Port Blair - Once a Prison Island, Now a Tropical Paradise
From a notorious past to a beautiful present, Port Blair has come a long way. It used to be a prison island and is now a tropical paradise and a great place for a holiday. Located on the east coast of south Andaman, Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India, is a cluster of tin-roofed houses, shops, restaurants and offices.
The Andaman and Nicobar islands comprises of over 350 islands but out of these only a few are inhabited. In fact most of them are far removed from modern life and do not even have any modern facilities and amenities, making these places a perfect virgin tropical paradise. The 300,000 inhabitants of these islands are mostly dependent on tourism for their livelihoods.
The islands are a haven for ecologists and ornithologists. The tropical rainforests and the waters of the Bay of Bengal hosts over 242 species of birds, 46 species of mammals and 78 species of reptiles, and the islands are considered to be a veritable Garden of Eden. Clean environment, surrounding greenery, unpolluted fresh air—nature lovers find it hard to resist the temptation to visit here again and again.
The hilly islands fringed with coconut palm, covered with tropical jungle and interspersed with flat stretches of crescent shaped beaches offer many activities for visitors who want to do more than just relax under the sun—trekking, camping, snorkeling, scuba diving and other water sports are some options for the more adventurous at heart.
There is plenty to do here. Don’t be fooled by its size, because this miniscule place packs in quite a punch!
Home to several primitive tribes, these islands were known to have cannibals living here in the recent past, documented by the Chinese adventurer Xuan Zang in the 2nd century among many other travellers around the world.
The French, followed by the Dutch were among the first colonial powers to land on the islands. They made numerous attempts to spread Christianity, but their efforts were in vain. The Maratha warriors from mainland India also tried to establish rule on the islands, but were not successful either.
The British came to the Andaman and Nicobar islands in 1788 when Lord Cornwallis, the then Governor General of India, wanted to colonize the islands and sent Lt. Archibald Blair and Lt. R.H.Colebrook of the Royal Navy to survey the area. Based on their recommendations, a colony was established by Archibald Blair in the mid 19th century, and was named Port Blair after the captain. Port Blair was re-established in 1858, as the site for a British penal colony with a prison as its main purpose. The original prison was on Viper Island. Later, a penal establishment was built on the northern side of Ross Island.
With the growth of the Indian freedom movement in the late 19th century, another prison was constructed between 1896 and 1906. The massive Cellular Jail was built to house even more Indian convicts, mostly political prisoners, in solitary confinement. These prisoners served life sentences and were subject to hard labor, cruel conditions, and inhumane torture. Many were executed while countless others died of disease and starvation. With its notorious prisons, the islands came to be known as Kala Pani meaning ‘black water’.
For a short period, during 1943 to 1944, Port Blair was the headquarters of the Indian National Army government under Subhash Chandra Bose.
The Japanese occupied the islands during the Second World War in 1942, till their surrender in 1945, after which the British regained control. Initially the Japanese were cordial in their behaviour towards the local population, but they suspected many of the people to be spies for the British army and therefore killed a large number of suspects. But as a result of the Japanese occupation, the Andamans was made self-sufficient in food production after the naval blockade created an acute food crisis. The Japanese compelled the locals to bring more land under cultivation.
After India gained independence in 1947, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands came under the Indian flag. The islands now send one elected representative to the Lok Sabha.
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that resulted in a devastating tsunami left the islands distraught. Port Blair was not as severley effected as the rest of the islands and therefore acted as a base for relief efforts in the islands. Known as the Emerald Islands, it is a great tourist destination with its lush green forest and the deep blue sea.
Sights Around Town
With a gloomy past, Port Blair is still evokes a feeling of melancholy and mystery. But its beautiful beaches, the colorful flora and the variety of animal and marine life more than makes up for it. They lift your spirits and make you want to extend your stay further!
The sturdy Cellular Jail overlooks the sea which was originally meant to be a detterant for prisoners thinking of escape. There used to be seven wings out of which only three remain. rest were destroyed by the Japanese during their occupation. Also, the 1941 earthquake caused considerable damage to the building. The structure stands as a silent monument to the patriots and martyrs who sacrificed their lives here for their country's freedom.
The jail gets its name from the structure itself that consists of a total of 698 cells each meant for only one inmate. Built over a period of 18 years by the British between 1898 and 1906, its solitary cells were very grim. Prisoners had to endure harsh and cruel living conditions and were subject to torture by the guards. There were frequent executions at the gallows in full view of the cells. In the inside walls of the central tower, you can still find the names of over 300 freedom fighters and revolutionaries inscribed here, those who were incarcerated within these walls.
Chiriya Tapu: 35 Km South of Port Blair, Chiriya Tapu is also known as Birds Island because of the wide array of birds found flitting here. Located at the southern most tip of South Andaman, the scenic beauty and a fine beach at Chota Balu makes this a great place to commune with nature, and you could even try your hand at line fishing and snorkeling. The lush green mangroves bordering the ocean, shell-strewn beaches and vast coral reefs are a sight for sore eyes. A small guest house on top of a hillock gives you a spectacular view of the nearby islands and submerged corals. And just south from here is Cinque Island where you can see some of the finest corals around. You do need a permit from the forest department to visit here though.
