Beyond the black waters

The Cellular Jail in the Andamans stands silent testimony to the struggle and suffering of our freedom fighers to free India

August 13, 2012 07:24 pm | Updated 08:33 pm IST

Solitary cells: At the jail. Photo: S. Thanthoni

Solitary cells: At the jail. Photo: S. Thanthoni

Walking through the corridors of the Cellular Jail in Port Blair was akin to walking down the saddest and most brutal chapter in history. The horror of captivity comes alive as one walks through the museum of this national memorial dedicated to our brave freedom fighters who endured extreme torture to free their motherland from British occupation. Notorious as “Kalapani”, a symbol of British oppression, it today stands proud of the selfless sacrifices made by these people.

Reliving the horrors

Born in free India and accustomed to the comforts and technology available today, one might not even be able to imagine the enormity of the sacrifice our forefathers made. Blessed with natural bounty this beautiful paradise was turned into a hell when the British East India Company began its first penal settlement here in 1789.

It was after India’s first war for independence in 1857 that the British used Andaman islands as a colonial prison to house the rebels. The first batch of 200 were transported for life under the custody of jailor David Barry and Major James Pattison Walker.

The construction of the cellular jail began in 1896 and the three-storied puce-coloured stone (brought from Burma) structure with 693 cells was completed in 1906. Similar to the spokes of a bicycle, seven wings radiated from a main watch tower at the intersection that had a bell to raise an alarm if any prisoner tried to escape. Each cell measured 4.5m x 2.7m (13.5 feetx7.5feet) with a ventilator. Two wings were demolished in 1942 under the Japanese occupation of Andamans (British resumed control of the island in 1945 after World War II) and another two were demolished post Independence.

In 1969 the remaining three wings and the tower were converted into a national memorial.

It acquired the name, ‘cellular’ because it is made up of individual cells for the solitary confinement. All measures were taken by the British to ensure that political prisoners and revolutionaries were isolated from each other, made to work like beasts to break their resolve and humiliated at the slightest pretext.

The solitary confinement was such that the Savarkar brothers Babarao and Vinayak Damodar didn’t know about each other for two years though they were in the same jail. There is a long list of distinguished political prisoners in the cellular jail. The Savarkar brothers, Pandit Parmanand, Ladha Ram, Indu Bhushan Roy, Pulin Das, Trailokyanath Chakravarthy, Gurumukh Singh and Babu Ram Hari are some of them.

During the centenary celebration of the cellular jail on March 10, 2006 the surviving inmates were felicitated. They remembered the daily flogging, torture, the hangings, suicides, cases of insanity, failed jailbreaks and hunger strike. They spoke of Mahavir Singh, an associate of Bhagat Singh (Lahore conspiracy case) who protested the inhuman treatment meted to the prisoners and sat in hunger strike. He was force fed milk which went into his lungs and he died. He was tied to a stone and thrown in the sea. No one got to know of his murder. Such was the extent of British cruelty.

The son et lumiere (sound and light show) in the evening is a befitting tribute to the martyrs. As the cool, crisp, evening breeze caressed us, we heard the voice of cine star Om Puri. An old Banyan tree and the gallows stand testimony to the sad story of brave men who lay down their lives for their motherland.

Viper Island

Another notorious penal settlemet of the British was Viper Island. Convicts were in fetters and forced to work here. Nanigopal and Nandlal Pulindas who had resorted to a hunger strike in the cellular jail were imprisoned here.

Lt. Archibald Blair came to this island in 1768 in a vessel named ‘Viper’ hence the name. It was meant to be a penal settlement and the gallows built on top of a hillock was visible to all prisoners. The Pathan, Sher Ali, convicted for murdering Lord Mayo was hanged here.

Cellular jail monument

The Cellular Jail has a Museum, an Art Gallery and a Photo Gallery.

Open daily except on Monday and public holidays.

Entry ticket: Rs 10 (children below 10 years go free)

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