Marooned in the Islands of Andamans
A beautiful archipelago in the Bay of Bengal
The chance to holiday in a secluded island right in the middle of the Bay of Bengal came calling in the month of October 2007 when a motley crew of anthropologists from Australia’s Griffith University visited the bewitching island of Andaman & Nicobar. I was entrusted with the responsibility of guiding the entire team, consisting of 6 members on their weeklong tour to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. They had come with the principal aim of carrying out anthropological research on the island tribes.
We departed by the morning’s Jet Airways flight to Port Blair from Kolkata and checked in at the impressive Peerless Resort located strategically at Corbyn’s Cove.
Andaman & Nicobar Islands consists of a string of over 300 richly forested tropical islands that extends almost to the tip of Sumatra. These bewitchingly beautiful islands are inhabited by several distinct tribes having physiognomies and speaking different languages.
If one looks back to the history of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, they were annexed by the Marathas in the late 17th century. If historical records are anything to go by, the Islands served as the base of the Maratha Admiral – Kanhoji Angre whose naval fleet harassed the might of the British, Dutch and Portuguese merchant vessels of that time. It is believed that Admiral Angre even managed to capture the then British Governor of erstwhile Bombay’s yacht in the year 1713 and released it only after a hefty ransom was paid to him.
Admiral Angre’s hold on the islands was so strong that he remained undefeated until his death in the year 1729. It was only in the 19th century that the British East India Company were able to annex the Islands and initially served as a penal colony for India’s freedom fighters. The notorious Cellular Jail at Port Blair still stands testimony to the British East India Company’s brutal ways of treating freedom fighters.
The Islands were for some time under the occupation of the Japanese army, but they had to retreat as the local tribes took to arms and guerrilla activities against them. Ultimately, with India’s independence the Islands were incorporated into the Indian Union.
Given the fragile eco-system of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands along with the fast disappearance of the indigenous tribes of the Islands, the government of India has been carefully attending to meet the specific needs of the Islands through a well chalked out plan of Tourism activity with due regard to the “Carrying Capacity” of the Islands. One might even use the term “Restricted Tourism”, which is what is being practiced today in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. This means that at no point of time, are the Islands overcrowded.
The team of Anthropological experts from Australia’s Griffith University had come with the intention of conducting investigative research on the fast vanishing tribes of the Islands. The Islands three principal tribes – The Onges, the Nicobaris and the Shompens have attracted the attention of the world’s Anthropological scientists for sometime now. Many renowned scientists have provided their blueprint for the survival of these unique tribes.
As part of the team’s strategy to have live interactions with the tribals meant that we had to travel to remote areas like the Little Andaman that is the bastion of the Onges tribe, the Car Nicobar – bastion of the Nicobaris tribe while the Shompens are natives of Great Nicobar. We had chartered a vessel from the local administration so as to aid us in our Island hopping activities.
The first couple of days were indeed tiresome as it involved lots of traveling, mostly to remote Islands where even today you will come across dark complexioned tribal hunters who wear no clothes other than the fringe genital decorations. But as the days went by, the Australian scientists were able to extract much of the information they wanted from the tribes and settled down to carry out their Investigative Reporting with their counterparts headquartered in Australia.
One glaring fact that was unearthed by the Australian team was that the government’s efforts to develop the islands economically by way of encouraging immigration from mainland India, particularly from the state of Tamil Nadu had pushed the population of these islands to over 350,000 in just over a period of two decades. In their observation, the Australian scientists had concluded that the island’s ethnic culture was about to be swamped by the culture of mainland India.
Controversies aside, Andaman is a paradise beach destination. The presence of big hotel chains like the Sinclairs, the Centaur, Peerless Resort etc… have already made their presence felt in the Islands.
As for the climate, there is very little seasonal variation. Continuous sea breeze keeps the temperatures within the range of 23-31 Degree Celsius but humidity stays around 80% all year round. The southwest monsoons visit the Islands between mid May and October and the northeast monsoons between November and January.
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands are considered to be the abode of India’s richest coral reef eco-system. Here we found out that the pristine beauty of nature has been well preserved and some of the most magnificent and unpolluted beaches can be found here. The package of beautiful coral beaches, stunning landscape, splendid isolation and a plethora of water sports and exotic sea food options kept us spellbound throughout our trip to this incredible cluster of Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
The Andamans comprises of five islands grouped together and is referred to as the Great Andamans. Whereas down south it is called the Little Andamans which comprises of the Ritchie Archipelago and the Labyrinth Island. The Nicobar Island consists of 19 Islands where the aborigine people reside.
As we found out, holidaying in Andamans is not just confined to the beaches and islands alone. In fact, there is a judicious mix of history and anthropology that makes it a place worth visiting for both the serious traveler as well as the fun and fancy-free.
