Port Blair, the capital of the 350 odd islands that comprise the Andaman and Nicobar group, has one major landmark-the Cellular Jail. A pipal tree, just outside this seven-winged national monument, can tell tales of the torture of India's freedom fighters within its walls. In 1897, the British, who then ruled India, laid the foundation stone of the building. It had 698 solitary cells to ensure that there was no contact between prisoners. Only three of the seven octopus-like wings remain and as you walk down their corridor, you can still hear the echoes of patriots like Veer Savarker or the booming voice of jailor Berry Bellowing.
The records at the site museum and a 'death house' bring tears to one's eyes.The islands were called 'Kalapani'-islands with 'black water', water tinted with the blood of those who would have India free.
A visit to the islands is an emotional one. As the sun rises from Bay of Bengal, the ethereal beauty of unadulterated nature engulfs one. One can spend hours just staring at the clear blue waters with not a sound to disturb you, except the twittering of a song bird or the footsteps of a wild cat or a deer.
The Andamans are a paradise for ecologists and ornithologists with 242 species of birds, 46 species of mammals and 78 species of reptiles-some of them rare and almost extinct. These live in dense rain forests surrounded by mangroves that seem to become part of the sea. You do not have to go far out to see brilliant tropical flowers, including the orchid, and an array of butterflies.
In 1789, Captain Archibald Blair of the Bombay Marine (the East India Company's Navy), acting under orders from the government of Bengal, established a penal colony on this site, naming it Port Cornwallis in honor of his commander, Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. In 1858, the first European settlement on the islands was established near the site of the old penal colony, and was named Port Blair in honor of Captain Blair.
The islands are home for some of the oldest tribal communities in the world. Six recognized tribes inhabit the several islands. The Onges, who, in more than 30 years, have progressed much-from living in the nude and visiting the civilized world to ask for chai and bidi to wearing trousers and lungis and living in disciplined wooden huts built for them in Dugong Creek. They have even learnt to 'perform' a tribal dance on request.
In the late sixties, the first few 'Jarawas' strayed into Port Blair like creatures from another world. They were sent back laden with gifts of food, clothing and colorful trinkets. Nothing more was heard of them and it was believed that the others had killed the five who had ventured into 'hostile' territory. They are still unfriendly. The Sentinels from North Sentinel Island are downright hostile. The Nicobarese and the Shompens are the most 'modern' of these primitive islanders. The others still prefer life in the raw.
The Cellular Jail
To pay homage to the martyrs, one can visit the Cellular Jail and museum. A close look at the Death House and the instruments of torture brings to mind India's freedom struggle and the contribution of those who gave their life for the country.
The Beaches - One can go for swimming at Corbyn's Cove, Jolly Buoy, or one of other safe beaches. One can also swim, snorkel and visit the underwater world as long as one wants. But first, it is necessary to check on undercurrents and tide timings beforehand.
Ross Island was once an exclusive preserve of the British who ruled from there for over 50 years. Now, as one walks through the ruins of bungalows, churches, ballrooms, bakeries, clubs and dungeons, one can almost hear the mingling of church bells and dance music and inhale the aroma of freshly baked bread and cakes. Once a visitor stumbled and fell into what he discovered, wire tennis courts attached to the Government House or the home of the Chief Commissioner. Although haunted by ghosts from the past, Ross Island is still peopled-with herds of deer and majestic peacocks that fear no captivity.
Walking thorough the ruins of British architecture is a good experience. The buildings could be identified as most of the buildings are labeled now. They relive the glory of early 20th-century colonial life. One can swim or make friends with the deer. The island is 200 acres and a ferry from Phoenix Bay gets one there in a few minutes. Early morning, Ross is a bird-watcher's paradise.
The Viper Island contains the dungeons and a natural 'amphitheatre'. Captivities and convicts once landed at Viper Island near the mouth of Port Blair Harbor. Another picnic spot, it still has ruins of gallows as reminders of a grim past.
A visit to the Havelock Island is a memorable experience. It is unspoilt and beautiful. If one is lucky enough to get a permit, a visit to the home of the Onges in Dugong Creek is necessary. Staying overnight at Havelock will take one back a hundred years to camp life and pristine beauty.
Museum and Zoo
The other places that deserve to visit are the Anthropological Museum, Marine Museum, and the Mini Zoo. One could see a panorama of the life of the Paleolithic islanders, a display of marine life with sea crocodiles, dolphins, barracuda, and pearl oysters.
The trip to Port Blair could be rounded up with a harbor cruise that will take one round the South Andaman Island and will give a bird's eye view of mangroves, rain forests and other delights of this living museum. With luck on one's side, dancing dolphins will guide the ferry ride to these islands. Whether discovered through diving or just be sitting in a glass-bottomed boat, the treasures of these coral islands are unforgettable. As the underwater world comes alive, one forgets that there is a less perfect world outside, so engrossing are the vast expanses of colorful corals, fish and vegetation. A peek into this magic land leaves one in a daze for the rest of the day! One should explore it as often as he can for he will dream of it ever after.
The Andamans even have their very own dormant volcano and those who have the courage and stamina to climb to tits mouth on Barren Island never forget the sight of the lava inside or the hard lava-like rocks that make the climb a near impossibility.