For a long time now I have wanted to write something about Cellular Jail in Port Blair, but I’ve passed over it for some reason or other.
After all, like the House of Slaves in Goree Island or other maximum security prisons which were built on many islands around the world, in order to host the most feared criminals in the country, Cellular Jail doesn’t have a beautiful story. It’s then difficult to find yourself writing about it, but it is an important historical place, so here I am finally revealing details about one of the most prominent places in Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
Cellular Jail, a brief history.
The Cellular Jail, also known as Kālā Pānī ( lit. ‘Black Water’), is a famous British colonial prison located in Port Blair on the Andamans Islands. The prison was used by the colonial government of India for the purpose of exiling criminals and political prisoners. Many notable independence activists, in fact, were imprisoned here during the struggle for India’s independence.
The idea of establishing a permanent penal settlement in these islands was thought of by the British Rulers in 1857 to curb India’s First War of Independence. And on 10th March 1858, the first batch of 200 convicts was brought to the island.
Though the First War of Independence was quelled, the flame for achieving freedom did not die. Soon, freedom fighters taking part in various movements against British rule were also deported to the penal punishment in the Andaman.
To be more precise, we must say that the prisoners were initially kept in the open enclosures, but
as the time passed and the settlement grew in size, the authorities found it difficult to enforce strict discipline. A high security jail that could hold a large number of people therefore became necessary. This is how the construction of the Cellular Jail building started in 1893 by the settlement order No.423 dated 13th September 1893. It was completed in 1905-06 using only prisoners as construction labour.
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Cellular Jail, from a tourist point of view.
It is inevitable to say that the Cellular Jail is a must visit during your trip to Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It hosts many museums and gallows where prisoners were hanged to death.
To date there are really many options for tourists here. You can just buy your ticket and go around by yourself, you can take a walk with a guide, or watch interesting shows and performances that explain the history and its importance. Among them there is a daily evening show called “The sound & light.” It is a 1 hour interesting show which is available in English and Hindi, that will take you through an immersive journey of the entire history of the jail.
In addition to all this, from small eateries to fine dining restaurants, there are many options close to Cellular Jail where you can just sit for a quick grab or enjoy a quiet meal.
As a tourist, I also want to say that taking photos and videos for personal use is allowed. Meanwhile for commercial use, permissions need to be taken.
Other important information for tourists intending to visit the Cellular Jail is that it is closed on Mondays and remains open all through the week from 9 am to 5 pm except for the one-hour lunch break at 12:30 pm.
I recommend that you visit the jail in the afternoon/evening because you truly have better chances during that time: Not only because of the “sound and light” show but also because the view from the cellular jail watchtower is lovely at sunset.
Here follows the list of the main things to know for Cellular Jail admission:
- Cost of Admission: Rs 30 for Indians and Rs 100 for tourists.
- Photo Camera: Rs 25, Video Camera: Rs 100.
- Timings: 8.45 AM to 12.30 PM and 1.30 PM to 5 PM.
- Last tickets issued by 3.15 PM. No entry after this.
- Closed on Monday and Government holidays.
- Address: GB Pant Road, Port Blair, South Andaman.
How to reach Cellular Jail.
The Cellular Jail is situated in the North-East corner of Port Blair city, capital city of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is about 2 km from the city center and 6 Kms from the airport. It is close to the Aberdeen Jetty (you can go to Ross Island from here), Marina Park, Water Sports Complex, and the Bazaar.
Tuk Tuks are easily available for hire to/from here. Private chauffeured vehicles or rented two-wheelers are other convenient options of travel, especially if you wish to visit many attractions within the city.
Cellular Jail, architecture.
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The construction of the Cellular Jail was carried out by the prisoners deported from the mainland. It consists of a massive three-story structure with seven wings of unequal lengths, radiating from a central watch tower, shaped like spokes of a wheel. It contains 698 cells as well as the remains of the execution room, fetters, crossbar fetters, neck ring shackles, and leg iron chains.
The architecture of Cellular Jail was conceptualized on the basis of ‘Pennsylvania System or Separate System’ theory in which separate confinement is necessary for each inmate for complete isolation from other inmates. No communication of any kind was possible between prisoners in the same or different wings. The design of Cellular Jail is heavily influenced by ‘Panopticon’ theory where radiating wings allowed a single guard to keep watch on all the prisoners from the central tower without the prisoners being able to see him.
