|Andaman & Nicobar – Quick Facts|
Best time to visit: October to March.
Climate: Distinctly tropical.
Average rainfall: 3180 mm; rains come 5-6 times a year.
How to reach: Daily flights to Port Blair from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Bhubaneshwar. Regular passenger ships to Port Blair from Chennai, Kolkata, and Visakhapatnam. Voyage takes 50-60 hours; ship berths at Port Blair for 2-4 days. Commuting between islands is by vehicles, ferries, catamarans, helicopters, or sea planes.
What it offers: Scuba diving, sea-walking, snorkelling, surfing, game-fishing, bird-watching, trekking, sailing, kayaking, other water sports.
Seafood paradise: While vegetarians get plenty to eat, seafood lovers would have true bliss in this paradise.
Accommodation: There are plenty of options for those who are not too fussy. Andamans offers a few premium properties (Fortune, Sinclairs Bay View, Barefoot at Havelock – the Taj group should be at Havelock by 2018) to standard hotels and BnBs to even shacks. Accommodation is available to suit every budget.
Important crops: Coconut, arecanut, spices, papaya, cashew, lemon, orange, pineapple, sapota, jackfruit, banana, watermelon, sugarcane, cinnamon, pepper, rubber, bamboo, and timber.
Fishes: Clown fish, Butterfly fish, Surgeon fish, Angel fish, Parrot fish, Beaked fish, Bat fish, Cat fish, Prawn, Silver Bellies, Pomfret, Hilsa, Mullet, Tuna, Sardine, Anchovy, Barracuda, Manta Ray, Blue Finack, Dolphins, White Tip shark, and Hammer Head shark.
Other Marine life: The beaches around are some of the best nesting grounds for four species of turtles – Green Sea, Leather Back, Hawks Bill, Olive Ridley. Besides them, one can spot Oyster, Lobster, Crab, Dugong, Water Monitor Lizard, Salt Water Crocodile, and sea snakes like the Banded Sea Snake.
Mammals: Andaman Wild Pig, Wild Boar, Spotted Deer, Macaque, Civet, Fruit Bat, Elephant.
Birds: Andaman Teal, Whistling Teal, White Bellied Sea Eagle, Andaman Serpent Eagle, Kingfisher, Tern, Wader, Reef Heron, Swift, Parrot, Parakeet, Lorikeet, Pigeon, Dove, Nicobar Pigeon, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Megapode.
Reptiles: Krait, Cobra, King Cobra, Vine Snake, Python.
First glimpse of paradise
With images of natural beauty (jade green-cobalt blue waters surrounded by thick jungles and mangrove forests, snow-white beaches that soothe the eyes with golden sunrises and flaming sunsets), and a laidback idyllic place with plenty of adventure activity (forest treks, kayaking, snorkelling, sea walking, diving), et al, we decided to spend the 2014 Christmas vacations at Andamans. The nine clear days of vacation was planned meticulously, and the idea was not to stress out doing too many things. But as the vacation wound down, we realised that we could have added another week or 10 days to this, and still be left asking for more. Such was the magnetism of just one part of the archipelago – and we hadn’t even explored a few other parts that we could! I promised myself a trip back pretty soon, to explore more.
While we had done all the planning and booking well in advance (given the peak vacation season that we were travelling in), the unfolding crisis at SpiceJet added a lot of spice into our travel plans. The excess spice meant that we had to change flight bookings at the last moment, and had to incur heartburn and stress, and also a hole in the wallet. But maybe all good things need that tiny black spot to ward off the evil eye…at least that’s what we all have been made to believe right from our childhood!
But the peak vacation season (with Christmas and New Year in tow), and paucity of flights to Andamans meant that fares were pretty steep and flights were not to be messed around with too much. The result was that we still had to undertake the Chennai-Port Blair-Chennai legs on SpiceJet – only the Mumbai-Chennai-Mumbai legs were on other flights. With much trepidation, and also a lot of excitement, we embarked on our first trip to ‘Kaala Paani’. And when the SpiceJet turboprop took off from Chennai, we were well and truly on our way.
