Why visiting the Cellular jail is a must for every Indian?

Port blair

I am dreading this visit to the Cellular jail in Andamans.

I had been dreading it since weeks before visiting it.

Why?

Port Blair
The doors outside Cellular Jail

The thought of visiting a place where thousands of Indian freedom fighters faced atrocities of the British wasn’t a pleasant thought.

I knew it would be a tough visit. What was I scared of?

Not being able to face the reality of the place? Or the fear of breaking down in public?

Port blair
Gardens in the complex

I am standing right outside the freshly painted yellow building with green windows, with the Indian Flag fluttering at the entrance.

Walking towards it, with the same dread in my heart, I enter it to see a quote of Veer Savarkar hung on the walls.

“Yeh Teerth Mahateertho ka hai,

Mat Kaho isse Kaala Paani,

Tum suno yahan ki Dharti ke,

Kan Kan se Gaatha Balidaani”

[“This is a pilgrimage, do not call it Kaala Pani,

Tales of sacrifice will reek in every quarter of this land.”]

And then I see the buildings. The rows of cells looming at a distance, built in a way that the British jailors could isolate each political prisoner and they would never be able to communicate with each other. A massive Peepul tree stands overlooking the gardens and the grounds, as if witness to it’s past.

The guide asks us to first visit the orientation centre to get acquainted with the history of the place before touring it.

andamans
The gallery

To find a suitable site for the prison was a task for the Britishers who finally selected Port Blair in Andamans as it was just opposite Ross Island, which already had troops on it. Also, because there was no escape at all for the prisoners, as the walls were bounded by the sea.

Andaman and Nicobar
The panoramic view of the Cellular jail

The construction started in October 1896 and completed in 1906 at an estimated cost of Rs.5 lakh. The irony was that armies of Indian prisoners were deployed to construct this monstrous edifice built to strike terror in the hearts of their very own countrymen.

The prison was constructed in a star shape. With the watch tower in the centre and all the seven arms like spokes of a bicycle wheel. Each arm faced the rear of the opposite arm and so none could witness what conspired in the opposite arm.

Kaala pani punishment
The cells

The term ‘Kaala paani’ was used as a reference to the Sanskrit word Kal meaning time/ death. Hence Kaala paani inferred to water of death or place of death. A sentence to ‘Kaala Paani’ implied throwing the freedom fighters in living hell to face unheard trials and brutalities of the British and to lead a life worse than death.

The Indian freedom fighters instead immortalised the place with their sacrifices and undying spirit, making Kaala Paani a sacred place.

I continue to read the horrors of the jail as described by some of the freedom fighters: From flogging to physical and mental torture, the words choked me.

Ten minutes later, I sit outside in the grounds, reflecting on what I read inside, in silence. Crowds throng inside, mostly Indians, a large percentage being newly married couples who have chosen Andamans as their honeymoon destination.

Responsible tourism
Selfies and the art of being stupid.

My chain of thoughts breaks as I see them choosing this place to strike poses for ‘selfies’ and meaningless banter. A place like this deserves at least some iota of respect and decorum.

The least we can do for these brave souls is to respect their sacrifices by not behaving like morons at the place where they laid down their lives for US.

As we start touring the grounds, the first place is the gallows. Extremely upsetting to see that it was right next to the dining room, where the freedom fighters could hear the last cries of the one at the gallows.

kaalapani
The main compound

Oil grinding was the most difficult task allotted to the political prisoners of the Cellular jail. This also caused death of some and insanity of many.

The daily quota was to produce 30 pounds of coconut oil and ten pounds of mustard oil, which even animals couldn’t do. And if they failed to do it, they would be flogged and punished with unhygienic diet, leg irons and chains, neck chains and solitary confinement. Right in the centre was a board where the British jailors would tie the fighter with chains and flog him if he did not complete these extremely unreasonable tasks.

Water wasn’t provided. If the prisoners felt thirsty and asked for water, they would be abused and beaten mercilessly.

I try to fight back my tears while passing the dummy oil grinding arena, trying to picturize the barbarism of the British jailors.

It is now time to enter the building housing the cells.

As I walk through the passages of cells in the Cellular jail, an eerie feeling enveloping me. The chatter of the crowds dies and everything dissolves. Even the voice of the guide.

Here lived people who died for a better future for us. Who revolted, who fought, who went through hell so we could live a life of freedom and dignity.

In these very cells, they continued their struggle for survival, just with ONE dream: to see India free from British rule. They faced isolation, abusive torture, lack of food and worse lack of respect all in the bleak hope that their country would be free one day.

The Britishers could crush their bodies, but not their spirit.

Stories of yesteryears unnerved me. If I can’t even hear it, I can’t even finish reading it in the gallery of the Cellular jail, thinking of someone undergoing it is beyond imagination.

Reading it was one thing. Seeing the gallows, walking past the flogging square, makes your heart wrench.

These were political prisoners and their crimes weren’t the likes of the heinous crimes committed today.

The corridors are silent, cells are empty. Honeymooners have vacated the place finally and I can get some solitary sane shots.

In the silence, a wave of breeze hits and leaves tremble a little, I notice the flowers dance.

Maybe they are still alive, alive in the greenery, breathing in fresh air, dancing, celebrating India’s freedom.

They are watching how each one of us breathes in free air and slavery is a forgotten thing.