I personally loved the capital city of Port Blair, which is a fine blend of history and modernity and offers all the charms expected of a tropical paradise – well planned streets, recreation centers, cozy restaurants, exciting water sports along with the colossal edifice of the Cellular Jail.
Some of the finest beach properties are located in and around Port Blair. The Corbyn’s Cove Tourism Complex, where the exquisite Peerless Resort is located was the place where we stayed as guests. It is easily one of the most sought after resort and is renowned for its tropical cocktails and beach barbecues together with the facility of horse riding along the bay.
Other properties that lure the tourists are Megadope Nest, Andaman Beach Resort, Bay Island Hotel, Sinclairs Bay View, Tourist Home and others. All these properties boast of rooms with patios providing kaleidoscopic view of the mesmerizing waterfront. Enchanting harbor cruises to Ross Island, Viper Island and a panoramic view of the seven points from the sea can be viewed while cruising.
A visit to the Phoenix Bay jetty revealed the network of inland water transport system of the Islands. We hired a boat and embarked on a cruise to the idyllic virgin beaches of the Havelock Island, Neil Island and the Barren Island. Our joy knew no bounds when we were face to face with the coral reefs and the translucent lagoons.
I was much impressed by the verdant greenery of the Lalaji Bay at Long Island while the Neil Island located at a distance of 32 Kms. from Port Blair was ideal for endless stretches of sight seeing. I couldn't resist the temptation of indulging in the tropical fruits that are found in abundance in this part of the world.
We also visited the Barren Island, located at a distance of 135 Km. from Port Blair. We were told by our knowledgeable guide that the island was home to the only active volcano of India, which is conspicuous by its crater jutting out from the sea. Since the entry to the Island is prohibited, we could still see the magnificent sight of the volcano from a distance.
Every morning we woke up to the roar of the sea and the chirping of the birds, all of which are at a premium in metropolitan India. If you have had enough of the sea and the sand, you always have the option of nestling in the beautifully done up mountain huts at Mount Harriet. We were told that Mount Harriet used to be the summer headquarters of the Chief Commissioner during the days of the British Raj. I was overwhelmed by the ethereal sight of sunrise and sunset when viewed from a vantage position of Mount Harriet. The more adventurous Australians embarked on a light trek that offered interesting encounters with the local endemic birds, animals and butterflies.
No trip to the Andaman Island is complete without a visit to the world’s largest Marine Park – The Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park at Wandoor, 29 Km from Port Blair. The sight of the park mesmerized the entire group with its abundance of Coral Reef Fishes, White Tip Sharks, Blue Fin Jacks, rare marine Turtles, Water Lizards and a plethora of Sea Snakes. The fascinating world of underwater tropical forests opened a whole new world to the other side of nature.
Most Australians are adept when it comes to engaging in exciting water sports and underwater diving. But deep sea diving is a big no, no for me! But not for those daredevil Australians. In no time they wore their diving suits and nose-dived deep into the fascinating waters of the Bay of Bengal, rubbing shoulders with creatures of the underwater.
After an exciting underwater dive that lasted 45 minutes, one of the Australians remarked that I need not despair for not being able to dive like them. According to Robin Kirsten, an expert diver – “All you need is flexibility of the body. Age is immaterial as long as you have a flexible body. I have seen 60 year olds being initiated into Scuba Diving back home at the famed Bondi Beach, one of the best diving sites in the world”. Indeed this was some consolation!
I was made aware by the Australians that trained divers were also available here at the Marine Park and to make fun of me, they insisted I get enrolled for my first lessons on deep sea diving. The very idea made me tremble and I made a quick disappearing act from the Park premises only to join the rest of the group at the exit of the Park.
Another interesting landmark of Port Blair is the impeccably landscaped Gandhi Park. It was amazing to see an array of top end recreational amenities like amusement rides, a variety of exciting water sports, a meandering lake full of exotic fishes as well as a Japanese Temple. Our guide informed us that the entire Park was constructed in a record 13 days. Some achievement that, given the large area covered by this incredible park.
However, if you are craving for a place that would take you outside the city precinct, you would do well to take a cab ride to the Sippighat Farm, which is located at a distance of 14 Kms. from Port Blair. We were enchanted by the sheer varieties of plants and spices like Coconut, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Peeper etc… For those interested in Agriculture, a visit to the Central Agriculture Research Institute, which is located in close proximity to the Farm can be a very rewarding option.
Another great out-of-the-city option is a 25 Km. drive to the virtual tip of South Andamans to a place called Chidiya Tapu. It was the first encounter with Mangrove forests for my Australian guests and the favorable microclimate of Chidiya Tapu meant that it was very rich in avian life as well. We spent hours together sighting some truly rare winged species. I have personally never witnessed a more ethereal sunset than the one at Chidiya Tapu. Since we were short of time, we couldn't afford to stay overnight, but from what we had already seen from the vantage position of the Forest Guest House located on a hillock, was mesmerizing to say the least. Endless stretches of virgin isolated islands as viewed from the hillock can be a truly outstanding experience.
