Story by Aparna Kongot | Visuals by Mahesh Haridevan

Rooted to the past — Andaman Isles

Port Blair, Ross & Chatham Island


Our fights to be free — today
Free to express. Free the woman. Free to choose your own gender and marry irrespective of it. Free the nipple. Free the crop from chemicals. Free to eat what you like, even the holy cow. Free the misery of the temple elephant. Free the air from carbon monoxide. Free the refugees to cross borders. Free the roads of traffic. Free the farmers from debt.
To be free is a condition essential to our survival. Every fight for this, big or small gets dignified by the belief in its purpose. In its execution are calls for grit and sacrifice.

काला पानी — Kālā Pānī

Japanese war bunkers with cosmetic makeovers punctuated the historic landmarks in Port Blair. This was a veiled reminder of Port Blair’s grim times during India’s struggle for freedom from the British which intersected with the power battle of the axis and allies during World war II. When Japan entered the island and chased away the British, they soon put to rest all hopes for liberation that Indian freedom fighters and the local island tribals had. Far from being saviours, they proved to be such tyrants that when the British came back to claim the island again, some locals are even said to have helped them.

India’s freedom struggle had brought rebels and visionaries from across the country to this isolated island, to be held as prisoners along with convicts in the Cellular Prison —Kālā Pānī — Black Waters. With an architecture resembling the hub and spokes, it gave a great vantage point for the guardians of the prison to keep watch on the prisoners.

The room which witnessed many hangings.
Prisoners chained together
The sound and light show — a tribute to the struggles of the freedom fighters

Ross Island, a 10 minute ferry ride from Port Blair was the earlier capital of the Andamans during the time of the British. Complete with royal homes, dance halls, tennis courts, shops, church, cemetery and so on the British had comfortably settled created a home in this beautiful island and made it their headquarters. The island is also said to have taken the brunt of the Tsunami thereby protecting Port Blair.

Grand interiors of the government and administrative houses of the British

Today, nobody lives here. The island is in ruins and the Indian defence is trying its best to maintain it. While the ruins may symbolise a happy end to the British rule and later the Japanese, it is also a reminder of the final remains of structures hand built by chained and tortured Indian freedom fighters. An unsettling quietness seeped into me as I walked through the very soil that has witnessed the relentless strength of the human spirit.

We spent an hour exploring this incredible island. Huge trees suspended in mid air stood on top of the ruined buildings, embracing them and holding the structure and the past together. Surrounded by the sea with the sound of waves, it was a hauntingly surreal setting. Beautiful enough to ease me out from the clutches of history into the wonders of today.

Japanese Bunkers
Trying to check the strength of the roots which hold the fragile structures
One of the Community halls
Once a dance floor with wooden decks of the British
Overlooking Port Blair

Once the largest and oldest in Asia, dating back to 1789, Chatham Saw mill is a place where timber is stored in the salty seas of the water and gets naturally treated, before they go through metal blades, quality checks to get graded into wooden blocks that are then auctioned by the government. Set up by the British, it was bombed and destroyed by the Japanese during the second world war only to be restored again.

Chatham bombarded by the Japanese in the World War II (image courtesy: museum archives)

Just more than half a century ago, a journey to this remote island promised a lifetime laced with pain, grief, terror, hope, disgust, humiliation and losing sanity. Today the very journey is to an exotic island with promises of love, marine adventure, serene beauty, blue beaches, wild jungles and rich history.
Amen to the power of the fight to be free.

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Related Links
Corbyns cove, Baratang, Wandoor Beach, Chidiya Tapu
Story on Born Locals — Andaman Isles
Stay
Hotel Shompen INR 2500 per night via goibibo
Travel
Flight from Bangalore to Andamans (Return) INR 15000
per head
Season
Monsoon (early August), Pleasant weather with breeze with light — heavy showers for 2 out of 7 days
Off season travel
Pros: Cheaper rates for travel and stay, lesser tourists
Cons: Private ferries and few adventure activities are shut, unpredictable weather that could ruin plans
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