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

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

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

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

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
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 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

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
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
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

The Central Wing of 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

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

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

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

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

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
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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