A group of over 600 islands, set in the Bay of Bengal, almost 1500 km from the mainland, and closer to SE Asia [Indonesia] than to India, the Andaman and Nicobar islands form the furthest Union Territory of India, and are probably better called the Emerald Isles owing to the vibrant shades of green that envelop these tiny islands.
To reach there, one can take a two-day boat ride or a two-hour flight from Chennai, and understandably, most people nowadays fly, thanks to the plethora of budget airlines to choose from, all offering competitive fares. The view from the top is incredible, to say the least, with the vast blue waters of the ocean suddenly breaking up to reveal patches of land covered with lush green foliage and surrounded by coral reefs where the water looks green- like the paler shades of jade. A ring of silvery white sand and the green waters blending into the deeper blue waters and intervening areas of grey and indigo water, depending on the depth of the sea at those points, further adds to the colorful canvas. The ship cruise is no less exciting, as those of the earlier generation who had less money but more time at their leisure, will vouch for.
The airport is small but well- equipped, and named after the most prominent hero of Port Blair [the capital city]- Veer Savarkar, but more about him later. It is situated within the city, so all the hotels and the commercial and residential areas are within easy reach- in fact, almost walking distance. The city is picturesque, with the aptly- named VIP Road flanked on either side by beautiful buildings, single or double- storied- some aged from the British era and some modern,built after independence, and predominantly made of wood, and now, concrete. The roads are undulating, following the slopes and curves of the hilly terrain, and huge trees and lovely gardens are seen everywhere.
Reaching on Mahanavami day of Durga Puja, we found a festive atmosphere in the main town and nearby villages. The majority of the population [about 80%] is Bengali, and celebrates Durga Puja with gusto and at the same time with a simplicity that has been lost in the big city of Kolkata. The ‘pandals’ and ‘murtis’are usually brought in from the mainland, while a few have recently been made in Port Blair itself. The whole city is lit up and abuzz with activity, the people happy, cheerful and carefree, and true to Bengali spirit, travel the length and breadth of the city to see the various ‘pandals’.
We checked into our hotel that morning,and after a bath and breakfast of piping hot ‘puris’, went to visit my friend and her family close by. We were greeted with the warmth of everlasting friendship that is so rarely found- it was like coming home to a dear family member. The children got along like a house on fire. We spent that day roaming around the city in a big Tata Sumo and visited the Anthropological and Marine museums, the Marina, Corbyn’s Cove, Jogger’s Park, and a couple of Puja pandals, and came back to her house for a simple home-made dinner.
We started early next morning for an island cruise. We were dropped off at Aberdeen Jetty where we got into a ferry to take us to Ross Island, the closest to Port Blair. It used to be the seat of the British administration in the pre-independence era, and was later also occupied by Japanese forces at time of World War 2. Now the Indian Navy is in charge of maintaining and guarding this relic of the past, and with good reason. One can instantly feel the glory and grandeur of the days when the top brass used to enjoy the rich beauty and pristine air of this beautiful islet. An entire self- sufficient township was set up here, complete with a printing press, water distillation plant, power house, bazaar, bakery, church, cemetery, recreation area, fishing pond, and of course, the very impressive Commissioner’s Bungalow, the mainly residential and part administrative abode of the British High Commissioner. The structures remain in ruins in the present age, overrun with equally impressive creepers and the hideously tortuous roots of huge trees [banyan, ficus]. The Tsunami of Dec 2004 also wreaked havoc on this island further aggravating the deterioration caused by the desertion of human settlement after Independence. A small museum in the foreground, set up much later, speaks of the years gone by in the form of sepia- toned photographs and items of use preserved with great care in this tiny one-storey structure.
We then proceeded to the North Bay Coral Island, about 30 minutes away by boat, and were given packets of piping- hot spicy biryani for lunch on board, which we hungrily consumed after our vigorous jaunt at Ross Island. Small dinghies carried us to the rocky beach at Coral Island from the big ferry. There is no sand here but small and large pieces of coral, rock and stones form the water’s edge. There is plenty of seaweed also floating about in the transparent green- blue water, and glass- bottomed boats take small groups of people out into the sea for a glimpse of the underwater corals reefing the island. Snorkeling offers a close- up, direct view of these amazing creations, most of which have been devastated by the Tsunami of 2004.