As far as Island hopping was concerned, I was specially fascinated by Diglipur in North Andamans. It is a paradise for Eco-Tourism and is very rich in marine life. I especially loved the oranges and my Australian guests each bought a basketful of oranges weighing 5 kilograms each.
On of the best vantage point of Diglipur is the impressive Saddle Peak, located at a height of 732 meters above sea level. Anyone who takes the trouble of climbing up to the peak is reassured of breathtaking scenic vistas. We indulged in a fun filled picnic and spent the entire day here.
We were taken to the spot where Andaman’s first state-of-the-art hydroelectric project was coming up by harnessing the power of Andaman’s only river – Kalpong. Given the breathtaking scenic vistas on offer at Diglipur, many foreign tourists decide to stay here at the comfortable Turtle Resort. For those with a penchant for Turtles, the scenic Ramnagar beach is ideal. We were amazed by the scene hundreds of Turtles nesting along the shoreline and my Australian guests went delirious with joy as they had never seen so many Turtles at one place.
We were all very keen to visit the Little Andaman Island since we knew that it was the vegetable bowl of Nicobar Islands. Not only this, two of Andamans’ most exotic tribes: the Onges as well as the Nicobarese inhabit the Island. Although entry to the tribal areas is prohibited, we did spot a few tribesmen who were busy looking for preys in the tropical jungles armed with their traditional bows and arrows.
Apart from the fascinating tribals, the Little Andamans is very popular with the beach aficionados, courtesy the magnificent Butler Bay. If one proceeds further ahead of Butler bay, a string of virgin sandy beaches invites the tourists with their breathtaking charm. A few fishermen’s huts are located along the beach promenade and we spotted two Western tourists who opted for home stay accommodation with a local fisherman’s family.
Towards the end of our Andamans jaunt, we decided to embark on a guided Bird Watching tour. The hotel offered its own vessel for our Bird Watching Tour and even provided us with a trained naturalist to accompany us. As we engaged in Island hopping and made brief halts at places that were swarming with birds along the banks, our guide Tony Lewis revealed that in the Islands of Andamans more than 246 species of avian life have been spotted, out of which 39 are endemic. No wonder that given the avi-faunal diversity on offer, the islands are often visited by renowned Ornithologists from across the globe.
What was so unique about my trip to Andaman & Nicobar Islands was that vast stretches of land, sparsely populated and resplendent with endless scenic vistas made for a truly fairy tale Island holiday. I found the cosmopolitan crowd at Port Blair to be warm and friendly.
The fact that we were guests of the strategically located Peerless Resort offered us with the much-needed ethereal peace of the surroundings. Getting to hear the haunting murmur of the waves and the chance to gaze at the blazing dawn rupture over the sea right from the cozy confines of one’s bedroom was like recreating the magic of “Eden on Earth” all over again.
I believe that to experience the best of both the worlds - the exotic as well as the ageless quality, Andaman is the place for you to venture.
Traveler’s Fact File:
Getting There:The capital city of Port Blair is well linked to the metropolitan cities like Kolkata and Chennai. Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Kingfisher etc… offer regular flights to Port Blair.
A unique way of traveling to Andaman & Nicobar Islands is by embarking on a sea voyage. The Shipping Corporation of India operates regular services to Port Blair from both Kolkata and Chennai.
Port Blair has a multiplicity of accommodation options. From star category properties like the Sinclairs, The Peerless Resort, the Centaur Beach Resort and others of their ilk to the numerous government run accommodation units in the form of Tourist Lodges, Dak Bungalows, Tourist Homes, Government of India Guest Houses and Inspection Bungalows, the choice is yours.
Apart from the Department of Tourism, accommodation units are also run by various other government departments like the Public Works Department and the Department of Forests.
Budget category hotels like City King Palace, Shompen, N.K.International, Abhishek, Dhanalakshmi, Holiday Resort, Gem Continental, Hotel Tejas, Holiday Inn and Hornbill Nest are very popular with tourists.
There are numerous Lodges that provide basic amenities and among the most popular Lodges are the Andaman Tourist Cottage, Ram Nivas, Kavitha, Swagat Lodge, Sampat Lodge, Youth Hostel, YMCA International Guest House, and Mangrove Bay Resort etc…
For any further information on Andaman & Nicobar Islands, please feel free to contact:
Directorate of Information, Publicity & Tourism,
A & N Administration, Port Blair, A & N Islands.
Telephone: 03192 - 230933, 230234
Fax: 03192 - 230933