A small island in the sound of Port Blair, Andaman Islands
, on which can be seen the ruins of a former British colonial-era penal colony prison that was the precursor of the more famous and much bigger Cellular Jail
in Port Blair. Of the former prison on Viper Island just the gallows building and a few other structures survive, but they have been commodified for tourism as well, so are worth the short boat tour to get there.
More background info: I found it hard to track down any sound, trustworthy historical accounts of Viper Island. All I can rely on are the rather dodgy panels at the island itself and Internet articles that aren't much better (including Wikipedia's).
All that seems to be certain is that the construction of the prison was started sometime from 1858, shortly after the British
decided to turn the Andamans
into a proper penal colony where they could send the political prisoners following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (see under Andaman
and also India
, especially Kanpur
and The Residency
). Construction work apparently utilized slave labour provided by the prisoners themselves.
As you would expect, the treatment of these prisoners was usually brutal. Often they'd be shackled and chained together, which gave the place its nickname “Viper Chain Gang Jail”.
In addition to being a place of incarceration, Viper Island was also a place for executions, by hanging. Probably the most prominent prisoner executed here was Shere Ali, who had murdered Lord Mayo, the British Viceroy of India
, in 1872. But how many other execution took place here is uncertain.
When the Cellular Jail
in Port Blair was opened in 1906, Viper Island was given up and left to decay. Today, only a couple of the old structures survive as ruins (see below).
What there is to see: Not terribly much. When you arrive at the jetty of the island, there's the former guardhouse ruin right by the pier head. It's just an empty shell.
There are a few info panels providing some basic historical information and historical photos which bring the place to life a little, even though the texts are very crude and not always all that enlightening. They line the path signposted as leading to the “gallows”.
The latter refers to a red-brick, temple-like building atop a hillock. Steps lead up there for visitors to take a look closer-up. A panel up here features a historical photo of Shere Ali (see above
The “gallows” building is a pretty atmospheric ruin. But that's already it, basically. Not much else to see.
Except: at the time of my visit, the lower-lying parts of the island below the Gallows hillock looked almost as if the tsunami had just happened. But in this case the damage, the felled trees and all the strewn debris stemmed from a cyclone that had blown over the islands not long before I came to the Andamans
. This also partly destroyed the picnic area on the beach next to the jetty.
Even though there isn't that much to see and do on Viper Island, I'd say it's still worth going, just for the historical significance of the place. In terms of tourist commodification
, however, it can in no way compete with the Cellular Jail
of Port Blair.
in the sheltered sound that cuts deep inland to the west of Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands
Access and costs: Only accessible by boat, but these can easily be arranged; prices vary.
Boats to Viper Island can be caught from the Junglighat Jetty of the harbour of Port Blair that faces the sound west of the centre of Port Blair (but NOT from the water sports centre where the boats to Ross Island depart from – see under Andaman
There are numerous operators and you can just go to the tourist buildings at the head of the jetty and browse the stalls there. Or have it pre-arranged by a travel agent. In fact, boat tours such as this are often incorporated into longer tour itineraries, some even in combination with Ross Island and even Havelock (again, see under Andaman
For me too, it was part of a tailor-made itinerary, so I do not know what just this single part of it would have cost. Now I find it incredibly hard to find information about this online (I should have checked there and then), as most quotes I can track down are for combination tours. I could estimate, but I presume if you want to do it independently you'd have to find out locally for yourself and possibly haggle, so there's no point really. I can't imagine the price for the short boat ride to be excessively priced, though.
Interestingly, they insist on everybody boarding a boat in the Andamans to wear a life jacket the whole time … my guide said that the rule was introduced after a recent ferry accident, so you can't really complain. Even though the sheltered bay that Viper Island is located in hardly seems to require such safety measures.
The real challenge and potential health and safety risk came when disembarking at Viper Island's jetty, as at the time of my visit it was low tide, requiring a somewhat dicey clambering up to the pier. If you have any say in it try going at high tide or on a bigger (higher) boat …
Time required: No more than about an hour in total, including the ca. 10-15 minutes' boat ride there and back. Waiting time at the pier can add to this.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Most obviously the Cellular Jail
in Port Blair! It's much bigger, better preserved and has a few proper exhibitions to provide more background information than the panels at Viper Island can hope to do. So it's a must – and only a short drive/taxi ride away from the harbour.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: part of the trip is rather non-dark in itself, especially the great views over the sound, the fishing harbour boats and the hills around. Viper Island is also recommended as a picnic spot – except that when I went those areas were still devastated by a recent cyclone, so we headed straight back to Port Blair.
- Viper Island 1 - within a sheltered bay
- Viper Island 2 - access is by boat
- Viper Island 3 - a must
- Viper Island 4 - arrival at the pier and former guardhouse
- Viper Island 5 - damage and debris from a recent cyclone
- Viper Island 6 - tree felled in the storm
- Viper Island 7 - signs and plaques
- Viper Island 8 - former gallows
- Viper Island 9 - largest ruin of the former prison