The Dark Secrets of the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andamans

posted in: Asia, Andamans, Heritage, India | 95

This republic day, I would like to pay obeisance to all those Freedom fighters who gave me this India that I am so proud of. What better than to relive my pilgrimage that I made to Port Blair. What I refer to is my visit to the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andamans. A tour of this Cellular Jail is nothing less than a pilgrimage, a way to pay respects to those brave souls who fought for our country and bore the atrocious treatments meted out to them by the British officers. I must tell you at the onset that this particular visit was quite disturbing for me – it made my heart weep for those inmates whose crime was basically to rise up for their own rights in their own country. It made me proud and also, made me angry.

Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andamans
Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andamans

This post may not be one of those happy ones but it is one that is bound to bring a lot of respect for those patriots who lived and died for the cause of freedom. It reveals all the dark tales of what went behind those bars. It will take some guts to read it and visit this place but lesser than what these patriots had to withstand what they faced each day of their lives. This post is my way of paying tribute to those brave men whose efforts have got me this free air that I breathe in my own country. So, without much ado – here goes my visit to the Cellular Jail – one of the must-visit places in Port Blair.

History of the Cellular Jail

Ross Island, as seen from Cellular Jail, Port Blair
Ross Island, as seen from Cellular Jail, Port Blair

The Cellular Jail is also, termed as Kala Paani. Kal means “time or death” while Paani means “water“. The dreaded name came about as prisoners who were once shipped across the waters of Andamans were never seen to return. Andamans essentially, became a place for the British to send the Indian prisoners away from the mainland to end their troublemaking. Initially, the British settled on Ross Island and it was here that the prisoners were sent. They were always chained together and were made to construct the various buildings including the prisons on Ross Island.

Cellular Jail in Andamans
Cellular Jail in Andamans

However, after the great war of 1857, the British had captured numerous Indian Freedom fighters who could not all be accommodated on Ross Island. Hence, the construction of a new prison began but on Port Blair. The prison was started in 1896 and was completed by 1906. The prison was used by the British to imprison the Indian Freedom Fighters who were exiled from the mainland. Famous ones like Veer Savarkar and Batukeshwar Dutta were inmates out here.

The Cellular Jail was operated by the British till the Japanese invasion during the 2nd World War in 1942 when the tables turned and the British were imprisoned here. It was then, that the famous Subhash Chandra Bose paid a visit to this jail. After 1945, the British got back the prison from the Japanese till the Indian Independence in 1947. After this, the Indian government declared this as a National Monument and it has been one since then.

The architecture of the Cellular Jail

A model of the Cellular Jail
A model of the Cellular Jail

The Cellular Jail resembles a wheel with a central tower as its main axle and seven wings as its spokes. Our guide here told us that it was built on the model of Panopticon so that the authorities in the central tower could keep an eye on every wing. Each wing of the prison was three stories tall. The bricks for the prison were got from Burma. There were separate buildings for the mess, the gallows and the work shed. Today, what remains is just 3 of the seven wings of the Cellular Jail.

The deliberate construction of the gallows

The Yellow Mess (extreme right) facing the gallows building next to it - Cellular Jail, Port Blair
The Yellow Mess (extreme right) facing the gallows building next to it – Cellular Jail, Port Blair
Inside the Gallows of Cellular Jail, Port Blair
Inside the Gallows of Cellular Jail, Port Blair

Now here is the first of the many dark secrets that you are going to be privy to. Our guide showed us the mess where the prisoners were given meager meals. Right opposite to that are the gallows. Though closed within a building, the cries of the men being hung could be easily heard across the mess. Our guide told us that this was by design so that psychologically it would affect the other prisoners who ate in the mess. Every time I imagine the scene, disgust floods me. It unnerves me to even feel what the plight of the other prisoners was when they heard the last cries of a fellow inmate.

The work shed

The Work Shed for the prisoners of Cellular Jail
The Work Shed for the prisoners of Cellular Jail

The work sheds lie between the various wings and have been converted to exhibition halls. Some are picture galleries that depict the lives of various Freedom fighters in the cellular jail. Some of them are pictures of the history of the Andaman islands under the British and then, there are a few which have models of the kind of work that the inmates were put onto.

The pounding of seed for oil - one of the tasks that the prisoners were given
The pounding of seed for oil – one of the tasks that the prisoners were given

Essentially the prisoners worked on oil extractions, coir and rope making. Steep targets were given to the prisoners like at least 30 pounds of coconut oil or 10 pounds of mustard oil. Most of these were physically impossible and subsequently, as the prisoners failed to manage this quota, they were handed out severe punishments.

