Visiting the Andaman Islands is a dream of every Keralite who has watched the Malayalam film 'Kaalapani.' The easiest way to reach the place from Kerala is to take a flight from Kochi airport. A striking feature of the arrival at the Veer Savarkar airport at Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the evening is that dusk sets in early.
Spend the night at a hotel and next morning start the tour. Andaman and Nicobar comprise 555 islands in the north-east area of the Bay of Bengal. However, there is human habitation only on 37 islands. History says that the Chola kings used the Andaman as a naval base during their conquest of the Sumatra islands in 1000 AD.
It is believed that the place 'Angamanain' mentioned by Marco Polo in his travel diaries is Andaman.
However, the area became connected with the outside world only by 1789, when the British set up their colony there. This led to the arrival of people from all parts of India at the islands. Now, languages like Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, and English can be heard here. In addition, local tribal tongues like Nicobarese and Bhutu are also spoken.
Travellers can enjoy the sights at Andaman, but they are barred from entering the Nicobar Islands.
The cellular jail
There are several shops and eateries owned by Keralites in Andaman which are a good option for breakfast. Local buses are available to the Cellular Jail. Most buses display boards related to Kerala. For instance, Manjeri, Malappuram, Calicut, Mannarkkad, Wandoor etc. Several people who were relocated to Andaman from Malabar after the riots of 1921 named their new settlements after their native place.
The Cellular Jail is located in Port Blair and in front of the entrance is the sea. Entry time for visitors is from 9.30 am to 7 pm. The main gate leads to the museum where utensils and clothes used by inmates are displayed, along with details regarding the jail.
The construction of the jail was completed in 1906. It was built using bricks brought from Burma (now Myanmar) and there are 698 cells on three floors. The cells have been designed to prevent any contact between inmates and escape from the jail was impossible. Even if any prisoner managed to scale the walls, he would be greeted by the wide expanse of the sea and hostile tribal people.
The jail came into the possession of the Japanese in 1942 during World War II. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose reached the jail in 1943 and hoisted the tricolour for the first time on Indian soil. Numerous freedom fighters lodged in the jail were subsequently released.
However, the British recaptured the jail in 1945 and Indian government gained control over the property after Independence.
A light and sound show is staged at the jail at 6 pm every day. It highlights the life of various freedom fighters in the voices of actor Om Puri and others.
From the jail, visitors can head to the various interesting museums in Port Blair, among which the Maritime Museum under the Indian Navy is considered the best. All details about Andaman and the native tribal folk are displayed at the Navy’s museum. Other notable museums are the Anthropological Survey of India Museum and Fisheries Museum.
Rose Island, mud volcano
Rose Island was home to the luxury residences of the British in Andaman. It can be seen in the distance surrounded by the waters from the entrance of the Cellular Jail. Its facilities once matched those of any town in England, but an earthquake of 1941 turned life upside down. At present, Rose Island is a ghost town.
At 6 pm every day, a visual show is organised here dealing with the history of the place. However, no one is allowed to stay on the island at night.
Baratang, around 110 km from Port Blair, is another interesting spot in Andaman. The trip to the place starts at 3 am and involves a three-hour journey through dense forest which is reserved for Jarwa tribals. The vehicles move in a convoy as a legislation introduced in 2004 imposes strict restrictions on visitors. Taking photos of Jarwa Adivasis and supplying food and drink to them is prohibited.
Visitors head to Baratang to see the limestone cave and mud volcano. A place where hot climate is experienced, crocodiles abound in the coastal areas of the island which are covered with mangroves. Warning boards can be seen everywhere against venturing into the waters.
From Nilambur jetty, boats to the limestone cave are available. Only very limited number of Keralites make this trip. Some among them would be groups of youths from Malappuram and other places in north Kerala who take a train to Chennai and a ship to the Andamans from there. The Chennai – Port Blair ship journey lasts about three days; 60 hours to be precise.
The 15-minute boat trip from Nilambur covers narrow canals flanked by mangroves. After getting down from the boat, visitors have to walk through the forest, passing a village called Nayedara along the way. Eight families hailing from Jharkhand are the residents of this un-electrified place. Numbering about 45, the only earnings of the people here come from sales of soft drinks to visitors heading to the limestone cave.
