I am a history buff because my Dad was a History teacher who taught me at school. I used to sit in awe through his lectures listening to India’s Freedom struggle and the many battles and wars we won.
But there are a few instances from our history which are cherished as memorials, that I dread to visit in person.
One is Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab and it was truly heartbreaking to witness the bullet-riddled walls. I had a chill down my spine the entire time I was there. That said I also believe every Indian must visit Jallianwala Bagh at least once in their lifetime.
Today I am writing about a similar experience I had when I visited Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
I am a visual person and movies usually have a huge impact on me. I remember watching a Malayalam movie named Kaalapaani which was released sometime in the 90s. So, I should be really young. Yet, I recall the gruesome scenes depicting the trials and tribulations of the freedom fighters who were deported across the sea from the mainland of India to Port Blair and jailed here for a lifetime. It affected my little heart to such an extent that I didn’t want to step foot inside this establishment ever.
Years passed. And after a visit to Jallianwala Bagh, I now know that as an Indian it is imperative to brave the feeling and visit these places because it is such an important part of our history.
Inside Cellular Jail
As soon as you enter the Cellular Jail, you can see the Swatantrya Jyot with an immortal flame as a mark of respect to the brave freedom fighters who laid down their lives so that we could enjoy the freedom we have right now. This Amar Jyoti is one of the only two eternal flames in the country – the other being in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar Punjab.
The Peepal tree has significance too.
It is said that the Peepal tree has born witness to all the atrocities that have happened inside this jail; prisoners being brought in, tied to a pole and whipped mercilessly; forced to do manual work of producing a daily amount of 30 pounds of coconut and mustard oil which even animals cannot do; the shrieks, the pains, the unhygienic diet; the revolts and revolutions and now the whispers of the many lost souls.
Architecture and History of Cellular Jail
Cellular Jail was built between 1896 and 1906 with the idea of a permanent penal settlement and took about five lakhs for the entire construction.
It had seven wings with three floors each, shaped like the spokes of a wheel from a central column. This was with the sole idea that the inmates of one wing would not be able to be in touch or know anything that happens in another wing.
The Savarkar brothers- Veer Savarkar and Vinayak Savarkar were prisoned here for revolting against the British. Because of such isolated architecture, the brothers didn’t even know they were held in the same jail at the same time, for over two years.
The name ‘Cellular‘ was derived from the unique feature of 698 isolated, cell-like rooms. Each cell is eerily similar, constructed with red sandstone bricks, and is only 13.6″ * 7.6″ in dimension.
I couldn’t survive for even five minutes inside a cell for it became extremely hot and sweaty, as if I was about to melt away. To top it all, the cell had only one small opening for ventilation which was situated almost close to the roof so that, it was difficult for the inmates in adjacent cells to communicate physically or verbally. Now you can imagine how suffocating and congested it would be.
Yes, this is how Cellular Jail got its name.
Also, how meticulously planned was this architecture?! It was conceptualized on the basis of Pennysylvania or Separate System that requires complete isolation of inmates.
Furthermore, each cell had a sturdy iron door whose lock was placed farther away and not attached to the door. The inmates could never reach the latch and this way, there was no chance of them tampering with the door. The prisoners were provided with food, if any, through a small opening on the door itself. No cells had toilet facilities and they had to defecate on a pot placed inside the cell.
Ever since India’s First War of Independence in 1857, most eminent political revolutionaries were brought to Kala Pani.
Veer Savarkar’s cell is preserved here for prosperity. He was brought to jail for his alleged connection with the assassination of the then-British District Magistrate of Nashik.
His famous words
“Yeh Teerth Mahateertho ka hai,
Mat Kaho isse Kaala Paani,
Tum suno yahan ki Dharti ke,
Kan Kan se Gaatha Balidaani”
(This is a pilgrimage, do not call it Kaala Pani, Tales of sacrifice will reek in every quarter of this land.”)
is inscribed on the wall.
There are exhibits or models placed in the jail, depicting various tortures the prisoners had to endure. From iron grills, iron triangular frames, iron leg chains, crossbar fetters, flogging stands, oil mills, and neck ring shackles, these are such ways of persecution that one would shudder to even imagine. Solitary confinement not only broke their spirit and morale, but it also played with their mental stability.
Three prisoners could be hanged at once; The flogging frame
Why Cellular Jail is known as Kalapani
When numerous prisoners went on hunger strike due to the poor quality of food, they were force-fed due to which they lost their lives. From being suspended in an iron suit for years at length, fetters for six months, to being beaten to death, to execution by hanging or firing due to an attempt to escape, declared insane and held in a lunatic ward for decades, the cruelty of the British knew no bounds.
And due to the sheer atrocity and terror this establishment symbolized, Cellular Jail was given the name Kala Pani or Black Waters.
When a hunger strike went on for 45 days, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore intervened and terminated the strike after which the Cellular Jail was closed down for good and the inmates were transferred to the mainland by 1938.
In an earthquake in 1941, four out of the seven wings were destroyed.