Our last stop was Viper Island, about 40 minutes away by boat. In the British Era, this is where dangerous, or politically hardcore prisoners, were incarcerated, and before that too, it was another lovely island for the British gentry to enjoy their garden parties. The name comes from the profusion of vipers found in the thick undergrowth of the forest. This island too was greatly affected by the Tsunami, but the prison and the gallows are still intact and reek of those dark days when so many Indian freedom fighters were sent to their death here. In the beginning, it used to house prisoners of both sexes, but after the construction of the Cellular Jail, the male prisoners were all sent out of this prison and only the female inmates continued to stay here.
On the way to Viper Island, one gets a wide view of the coast with all sorts of shipping vessels lined up- at Haddo Jetty, the merchant ships are seen and further down the Indian Navy with its impressive fleet, the Coast Guard, and the giant FDN- Floating Dry dock of the Navy- make one truly proud. Understandably, photography of the harbor in this area is strictly prohibited, but many of the tourists just could not resist using their cameras while others seemed to be deriving pleasure from being completely antisocial and defiant!
We came back in the early evening to Aberdeen Jetty, our starting point. We took a leisurely walk around and marveled at the beauty of the waterfront and the picturesque city beyond, full of nature’s green bounty, the blue- grey- indigo of the sea, and the small, neat white and brown buildings set among the low hills and plains of the island. The Water Sports Complex adjoining the jetty offers a variety of adventure water sports for all ages and is quite popular among locals and tourists alike. An impressive figure of the late Rajiv Gandhi marks an important landmark at the center of the jetty. The low steps and wide railings around the embankment offer a convenient place to idle away the hours, even after sundown.
We then proceeded to Atlanta Point, the spot where the famous Cellular jail is located. This is almost like a pilgrimage for most Indians because the Cellular Jail housed a large number of political prisoners- Indian freedom fighters- from all corners of the country, but most notably Bengal and Punjab, and the biggest stalwart of them all- Veer Savarkar- from Maharashtra. Bengalis are born with the wanderlust, and are seen at all tourist destinations, but this is where the largest numbers of Punjabi visitors can be found. Probably all of them have had some known member of their family or village giving up his life for the country. For others like us it is a lesson in history that does not fail to bring tears to the eyes. The utter isolation of the prison, the numbing loneliness, the most unimaginable form of torture, and the sheer hopelessness of never having a chance to escape, sends a shudder down the spine of visitors even today as they imagine that time in the past when so many of their loved ones were sentenced to misery here.
That evening, on our first visit here, we witnessed the very emotional light and sound show, which effectively captures the pathos and poignancy of those years, and were moved to tears. The very next morning, we came back to take a detailed tour of the environs. A hushed silence prevailed everywhere- the Eternal Flame, the Martyr’s Memorial, the photo galleries and art gallery, and finally the dungeons.
Tales of torture, misery, and most of all, the burning inspiration of the country’s freedom fighters, made us shed a tear or two for all that they had to endure, but also in shame and embarrassment, that we as their children and descendants are not doing and can never do enough for our country, the land that they gave up their very lives for. But perhaps a spark of patriotism still remains in most of us, and taking our children through a trip of Cellular Jail would remind us every time of what we received as a legacy and what we ought to preserve for all future generations.
Our hearts heavy, we decided to unburden with a ride to Wandoor beach, about an hour away. It was only noon and not yet time for lunch. Grabbing some munchies, we soon drifted off into a restful slumber as the car carried us through the afternoon sun. The ride, as with all others on the island, was full of lush greenery- tall forest trees, swaying coconut palms, houses with their patches of kitchen garden, and glimpses of the backwaters now and then.
On the way, we halted at the Agriculture Park for a short visit through the gardens to view a wonderful variety of hybrids, medicinal and flowering and ornamental plants, and loaded our pockets with some dried areca nuts, berries and twigs that had fallen to the ground.
The beach at Wandoor is vast and white, fringed by forest, and boasts of the last few well- preserved coral reefs in the archipelago. A refreshingly simple homemade lunch at one of the few stalls lined across the shore made us want to rest beneath the shade of the palms, but our guide coaxed us instead to climb onto a glass- bottomed boat to view the corals, and view we did, an amazing formation of these underwater beauties glistening in the shallow depths, almost lit up by the sun penetrating the transparent water in the heat of the afternoon. The tide was just beginning to rise, and the rain was playing hide and seek, so we returned to shore after a short ride. My daughter played on the silvery white sands and I miraculously found a patch of short, stout palms with just enough shade for me to loll about in, watching my daughter and feeling the utmost sense of contentment and peace and timelessness.
