A visit to the Cellular Jail, Port Blair, Andaman

January 21, 2019

After lunch, we moved to the historic Cellular Jail. Once it was used to be a symbol of horror and torture, but now it has become a national memorial.

It is learnt that construction of the prison was started in 1896 and completed in 1906. The original building was a puce-colored brick building. The bricks used to build the building were brought from Burma. The jail has acquired the name ‘Cellular’ because it is entirely made up of 698 individual cells for the solitary confinement. There is no dormitory.

Originally it was a seven armed three storey building, comprising of honeycomb like corridors with central-tower acting as its fulcrum. The four out of original seven wings of the Jail had to be demolished after the damage during the earthquake in 1941. Presently three out of the seven prongs are intact and open for visitors.

The Cellular Jail

After parking our Tempo Traveller we walked for some 200 metres to reach the main gate of Cellular Jail. The scene was unbelievable and I shall never forget. For decades I used to see photographs of the jail in books / magazines. I read many articles about this heritage building since childhood days. And now, I am in front of it. 

Two yellow coloured tall minarets accompanied by two tall trees on both sides of the main gate welcomed us. “Rastriya Smarak” was written in Devnagri on the left minaret, whereas the right one was written with “National Memorial” in English. Top end of the main gate was arch type. The words “Cellular Jail” was written in English along the arch.

There was a cross bar below the arch stretching from left to right, in which name of the jail was written in Devnagri. Front side of the jail building was also coloured in yellow. Windows as well as railing of the balcony of the first floor were glowing in green.

Immediately, after entering through the gate of the memorial, a photo gallery came to the right side. Several photographs and pictorial informative posters were displayed. If anyone covers this gallery with patience without being hurried, he/she can have a good idea about (1), the history of British Raj in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, (2), the Japanese invasion & retreat from here and (3), the importance of Cellular Jail in our freedom movement.

Excerpts from stories of prison life of many great freedom fighters are also displayed here, which include Barindra Kumar Ghosh, Sushil Dasgupta, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Babarao Savarkar etc. Pictorial presentations of some important cases related to struggle for independence have been portrayed as well.

The first floor of this building housed Art Gallery, Netaji gallery and a library. There was a beautiful model of the Cellular Jail with its surroundings encaged in a glass box. It may be the correct place to mention that, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose visited Cellular Jail as Head of the Provisional Government of India on 29th December 1943. He termed it as “Indian Bastille”.

After visiting the gallery building, we came down to enter the open green lawn. Just there, on both sides of the walkway, there were two continuously burning flames. Each of the flames were covered under a beautifully designed small circular open structure with a top shed fixed to the corner of the base by eight slim columns.

These flames are named as “Swatantra Jyot” (the Golden Flame) to show respect to our freedom fighters. On the left side, there was a vast marble-covered elevated yard. At the end of the yard, there was a stone pillar dedicated to the nation by Giani Zail Singh (past President of India). The pillar symbolises our respect to the freedom fighters who fought India’s first war of independence of 1857 and to all the martyrs at large who dedicated their life to make free our country.

In the open yard, there was a red-coloured low bedded cemented platform, upon which a torture ridden freedom-fighter’s model was fixed. This model, which was white in colour with minimum cloth on his body to maintain dignity, is representative of extreme torture suffered by the children of mother India, who sacrificed their life.

Just by the side, on the right side, there was a godown shaped gallery, inside which more such models were installed. Prisoners were compelled to work tirelessly in manual oil mill for extraction of huge quantities of mustard oil and cocoanut oil. Daily targets were virtually impossible to achieve. Any pause in duty for taking rest was awarded with torture.

They were compelled to wear sack cloth and given unhygienic diets. Punishments varied from handcuffs for a week and fetters for six months to solitary confinement. All these facts have been modelled vividly in the gallery with a manual oil mill and two workmen. Convicts were tied with Cross Bar Fetters and Flogging Frame for brutal punishment.

These inhuman torturing methods have also been modelled in this gallery, which give substantial shock and grief to the visitors. One can better understand this unbearable chapter of human suffering, if he/she attends the light & sound show organised in the evening. I shall tell about this show later.

