The mention of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, also known as Emerald Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, conjures up visions of freedom fighters deported to these far-off islands as a punishment for revolting against the colonial rule. But during our visit (before the tsunami) to Port Blair, the capital, we found, besides being replete with history they have everything to offer to a holiday lover.
Our flight from Chennai landed at the Veer Savarkar airport in less than two hours and as we emerged, the fresh island air beckoned us, so did our guide with his warm smile. The short journey to our hotel, Megapode Nest, which was named after a Nicobari bird, was rather bumpy but when we reached the hotel nestled in beautiful surroundings on the top of a hillock, we thought it did justice to its name.
Our air-conditioned cottage with a thatched roof (it had three fans and eleven lights) and a balcony facing the bay, with Ross island on the right and Mount Harriet on the left was picture perfect. Cars were seen plying on the road down below our cottage, and a ship sailed through what looked like a sheet of gray cement, the still waters of the bay appeared so from a distance.
Our first excursion for the day was to Viper island, in a cruise from Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park which has a water sports complex and a children’s park as well. We had a glimpse of the harbour, the Chatham Saw Mill, (established in 1883), Mount Harriet, before finally reaching Viper island at the end of 45 minutes.
This is a tiny, serene, beautiful island situated inside Port Blair Harbour. It derives its name from the vessel Viper in which Lt Archibald Blair came to the islands in 1789 with the purpose of establishing a Penal Settlement. Before the Cellular Jail was built, this red-coloured jail, built by the British during 1864-1867 on a hillock, served as a prison to many freedom fighters including Veer Savarkar and Nanigopal. Dangerous convicts found guilty of violating the rules of the Penal Settlement were put in fetters and forced to work with their fetters on.
That evening, we had an experience of reliving history, the saga of the freedom movement brought through a sixty-minute sound and light show, son-et-lumiere, at the Cellular Jail. The show began with a commentary on how the islands got their name – Mythologically the name Andaman is presumed to be derived from Hanuman who is believed to have set foot on the island before going to Sri Lanka (Malays called him Handuman).
Next day we sailed to Ross island, the citadel of British power, built by the so-called convicts into a self-contained town with government offices, an Anglican church, houses for British and Indian officers, a printing press, clubs, a swimming pool, tennis court, a bakery, a temple and a bazaar. It was known as The Paris of the East for its grandeur and splendour, but now all that remains of the island are broken walls of these buildings supported by a thick growth of peepul trees. The only structure that has retained its shape is the church on the hilltop. The Ross Memorial Museum, ‘Smritika’ set up in 1993, has beautiful pictures adorning its walls which speak of the glory the island once boasted of. Also, there is a video show about this in the once existing bakery which is transformed into a modern building now.
We reached Mount Harriet, summer headquarters of the chief commissioner during the British raj, covering a distance of 55 km partly by a ferry from Chatham jetty and partly by road. It was lined by palm trees and stretches of little forests. Some tourists transported their cars in cargo vessels from the jetty and motored to the hilltop. From the different lookouts all the way to the top we could savour the scenic surroundings and once we reached the top most point, it was sheer ecstasy viewing the mist-covered outer islands and the azure sea. Mount Harriet is the highest peak in the Southern Andamans, 365 meters high and one can find time standing still while enjoying the cool breeze and the sound of chirping birds. The adventurous can trek from Bambooflat to Mount Harriet and from there up to Madhuban through a nature trail and spot rare endemic birds, animals and butterflies.
We headed for Chidiya Tapu, an hour’s drive from Port Blair. After driving through lush green mangroves and forest cover we arrived at the most beautiful beach I had ever seen! The gigantic trees here appeared to touch the skies, the silky sand, the bluish green waters and the distant islands added to the quiet charm of the place But when I found no birds in sight and only holiday makers standing in the waters I started wondering how the place got its name.
I found Corbyn’s Cove, the palm-fringed beach nearer Port Blair we visited the next evening, had a picturesque quality of its own, and it appeared to be a swimmer’s paradise with several honeymooners taking a plunge here which was known for its safe waters. But if you wish to have a peep at the marine life, head to North Bay at the foothills of Mount Harriet in a cruise and transfer yourself to a glass bottom dingy in the midst of the sea which takes you to the island. (You have to do some acrobatics to climb on to the boat) .For those interested in snorkelling and scuba diving and watching the sunset, I suggest a visit to the Havelock island, the two-hour-long cruise and the turbulent sea notwithstanding.
A city tour of Port Blair also has its attractions. We found The Cellular Jail, a national memorial now, a marvellous structure for its symmetry and design. The jail was completed in 1906 and had seven prongs, but now only three are left. Veer Savarkar’s cell on the third floor has his garlanded picture hung on the wall.
The Anthropological Museum, The Naval Marine Museum, Forest Museum and Chatham Saw Mill, (the oldest functioning saw mill) are worth a visit. We observed people of the island are honest and sincere, and appeared to match the pristine nature of the place.
Location – Bay of Bengal
Capital – Port Blair.
Climate – Tropical throughout the year with humidity relatively high
Best season – Oct-May
Port Blair is connected with Chennai and Kolkata by air, by sea from Chennai, Kolkata, and Visakhapatnam and back. The voyage takes about 50 to 60 hours.
N Meera Raghavendra Rao