Cellular Jail Light and Sound Show
The light and sound show in Cellular Jail is a must-watch if you plan to visit here. It lasts for around 45 minutes and the show as of 18 May 2023, is available only in Hindi. However, there are three slots to choose from; show beginning at 5.50 pm, 6.50 pm, and 7.50 pm. It tells the history and atrocities the jail has seen through the Peepal tree’s eyes.
There will be a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes when you exit the show. If you can, please keep your phones away and listen with rapt ears and full attention.
The entry ticket for Cellular Jail for Indian Nationals is 30 INR and 100 INR for foreigners. The Cellular Jail light and sound show is priced at Rs 300 for adults and Rs 150 for a child.
You can book the tickets online for the light and sound show through the Andaman Tourism website.
Cellular Jail Timings
You can visit the cellular jail from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. You will be escorted out post that and a fresh entry will be allowed based on your light and sound ticket and timings.
How to Reach Cellular Jail from Port Blair
Tourists can easily hire a private car from the hotel, take a rickshaw, or rent a bike to get to the Cellular Jail. If you are staying somewhere close by, you can also walk up to the establishment. Upon reaching, you can also check out the museum and Sagarika emporium which offers show pieces, jewellery and other knick knacks made of shells, at genuine prices.
Nearby Attractions from Cellular Jail in Andaman
The scenic coastline of Corbyn’s Cove Beach is only 6 kilometers from Cellular Jail. You may also head out to Flag Point or Tiranga Park, which is the exact point where Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose hoisted the Indian Flag in 1943. A detailed blog post is coming soon.
With the risk of sounding old-school, it was sad to find youngsters and newlyweds in their bright red chudas roaming the establishment clicking selfies and giggling at (harmless, maybe?) jokes. As I mentioned in my Jallianwala Bagh blog post, I wish we were more sensitive and empathetic when visiting such places. The freedom we enjoy right now comes with an expensive price tag and this National Memorial stands as a reminder of a brutality that should never happen again.
To treat it with utmost respect and not casualness and nonchalance is the least we can do.
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Read | Exploring Ross Island, Andamans
This blog post is part of the blog challenge ‘Blogaberry Dazzle’ hosted by Cindy D’Silva and Noor Anand Chawla in collaboration with Monidipa Dutta.
Ambica Gulati says
This is the first comprehensive post I have read on the Cellular Jail and the cells and exhbits. It might be the saddest place, but as you rightly said we need to be sensitive to our history and thank all these people, who sacrificed so we could live in peace. I truly wish to see this.
Neeta Kadam says
Yes it is very difficult Shalini, to stay there for 5 minutes. I had been this cellular Jail in 2017 and shocked to see every structure. We can’t even think and Veer Savarkar escape from this. I salute to his bravery and each freedom fighter because of them we have free India. I like that lighting show.
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Preeti Chauhan says
I have been there, and touching the walls looking at the cells, the torture traps, it all fills you with sadness and gratitude for those who spent their lives or ended up dead here fighting for the Indian cause.
Glad to know that you are a daughter of a history teacher and so I am. My mother remained a history teacher and whatever love I have for this subject all just because of my mother’s skill of narrating the scenes of the historic events in an impressive way. I love traveling and and already been to The Jallianwala Bagh thrice. Once with my mother also and seen the tears in her eyes while exploring that particular bullet ridden wall. Coming to Port Blair jail … so far not that lucky to be there but will surely at least once if not more I will visit there to introduce my little son to the proud history of our freedom fighters. Thanks for this wonderful post and I promise to make my mom read this post as I know she will be happy to read it.
Sivaranjini Anandan says
reading this post was so new a visit that is unique because you are a person who loves history it sounds so good and rings in your words.
Ritu Bindra says
Just seeing the pics gives me goosebumps, Shalini. But also fills me with immense gratitude. We take a lot many things for granted that would not have been possible if India wasn’t a free country. And completely agree with you on how people treat such places with absolute disregard. Have seen people clicking selfies at the war memorial with beaming smiles and victory signs. Gah!!
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Flavia Cutinho says
I was never a history student when it came to remembering dates but I loved to knowledge myself by physically visiting and knowing the story behind them and this is exactly how I liked to know history. Visiting monuments feeling that moment and then virtually being tru that era in my mind.
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Zenobia Merchant says
What a beautifully summed up post, it not only showed me the beauty of the Cellular Jail but also the atrocities committed here brought tears to my eyes. I am a huge history buff and had seen the movie Kaala Paani based on the cellular jain eons ago. your posts efreshed those emories. and yes Jalianwala Baug literally brought tears to my eyes. I stood bawling seeing the bullet marks and the well.
Anjali Tripathi says
Thank you for sharing this insightful reflection on the importance of visiting historical sites. It serves as a reminder for all of us to honor our past and learn from it. I completely agree with your perspective that we, as Indians, must brave these feelings and visit such places. They hold an essential part of our collective history, and by immersing ourselves in these sites, we gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the sacrifices made by our freedom fighters.
Aditi Kapur says
While reading this article about Kaala Pani, my heart rate increased and my eyes started to pour. The atrocities of the British can’t be described in words, nor can the patriotic spirit of the Indians. Jai Hind!
