Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 04/1/06 12:11 PM

Travel: Andaman Islands


Paradise islands

More than a year after the tsunami, the Andaman and  Nicobar islands are seeing a new rush of visitors. Sheila Kumar is among them

The tsunami of December 2004 savaged the Nicobar Islands, and did not spare the Andamans either. A series of unrelenting tremblers inflicted damage on roads and buildings, submerged lighthouses and smaller islets, wreaked havoc on boats and people.

However, with over 60 per cent of the local population dependant on tourism, it wasn’t long before the Andamans set themselves right. Today, the Information, Publicity and Tourism Department of Andaman and Nicobar tourism is not holding back on publicity.

The catch phrase of the television commercial: ‘Emerald. Blue. And You.’ The ‘tsunami damage’ just makes for another facet of tourism!

Balmy weather, swaying palms, white sand beaches, coral reefs laid out just so, and a variety of delicious seafood are an invitation from the island. However, be warned: 60 per cent of the islands are closed to tourists for security reasons and permits are required to visit the islands and reserves.

Even Indians require a special pass to trawl the Nicobar Islands, which the Government of India declared an Aboriginal Tribal Reserve Area in 1957.

The former British penal colony consists of more than 550 islands, some really small, most with sandy beaches, shallow coves, dense tropical vegetation, mountain peaks and lush rainforests. I went on a five-day trip, sight-seeing at a relaxed pace. Let me give you a guided tour.


Day One: I saved the sunny day for Port Blair and the surrounding region. The room at the Circuit
Guest House extends into a splendid balcony view of the fascinating Aberdeen Jetty with its hoary old cannon and its far-reaching promenades that circle the waters in the bay.

By night, the jetty is awash with lights; little boats bobbing up and down in the inky waters; people strolling around; jhalmuri (spicy puffed rice) and candy floss vendors plying a brisk trade. Just a stone’s throw away is the Lighthouse, by far the best seafood restaurant in Port Blair, where platters of live fish are brought to you to inspect and select.

To the northeast of the jetty lies Ross Island, with a candy-striped, green-canopied lighthouse to one side. Boats take tourists to the island, controlled by the Indian Navy, from Aberdeen Jetty thrice a day.

The small island,which was once house to the officers of the British Empire posted to the Andamans, bears an eerie air now. It’s all there – Officer’s Mess, tennis and squash courts, ballroom, church, bakery, hospital, bazaar, residential quarters, cemetery – but in the form of moss-and-brick skeletons.

Gigantic roots of banyan trees support the bricks; at places, the bricks themselves have fallen but the roots still retain their shapes. To the far end of Ross Island stand the Japanese bunkers, ugly concrete monstrosities that face Aberdeen Jetty, reminders of the time the Japanese had take over the islands.


Day Two: More beachcombing today. Not all the beaches in the Andamans are a lotus-eater’s delight, many being tidal beaches festooned with rocks and boulders, unending flat stretches of
sand leading to foamy waves.

Corbyn’s Cove, a shallow beach too close to a quarry for comfort, doesn’t have clean waters washing in, yet it’s popular with Indian tourists. Surprisingly, no one minds sharing the beach with stray cows.

Havelock Island, 58 km away from Port Blair, is the ‘best beach you can get to in Asia’, voted Beach
No. 7 by TIME magazine in November 2004, a month before the tsunami. Left untouched by the disaster, Havelock has a good stretch of white sand, an outlying hedge of coral reefs, and waters full of large fish – you can occasionally see dolphin s here.

Glass-bottomed boats take you a little further out to gaze upon the ocean floor bright with blue fish, pink starfish, tiger-striped fish, sea slugs and coral reefs. Visiting Havelock Island means a five-hour boat ride from the Phoenix Bay Jetty, and two hours by air-conditioned speedboat from the Phoenix Bar jetty at Port Blair.

Don’t try to rush back the same day as Havelock needs to be experienced at leisure.

Other tourist beach havens include Long Island, Neil Island, Mayabunder, Cinque, Diglipur, Little Andamans and Rangat.

Barren Island has a deceptive name – it is one of the densest forests in the area. It also has India’s only active volcano that was last seen in its full fury in 1994, and is now spewing fire again. Barren Island, unfortunately, is not open to tourists.

Day Three: Today, I take a pleasant car ride through the Jarawa reserve of Jirikatang and then a ferry to the mangrove-ringed isle of Baratang.

The indigenous tribes of the Andamans are some of the oldest known inhabitants on earth. There are six tribes: the Jarawas, the Shompen, the Sentinelese, the Onge, the Great Andamanese and
the Nicobarese.

Islanders tell you ‘the best sighting you can get of them is in the early hours of the morning
before the sun comes out’, leading you to wonder whether they are talking of human beings or animals.