The sandy beaches here are natural choice for turtles to nest, while the underwater marine life, coral, crystal clear water, and mangrove-lined creeks offer a view of the precious bounties of nature. Around 86% of the area is still covered by dense forests in these islands that lie in an arc in a narrow and broken chain over a distance of nearly 800 km in the North-South direction. But despite the presence of such dense forests, there are no wild animals in these islands, except for reptiles! Of the 572 islands (including islets and rocks), only 38 are permanently inhabited. Of these, 550 islands (28 inhabited) form the Andaman group of islands, while the remaining 22 islands (10 inhabited) comprise the Nicobar group of islands. Both these formations are divided by the Ten Degree Channel, which is 150 km wide.
The most important islands in the Andaman group are North, Middle, and South Andaman – popularly known as Great Andaman. These are separated by narrow waterways. The former two comprise one administrative district and the latter the other. Smaller islands are dotted around these. Further south across Duncan Passage is Little Andaman. To the northeast of Port Blair is Ritchie’s Archipelago, in which lies Havelock Island (the most important tourist destination). Rising from the azure waters northeast of Ritchie’s Archipelago are two islands of volcanic origin – Narcondum Island and Barren Island. The latter has India’s only active volcano. The Nicobar group is split between Great Nicobar and Car Nicobar.
This archipelago of 572 islands was once a continuous mountain range stretching in a curve extending from Cape Negrais in Myanmar to Achin Head in the Sumatra peninsula of Indonesia. Cape Negrais itself was an extension of the Arakan Hill range, which is one of the series of ranges that run down the eastern Himalayas. The A&N islands are in fact much closer to Myanmar to the North and Indonesia (Sumatra) to the South than to the Indian mainland! Landfall – the Northern-most tip of the archipelago (in North Andaman) – is just 20 km from Coco Island of Myanmar, while Indira Point – the Southern-most of the archipelago (in Great Nicobar) – is about 80 km from the tip of Sumatra!
Cellular Jail – a story of struggle
The Cellular Jail, also known as ‘Kaala Paani’, was a colonial prison housing political prisoners exiled to this remote archipelago, and has been converted into a National Memorial now. Many notable dissidents were imprisoned here in solitary confinement and treated very cruelly. ‘Kaala Paani’ literally means ‘Black Water’. But here it meant ‘Kaal’ or fate that awaited a prisoner when banished here, and ‘Paani’ was indicative of the water that surrounded these islands and affording no means of escape – a combination of fate and all the surrounding water indicated that the prisoner’s time was up in this world!
The British began using the Andamans as a prison in the immediate aftermath of the 1857 Mutiny. After crushing the rebellion, many rebels were executed, and survivors were exiled for life to Andamans. Nearly 950 rebels were transported to the islands by 1868. More prisoners arrived as the settlement grew. The remote islands were considered to be a suitable place to punish freedom fighters. The convicts were used in chain gangs to construct prisons, buildings, and harbour facilities. Many died in this enterprise. The initial prison and hang house (now in ruins) was at Viper Island, which is now a tourist spot. By the late 19th century, the independence movement had picked momentum. The number of prisoners being sent to Andamans grew and the need for a high-security prison was felt. The administration concluded that transportation to Andamans was failing to achieve its purpose as prisoners preferred to go there rather than be incarcerated in mainland jails. It was recommended that a "penal stage" should exist in the transportation sentence, whereby transported prisoners were subjected to a period of harsh treatment upon arrival. The outcome was the Cellular Jail, described as "a place of exclusion and isolation within a more broadly constituted remote penal space".
The construction started in 1896 and was completed in 1906. The top of a hill was cut off to build the prison, with British officers and families staying in Ross Island (the administrative capital), opposite the prison. The original building was a puce-coloured brick structure. The bricks were brought from Burma (Myanmar). The Jail had seven wings spread like the spokes of a wheel. At the centre of the wheel was a tower (like an axis) that served as the intersection and was used by guards to keep watch on inmates. A single guard could supervise all seven wings from his vantage position. A large bell was kept in the tower to raise an alarm. Each wing had three stories upon completion. There were no dormitories and a total of 693 cells. Each cell was 4.5x2.7 metres or 13.5x7.5 feet in size with a ventilator located at a height of three metres. The name, ‘cellular jail’, is derived from the solitary cells that prevented any prisoner from communicating with any other. The spokes were so designed such that the face of a cell in a spoke saw the back of cells in another spoke.
Solitary confinement was implemented as the British desired to ensure that political prisoners and revolutionaries be isolated from each other. The Andamans served as the ideal setting to achieve this. While the high walls of the prison deterred most prisoners from trying to escape, some of them did try to make a break from time to time. Even if they weren’t captured, prisoners had nowhere to go – islands were uninhabited and hence no food would be available. They were also covered with dense tropical forest infested with mosquitoes leading to death, or the deep sea surrounding the islands were a huge deterrent in any escape attempt. Those who were caught were given the death penalty.
Among the famous inmates were Vinayak (Veer) Damodar Savarkar and his brother Babarao. The Savarkar brothers didn't know of each other being in the same jail for two years. Such was the level of solitary confinement! Hunger strikes by inmates during the 1930s called attention to their imprisonment and cruel treatment. Prisoners were subjected to a brutal work regime, punished severely, made to wear rough clothes, given thin gruel to eat, the small cells would stink, etc. At the intervention of Mahatma Gandhi and others, the British government decided to repatriate political prisoners from the Cellular Jail in 1937-38.
The Empire of Japan invaded A&N in March 1942. The Jail was then home to British prisoners, and the islands witnessed the brutality of Japanese invaders. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose unfurled the Indian national flag here in December 1943, and A&N became Azad Hind Force’s HQ. In October 1945, the British regained control with the end of World War II. Remnants of the Japanese invasion (bunkers) can be seen at Port Blair and Ross Island. Bombardment by the Japanese and the British in the battle to take control of the islands, and also due to an earthquake, destroyed two wings of the Cellular Jail.
Another two wings were demolished after India’s independence. Following protests from several former prisoners, the three remaining wings and central tower were converted into a National Memorial in 1969. The Govind Ballabh Pant Hospital was set up in the premises and is now a 500-bed hospital with 40 doctors. The Jail completed its centenary on 10th March 2006. Today, the memorial is a "must-visit" for tourists and students of history – most definitely for every Indian. The building is four storied and each floor except the fourth one is full of cells. There is very moving sound-and-light show (must see) that tells you the gory history in an hour (separate shows in Hindi and English). Guided tours of the Jail – archives, museum, cells, hang house (execution room), etc. – are also given. Veer Savarkar’s cell (on the second floor, in a corner overlooking the hang house) has been maintained with his bed and utensils kept there. An eternal flame burning near the entrance (with gas provided by Indian Oil) and a martyr’s column bear mute testimony to the sacrifices made within, while the banyan tree at the entrance is used as a symbolic witness of the horrors that were witnessed here. This tree was present even when before the hill was cut down to construct the Jail, and hence its usage as a witness!
This is a fact not known to many Indians. While this is technically Indian sovereign territory, geographically the A&N Islands are more South-East Asia. Only a dozen islands are open to tourists – Havelock Island is by far the most popular for its beaches (Radhanagar has been declared the best beach in South Asia by Time magazine) and diving, although Neil Island is slowly stepping up to the base. The Nicobar Islands are strictly off limits to tourists, as are tribal areas. All foreign nationals require a permit (Restricted Area Permit or Protected Area Permit) to visit A&N, which is easily available on arrival at Port Blair (or from Indian missions abroad or at various international airports in India), for a period of 30 days, and is extendable by 15 days, subject to permissions.