Just 10 km from Port Blair the Carbyn’s Cove is a crescent shaped beach ideal for picniking and sunbathing. Around the nearby Snake Island you can see magnificent coral reefs but the water currents are quite strong and swimming here could be risky. The light and sound show organised by the tourism board, outlines the history of the prison, and a small museum showcases lists of convicts, photographs and grim torture devices from the prison.
The Viper Island
At the mouth of Port Blair harbor, Viper Island is spread over 69 acres and is crescent-shaped. Since it was built in 1867, it was a prison for local and mainland convicts, and the gallows on top of a hillock still stands. Sher Ali, who killed Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India in 1872, was hanged here. After the Cellular jail was built, this one became obsolete. Freedom fighters like Nanigopal and Nandlal Pulindas were imprisoned here too. The island gets its name from the vessel ‘The Viper’ in which Archibald Blair came here.
Samudrika Marine Museum
Run by the Indian Navy, the museum showcases exotic fish and coral from the islands' reefs. Also on display is the history and geography of the islands with miniature models of islands, pictures of local tribes and their lifestyle and archaeological findings.
The museum illustrates the lives of the aboriginal tribes with samples of the tools used by them, their dresses and photographs. A well-stocked library provides you with further information on the islands’ rich heritage.
Mini Zoo and Forest Museum
The zoo houses over 200 species of animals and birds which include the Nicobar pigeon, the Andaman pig and the rare luminous-green Andaman gekko. A salt-water crocodile farm is also part of the zoo.
At an altitude of 365 m above sea level, Mt Harriet is one of the highest points in South Andaman. A natural trail of approximately 7 km leads to the summit, but you need a permit to saunter around in the dense forest. Towards the north is the Mt Harriet National Park where one can watch elephants being trained to carry logs.
It was the administrative headquarters of the British during World War II and was once known as Paris of the East. However, it now lies in ruins. The immaculately manicured lawns and the majestic ballrooms were destroyed in the 1941 earthquake. A museum named Smritika near the jetty gives you an image of the splendor, and displays photographs and antiques from the golden era. The island presently houses the ruins of old buildings like Ballroom, Chief Commissioner’s House, Government House, church, hospital, etc.
Located just 15 km from Port Blair en route to Wandoor, the farm is used for agricultural research predominantly in spices like new varieties of cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and clove.
Situated 29 km from Port Blair, this beautiful group of 15 islands forms part of the 280 sq km Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. There are many beaches around here but the strong water currents make it unsafe to venture out to sea, although the splendid coral reefs are a big temptation. Red Skin and Jolly Buoy islands are a part of the Wandoor National Park and boast of over 50 varieties of coral and fish.
The several sandy beaches on this island are a major attraction here and it also has several good camping sites for the more adventurous.
The island offers great opportunities for snorkelling or just lying around in a hammock under a shady tree. However, take care of the delicate eco-system here as corals here have been damaged due to extensive fishing. The largest and most deserted beach here is at Sitapur, on the east coast.
135 km from Port Blair, Barren Island is the only active volcano in India. The island has a big crater rising abruptly from the sea and is about 150 fathoms deep. The name itself suggests that due to its volcanic activity, there are few living inhabitants here.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands are sometimes called Mini India due to the mix of different cultures concentrated in such a small area. Some of the major festivals here are the Island Tourism Festival during December to January every year highlighting the islands’ development. Many cultural shows are organized where even the tribals take part. Water sport competitions are organized along with many other such activities. In January each year, the Subhash Mela (a cultural fest on the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose), the Vivekanada Mela (to celebrate the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekanada), and the Block Mela (highlighting developments in the rural areas), take place to keep the local population and as well as the tourists on their toes.
The locals are mostly self sufficient when it comes to food. They make the most of the resources available to them. Sea food is obviously a mainstay for all residents since it is easily available in abundance. Varieties of fish, crabs, lobster, prawns and other sea food are prepared in a variety of styles to suit the multi-cultural society of the islands. Other types of food include wild pig, honey, various roots, tubers, turtle fish, seeds, roots, honey etc. North Indian, South Indian, Continental, and Chinese dishes are also widely available.
By Air: the Port Blair Airport is connected to mainland India and several flights are available from Calcutta and Chennai.
Chennai and Vishakhapatnam have vessels that sail to the islands regularly.
Buses, taxis and auto rickshaws can take you around most of the places around the island. Walking is also a great way to get around and get to know the local structure more closely. You could also rent motorcycles, mopeds, scooters and bicycles to explore the area on your own. Regular ferry services connect Port Blair to nearby islands.
Hindi, Nicobarese, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali.
The summer months are almost indistinguishable from the winter, and the climate all year round is pleasant with temperatures ranging from 23 to 30 degrees Celcius. Avoid the rainy season between October and March but apart from that, you could visit here any time of the year.