This impression is reinforced when you come upon signboards that repeatedly warn you against ‘feeding the tribals’. Until a decade ago, the Jarawas were anything but friendly. They used to climb the tall treesand unleash arrows on vehicles.

Even today, vehicles go into the reserve with armed guards. And as the Jarawas are extremely wary of camera flashes (a wary Jarawa is not a good thing), photography is prohibited.

However, the inexorable tide of civilisation has had its way with the Mongoloid Jarawas, too. I find some of them in T-shirts and shorts, striking poses in a decidedly tutored fashion and, sadly, begging for food.

Baratang has mud volcanoes that wreak devastation, the killer clay stifling and strangling all vegetation in its path. The mud volcanoes are bubbling again, warning of imminent spewing. The waters here are full of hammerhead sharks, manta rays, dog-toothed tuna and leather-backed turtles.

The expanse of mangroves that hedge the Baratang waters has withstood the tsunami and protected the forests. At Nayadera on Baratang, stands a fascinating and recently discovered limestone cave full of stalactites and stalagmites (calcium deposits of various shapes and sizes).


Day Four: Back in Port Blair, I spend the morning exploring the Cellular Jail. The sunshine beaming down on the two remaining wings of the original seven in the prison and the occasional glimpse of turquoise waters cannot dispel the air of silent suffering still present here.

The cells, which held hundreds of freedom fighters, are stark and empty. The gallery with its hoard of old photographs of the Andamans is moving, as is the light-and-sound show staged every evening, in Hindi and English.

Later, I take a boat ride out to Viper Island (yes, it was once full of snakes) to see the eerie gallows and prison that preceded the Cellular Jail.

Other tourist draws in Port Blair include India’s largest saw mill at Chatham (an island that is now part of the mainland in the Andamans, yet called Chatham Island); the Samudrika Museum run by the Indian Navy which offers interesting insights into the history of the Andamans, its ecosystem and marine life; the Sippighat Agricultural Farm, a sprawl of over 80 acres growing cloves, cinnamon, pepper and coconuts; the Anthropological Museum; and Chidiya Tapu, a popular beachfront.

Day Five: All I did on the last day in the Andamans is relax. Laze. Admire the ceaseless waves. Watch the palms sway. And bid a silent and reluctant goodbye to this beautiful place.




The temperature stays fairly even most of the year, between 22ºC and 33ºC. There are two rainy seasons, one from June to mid-September and the other from November to mid-December. December and January are the busiest; you’ll do well to avoid that rush.

By air: Indian Airlines, Jet Airways have regular flights from Kolkata and Chennai to Port Blair. Air Deccan too has daily Chennai-Port Blair flights.

By sea: Boats ply these routes as well, though it’s a long 60 hours from Chennai and 66 hours from Kolkata. Passenger ships head for Port Blair from Visakhapatnam too.

To learn more, contact Shipping House or Andaman & Nicobar Administration.

Port Blair has a reasonably priced taxi service. Inter-island travel is on motorised boats. Taxis
can be hired from Aberdeen Bazaar.

Citi King Palace at Supply Line, Port Blair;
Tel: 01382-233754, 233320, 230766;
Fax: 01382-233166; Tariff: Rs 800 to Rs 1,200;
Email: [email protected]

Hotel Gem Continental at Goal Ghar, Port Blair;
Tel: 01382-234534, 237537; Tariff: AC Deluxe Rs 1,200;
Email:[email protected]

The Directorate of Tourism offers accommodation at
affordable prices at Andaman Teal House, Hornbill Nest
and Sainik Vishram Ghar at Port Blair; Dolphin Yatri Niwas
at Havelock Island; Hawabill Nest at Neil Island; Hawksbill
Nest at Rangat; Swiftlet Nest at Mayabunder and Turtle
Resort at Diglipur. Andaman & Nicobar Islands Integrated
Development Corporation (ANIIDCO) runs the Megapode
Nest/Tourist Home Complex at Port Blair. Reservations:
Director of Tourism, A&N Administration,
Port Blair – 744101. Director Information, Publicity and
Tourism, Tel: 01382-230933. Email: [email protected]

The Directorate of Tourism Offices of the Andamans are
in Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata.

The Andaman and Nicobar Tourist Office in Port Blair has
information on tours and ferry schedules. There is a tourist
counter at the airport, which provides information about
accommodation and sites on South Andaman Island as well.


Featured in Harmony Magazine April 2006

Other Andaman articles of mine for you to read:

Travel: Ross Island, Andamans

Book review: The Last Wave by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Book review: Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup


Aberdeen JettyAndamansCellular JailChidiya TapuCinqueCorbyn's CoveDiglipurHarmony magazineHavelock islandJarawasLittle Andamans and Rangat.Long IslandMayabunderNeil IslandPort BlairRoss IslandSamudrika Museumthe Great Andamanese and the Nicobarese.the Ongethe Sentinelesethe ShompenViper Island

Sheila Kumar • April 1, 2006

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