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.