The Cells of the Cellular Jail

The wings of the Cellular Jail
The wings of the Cellular Jail with the central tower
View from a Cell corridor in the Cellular Jail
View from a Cell corridor in the Cellular Jail

If you are wondering why the Cellular Jail is named so, you will find the answer in this section. The cells of the jail were constructed in such a manner that it was impossible for the prisoners to communicate with each other. Each cell held only one prisoner and was constructed such that it did not face the other wing but in fact, had the view of only the back wall of the other wing. There were in total, 693 cells in the jail.

Cells within a single wing of the Cellular Jail
Cells within a single wing of the Cellular Jail
Double barred cells of the Cellular Jail
Double barred cells of the Cellular Jail

Each cell has just one door, was around 15 x 8 foot in size and had a small ventilation. Besides the barred door, the cellular wing itself had prison bars.- giving the whole area a double security.

Furthermore, each cell was connected by a small bridge to the central tower of the Cellular Jail. At night, this bridge was retracted and thus, each cellular wing got further isolated.

Retractable bridges connecting the central tower to the rest of the wing - Cellular Jail
Retractable bridges connecting the central tower to the rest of the wing – Cellular Jail

The Central Wing of Cellular Jail

Central Tower of the Cellular Jail
Central Tower of the Cellular Jail

Today you can climb up the entire central wing, right up to its terrace for an amazing view of the cellular jail as well as the surrounding islands. However, back then, the central access was only limited to the authorities who could easily keep an eye on every wing of the jail. It was here that the prisoners were first brought to when they landed on the island. Every month, the prisoners from different wings were shuffled around so that they never had the same neighbor. Atop the central tower used to be a large bell that could be sounded off as an alarm. It was not there when I visited – but maybe you can keep an eye out for one.

View from atop the central tower of the Cellular Jail
View from atop the central tower of the Cellular Jail

Veer Savarkar & the other prisoners at Cellular Jail

The lives of the prisoners here were quite grim. They were kept in solitary confinement so that their spirits were broken. They were let out of the cells only once in the morning. By 6 pm, they have locked in again until next morning. Notice in the picture below, there were no toilet areas within the cell. Our guide mentioned that they were given a small earthen pot to relieve themselves while in confinement. However, the same was not good enough and if the prisoner wanted to be let out, he literally had to grovel in front of the warden or continue controlling till he was let out the next morning.

Veer Savarkar's cell within the Cellular Jail
Veer Savarkar’s cell within the Cellular Jail

It was this kind of a life that Veer Savarkar led. What made things worse for him is his attempt to escape after which he was put in a separate cell that had and additional barrier. Today, you can visit his cell that has its name and photo kept within – as a tribute. For me, it was a moment of mixed emotions, pride to have been able to visit this brave man’s abode and rage for the kind of life he had to led.

The extra security barrier to Veer Savarkar's cell in the Cellular Jail
The extra security barrier to Veer Savarkar’s cell in the Cellular Jail

Veer Savarkar was so isolated that he did not know that his own brother was also, imprisoned within the same jail. He accidently met him after one year of living in the same premises.

Statues of the Martyrs in front of the Cellular Jail
Statues of the Martyrs in front of the Cellular Jail

There are many other stories that can make you cringe when you hear them. Several extracts of the inhuman conditions and torture that these men had to endure are available in the picture galleries of the museum.I was devastated to read the dirty conditions and the animal torture that were meted out. The one that affected me the most was that of Mahavir Singh, who died in the Cellular Jail owing to force feeding by the British officers. The story goes that there was a mass hunger strike by the inmates of the prison to protest against the atrocities of the British officers. Mahavir Singh was one of the fore-runners of the same and to break his fast, the British force fed milk to him. The milk entered his lungs and the brave soul died. His body was tied to a stone and thrown into the waters of the sea. 🙁

Melancholic beauty of the Cellular Jail

The Melancholic Beauty of the Cellular Jail
The Melancholic Beauty of the Cellular Jail

When I visited the Cellular Jail. there was no denying the beauty of the place. The lush green contrast of the lawn against the dull brown and red walls of the Cellular Jail. Yes, the is also, ingenuity in the way the place has been built –  to keep the prisoners from escaping and plotting. Yet, the whole atmosphere seemed to be damp. It felt as if every object there had a sad tale to tell. It was as if they had seen so much injustice that they were shocked beyond their wits and would never recover or know an emotion called happiness. The only one positive emotion that I felt there was “pride”. This was evident in the way the buildings still stood erect along with that Old Peepul tree that told the whole story during the light and sound show of the Cellular Jail in the evening. It felt good to pay my respects to this torch of tribute at the Cellular Jail.