This is in addition to getting an Indian visa. Such restrictions are in place due to the highly sensitive nature of these islands’ geography and their importance to India’s security. NRIs/OCIs/PIOs are also required to get a permit to visit these places. Even Indian citizens who are not residents of these islands require an Inner Line Permit to enter a few of these places, since not all the inhabited islands are allowed to be accessed by tourists. These islands are still virgin in the sense of natural beauty and unpolluted environs, unexplored coral life, and aboriginal tribes, commanding a rarity in contrast to many other islands in the Indian Ocean.
Getting to paradise
The flight was peaceful and without turbulence. Almost two hours into the flight, as the flight lost altitude, we got our first glimpse of the paradise that we were visiting. Verdant islands with thick lush tropical forests, ringed by white sandy beaches, and further surrounded by coral reefs in azure waters – reefs that could be seen very clearly! The multiple range of hills look as though daubed by a brush dipped in shades of lavender, blue, and green. The sight was at once breath- taking and the coral beds in the innumerable bays are prominent features of this landscape that will make any artist reach out for his easel and palette. There are tidal creeks aplenty, while the coastline is heavily indented, thus providing many a natural harbour. That set the tone for the vacation that was to follow as the flight swooped down on the landing strip at Veer Savarkar International Airport in Port Blair.
This is a small airport with a few facilities that a modern traveller is used to – AC departure hall, with a small kiosk selling overpriced light snacks and drinks, and a souvenir shop. A large television at one corner kept people interested as it played out a “live” cricket match between India and Australia. Being a part of the Indian Navy’s facilities for the archipelago, there is an embargo on night landings and take-offs. The airport has a single runway of 3,290 metres (10,794 feet) in length, accommodating most narrow-body aircraft. There is a road across the runway and traffic is stopped for aircraft to take off/land, a la Gibraltar. All air traffic operations over Port Blair are undertaken by the Indian Navy, barring those of the civilian aircraft. The geography makes this a difficult airfield, as a hillock at one end means that planes can land or take off only in one direction. Winds change here every six months, so pilots have to either take off or land with strong tail winds.
The airport reminds one of so many places in India that share facilities with any of the arms of the Indian defence forces. The apron has been expanded in recent times, given the increase in tourist traffic, but flights still remain low. A new terminal building is now being constructed, and will be thrown open to the public sometime in 2018. More tourists will be able to fly in then, and hopefully airfares will drop. Currently, flights connect Port Blair to Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, New Delhi, and Bhubaneshwar. The other way to get to A&N is the sea route from Kolkata, Chennai, or Vishakapatnam – but the time spent on the ship would be no less than 60 hours!
Gateway to splendour
Port Blair is the largest city in A&N and is also the capital of this Union Territory – this bustling commercial hub serves as the gateway to these islands (see box: Sightseeing). The city was christened thus in honour of Lieutenant Archibald Blair of the British East India Company in 1789. Port Blair lies on the East coast of South Andaman Island. It is also the headquarters of the Andaman & Nicobar Command, the first integrated theatre command of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard), since the islands have an immense strategic value to India considering the activities of the Chinese Navy in the international waters around these islands. Hence, although the A&N islands are an environmentally sensitive region, its strategic importance in the present day context for India is extremely high.
Most of the islands, islets, coves, etc. around A&N have names from the British Raj – Neil Island, Havelock Island, Ross Island, Viper Island, Barren Island, Brother Island, Sister Island, Long Island, North Bay, Campbell Bay, Hut Bay, Pembroke Bay, McPherson Bay, et al. Scots would love to hear that Aberdeen Bazaar forms the centre of economic activity at Port Blair – but a bagpipe wouldn’t be heard here, while there is also no Loch close by! The main bus station is just west of Aberdeen Bazaar, the airport 4 km to the south-west, and the main passenger dock for ferries and cruise ships (Phoenix Bay jetty) is 1 km to the north-west. But it is not all British in these islands – you also have Radhanagar, Diglipur, Mayabunder, Bijaygarh, Madhuban, etc., due to the presence of a large number of Bengalis who settled here during the turmoil leading up to the 1971 War of Independence for Bangladesh.