In the open lawn, there was a photo gallery on “Andaman in Olden Days”, which housed hundreds of photographs of historic past of Andaman. Photos of the old jail in Viper island; bombarding of British fighter planes in Chatham island during World War II; Netaji Club (formerly known as Browning Club); Chatham bridge in construction stage; fully constructed Chatham bridge; Victory Memorial (Clock Tower); St.Andrews Church in Ross Island; Netaji’s visit to Andaman – are some of the chosen photos displayed there.

A visit to this gallery will help in understanding chronological journey of British Raj in Andaman, visit of many Indian leaders into this island, heritage buildings and important road crossings etc. etc.

After coming out of the gallery, we found a small white altar on the ground. This was used to perform last rituals of a convict before hanging him by neck till death. Execution was used to be done inside a small room. We found the room to be closed and locked. But the window was open.

Upon peeping through the window we saw neck ropes were hanging from the ceiling. The room was so small that it can accommodate only three persons to be executed simultaneously. Our heart became heavy on seeing all these.

Today we are living a joyful and comfortable life in a free democratic country, but at the cost of sacrifice made by so many freedom fighters. We all do know this, but presumably we hardly realise this fact.

Then we entered into the three storey tall main jail building. Once the building used to have seven wings, at the centre of which a tower served as the intersection. This was used by guards to keep watch on the inmates. It is said that this particular design was based on Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon.

The wings originated from centre of the tower in straight lines, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. A large bell was kept in the tower to raise an alarm, which was not there at the time of our visit. Each of the seven arms was so designed such that the face of a cell in an arm saw the back of cells in another arm.

This way, communication between prisoners was impossible. Solitary confinement was implemented as the British government desired to ensure that political prisoners and revolutionaries be isolated from one another. It is said that the Savarkar brothers, Babarao (real name Ganesh Damodar Savarkar) and Vinayak didn’t know that they were in different cells in the same jail for two years.

The jail corridor, where once British jail officers and freedom fighters used to walk

We were told that each cell was apprx. 4.5 metre X 2.7 metre in size. Apart from the grill door through which we entered the hard surfaced cell, there was a ventilator located at a height of 3 metres. There was no other opening in the cell. Each prisoner was put to solitary confinement in each of these cells.

Inside a solitary cell. Once the door is shut, the prisoner is cut off from the outside world.

[Then we went upstairs. A big wooden model of Cellular Jail was put on a table, which was placed in a circular room. For better stability, each end of arm of the model was given wooden support from the bottom. What a nice & elaborate model displayed over there. But we did not know name of the artist who made the model.

We came out of the room and reached a circular corridor, where we saw 18 lists of incarcerated freedom fighters. Names of the freedom fighters were written on 18 big white marble plates.

Each of the plates were fixed on the wall along the circular corridor. As evident from the lists, statewise break-up of incarcerated freedom fighters went like this: Assam-2, Bengal- 384, Bihar-18, Bombay-3, Delhi-2, Madras-6, Punjab-75, United Province-23, Total 513. Most prisoners of the Jail were independence activists.

Some inmates were Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, Yogendra Shukla, Batukeshwar Dutt, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Bhai Parmanand, Sohan Singh, Subodh Roy etc., apart from the names I have mentioned above. We paid our most respectful homage to all freedom fighters.

View from the roof top. Main gate minarets, photo gallery, room of execution, venue for light & sound show – all can be vividly seen

Following a narrow wooden stair we went upto the roof. What a grand view of the horizon we had from there. In the late afternoon sunlight the surrounding appeared romantic and exciting. Thanks to the easy flowing marine cool breeze, which continued to please all visitors standing on the roof.

The main gate with two minerates, the galleries, the memorial stone pillar, the vast green lawn, the venue for light & sound show – all were glowing in the bright sunlight. The adjacent Govind Ballabh Pant Hospital was also clearly visible.

On the back side, the light blue sky had merged into the deep blue sea at a line, where the progressively diminishing colour difference became inseparable. Some toy-like ferries were crossing the sea by creating flashing white surf out of the blue water. While witnessing these marvels, all of us became speechless.

We got inside the jail campus at around 3.15pm. We could not understand how we elapsed nearly one and half hour so fast. Though I felt another half an hour was necessary to spend there, but we had to move to Corbin’s Cove beach as per our pre-planned schedule. Thereafter, in late evening, we had to come back again in Cellular Jail to attend the light & sound show.

So, in order to be at par with our travel plan, leaving behind Cellular Jail, our Tempo Traveller headed towards Corbin’s Cove beach.

…contd. to part-3

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