The Andamans Beckon By Pamela Cheema
It was like a call from the past. “Why don’t we meet up for a reunion of old friends at Port Blair in the Andaman’s?” chirped an old friend. Port Blair……. memories of the quiet capital of densely forested islands, with rain forests millions of years old, surged back through the mists of time. Memories are inexorable, drawing you back powerfully to experiences and lives well-lived in the past, often with a promise of renewal of those ties in the future.
Soon we were winging our way to Port Blair on a Go Air flight in the wee hours of the morning, on a plane packed to capacity with eager tourists. The duration of this non-stop Go Air flight is 3 hrs 20 minutes and it touches down at Veer Savarkar International Airport, Port Blair.
As we stepped on the tarmac we gazed with amazement at the modern airport, far removed from the decrepit and shambolic airport we had left behind 23 years ago! A short taxi ride down smooth roads and soon we were at our hotel, Andaman Anchorage, in the convivial company of old friends, backslapping and swapping memories, suffused in the warm glow of old friendships.
The Andaman and Nicobar islands form an archipelago of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal with India to the west and Myanmar to the north and the east. Port Blair is the capital of this chain of islands. The islands are one of the few union territories in the country, with some special facilities being offered to its residents like stupendously low air fares of Rs 4800 (one way) to any part of India and still lower fares for students! There are 14 or 15 flights of various airlines which land at Port Blair every day, increasing the connectivity of the islands to mainland India.
Six aboriginal tribes inhabit the Andaman and Nicobar islands, of which four live in the Andamans and two in the Nicobar group. The tribes in the Andamans comprise of the Jarawas , the Great Andamanese, the Onge and the Sentinelese who live on Sentinal Island and fiercely oppose any contact with civilization. The Shompen and the Nicobarese are scattered in the Nicobar group of islands. The tribals have dwelt undisturbed on these islands for around sixty thousand years! The government of India, wisely, dos not permit any interaction with the tribals; shooting pictures of the tribes is a punishable offence.
The Cellular Jail
The next morning we cruised around Port Blair, stopping first at the infamous Cellular Jail which housed political prisoners and penal convicts during the British Raj. The jail, which is now a national monument, was constructed in such a way that prisoners had no direct means of communicating with each other. The construction of the jail began in 1893 and was completed in 1906 with the merciless use of prisoners as labour.
The administration of the islands runs a popular son et lumiere show at the jail which explains eloquently the history of the jail and the inhuman struggles of the prisoners lodged in its jails.
Near Port Blair is Havelock Island, a popular tourist getaway. The island is accessible only by ferry; we traveled by the ferries, Green Ocean 1 and Green Ocean 2, through the deep blue waters of the Andaman Sea to reach the island. Flying fish in the light, quicksilver motions, dived through the surf-crested waves as the ferry chugged peacefully through the ocean.
Havelock has some of best diving sites in Asia and one of the finest beaches in the world-the Radhanagar beach. The beach is pristine, with fine white sand sloping gently into the sea, clear, calm waters and happily, few people on the beach!
On to Rangat
The Andaman islands are divided into the South Andamans, Middle Andamans and the North Andamans and our trip to Rangat, the largest town in the Middle Andamans, will remain a special feature of this holiday to the islands. Through the road trip to Rangat on the Andaman Trunk Road we saw a microcosm of life in the Andamans, a view of virgin rain forests and a quick glimpse of the Jarawas, one of the original inhabitants of the island.
To reach Rangat, we boarded ferries at Bamboo Flat, Middle Strait and Gandhi Ghat and sped through dark, almost impenetrable forests inhabited by the Jarawas. At Baratang, we visited one of the most incredibly beautiful mangrove forests I have ever seen. The Andaman administration has preserved the biodiversity of the islands impeccably, which we on the mainland can emulate! On the way back to Port Blair, we even had a glimpse of a few Jarawa tribals chatting happily, possibly at the end of a day-long hunt!
The Andaman and Nicobar islands are a national treasure and there is much that mainland India, currently bitterly embroiled in environmental and social disputes, can learn from this outpost on one of its last frontiers.
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