Port Blair is no different from any other smaller Indian city, and you can see all the trappings of a rapidly expanding city in its small geographical expanse – fast-growing traffic that could get unruly, piled up garbage in some corners, modern buildings that don’t follow traditions, etc. Travel between islands is via small boats, ferries, helicopters, and sea planes (see ‘Infrastructure’). The populace essentially consists of people from all over India with no conflicts on region and religion. The major languages are Nicobari, Hindi, English, and Bengali, with considerable strains of Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam being heard too, given that people from these states made their way to these islands either by their own wont or forcefully long back. They now have their third or fourth generations here. The locals proudly claim that the crime rate is low.
The population is a friendly masala of settlers and tribal groups that have called these islands home for centuries now. The tribal groups are the Mongloid (Nicobarese and Shompen) inhabiting the Nicobar group, and Negrito (Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, Sentinelese) ethnic groups inhabiting the Andaman group. While the Nicobarese have embraced the challenges of Mother Nature and Father Time, and have integrated with the mainstream, the others haven’t done so. But all except the Sentinelese have come into contact with the administration. There are serious issues like the rapidly falling population of these tribes, and the impact of development on them (see box: Tribals).
Tourism – a GDP multiplier?
A&N’s GDP has been rising, and the pace of growth may seem quicker, coming as it does off a small base. Government services (Central as well as State government) and tourism are major contributors of GDP, followed by fishing, small scale industries (saw mills, rubber, handicrafts, etc.), and agriculture. As per locals, before the tsunami hit these islands in 2004, agriculture was a high 15% contributor, but since then has declined to 4-5%, given that a lot of arable land now finds itself under water – water that refuses to go away. The levels wax and wane with the tide, but these fields are of no use to the farmer now. This means they increasingly rely on tourism for their incomes.
Diving – keeping the fishes company!
Figure 1: Domestic Tourist movement
Source: Ministry of Tourism, IIFL Research
Snorkelling and scuba diving are the most popular activities in the Andamans. All you need for snorkelling is a mask (with breathing pipe) and a pair of fins, and it is an activity that can be enjoyed by the whole family together. Scuba diving, on the other hand, is a more complex activity, and involves a lot of preparation and a bit of training, even though you don’t need to know swimming to undertake the dive. The dive deep under water can be intimidating for most. But for some, it is a complete pleasurable activity that opens up an underwater vista with a kaleidoscope of bright colours, corals, schools of bright coloured fishes, and complete bliss.
There are a few sites around Port Blair for divers like at the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. The Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex also offers people the chance to go snorkelling, diving, or indulge in other water sports at a few places around Port Blair. Fish Rock – near Passage Island – is another wonderful place to dive. But some of the best sites in a cluster are found near Havelock. There are organisations like Barefoot who conduct PADI-accredited dive courses at a few sites around Havelock and Neil Island. These can range from fun diving courses (like the one I did) to focused 4-day courses that teach you to dive deep down at places where the dive depth can be in excess of 50 metres and you could have sharks for company.
Figure 2: GDP contribution of various Indian states/UTs
|Nominal GDP (fc), Rs. Bn||FY05||FY06||FY07||FY08||FY09||FY10||FY11||FY12||FY13||FY14||Share of GDP (%)|
|Andhra Pradesh (undivided)||2,247||2,559||3,010||3,648||4,268||4,768||5,838||6,626||7,544||8,548||8.3|
|Jammu & Kashmir||273||299||332||371||423||484||581||682||776||873||0.9|
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