The Torch of Tribute to the Brave souls imprisoned at the Cellular Jail
The Torch of Tribute to the Brave souls imprisoned at the Cellular Jail
Cellular Jail at night
Cellular Jail at night

I visited the Cellular Jail twice -the first time for the evening light and sound show where only the story of the prison was told but we were not allowed in. The 2nd was in the morning when we did the whole tour of the Cellular Jail. Both the times, I felt unsettled – agitated, upset. There was a constant lump in my throat as I walked the cellular wings and yet I don’t think I would ever regret going to this place. If given a chance, I would go all over again. I would definitely brave my emotions and bend my head in tribute to the lives of these brave men who fought for India. And if you are ever heading to Andamans, I would definitely recommend that you add this visit to the Cellular Jail as one of the things to do in Port Blair. 

Getting here:

  • There are daily flights to Port Blair from Chennai and Kolkata. However, these are limited and booking them in advance is recommended.
  • You can even head to Port Blair via a cruise or a ship
  • The Cellular Jail is right in the center of the town and you can reach the same by using an Autorickshaw or a private cab. The place is a landmark and hence, the name itself will get you to the destination.

Travel Tips:

  • Here is the official website for this national monument.
  • The Cellular Jail is open between 9 am and 5 pm every day, except for a one-hour lunch break at 12:30 pm. The tickets for the same have to be purchased at the venue itself.
  • The one thing that I highly recommend is the light and sound show here in the evening. There are two shows – one at 6:00 pm and another at 7:15 pm. The tickets for the shows can only be purchased on that day in the evening. Since there are a limited number of seats, it is recommended that you reach early and pick yours up or ensure that your travel agent/taxi driver helps you with it.
  • There is a separate queue for women for the tickets of light and sound show. This is generally, not so packed and might just be easier to get your share of tickets.
  • Most of the shows are in Hindi except for the 2nd show on Monday, Wednesday & Friday, which are in English.
  • The tickets for the regular visit are INR 30 per adult and for the light and sound show are INR 50 per adult.
  • Cameras for a regular tour are allowed for a charge of INR 200. However, for the light and sound show, no cameras are allowed.
  • The tour of the Cellular Jail may take you anything between 1.5 hours to 2 hours.
  • A guide is highly recommended for the regular tour.
  • There is enough walking to be done and in some cases, climbing too. Hence, flat shoes are recommended.
  • During the day, the climate is quite warm and humid. Hence, comfortable cotton wear would do.
  • If you are headed for a light and sound show, keep some warm shawls with you as it gets pretty cold at night.
  • There is a small park opposite the Cellular Jail where you can wait, in case you are early for the show. This has statues of the martyrs imprisoned in the Cellular Jail.




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95 Responses

  1. Violeta

    Wow, those cells look creepy! It’s cool this kind of place can be visited. It makes you think about the life of those inmates. If I ever get there, I’ll follow your advice to take a guided tour of the Cellular Jail.

    • Ami

      Thanks Violeta. It is the stories in the place that make this place so interesting. And a little bleak too.

  2. Maps and Merlot

    Thanks for passing on all of the lessons learned here–I love history and you really captured my attention. It’s crazy how bad the conditions were and how the jail was set up to break down the prisoners – isolating them from other people in the jail and having the gallows right outside of the eating area is pretty serious. It’s amazing how such a beautiful landscape today can house horrors from years past.

    • Ami

      Indeed and the place really made me have a lump in my throat. It is quite overwhelming but it is good to know and understand what these men went through just for freedom. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Ami

      Thank you Durga Prasad. It was one of our dark periods but thanks to these guys, we saw sunlight at the end of it.

  3. Jyotirmoy Sarkar

    So many infos you have shared here…very nice post.
    Though now this place looks so grand and gorgeous but there are lots of pathetic incidents related to this place.
    Very nice shots of this brutal Place.