The accommodation for the officers including jailor and assistant jailors was provided within the building. The individual cells in the jail are placed in one row along the 4’ wide verandah running the whole length of every wing. Each cell measures 13 1/2 ‘x 7’, secured by a heavy iron grill door with a specially designed latch system. Confinement in the small cells gave this facility its name ‘Cellular Jail.’
Building material was brought in from Burma while the infrastructure for hard labour such as iron grills, chains, fetters, shackles, flogging stands, and oil mills was brought from England.
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Cellular Jail, some curiosities.
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- Other than isolation in order to prevent the exchange of ideas, when the work given to these prisoners was impossible to complete on time, some strong punishments followed for those who failed to meet them. Often punishment was inhumane. Torture and flogging were frequently resorted to on iron triangular frames, bar fetters, crossbar fetters and neck ring shackle, leg iron chains and gunny bag uniforms, and an unhygienic diet were other deterrents for those who refused to submit to the brutal wardens. No cells in the Cellular Jail had toilet facilities. The punishment varied from handcuffs for a week and fetters for six months to solitary confinement. Remoteness and terror of the facility gave it a name, ‘Kala Pani’ (Black waters).
- Four out of the original seven wings of the Jail had to be demolished after damage during an earthquake in 1941. The remaining three wings of the Cellular Jail retain the architectural features such as individual cells located along the gallery, central tower for the surveillance, as well as fetters, crossbar fetters, neck ring shackle and leg iron chains, enforcing the sombre history of extreme solitary confinement, physical hardships and brutal punishment inflicted by the colonial rulers to suppress the Indian Freedom struggle.
- After Independence in 1947, many of the erstwhile political prisoners visited the islands. Their association – “Ex-Andaman Political Prisoner’s Fraternity Circle” put up a proposal to preserve the remaining three wings. Then, Cellular Jail was declared a National Memorial by the then Prime Minister of India on 11th February 1979.
- There are no sites at national level that are comparable to Cellular Jail. Regular maintenance efforts are carried out by Andaman Public Works Department under the technical guidance of Archaeological Survey of India to ensure the integrity of the structure and today, the complex serves as a national memorial monument.
- The cruel torture inflicted in Cellular Jail led to mass hunger strikes by the inmates between 1932 to 1937. The last hunger strike went on for 45 days. The situation got so serious that even stalwarts like Gandhi, Nehru, and Subhas Chandra Bose had to intervene and put pressure on the British. After this, the penal settlement was closed down and the inmates were extracted to the mainland in 1938.
- The Japanese occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during World War II from 23rd March 1942 to 7th October 1945. They put to death many hundreds of people in the most barbaric way, whenever anyone was suspected of sympathizing with the British. Many of the educated persons who were rounded up as suspected spies were kept in the Cellular Jail and were later shot dead. Many were buried in a common grave.
- There are only 3 cities that have ships going to Port Blair: Chennai, Visakhapatnam and Kolkata.The distance from all these cities to the tropical islands of Andaman is more or less the same (about 1500 km). The duration of the crossing by modern ships is three days but it depends on weather condition in the open sea. Every month, there are about three or four sailings. This is why going by ship makes your Andaman trip longer so, I recommend that you consider taking a domestic flight. Direct flights to Andaman are available from Kolkata, Bangalore, and Chennai. It takes approximately 2.5 hours.
- In addition to the Indian visa, a special permit (valid for 30 days) is required for all foreign nationals to visit Andaman and Nicobar Island which is easily available upon arrival. Meanwhile, Indian nationals need no permit to visit the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. However, visiting tribal areas in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is prohibited.
- Do not miss climbing up the center tower to catch a breathtaking view of Ross Island. It is even more interesting at sunset.
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Cellular Jail, conclusion.
Cellular Jail is a must-visit place while on a trip to Andaman Island. Because of Mahatma Gandhi, we’ve all heard about the Indian freedom struggle, but being in front of the Cellular Jail is like witnessing in person one of the murkiest chapters in the history of British rule in India. This would be the centre piece of any traveler’s visit to Andaman Island.