The spell was broken by the guide, who urged us to come out of our reverie, telling us about the not- to- be- missed Chidiyatapu, also known as Sunset Point, about an hour’s drive away.
Just out of Wandoor,we saw the Manglotan Rubber Factory, where a very enthusiastic worker took us through the intricacies of harvesting rubber, right from collecting the sap to vulcanizing the rubber sheets. Among the rubber trees in the plantation were also pepper, clove and cinnamon orchards. We bought some very fresh produce and the whole place was redolent with the aroma of spices.
Again we sped off into the green depths over the undulating road to arrive at a much higher elevation, thinking that Sunset Point would be some hilltop. Instead the road dipped again, and we reached, after a speedy drive trying to beat the sun to it, exactly 10 minutes before the expected time of sunset, to the beach, actually the bank of a backwater estuary. But alas, there were huge clouds obscuring our view, and we had to be happy with the intense orange glow in the distance lighting up the balls of water vapor, and the reflection on the still waters of the creek that is Chidiyatapu. We had been so pre- occupied with the sunset that we did not really notice the numerous bird calls that this place is known for, and then suddenly the dark descended and off we went again out of this surreal spot.
We returned to the hotel after another hour’s drive, tired and hungry. A hot shower soon revived us enough for dinner, and then we hit the bed, thinking twice about the day we had planned next. We would be up by 4 a.m. or so and get ready to catch the boat to Havelock Island, 3 hours’ride away, spend the day there and return by evening, and the next day’s schedule was just as hectic! We did not take long to weigh the pros and cons of this packed program, with kid in tow, and as on a rare occasion, my husband and I agreed that Havelock could safely be given a miss; after all,it was only a beach, though one of the world’s biggest! So we fell asleep happily thinking that we could wake up at our leisure and catch the nearby spots instead.
At 9 the next morning, we set off to Chatham Sawmills, a relic of the British Era, lovingly preserved and fully functional to this day, after having survived even a bombing during WW2. Its size and scope are truly a marvel of engineering, and the smell of wood was overpowering, something we do not come across often in the city. A huge shed serves as a warehouse for wooden planks cut out in the main factory, a smaller work shed deals with mainly handcrafted pieces of furniture and decorative pieces, and a museum houses replicas and rare items coming out of this place. The morning shift starts at 6 30,and we had just reached in time before they closed for a break for a couple of hours before the evening shift.
Emerging from the mills we again just about caught the inter-island ferry that would take us and our hired car to the nearby island of Bambooflats, probably so called owing to the abundance of bamboo in these parts. The inter-island ferry is a convenient way to carry people, cargo and vehicles, even the state buses, from one island to another. When I asked a local man why such a cumbersome practice was being followed instead of the simple solution of building bridges across the islands, I was met with a shrug and a curious look, as if to say- ”this is more eco-friendly and cost-effective, and that’s the way we like it”, and I could not agree more!
The car continued uphill after we reached Bambooflats, and after another surreal drive through thick forest lined by tall trees on both sides, we came to Mount Harriet, the second highest peak in the Andamans, the highest being at Diglipur, in North Andamans.
The peak offers a bird’s- eye view of the nearby islands, and several nature trails lead out into the surrounding forest. Small eco- cottages dot the gentle slope in the front, and an old fashioned dining room, complete with a Victorian dining table and a lounge, offers the most wholesome home- cooked meal! Orders for lunch must be placed more than a hour in advance, and a very limited menu is available, but is is very lovingly prepared by a humble male cook in his sprawling kitchen, and just as lovingly served, piping hot and with elan, with crockery and cutlery to match, from the equally antique side board adorning the kitchen!
We thus enjoyed a wet and rainy day strolling about and hungrily awaiting our lunch, peeping into the kitchen now and then as the aroma of freshly cooked food wafted out and invaded our senses. The nature trails were conveniently avoided owing to bad weather, warnings of leeches waiting to latch onto us, and the ubiquitous excuse of having a small kid that was not yet ready for more adventure!
