A large former prison in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands
. It was built by the British in the early 20th century to house political prisoners from India
as the movement fighting for independence from Britain
grew stronger. It was closed in 1947 when India finally became independent and was later turned into a memorial. The preserved cell blocks are a spectacular landmark and the principal cultural heritage sight on these remote tropical islands. They are complemented by several more or less informative exhibitions too.
More background info:
One of the key reasons why Britain
seized the remote Andaman & Nicobar Islands
in the first place was precisely to establish a penal colony
here, far away from the Indian mainland. After the crushing of the “Mutiny of 1857” (known in contemporary India
as the “First War of Independence”) many rebels who were captured (and not executed straight away) were sent to this remote exile. For this purpose a proper prison was constructed on Viper Island
in the bay to the west of Port Blair, the settlement that was to grow into the principal British foothold on these islands and is today the province's capital city.
As the independence movement in India gained strength – and so did the repression by the British (or “Britishers” as the Indians prefer to say) – it became clear that an even larger prison was required. Therefore the Cellular Jail was constructed between 1896 and 1906.
When finished it consisted of seven three-storey cell block wings radiating from a central watchtower, like the spokes of a wheel, plus an administrative block and gatehouse and some ancillary buildings, including a shed that housed the prison's gallows.
In total it had 693 cells, all for solitary confinement with no proper windows, just a barred little hatch for ventilation, high up on the wall above eye level. The barred cell doors along the colonnaded corridors/balconies were bolted from a niche next to the cell. The cell blocks were arranged in such a way that the front with the cell doors faced the rear of the next cell block, so that none of the prisoners could ever see each other whilst in their cells. The isolation was such that there were at one time two brothers simultaneously incarcerated at the Cellular Jail and for two years both remained unaware of the other being there too.
The British had taken inspiration from the French
penal colony on Devil's Island
, opened in 1852, in French Guyana
. They admired the French set-up, but the British version in Port Blair was to go far beyond the French model.
The British promoted the idea of the exiling to Port Blair not just being a physical separation from the homeland and a prisoner's past life, but of the overseas journey being “Kala Pani
”. That's a Sanskrit concept with deep mythological roots in India
, meaning literally “black water”, but metaphorically rather refers to being completely stripped of caste, community and creed – basically it means parting the prisoners from their very souls.
In addition to the psychological cruelty, physical brutality was also the norm at the Andaman penal colony. Prisoners often had to work chained together and shackled. Forced labour was used in construction but also regularly in oil mills, where the prisoners had to grind coconuts by going round and round like donkeys or buffaloes. There were regular beatings for punishment, and plain torture was common too. Some prisoners were even subjected to medical experiments.
Prisoners who resorted to hunger strikes (which happened more than once) were force-fed … and on a number of occasions this went wrong, with the catheter inserted through the nostrils filling the lungs rather than the stomach with a milk and egg liquid, thus drowning the prisoners instead of feeding them. Many more, however, died from rampant diseases or exhaustion.
some 80,000 prisoners
(all considered “enemies of the Empire”) are believed to have passed through Port Blair's penal colony and the Cellular Jail. Prisoners came from all parts of India
. Apparently (according to one information panel in the museum) a few rebels who had revolted against British rule in Burma were also sent here.
In the years after WW1
(in which tens of thousands of Indians had served on the British side) the hard line of punishment at the Andaman penal colony was slowly being relaxed – also in the light of uneasiness expressed amongst some in the British establishment.
Deportations to the Andamans were suspended in 1922 … but they resumed just ten years later, as the independence movement resurged. But now protests intensified together with pressure on the government to end the brutal regime at Port Blair (cf. also Jallianwala Bagh
). In 1937, the first repatriation
of prisoners started, by 1939 the prison
In 1942, as Japan invaded
the Andaman Islands
, the prison was revived, but this time the prisoners were British (and later locals accused of spying). Yet the Japanese also fostered the anti-British sentiments of the Indians and in 1945 the Andamans were briefly the first to declare independence.
However, after the war, the Andamans went back into British
hands, if only for a short while. With India
finally achieved in 1947, the Andamans
were incorporated into the Indian Union.
The Cellular Jail thus became redundant and was subsequently partly demolished, also to make space for a new hospital that was built on a section of the former prison's grounds in 1963. Yet protesters demanded that the prison should not simply be destroyed altogether and recognition of the martyrdom of its inmates thus erased. So in 1969 the prison with its three remaining cell blocks was declared a National Memorial.