Indian Freedom fighters
Flowers and remembrance

If you are an Indian, Cellular Jail is a MUST visit. If you do not have time for the sound and light show, at least make a point to tour the place as an ode to the martyrs who laid their lives. When you book your flights to Andamans, DO NOT miss out on this place.

Light and sound show andamans
Light and sound show

I am glad I conquered my dread and visited it. The place fills your heart with emotions that reading about it will never do.

Suggested read: For the love of Andamans

Fact file:

Cellular jail is in Port Blair and is a ticketed monument near the Aberdeen jetty.

It is best to hire a guide who can take you around the place in one hour.

How to reach: Indigo airlines runs flights to Port Blair from Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi.

21 thoughts on “Why visiting the Cellular jail is a must for every Indian?

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Yes, I’m guilty of getting a few couple shots on the terrace but true that the place deserves respect and a must see for every Indian. Your post brought me back to the two visits I made to the Cellular Jail. Well penned, Divyakshi!

    1. The terrace is still okay Parul, people were clicking selfies at the gallows and acting caged inside the cells. Thanks for reading 🙂

      1. This one will drive you nuts – on the boat from baratang to the lime stone caves, this couple said that they won’t sit separately. Imagine, the boat was not at perfect balance and VT and I had to move to two extreme ends at the back to ensure the guy driving it can balance the boat.

  2. Exactly, it is a Mecca for us – we should worship such a place rather than mourning over there!

    Good that you got to visit and bring this for us! I’ve read a bit earlier too.

  3. I am visiting Andaman Islands in February next year and it surely looks like a place I should visit to learn more about colonialism in India, although I am an Indian. What a humbling place. Lovely photos! Talking about selfies at places like these, I’ve heard about people taking smiling selfies in Auszwitcz concentration camp in Poland – so insensible.

  4. Thank you for sharing such honest and raw emotion here. Sometimes history isn’t always the most pleasant to hear and look back on, but something I like to think of is how we have learned from the past and are better now because of it. It’s not always rainbows and happy endings but it is a part of who we are and where we have come from. I’m glad you were able to experience this

  5. I have been wanting to go this holy place for long! Sad to hear the story of the place.
    How wicked can humans become! As if just imprisoning isn’t enough they drove the prisoners to insanity which I think is worse than death.

  6. I think even if I am not indian, I would like to visit a place like this, although heavy and sad, it holds a lot of history and you can learn a lot from going there.

  7. This is indeed like a pilgrimage. Many freedom fighters became martyrs here.

    Not many know that the place was also witness to a lot of atrocities at the time of the Japanese invasion during WW-II. Interestingly, many historians believe that the Azad Hind Fauj let the locals down by failing to confront the Japanese and prevent these atrocities (Netaji had entered into alliance with the Axis Powers then)..

    Lovely pics…

    Cheers,
    CRD

  8. I can imagine this being such an emotional visit – I’ve been to a few historic prisons around the world whee so much un-warranted brutality has happened and you can’t help but feel the pain in these places. Even if these places are tourist attractions they are so emotional.

  9. Your words brought me to the place with you, Divsi. I felt how the Indian freedom fighters had experienced extreme pain and death that paved the way for the freedom of the present generation. Thank you for sharing this story!

  10. This is a beautifully written piece. There are a few places, where extreme suffering has taken place, that can really move you. The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC was moving, but it doesn’t compare to being at the actual location. Hard to believe that you would want to take a selfie there, let alone have the audacity to actually pull out your phone and do it, Some people need to have proper respect for the past.

  11. Very nice informative piece and no matter how many times we visit the place the sadness for the prisoners whose sacrifice of lives made us get the freedom and independence can never be forgotten

  12. Thank you for sharing your experience and history surrounding the Cellular jail in Andamans. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of the atrocities that took place during that time in history. Seeing where fellow humans were treated and learning of the cruel punishments must have been very difficult. Observing travelers not respecting sacred grounds is a pet peeve of mine also!

  13. I know this feeling and I can relate. I felt it when I was in Berlin and I feel it when I read blog posts about black slaves as a black Canadian. I think places like this as sad as they are need to exist to remind US of what WE are capable of doing to other humans. We must learn from and understand the pain so we don’t repeat it…
    Regarding selfies…Last time I was in NYC I saw loads of people taking selfies in front of the World Trade Memorial…no shame…disrespectful. I guess thats the new norm…

  14. I agree that these sites are worth visiting, for preserving history, and paying tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of future generations. Even though it’s confronting to realize the atrocities committed against them, and the unimaginable conditions these prisoners would have had to live through. We have similar sites in Australia, convict sites all across the nation. Technically I guess it’s a little different as these were criminals and not political prisoners fighting for freedom, but the conditions of the prisons and poor treatment was prbably very similar or the same. It makes me mad to see people taking selfies and treating sites like this with disrespect too.

  15. You have captured this so beautifully D. I can empathise as I feel the same about Jallianwala baby and avoid going inside there as I just can’t get over the horror that happened there. I don’t think this place will be on my must visit as this was a place of immense torture and hardships for the freedom fighters. Hats off to you for blogging about it. Loved the pics btw.

  16. This seems to be a very odd choice to visit during a honeymoon. Perhaps it’s different for us Americans, but we typically chose a place that is romantic and to relax and spend time with our new partner. Though I do think places like these are important to visit and learn about history. History tends to repeat itself and these are the types of things we hope never, ever do repeat themselves.

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