Finally, it was lunchtime, and we happily devoured the entire quantity of food that had been prepared for us, the only guests that day who opted to eat there, and we had been tipped off by our driver, and thanked him profusely for the same. The ride back was gentle and leisurely, and still we were back early, so we decided to visit the Science Park in the city.
The Science Park is situated close to Corbyn’s Cove, on high slope that offers a bird’s- eye view of the wide blue ocean stretching out for miles. Near the coast, huge volcanic rocks, flattened over the years by the fury of the waters, beckon for a taste of a very wet sofa- one is indeed tempted to wade into the water to lounge against the massive boulders, but nearer the edge, one gets to know the real force of the waves lashing the coastline,making any leisure impossible.
The park is a sprawling complex of science toys and educational installations, a bonanza of fun, entertainment and information for all school- going kids and casual visitors alike. My daughter was completely taken in by all the exhibits, and happily frolicked in the huge lawns while we gazed out wistfully across the sea. Tired and sated after a full day of touring we came back to the hotel,ready for the next day of adventure!
We would need all our reserves of energy for the following day, and it all started at 3 a.m. We were up early and were ready to leave by 4 30 a.m. In the eerie hours of the night, we, along with 2 other very sleepy families, were picked up from our hotel in a Tata Sumo, and as we veered between wakefulness and slumber, the vehicle raced along to reach Jirkatang checkpoint at about 6 a.m., right on schedule.
Jirkatang marks the starting point of the islands’ biggest and most well- known reserve forest, one of the world’s only surviving rain forest. The area is known as Middle Straits and is also famous for being the last surviving habitat of the indigenous tribe, the Jarawas. They are one of the original inhabitants of the islands, and are believed to be as ancient as Stone Age man. They are wild and free and roam the forests as hunter- gatherers, as primitive Man used to do, dressed in nothing but flimsy ornaments made of leaves and twigs. They resemble African Negroes, and some surmise that some very early and adventurous Negro seafarers were shipwrecked and found their way here, while others say that the islands may have broken off from a huge Afro- Asian landmass, known as Pangea in geo-anthropological terms. Their skin is black and shiny, and not a hair exists anywhere other than the head. They do not cover their private parts and lack pubic hair. They stand proud and happy, and were known to be fierce till about a few years ago, when the administration managed to “tame” them into a semblance of “civility”, so they now interact with the rest of the civilized world in which we live, by begging for goodies along the road as the police convoy passes through the forest. Biscuits, milk powder, betel nuts and cigarettes are the things most sought after. Sometimes, wild fruit or vegetables are offered in return. A single man- made road cuts through the wilderness, and vehicles or individuals are not allowed to venture out into the forest alone, and all traffic moves in a single convoy preceded and ended by police jeeps. No one is permitted to halt on the way, come out of their vehicle, or offer anything to or accept anything from the Jarawas, and least of all,to take photographs.
Several reasons exist for this high- level security arrangement, both for the tourists and the human specimens being protected. First, they are known to be ferocious and xenophobic, and may attack without provocation. Second, food items that are consumed widely by urban man is unsuitable for them and has been known to cause illness and death. Third, pictures of naked men and women may be used for all types of immoral and unethical practices. Last but not the least, the scientists and the government realized a little too late the value of the anthropological treasure that they represent, and that their numbers would dwindle with continued exposure to the outside world, and so contact with modern man has been curtailed to the present extent. Moreover, attempts are being made for getting them to multiply, and from time to time dedicated officials deliver food items that are deemed safe, for instance, coconuts and other natural foods, and the islands’ biggest public hospital, GB Pant Hospital, has a separate ward to cater to them. There is also talk that further exposure to tourists will be stopped completely as one can well see that there is lots of scope for corruption and mismanagement at every level, and the only way to preserve the community is to isolate them completely to their “pre-civilization” status. In fact, the earlier generations of visitors have been rather lucky in the sense that they could actually have some form of physical contact like shaking hands or hugging, as well as taking pictures, all of course at the risk of personal harm too.
Emerging from the land of prehistoric man, we came eventually to Baratang, by the inter-island ferry, and there we got into a smaller launch holding about a hundred people. We were given breakfast parcel of puris and chhole, and then we proceeded along the long, wide creek deeper into the wild, flanked by thick rain forest on both sides. After about an hour’s ride, the boat stopped at the edge of a mangrove forest in which a watery pathway seemed to have been carved. A signpost nearby warned of crocodile-infested waters. We then sighted a very small boat, a dinghy, coming towards us, and batches of 10- 15 people at a time were taken further into the mangrove forest.