Today it is THE prime historical monument
in the Andamans
related to islands' colonial heritage. And it's being heavily pushed by the local tourism industry. A visit to the prison – and attending one of the nightly “Sound & Light Shows” are part of most visitors' itineraries while in Port Blair. So in a way the Cellular Jail is both a prime dark-tourism site and a mass tourism attraction at the same time.
What there is to see: Quite a lot! It makes sense to start with the museum part in one wing of the gatehouse/administrative block. This main exhibition is about the history of the prison and the Port Blair penal colony and consists mostly of text-and-photo panels in both English and Hindi.
The texts are, as you would expect in an Indian context, a bit on the “flowery” side, with the usual pathos about the “freedom fighters”/“martyrs” and their “sacrifice”, but overall they are written rather well and do their job of conveying a concise but detailed enough overview of the site's history.
You learn about prominent inmates (prominent from an Indian perspective, that is – most Western visitors will probably never have heard of these names) and what life was like for them in the prison, including methods of punishment, as well as about the hunger strikes.
Also covered is the period of the occupation of the islands by Japan
and the Japanese use of the prison.
In addition to the many historical photos, some of the facsimiles of original British documents about their penal system are illuminating (but tough to stomach).
Other than these panels there are also a few artefacts on display. Some are predictable, such as prisoners' clothes, locks and keys, or fetters, others perhaps less so, such as a Japanese steel helmet. There's also a fairly large scale model of the prison as it was when it still had all it seven wings. Complementing the museum is an art exhibition showing paintings that illustrate prison life (mostly in a somewhat 'naïve' style).
You then step out into the premises of the prison proper. Here you can see a monument to your right and another incorporating an eternal flame right in front. Beyond these is a courtyard between two of the preserved cell blocks.
From here you have several options, either to go to the other exhibition parts, to the gallows or explore the cell blocks
themselves. I started with the latter. You can wander about the colonnaded balconies and peek into the now empty cells, inspect the cells' locking mechanism, and climb to the top of the central watchtower
and even onto the roofs of the three remaining cell blocks. I found it very atmospheric, especially with the hard shadows of the bars on the floor and the symmetry of the cell-block layout. Photos speak more than words here: see the gallery below
Inside the staircase of the central watchtower there are numerous plaques listing the names of inmates ordered by which region/state in India they had come from. Once at the top of the watchtower you can see the remaining one wall of another cell block (by a car park) and beyond it is the hospital that the rest of the prison had to be demolished for. Further away, across the strait, you also get a good view of Ross Island
(see under Andaman & Nicobar
At the end of the south-eastern cell block a sign by a doorway says “gallows”. In front of this is a white basin that, as another sign points out, was used for performing the “last rites” on those condemned to be executed.
Step through the doorway and you'll come to a small wooden hut. You can peek inside and see the three nooses hanging from the ceiling – they could indeed hang three convicts simultaneously here, by opening the trapdoors they stood on. A doorway on the side of the shed leads to steps down to underneath the trapdoors.
In the courtyard between the south-western and the south-eastern cell block is a rather unnatural looking sculpture of a white (and I mean literally snow-white!) convict tied to a flogging frame. In the half-open pavilion beyond this is a semi-open-air exhibition of more dummies in fetters and shackles, or yet another one on a flogging rack, or toiling away in the coconut oil mills.
There's another courtyard to the west of the south-western cell block, accessible from the bottom of the central watchtower, where there is another shed with yet another exhibition
… except it was closed for renovation when I was there (in January 2017): it would have been about the “First War of independence
”, i.e. what the British referred to as the “Mutiny” of 1857 (see above
and under Kanpur
and The Residency
Furthermore there is a small exhibition of large blow-ups of historic photos of Port Blair, which is a nice add-on, though there isn't much explanation of the backgrounds to these photos. They only convey an impression of the olden days.
While the Cellular Jail during the day is the museum attraction described thus far, in the evenings it becomes the setting for a so-called Sound & Light Show. It's a 'Son et lumière' type of show in which light effects accompany a narration, or rather a disembodied re-enactment of the story of the prison. That is: piped through loudspeakers, but not with any real actors, even though there is what looks like a stage in front of the rows of seats for the audience. But it remains empty during these shows. It really is just sound and light.
I attended such a show and can only report that I found it a bit painful, as it's rather overdoing the pathos-laden “patriotic” glorification side of things. They certainly do not mince words here about who were the “good guys” (the Indian
freedom fighters/martyrs) versus the “bad guys” (the British
). I found the rather overacted dramatic voices a bit too much too. The light effects, on the other hand, were nice, if not exactly spectacular. Video and photography was prohibited during the show, so I'm afraid I can't provide any illustration of this in the gallery below.
