worth a dekho as it gave a glimpse of the dark moments of the history of this island.
The second day was scheduled for Port Blair city tour and shopping. The day started off with a visit to the Chatam Saw Mill, believed to be the largest and oldest saw mill in Asia. It was established by the British in 1833 and is still functioning. A forest museum a bomb crater and Japanese bunkers are the other attractions at the premises of the mill. Evening was meant for shopping where we ended up buying some sea-shell jewellery which is a major industry here. We took time off to the busy schedule to visit local fish and vegetable market. .
Joy ride to Bartang Island
Another keenly awaited tour in our itinerary was to Bartang Island, passing through the no overtake zone of evergreen Jarawa Reserve forest, a 90 km journey from Port Blair. The day began at 3.30 am as all vehicles heading to Bartang have to go through police escort from Jirkatang check post, a 40 km drive from Port Blair. The experienced driver of our tempo told us to be alert to spot the tribes as we pass through. Though others in the tempo could get a quick glance of two Jarawa men I was fortunate to get a full glimpse of a family of four during the return journey. The woman holding a small child in her arms beamed a smile at us with her white teeth against dark skin flashing like a fluorescent bulb. Unlike the popular belief all the four were fully dressed like normal people. Since photographing Jarawas is prohibited I could only capture that scene in the lens of my eyes.
Once in Bartang we had a joy ride on a boat and our eyes feasted on some of the dense mangrove forest before reaching Lime stone cave, a major tourist destination.
We cruised through the same backwaters and went to see the mud volcano, the only known examples of such live mud volcano in India. Though it looks normal without any activity on careful observation one could see mud oozing out in small quantity. It can be said the volcano has deleterious impact on surrounding vegetation as all trees in its vicinity are dead.
Havelock Island – A earthly paradise
Havelock Island was our destination on the 4th day and once again our day began early morning at 5.30. We had to catch the inter-island ferry to go to Havelock covering a distance of 57 km by sea. It is a two hour journey and ticket cost is quite expensive even for economy class Rs. 1000/- per ticket one- way journey.
Nevertheless it was worth it because we cruised through a rough sea which encountered heavy breeze and good rains and travelling in the middle of the sea in such a situation is a treasured experience. On arrival we headed to Radha Nagar beach, one of the top beaches of Asia. It has crystal clear blue-green waters resembling a rainbow from a distance and the beach is so spotlessly clean even the silver sand of the beach is visible through the water. My children who knew swimming enjoyed skylarking in the sea for nearly three hours along with a big crowd of tourists.
The beach is an ideal destination even for those who just love to watch the waters from a distance sitting under the shades of huge trees that we usually don’t see in beaches. Our guide had told us to be ready to catch the same ferry back scheduled at 4 pm and after a good lunch and some shopping we travelled back to Port Blair. The back journey was quite entertaining as enthusiastic tourists danced to the tunes of popular numbers.
The much awaited water sport - scuba diving was part of our itinerary for the final day of our tour and the destination was North Bay Island. In the morning we visited Ross Island, the former residential and administrative island of the British Empire. Ross Island which once upon a time was the luxurious abode of the British today is in ruins with overgrown vegetation on the walls of those once majestic structures. Yet there is so much to see and savour those splendorous edifices that speak of the might of the British Empire. Scuba diving was quite an exhilarating experience and we came back with those memories intact.
The place attracts tourists from all over India and abroad. It is surely favourite honeymoon destination and we spotted many lovebirds there. The place is clean and its scenic beauty is incredibly idealistic. The weather was just perfect when we went and so was the tour itinerary. We were back in Chennai by early morning flight next day and from there boarded an evening train to reach in Mangalore the next day morning.
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