The Cellular Jail then…
Everyone knows about the first war of independence that was fought in 1857 by small groups of freedom fighters. Back little did anyone know that their small revolt would spread like a jungle fire and force the British to take a step that would go down in the history of India as the most inhuman and barbaric.
To break the back bone of the Indian freedom struggle and the spirits of the freedom fighters, the British government decided to send these freedom fighters (who were called convicts) to Andaman Island- the Penal Colony of British India as it came to be called later.
It was also termed as ‘Kala Pani’ as there was no escape from the hostile land surrounded by miles and miles of water with no sight of any other land nearby. Here, took birth the concept of the Cellular Jail; laying the foundation stone for many years of atrocities to come.
The construction of the Cellular jail started in Port Blair in 1896 and was completed in 1906. Till then, the convicts were kept in open barracks on Ross Island and Viper Island. As per the documents it was started by the settlement order no-423 dated 13th September 1893.
The jail then built was massive and impregnable. There was no escape route for prisoners. It was designed in such a way that from his position in the central tower, the Commissioner could see every corridor of the prison.
It had 7 spokes or wings (at present there are 5 as 2 got damaged during an earthquake), 3 storeys, 693 cells for solitary confinement and corridors of four feet width with grilled iron doors which were kept shut during the nights.
The structure was so built that each wing stood facing the back side of the other wing thus making it impossible for anyone to communicate with others. The jail also housed the gallows, punishment area, kitchen, wells and the administrative block.
In 1938, Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhiji took a firm stand and this penal settlement was closed down. Finally, the prisoners were sent to jails in their respective states, but they were close to home.
Predictably, the structure brings horrific memories and images to mind but, on 11th February 1979, after consulting with the surviving freedom fighters, the Cellular jail was turned into a National Memorial and was dedicated to their struggle.
The Cellular Jail today…
Today, the administrative block houses a museum. Some work quotes kept here speak about the barbaric and inhuman torture; gunny-bag clothing and bar fetters among other things used as punishing tools. The Savarkar brothers, Ulaskar Dutt, Prithvi Singh Azad and Gurmukh Singh are some of the political prisoners who were kept here.
The cell where Veer Savarkar was kept has been kept untouched and is open for viewing. The museum also has some of the rarest photographs; many documenting the history of the place among others. Furthermore, preserved and kept for public viewing are the hand written accounts and poems of some of the freedom fighters which are a rare insight into their lives there.
An ‘eternal flame’ is kept burning within the vicinity of the jail; not only in the memory of those who fought for their country and died here serving a life sentence, but also to ensure their sacrifice and pain is never forgotten.
It is advisable to visit Cellular jail with some free time to spare. As you walk into the structure, there’s a subtle sense of melancholy in the air; a reminder that the old tree in the courtyard and the buildings have been witness to unspeakable horrors committed against some of the bravest souls.
Walk from the working barracks to the gallows, take a look at the implements used. Run your hand along the trunk of the old tree. Put your ear to the walls as you take a walk through the corridors.
Understand the structure, feel and listen to what it tries to say. Spend some time reading through the stories and articles kept in the museum to get a glimpse of the horror and pain of the life spent there. You can climb to the top of the central tower and as you look around, you can easily visualize how isolated this prison must have been all those years ago.
A sound and light show is conducted here every day at sunset. It is an attempt to bring forth the accounts of the tough and torturous lives of the freedom fighters who lived and died here. The show is staged in the form of a conversation between time and the old tree in the courtyard. A lot is left to be mentioned about the Cellular Jail; but those details are best obtained by watching the sound and light show.
Jail timings: 9 AM -4:45 PM
Sound and Light Show: 6pm and 7pm (all days) .Tickets are available there at the counter outside.
How to reach: To visit the Cellular jail, local taxis, autos and buses can be taken as it is within Port Blair.