Ranjeeta Nath Ghai says
I had been there, and it sent shivers down my spine. You have done full justice through this article. It was really enlightening and informative. I’m sure many others who have been here can relate to the feeling I had as well.
Dipali Bhasin says
I got emotional reading about the description of the cells and the atrocities our patriots had to go through for freedom and for us to lead the lives we are leading today sans oppression. I cannot fathom the torture they had to undergo for our sake. Our nation will forever be indebted to them for their sacrifice. I wholeheartedly agree that, as Indians, it is crucial for us to confront these emotions and embark on journeys to these sites. They hold a vital fragment of our shared history, and by immersing ourselves in their essence, we cultivate a profound comprehension and admiration for the courageous sacrifices made by our freedom fighters.
I also want to thank you for sharing such an interesting piece. I found myself thoroughly engaged throughout the read and couldn’t help but appreciate the insights and perspectives you presented. 🙂
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I have followed your whole journey through Instagram also and it felt like I was there with you
Madhu Bindra says
I can see from your photos how overwhelmed you are. Such places are very difficult to visit but we should. We need these reminders of what freedom fighters went through. I don’t like what they did recently with the Jallianwala Bagh’s entrance. Some places need to be left as they are.
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Kaveri Chhetri says
Thank you for this detailed account Shalini… it is scary even to visualize the means of torture the British adopted on the prisoners. You have rightly mentioned, the freedom we have today came at a huge huge cost and if not anything we can atleast show respect to the martyrs.
I visited the Cellular Jail in 95. I was around 6 that time yet I remember the light and sound show very well. Everything got so deeply etched in my tender mind.
Love your description. I got to revisit my memories!
Its sad that the only thing I heard about Portblair as a kid was the Cellular jail and back then we teased each other that we should go there to escape punishment for not doing homework. 🙁
It’s a part odnour history and we should accept what it entails but I can’t get myself to visit it. Do we deserve to live the free life all those brave freedom fighters gave their lives for?
I want to take my father to visit the Cellular Jail. I loved reading your anecdote. I can totally understand when I see tourists unknowingly(?) disrespect these places, it boils my blood to see people’s names drawn on historical monuments etc.
Pooja Jha says
Veer Savarkar’s lines are indeed heart touching and sad too. This is not really a pleasant sight but, as you said, this is part of our history and we should know about such things and visit to witness such places as well to get deeper into the roots of our history.
I could somehow feel chills and feel the vibe of that jail all the way here in Singapore just by simply looking at your photos. I can’t imagine being there in person.
Manisha Garg says
Your post gave me jitters thinking about the gruesome acts of the British. I understand your feeling about visiting the place. I have visited Jallianwala Baug and I dreaded to picture the people and what they faced.
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Harjeet Kaur says
When I went to Jalianwala Bagh, I had goosebumps and was dismayed at the mayhem. Your post is so well written, and it is so detailed. Kudos for a comprehensive write-up. don’t think I can go through the cellular jail. I am ultra-sensitive and I feel the agony of others.
I can understand how you feel. When we see places such as these, we are so happy that we live in free India with so many comforts and how our ancestors had to fight for it. Wonderful descriptions! Thanks for the post, Shalini.
Vasumathi DS Ponday says
When I read jail and Port Blair, i immediately thought of Kaalapani….wonderful movie. Then I went through your blog and relaised it was indeed the same. We take so much for granted these days. Patriotism seems to come up only of specific days that too for a limited period for time to make posts for social media. Places like this should be visited to learn of India’s history and maybe a few lessons can be learnt of how not to repeat mistakes….some made by us and some by others.
Towards Literature says
This article is so informative with profound ravaging emotions. My heart literally got thumps while reading this. I wonder how you visited the place and penned down the emotions and information when it is this much hard to even read. I mean it needs a lot of courage. So brave !
I can understand how you feel. When we see places such as these, we are so happy that we live in free India. Places like this should be visited to learn of India’s history and maybe a few lessons can be learnt
Meenakshi Kaur says
Your vivid description transported me to the haunting yet captivating world of Cellular Jail. A beautifully written post!
People forget ,but the walls remember it seems.I haven’t been to the cellular jail and I don’t think I can bear the pain of hearing those lost souls who gave their lives ,so that one day we could be free.But they are forever in my heart just like all Indians remember them.every day
I go to golden temple atleast once a year so been to Jalianwala bagh many times. It gives me goosbumps because of remembering the history. Wanted to visit andaman from long time and I have heard from many visitor friends to visit the cellular jail once been there. So I really want to travel there
I haven’t been here. But just the history of what the cells held… the stories behind the blood stains there. Some even say that the ghosts of freedom fighters who died there and still lurking there. But just the mere knowledge of what they went through there is enough to ghost us for long. There is Tamil movie – Kaalapani – released in 1996 – that talks about what the freedom fighters went through there.
The British could be cruel, without doubt.
The larger problem is that HUMANS are cruel when they are desperate to control and hold power over other humans (or animals). Maybe when that trait is eradicated from humanity, we won’t have to remember and guard against such places. Doubt that’ll happen in our lifetimes, though I wish it would.