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Andamans - coastal glory

india Updated: Jan 29, 2008 10:30 IST
Liz Mathew
Highlight Story

Dazzling turquoise waters, lush green forests, small mountains, rainbow coloured marine life, historical buildings...India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands is straight out of a dream for any tourist but for the paucity of good roads, drinking water and eating joints.

As I travelled to this emerald archipelago of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal as part of the 'mainland media' to cover Milan 2008 - a congregation of navies from 12 countries - I had the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Many of these islands are surrounded by coral reefs. From an airplane, they look like small water lilies in the deep blue waters of the Andaman Sea.

My tour, however, began on a sombre note.

I stepped into the premises of the Cellular Jail with its history of barbarous torture meted out to Indian freedom fighters by the then British rulers, something I had read about in books and watched in the Mohanlal-starrer "Kalapani".

The visit to the jail, situated at the centre of Port Blair, left a strange feeling in me. Perhaps it was anger against the colonial rulers who had tormented our freedom fighters or perhaps it was pride for our national heroes.

Even the stones and the air around the puce-coloured building with a central tower appeared to be full of stories of the past. The narrow cells, honeycomb corridors, the gallows and the museum displaying equipment that was used to torture prisoners bore testimony to the horrors of Kalapani, as the Andamans used to be known. Visitors were eager to capture the place in their cameras and videos, especially Cell No. 123, where freedom fighter Veer Savarkar had been held.

If the Cellular Jail made me livid, a visit to Rose Island, the erstwhile capital of Port Blair, left me admiring the vision and foresight of the British.

Unlike other tourists who are permitted to visit it only in the mornings, I was taken there in the evening to attend a get-together organised by the Indian Navy for the foreign delegates. My trip after all had been organised by the unified command of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Rose Island virtually guards the Port Blair harbour - apparently it saved the city and its citizens from the devastating December 26, 2004, tsunami.

The island was lit up with colourful bulbs that gave a romantic hue to the ruins of old structures like the ballroom, church, Farzand Ali's store, hospital, bakery, mineral water plant and troop barracks. Rose Island is a perfect example of nature's mischief.

On one hand, the fallen trees and broken walls told tales of the fury of nature, and on the other I saw how a part of it protected these buildings - the roots of banyan trees growing on the island virtually became armours for the manmade structures.

Many deer, adopted by the navy, came fearlessly to the guests, who were making merry on the moonlit island.

On another bright sunny day, the organisers allowed the journalists to join the diving team during a trip to North Point, famous for its lighthouse on a mountain - whose image is also printed on India's Rs. 20 notes.

While divers from the Indian Navy as well as their counterparts from Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia set out to explore the depths of the Andaman Sea, we were given lifejackets and snorkelling masks and tubes to have a dekko at the spectacular under-water marine life and rare varieties of corals.

It was one of the most beautiful sights I had in my life. I could spot at least 12 differently coloured clams that stick to the coral reefs or rocks and keep flapping - the sailors warned us not to touch them as they clamp on the finger, big and small fishes in rainbow colours and a wide variety of sea sponges.

Equally amazing was a ride on the Gemini inflatable boat offered by Himmat Singh, an expert diver of the Coast Guards. Singh, who manoeuvred the boat as a Formula 1 car racer, did not miss any chance to excite us by making the boat swirl and jump.

While life in the Andaman Sea was amazing, things were not as smooth on land. Samuel Coleridge's famous line "water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink" virtually rang true here.

Apparently, one has to drive kilometres to find a bottle of mineral water if one is out of the main town. The island faces acute water shortage - there was a request on the bathroom doors of my room in the Circuit House where we journalists were putting up to minimise water usage.

The inhabited places, however, face no power crisis as generators light up the inhabited areas of 36 islands. Port Blair never faces a power cut despite the absence of power generation there.

The roads too are narrow. The pathways by the seashore, especially, were destroyed by the tsunami and lie damaged even today.

It was also very difficult to find a good restaurant that served seafood or non-vegetarian fare around Circuit House. As a result, we ended up eating some boring Chinese food.

Although Port Blair has a bit of everything - locals can speak Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi and I even spotted a Gujarati shop along the main road - we could not find a decent eating joint. Perhaps it was because we started our hunt only in the night, as the days were busy.

Nevertheless, for its history, marine life and natural beauty, the trip to the Andamans will be forever etched in my memory.

(Letter from Port Blair)