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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