All in all
, even though I found the evening Sound & Light Show rather underwhelming, the prison as such, as a daytime heritage attraction, was for me without a doubt the highlight of the Andamans
, possibly even better than anything else I did on my three-week trip to India
. But then again, it was perhaps mostly down to the photographer side in me that was so smitten with the many opportunities to shoot really cool pictures here.
on a hillock on a peninsula in the northern part of Port Blair, the capital of the Andamans
, overlooking North Bay and Ross Island. The entrance is to the south, up the hillside north of the water sports complex and Marina Park.
Access and costs: as the prime tourist sight in Port Blair it's quite easily accessible; a moderate admission fee is charged.
Details: Many tourists have a visit to the Cellular Jail built into their organized itineraries by default, but if you're travelling independently it's easy enough to get to the Cellular Jail – all tuk-tuk and taxi drivers will be familiar with it. And if you're staying within the northern district of Port Blair it's even walkable (but plan your route – the maze of winding streets in these hilly parts of town can be quite confusing).
Opening times that I found advertised both at the site, on the admission ticket, in brochures and online do not quite agree, but range from 8:45 or 9 a.m. to 12:30 or 1 p.m. and from 1:30 or 2 to 4 p.m., or to 4:45 or 5 p.m.; open daily except on public holidays. Possibly also closed on Mondays (it said so on the ticket, but neither on the sign at the site nor on the official Andaman tourism website).
Admission: 30 rupees.
There's also a bit of confusion about extra fees. According to the official Andaman tourism website a photography permit of 200 rupees is levied, and use of a video camera costs even a whopping 1000. But the sign at the site says “video camera/handy camera (non-professional)” is 200 and only a professional one costs 1000. There is no mention of a fee for stills photography and I'm sure I wasn't charged anything for bringing my cameras.
The evening “Sound & Light Shows” take place in English at 7:15 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and in Hindi daily at 6 p.m. and on the non-English days at 7:15 p.m. as well. The entry fee for the show is 50 rupees. You should buy your ticket in advance.
On the night it can get very crowded and a strict crowd management regime is in place to enable the audience of the earlier show to exit before the second batch is allowed in. You are free to choose your seat – if it looks like it might rain, try to get one at the back, which is the only part that has a bit of protection by a roof.
Time required: a couple of hours at least just for visiting the prison as such, possibly longer if you want to read everything in the museum exhibitions. The evening “Sound & Light Show” lasts an hour, but you have to be in the queue early, so factor in an extra half hour or so of waiting beforehand.
When you've seen the Cellular Jail you may also want to visit its predecessor on Viper Island
to the west of Port Blair. It's far less spectacular a sight but also has great historical significance.
- Cellular Jail 01 - outside the gate
- Cellular Jail 02 - inside the complex
- Cellular Jail 03 - eternal flame
- Cellular Jail 04 - in the museum part
- Cellular Jail 05 - typical prison exhibit
- Cellular Jail 06 - artefact from the Japanese occupation
- Cellular Jail 07 - model of the prison with its original seven wings
- Cellular Jail 08 - central watchtower
- Cellular Jail 09 - going up
- Cellular Jail 10 - view over two of the remaining three wings
- Cellular Jail 11 - view from the roof towards Ross Island
- Cellular Jail 12 - eastern cell block
- Cellular Jail 13 - photogenic symmetry
- Cellular Jail 14 - very photogenic shadows
- Cellular Jail 15 - inside a cell
- Cellular Jail 16 - behind bars
- Cellular Jail 17 - rear of the central cell block seen through bars
- Cellular Jail 18 - bolt
- Cellular Jail 19 - locking mechanism
- Cellular Jail 20 - the prison can still do damage to your head
- Cellular Jail 21 - back in the main courtyard
- Cellular Jail 22 - gallows hut
- Cellular Jail 23 - last rites basin
- Cellular Jail 24 - heading for the gallows
- Cellular Jail 25 - gallows
- Cellular Jail 26 - stairs down
- Cellular Jail 27 - underneath the gallows trapdoors
- Cellular Jail 28 - flogging frame
- Cellular Jail 29 - semi-open-air museum part
- Cellular Jail 30 - different types of restraining devices
- Cellular Jail 31 - historical photo exhibition
- Cellular Jail 32 - seating for the nightly sound-and-light shows