    • Ami

      Thank you Jyotirmoy. This place has witnessed many of those horrors but I would recommend braving yourself and visiting it at least once to know what it was that they had to undergo

  4. shwetadave09

    It is a very touching post…my heart to wrenched at the thought of inmates listening to cries of pain while having a morsel to eat. Thanks to them that we live in freedom today. And the British atrocities will get paid by them one day! Loved the pictures Ami 🙂

    • Ami

      Thank you Shweta. I still cringe at the thought of what they might have gone through. Hats off to them for not crumbling. Hope you get to visit this place once.

  5. Sandy N Vyjay

    The Cellular Jail, stands poignantly as a part of history of the Indian Freedom struggle. It is very touching and disturbing to learn about the Mess and the gallows being so close that the sounds of the dying prisoners could be heard by the ones in the mess.

    • Ami

      Indeed. It is a reminder of what we had to go through to get where we are today and we must not forget those sacrifices. Thanks for stopping by guys.

  6. Shane

    Wow, this must have been quite the harrowing, yet enlightening experience. Shows how far your country has come over the ages!

    • Ami

      Indeed. It was quite harrowing but a necessary reminder for us to pay our respects to those who made it possible. Thanks for stopping by Shane.

  7. saumynagayach

    I have heard a lot about the Cellular Jail, Port Blair. It’s so heart wrenching to hear such stories and almost impossible to feel the pain that our freedom fighters had gone thru in those times. A big salute to the kind and strong souls.
    Loved all the pictures, Ami! (y) 🙂

  8. 2travellingsisters

    This post is a perfect tribute on the occasion of Republic Day to all the brave people who scarified their life for the sake of country’s freedom. We had a mixed feeling of pride and pain going through us as we were reading this posts. Seeing the pictures of gallows and cellular cells gave us an eerie feeling..

    • Ami

      Yes, it is quite chilling and sad to hear the stories this place has to tell. It fills you will a lot of emotions.

  9. Siddhartha Joshi

    It was fascinating to read your narrative Ami! I have never been on the Andamans, and I am truly fascinated by the place. Btw I would love to go there on a cruise 🙂

  10. Indrani

    Great tribute Ami! I feel very guilty of not having visited this place yet. Several plans made and each failed. It pains me to think how the prisoners may have spent their last days here. The pics of each room speaks a lot.

    • Ami

      Thanks Indrani. It is quite an intense experience. It is hard not to feel anything when you are here. I hope you get there soon.

    • Ami

      Thank you. Yes, the place is quite interesting and you are bound to enjoy the visit – despite the dark secrets.

  11. Iftekhar Idris Asif

    Andaman is very near to my country Bangladesh. But I never been to the island. But you inspired me a lot to go there & I am going to backpack to Andaman soon. Thanks a lot buddy.

    • Ami

      Glad you are inspired to make this trip. Cellular jail is quite dreary but Andamans on the whole is beautiful and you are bound to love it.

  12. gokulr27

    Posts like this always gives me goosebumps. It was really worth mentioning the struggles of the inmates on an iconic day as the Republic Day. I will be visiting Andaman soon and will explore this place as well.

    • Ami

      Glad you are visiting this soon. I would also, recommend the light and sound show here – so do keep aside time for it.

  13. Nithya Ramkumar

    Awesome write up!! It is a gut wrenching feel to visit the place.. like you have highlighted, the place brings about only negative feeling except for the pride… :-)..

    • Ami

      Thank you Nitya, visiting this place gives you a lot of goosebumps. But I still recommend it! 🙂

  14. Kavey at Kavey Eats

    I knew this history only in the briefest form, so have appreciated being able to read the real horrors of this dark place. You have brought to life the horrors and despair of the prison experience. I think it’s important to remember not just the joyous in history but also the horror, so we know what came before us.

  15. Neha Verma

    Thanks for brining up the story on this occasion of republic day Ami! Everyone needs to hear these stories and know the past. I totally relate to the anger that you feel on the remembrance of the dark era that Kala Pani and cellular jail stand for.

    • Ami

      This place gives you creeps Neha. But it is well worth the visit as it really makes you grateful for today.

  16. Soumya Nambiar

    This sounds like such an intense experience for you. I remember seeing the movie Kaalapani as a kid and a lot of what the prisoners had to endure is shown in the movie. Sometimes it is difficult to see something from the past over which none of us have any control over.

    • Ami

      I am sure you too, Soumya will feel the same. The place makes you feel that way. But it is a good thing to experience- just so that you can appreciate what you have today.