Several signs of the place having been submerged under the sea exist. A further on, a board indicates that ‘Limestone cave’ is right ahead. The passage leading to the cave is also covered with limestone. Formation of limestone takes place over millions of years from the deposits of the shells of marine creatures, their skeletons and corals on sea bed. They look like some liquid substance that has solidified all of a sudden.
To visit mud volcano, travellers have to head back to Nilambur jetty. A small settlement, Nilambur has very limited facilities. One has to board a jeep to travel to the volcano, which is about 8 km along the Diglipur Road. It is located 100 m off the main stretch. Of the 11 volcanoes in Andaman Islands, eight are located in Baratang.
A fence has been set up around the volcano to prevent people from approaching it. The volcano often spews out ash and mud violently.
Dream beaches at Havelock Island
A cruise lasting about two-and-a-half hours takes travellers to Havelock Island. Entry to the ship is allowed only after strict checks. Most of the passengers would be tourists hailing from north India and celebrations start as soon as they step into the ship. Both the young and old enjoy dancing and the journey time passes without anybody noticing it.
A beautiful place, Havelock Island has several attractions like clear waters making the sea bed visible, thriving marine life and coral reefs, among others. In addition, water sports and stunning beaches await visitors.
The highlight is scuba diving for which Rs 3,000 is charged per head. However, blood pressure patients and those who would be travelling by air within six hours are not allowed to scuba dive. A special outfit is supplied for the purpose and a 20-minute training is given before the dive starts. Tourists can observe fish and other sea life at close quarters up to a depth of 8-9 metres.
Radha Nagar beach, named the ‘Most beautiful beach in Asia’ by ‘Time’ magazine can be the next destination. It is reached in 30 minutes along a path surrounded by coconut groves. There are sheet-covered dwellings here and there. The sight of the long Radha Nagar beach is amazing and the huge paddock trees line one side. Some of the trees have been uprooted and lie across the beach, adding to its beauty. The water at the beach is shallow, which is the main attraction here. The sight of the setting sun from Radha Nagar is stunning.
However, for enjoying the best views of sunrise, one has to head to Kala Pathar beach.
Another must-see spot in Havelock Island is the Elephant beach. But the place has no connection with any elephant. A thrilling two-km trek through the forest thick with paddock and gurjan trees takes you to this beach. Everywhere in the forest, Andaman wood pigeon, the official bird of Andaman, makes its presence felt with its loud cries. This bird is much different from ordinary pigeons. It spends almost the entire time on trees and rarely flies down to the ground.
Clear water is the highlight of Elephant beach along with a tree that has shed all its leaves. The view of the sky too is amazing. Tourists can engage themselves in ‘underwater walking’ here. A special helmet is fixed on the head. It is waterproof and a tube connects it to an oxygen cylinder which is kept at sea level. The tourist can then head to the sea-floor and walk along it and enjoy the sights under the sea. A guide will accompany the tourist to ensure safety. Snorkelling and a trip in boats with transparent bottom are other attractions.
Neil Island is a 1.5 hour cruise from Havelock Island. The sea here has the colour of the precious stone cat’s eye. Fish even at the bottom of the sea can be clearly seen. The island, which is just 13 km across, is rich in coral reefs and biodiversity. A small island 36 km from Port Blair, it is known as the vegetable basket of Andaman. There are coconut and mango trees everywhere on Neil Island.
Several hotels here are owned by Bengalis and an attraction is the Howrah Bridge to where auto-rickshaws are available. After getting down from the auto, a walk through mango groves takes you to an area laid with lime stones. Right ahead is the sea and the best time to visit is during low tide. Everywhere there are coral reefs and settlers from Bengal have named the place as Howrah Bridge. Tourists enjoy taking stunning photos from the Howrah Bridge.
There are several other beaches also at Andaman like Lakshmanpur and Bharathpur, which can be covered in another trip.
Port Blair is connected with Chennai by air as well as ship. The sea journey takes about 60 hours. An information, publicity and tourism (IP&T) office functions to help travellers. All facilities are provided here. No special permission is needed to visit Andaman.
For more details, contact Information, Publicity and Tourism (IP&T), Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands.