Andaman & Nicobar Islands

An isolated archipelago (well two) of islands in the Indian Ocean between Indonesia to the south, Myanmar (Burma) to the north and Thailand to the east. 
Politically, however, they are a territory belonging to India, despite the much greater distance to the Indian subcontinent. Not only because of that geographical distance, but also because the Andamans are historically, ethnically and culturally quite distinct from India, they are granted a separate country entry on this website.
For the dark tourist, they are an attraction mainly for two reasons: the colonial heritage as a former British penal colony as well as for having been affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. While the latter – except for a monument in Port Blair – is not really commodified for tourists, two places related to the former are very much part of the island's tourism industry and are hence given their own separate chapters here: 
In addition there are also a few remnants from the short period during which the islands were occupied by Japan in WWII – mainly a few concrete Japanese bunkers and fortifications on the coast in the archipelago's capital Port Blair (see Cellular Jail).
Google Maps locator: e.g. [11.6753, 92.7493]
Further remnants from the much longer-lasting British colonial times include Ross Island, just 2 miles (3 km) off the coast of Port Blair, which used to be the British colonial administrative centre on the archipelago for most of the time that it was used as a penal colony (see below), until in 1941 it suffered severe damage during an earthquake. Today there are boat tours to Ross Island and you can visit the ruins of the British colonial buildings. These boats depart from the Rajiv Gandhi Water Sports Complex on the eastern side of Port Blair. Unfortunately, when I was on the Andamans, in January 2017, high seas (following a storm) prevented the boats from going there, so I had to make do with the views you get from the shore or the rooftop of the Cellular Jail.
Google Maps locator: [11.676, 92.763]
What is probably least known about these generally little-known islands is that it is here that you can find the only active volcano on any Indian territory, namely on a small island to the east of Middle Andaman Island that is called, quite aptly, Barren Island. This is less surprising when you look at the map and realize that these islands are basically the northern end of the chain of volcanoes that runs all the way through the larger archipelago that is Indonesia.
Google Maps locator: [12.284, 93.862]
On the “mainland” of Andaman north of Port Blair there are other indicators of underground geothermal/volcanic activity, though only in the form of spluttering mud volcanoes (cf. Qobustan in Azerbaijan), and at least one of these has been made accessible for visiting tourists.
Google Maps locator: [12.1297, 92.7921]
What you may have heard of are those wild native tribes that can still be found on parts of the Andamans, including some that attack anybody trying to get close to their territory. This is indeed not a myth but in fact the case, if only really for one tribe living on North Sentinel Island. These Sentinelese have always shunned contact with the modern world and are fiercely defensive of their island. Even helicopters flying too close to the island have been attacked with arrows. In 2006 two fishermen landed on North Sentinel (allegedly getting stranded there by accident) and they were killed by the natives.
Nevertheless the Sentinelese are now properly protected and their island is by government ruling strictly out of bounds, so no visits are possible, which is of course better for both sides. I only flew over this island on my approach to Port Blair coming from Chennai in Tamil Nadu in south India (cf. Tranquebar). But it still gave me a little prick of excitement as we went over it … (before you ask: no, I did not see any natives on the island – the plane wouldn't really have been close enough for that anyway).
Google Maps locator: [11.559, 92.243]
The closest you can get to the Sentinelese and the other indigenous tribes of the Andamans is at the Anthropological Museum in Port Blair, where they have displays and photos illustrating the islands' uniquely rich original ethnic diversity. Apparently the different tribes have very different genetic heritage. So they must have come from various quite distinct origins when they settled here thousands of years ago – and must have kept quite separate from each other too. These days, though, the natives number only in their hundreds, while the vast majority is made up of modern-day settlers from India. (“Zonal Anthropological Museum”, in the heart of Port Blair, open daily except Mondays and public holidays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.; admission: 10 rupees; no photography.)
Google Maps locator: [11.6647, 92.7403]
At the pier head of the Water Sports Centre on the eastern seafront of Port Blair two monuments face each other. One is the Tsunami Memorial (commemorating the victims of the 2004 tsunami on the Andamans – see below) and the Battle of Aberdeen monument. The latter commemorates an armed conflict between native tribes and the British in May 1859. Both monuments are simple, abstract affairs, clad in red marble.
Google Maps locator: [11.6726, 92.7485]
The dark tourist can also spot a few military monuments and artillery guns on display, but that is more or less it ... although at least at some point there were also ruins of a destroyed resort still to be seen on Little Andaman. That island was the part of the archipelago worst affected in the 2004 tsunami. But since I didn't make it there, I can't say if anything of the kind can still be found there.
Google Maps locator: [10.66, 92.57]
By far the vast majority of visitors to the Andamans, however, are not dark tourists anyway (or only in so far as they, too, visit the Cellular Jail, which is part of the mainstream tourism industry and thus is included in most tourists' pre-planned itineraries).
Most foreign tourists don't even stay in Port Blair for more than an overnight stopover after arrival or before going back to the airport. That is because most of them head straight to the prime mainstream tourism spots that the Andamans are (moderately) famous for and that cater for those after scuba diving and/or snorkelling as well as various water sports. The Andamans have some pristine coral reefs with plenty of colourful fish to admire. The No. 1 location for this is Havelock Island off the east coast of the main South Andaman Island.
Google Maps locator: [12.006, 92.984]
This is so the prime mainstream activity here that the lady at the reception desk of my hotel in Port Blair immediately asked when my transfer to Havelock would be. When I replied that I didn't have one booked and wasn't going to head out there she stared back at me in puzzlement and disbelief. Apparently all foreign visitors go there … except me.
The Andamans are most popular with tourists from mainland India, though. For them the Andamans are something similar to what Okinawa is for the Japanese, their own little tropical equivalent of Hawaii, so to speak.
Getting to the Andamans as a tourist is only possible by plane, to Port Blair, the archipelago's capital and only larger settlement. And you can only get here the long way from mainland India, either from Chennai in Tamil Nadu (see Tranquebar) to the west or Kolkata to the north (with onwards connections to Delhi). Flying time is roughly two hours. There are no connections to anywhere much closer in Myanmar, Thailand or Indonesia (Banda Aceh is only 130 miles/200 km from the southern tip of Nicobar). The only other regular way that tourists arrive here is by cruise ship – but since I am an ardent enemy of that sector of tourism I will not dwell on this.
Getting around within Port Blair is done by the usual Indian means of transport: motorbike/scooter, bus, tuk-tuk or taxi/private car – for tourists it will be mostly the latter two, unless you're on an organized group tour (for which minibuses and coaches are plentiful).
Inter-island connections are provided mostly by ferries, including speedboats, though there are now also seaplanes flying to Havelock.
Note that foreigners need to complete special paperwork on arrival at Port Blair's airport (and keep their copies as they have to be handed back on departing the island). It is still called a Restricted Area Permit, required in addition to your regular tourist visa for India, but at least you no longer have to apply for this special permit prior to visiting Andaman. It's just a little inconvenience on arrival.
Note, though, that Nicobar (now a “Biosphere Reserve”) and various smaller islands of the archipelago remain closed to tourism.
The most exotic ends of the archipelago that tourists are regularly permitted to go to are Little Andaman (though parts of it are a reserve for the Onge tribe and off limits to foreigners) and the strangely named Interview Island. The former is wild and remote but has a reputation amongst surfers, while the latter is home to a herd of feral elephants (released after a logging operation here was given up) that you can go and watch on day trips with a special permit.
Accommodation options are relatively plentiful in Port Blair and the more developed tourist areas (such as Havelock Island), including resort-like hotels. These also provide the easiest options for food and drink. Concerning the latter, you notice that you are in a touristy part of India – compared to much of the mainland, alcohol is quite freely available and less pricey here. Food options include Indian standards as well as more island-typical options including, naturally, seafood. At the grub end of the spectrum you can also find, for instance “Andaman Fried Chicken”, or “AFC” (a fast-food joint that shamelessly plagiarizes the better known “Kentucky” chain).
Most of the islands are still covered in thick jungle vegetation, except for those few parts where (modern) human settlements are. Roads are mostly limited to the Port Blair area and the main single trunk road leading up to North Andaman.
The climate is tropical, dry and warm in winter (but with occasional storms), but much wetter and thus hot and humid in summer.
These islands had long been way-off and mysteriously exotic flecks in the ocean that were mostly bypassed by the early adventurers and explorers. Some notes from pre-colonial travellers survive that all describe the islands as places of darkness and death, best to be avoided: densely covered by inhospitable jungle, populated by vicious cannibals and laden with poisonous gases (probably from that volcanic activity).
Apparently Denmark had a short stint at trying to colonize Nicobar Island (administered from Tranquebar) in the mid-18th century, but it was the British who in the latter part of the 18th century properly seized these marginalized islands and integrated them into their colonial empire, first only focusing on what was to become Port Blair on South Andaman as well as a few smaller outlying islands. Early characterizations of the new lands by the British surveyors were similarly dismissive and bleak, calling them “untamed” and “uncivilized”. Settlement efforts initially remained haphazard and without much determination beyond surveying and holding a few prisoners here.
But this changed after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (see e.g. Kanpur, The Residency in Lucknow or Nicholson cemetery in Delhi, India). Towards the end of that year the British government decided to set up a proper penal colony here, far away from the mainland, to incarcerate the “hard core” of the rebels detained (what in current Indian parlance were of course “freedom fighters”) – so they were political prisoners.
The first proper prison set up was on Viper Island, later it was replaced by the much larger Cellular Jail in Port Blair itself. The latter only closed at the end of the colonial era, with India getting independence in 1947.
In between, during WWII, the Andamans were occupied by Japan from March 1942 until the end of the war. During that time the Japanese released the prisoners from the Cellular Jail but soon used it themselves to incarcerate alleged spies and also committed various war crimes – as they did elsewhere (cf. e.g. Death Railway, Nanjing, Indonesia, Singapore). After the war, the British took over the islands once again in October 1945, though not for long:
At the same time that Britain ended its colonial rule the Andaman and Nicobar Islands became part of India, basically by default and partly because of the very role they had played in India's struggle against colonial rule. Theoretically they could just as well have been given to Burma (today's Myanmar), which is much closer and was at that time still under British rule (through it became independent too in 1948).
Under Indian rule, more and more people from the Indian mainland relocated to the Andamans and slowly more farming and infrastructure development was undertaken, also some logging of the jungle. In recent decades, tourism has grown into a major part of the island economy too.
All this seriously affected most the indigenous peoples of the archipelago, although a few still hold out resolutely. In addition to the (in)famous North Sentinelese (see above) who fiercely attack any intruders trying to make contact, the Jarawa and Onge also largely shun contact with the modern world, but more by simply keeping their own distance. Both tribes have been given reserves on South and Middle Andaman and on Little Andaman, respectively. The other tribes have been severely reduced in numbers and cultural independence. The Jangil have long been extinct (since the 1920s) and the formerly strongest group, the Andamanese, are now regarded as more or less extinct too. The few survivors no longer speak the indigenous Andamanese language (but Hindi). These losses are also linguistic in nature, as the native Andaman languages are regarded as distinct from all the other language families of Asia.
When the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 struck the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, there were initially fears for the survival of the remote native tribes, including the Sentinelese. But it was found that they had not been as badly affected – which is attributed to possible oral traditions of recognizing the early signs of a tsunami (first the earthquake, then waters receding from the shore before the arrival of the first tidal wave) so that they took to higher elevations in time.
Worst affected was the south and centre of the archipelago from Little Andaman Island to Nicobar. Port Blair on South Andaman fared relatively well and served as the centre of relief efforts for the more badly affected parts of the islands following the tsunami.
After Banda Aceh, in northern Indonesia, Nicobar Island (just 130 miles/200 km to the north-west) was the closest to the epicentre of the undersea earthquake that caused the tsunami, closer even than the so catastrophically affected tourist resorts in Phuket and Krabi in Thailand.
The flood wave hitting the archipelago reached more than 30 feet (10 metres) high. Parts of the southern end of Nicobar subsided due to the quake and remain submerged (in total over 100 square miles were lost to the sea). The lighthouse at Indira Point, the southernmost tip of the island, now stands in the waters – when it was constructed in 1972 it was on the coast, some 5 metres above sea level!
The death toll of the disaster in the Andamans is estimated at between ca. 2000 and 5000 in all, which is high, but nowhere near as high as that in Banda Aceh or Sri Lanka. This can mostly be attributed to the comparatively lower population density of the worst-affected islands as well as rather hilly terrain in other places, including the capital Port Blair.
All in all the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are a fascinating exotic archipelago with a unique history, some of it quite dark, and thus well worth travelling to for things other than the escapism of the beaches and reefs and resorts.
  • Andaman 01 - flying in from the westAndaman 01 - flying in from the west
  • Andaman 02 - mapAndaman 02 - map
  • Andaman 03 - old house in Port BlairAndaman 03 - old house in Port Blair
  • Andaman 04 - tsunami memorialAndaman 04 - tsunami memorial
  • Andaman 05 - battle memorialAndaman 05 - battle memorial
  • Andaman 06 - clock tower in Port BlairAndaman 06 - clock tower in Port Blair
  • Andaman 07 - artillery monumentAndaman 07 - artillery monument
  • Andaman 08 - Japanese bunker and rough seaAndaman 08 - Japanese bunker and rough sea
  • Andaman 09 - anthropological museumAndaman 09 - anthropological museum
  • Andaman 10 - Port Blair - tropical capitalAndaman 10 - Port Blair - tropical capital
  • Andaman 11 - wrecks in the harbourAndaman 11 - wrecks in the harbour
  • Andaman 12 - fishing harbourAndaman 12 - fishing harbour
  • Andaman 13 - fishing boatAndaman 13 - fishing boat
  • Andaman 14 - inter-island ferryAndaman 14 - inter-island ferry
  • Andaman 15 - sheltered bay with navy and coastguard boatsAndaman 15 - sheltered bay with navy and coastguard boats
  • Andaman 16 - lighthouseAndaman 16 - lighthouse
  • Andaman 17 - tropical weather system building up in the distanceAndaman 17 - tropical weather system building up in the distance
  • Andaman 18 - Rajiv Gandhi statue and rough ocean sprayAndaman 18 - Rajiv Gandhi statue and rough ocean spray
  • Andaman 19 - lighthouse and statue on the northern tip of Ross IslandAndaman 19 - lighthouse and statue on the northern tip of Ross Island
  • Andaman 20 - Indian flag on Ross Island, the former British adminstrative seat on the AndamansAndaman 20 - Indian flag on Ross Island, the former British adminstrative seat on the Andamans
  • Andaman 21 - mud volcanoAndaman 21 - mud volcano
  • Andaman 22 - beaches and jungleAndaman 22 - beaches and jungle
  • Andaman 23 - restricted access, but nominally welcomingAndaman 23 - restricted access, but nominally welcoming

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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