  17. Nerdventurists

    Melancholic Beauty is an apt description for this place for sure. Thank you for sharing what had to have been a very emotional, meaningful experience with us. I’m eager to learn more now.

    • Ami

      The cellular jail is just a small speck of what this entire era had but this itself was so intense. Hard to imagine what life was back then. Thanks for stopping by and reading through.

    • Ami

      Yes , it is quite a dark and dreary room and yes, the rest of it is just so beautiful. Such an irony.

  18. Wanderlust Vegans

    It’s hard to imagine the suffering of the prisoners there. They were brave for standing up for freedom and their country. It’s hard not to feel sadness hearing about this suffering.

    • Ami

      True…you do feel sad but also, in awe of their courage. It is hard to stay up and endure this and not break down. Thanks for stopping by.

  19. WhereMonicaGoes

    This is very interesting and something that I would visit. I love history and even though I will for sure feel bad while taking a tour of this cellular jail, it would me and the others have a glimpse and try to understand the suffering of the inmates before. When I first went on a concentration camp tour in Germany, I had the same feeling and experience like what you had. Really terrible feeling, but something that will remind us not to do it again.

    • Ami

      Oh yes, I know what you mean. But am sure that is one tour that must have been so insightful and must have made you grateful for a lot of things today. Thanks for stopping by.

  20. Sydney Fashion Hunter

    History is so brutal but I think it’s important to remember the past and learn from it. Republic Day happens to be my birthday and Australia Day which I only just found out. The British have a lot to answer for ….

    • Ami

      And we have a lot of lessons to learn 🙂 Happy Australia Day to you and cheers to a bright future.

  21. Celma Costa

    It’s always interesting to understand the prisons built to “host” freedom fighters and others whom the government of the day deemed as rebellious. Besides the architecture and complex history, it’s intense to visit it in modern day and still feel the sadness and heaviness of those who struggled there.
    Thank you for sharing this with us. I love the photographs, very well captured!

    • Ami

      Thank Celma. It is quite an intense journey through this monument but one that is required to respect the heroes who endured it.

  22. Dane

    Standing in old prisons always makes my imagination worl over time. It’s pretty incredible thinking about the lives that have past through there and what they may have been through. The cells look super creepy! Really nice photos also. ☺

  23. The Travel Ninjas

    The struggles of the freedom fighters is horrifying, but their eventual triumph is an inspiration. Visiting this place would be so tough for me emotionally. Even just from reading your post and seeing your photos, I had a such a range of emotions. I do think that sites like this are vital for travelers.

  24. Ana Ojha

    I went to this Cellular jail with friends during my college days and was quite fascinated by its dark history. I also liked their light and musical presentation in the evening. However, I felt little disappointed knowing about all those who sacrificed their lives as well as all the behind stories!

    • Ami

      Yes, it is quite heart wrenching to know what went behind those walls. The light and sound show is excellent and very well done and am glad you managed to see it. Thanks for stopping by

  25. Marlene Marques

    This places are always sad, but I’m glad they are maintained since they represent an important part of history. The information you share and also all the photos are great. Thanks for sharing!

    • Ami

      Thanks Marlene. I am glad that I managed to see and feel all that I did. Makes me appreciate the world better.

  26. Meg Jerrard

    Thanks for sharing your experiences – these kind of visits are always upsetting, though I do believe it is important for us to preserve this kind of history so we can honor those who gave up their lives fighting for freedom, and also so that we can hopefully avoid tragedies from our past.

    Thanks for sharing this – we know about the dark history of our own countries, though often don’t hear about those who fought for freedom in others.

    • Ami

      Indeed Meg. It is a huge learning experience. And one which makes us grateful for a lot of things today. Thanks for stopping by.

  27. elisa

    Incredible that a beautiful place like this (you took colorful pictures) has a so dark history behind. Happy to know more about modern India

  28. Prerna_Malhan

    My heart bleeds for the souls who fought for our free present and went through such atrocities. The jail looks hauntingly beautiful but I can bet that the environment still must be eerie with all that history. You wrote it really well!

    • Ami

      Thank you Prerna. The place does pierce your heart with its tale but a visit is quite recommended.

  29. Mr Mike

    Prisons and jails are always a difficult but meaningful place to visit while traveling. Thank you for bringing attention to the cellular jail down in Port Blair. Learning the history can be so daunting while visiting but is certainly a memory you’ll never forget.