The dinghy runs on kerosene through the narrow channels of the backwaters surrounded by thick mangroves, the roots of which are stout and strong and one can walk on the natural bridges created by them. At places, these have been modified and further strengthened, and sturdy walkways made. Across the mangrove forest is another forest, this one of bamboo, and this continues into lush paddy fields and small villages. The item of interest here is the group of limestone caves dating from prehistoric times. It is the most amazing collection of limestone deposits in the region comprising of stalactites and stalagmites, many of which have aggregated into magnificent natural forms, and true to the Indian predilection for worshiping idols, many such structures resembling the various Hindu deities are eagerly pointed out to the hordes of tourists who spend considerable time paying homage to these rocks and prove a bit of a nuisance to others!
The limestone deposits are in a continuous state of flux, and one can feel the humidity inside the caves due to the high moisture levels, and also the trickles of calcium- rich water that seep from the surface into the interior of the cave. Witnessing this wonder of nature, we started back on the long and arduous boat journey back to Baratang island, where our jeep was already waiting. We sped off to see the Mud Volcano, another wonderful natural delight. Unlike a lava volcano, this is much smaller and shallower and spews only mineral- rich mud to the exterior. Several small stones and flat rocks have been placed on the muddy slope of the volcano to provide a makeshift walkway to the rim of the crater, roughly half a kilometer across. Being an active volcano, warning signs have been erected at many places. It was wet and rainy the day we went there, and we had to slosh our way across the soft mud, getting our clothes and shoes soiled in the process, but our hearts were singing with the beauty we had experienced throughout the trip! The simple home- made lunch that awaited us at the roadside inn on our way back from the volcano filled our tummies to satisfaction and lulled us into a comfortable frame of mind for the long journey home, back again through Jarawa-laden forest, where we saw them in even larger numbers this time, complete with their children and babies in the arms of their mothers, some having the most winsome smiles and exquisite, exotic beauty. It made us wonder why modern man took to wearing clothes and consequently the other trappings of modernization and civilization!
Totally exhausted and mineral-mud-coated we dived under the hot shower as soon as we reached our hotel, and ordered a sumptuous dinner of all our favorite junk food. The days of hectic touring had ended with this trip, and there was no further worry of tummy upset.
There was nothing planned for the next day, and it was a pleasant surprise when my friend called up to suggest a trip to a private beach resort belonging to an acquaintance of hers.
So the next morning we set off again, two very happy families with delighted children filling the jeep to capacity, and accompanied by my friend’s animated narrative on the history, geography and culture of the islands, we came to Collinpur beach, about an hour’s drive away. A very pretty garden, virgin beach, and a picturesque resort welcomed us. The proprietor was friendly and hospitable, and prepared the most delicious pakoras and tea for us and took us around the beach and the lovely, eco- friendly cottages. On the beach we saw a couple of Japanese and British bunkers used in the World Wars, and in the distance, on the island across connecting to Baratang, a Jarawa hut was pointed out, and graphic descriptions of Jarawas playing on the shore were recounted by our guide, who regretted the fact that he could not take us on the boat closer to the island [illegally!] to witness all this, owing to the bad weather that day.
So we soaked in the last few hours of our holidays, clicking away on our cameras with a fury, photographing practically everything in sight. We saw one of the eco- cottages in detail, complete with mud floor, mosquito- net- covered bed, and an open- air bathroom, which was a little unnerving as we are so used to having complete privacy during our ablutions, and a roofless toilet is definitely only for the very intrepid!
My friend and her husband treated us to a lavish dinner that evening at the most upmarket resort hotel in town- Fortune Bay. As we looked out to the sea and the lights of the ships and boats, and those on Ross Island just across, we felt with deep satisfaction the most complete vacation we had had so far in our lives- the extraordinary beauty that we witnessed, the closeness of our friends, and the nonoccurrence of any health or personal problem. It was almost painful to take the return flight the next morning, and look back longingly over the deep blue waters of the Bay of Bengal that stretch for miles and miles between the mainland, and the remote, and now almost precariously existing, Andaman and Nicobar islands.