Comprising India’s most remote state, the ANDAMAN ISLANDS are situated over 1000km off the east coast in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, connected to the mainland by flights and ferries from Kolkata, Chennai and Vishakapatnam. Thickly covered by deep green tropical forest, the archipelago supports a profusion of wildlife, including some extremely rare species of bird, but the principal attraction for tourists lies in the beaches and the pristine reefs that ring most of the islands. Filled with colourful fish and kaleidoscopic corals, the crystal-clear waters of the Andaman Sea feature some of the world’s richest and least spoilt marine reserves – perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving. Although parts of the archipelago still see few visitors, the Andamans are now firmly on the tourist circuit.
For administrative purposes, the Andamans are grouped with the Nicobar Islands, 200km further south, but these remain strictly off-limits to foreigners, as well as Indians with no direct business there. Approximately two hundred islands make up the Andaman group and nineteen the Nicobar. They are of varying size, the summits of a submarine mountain range stretching 755km from the Arakan Yoma chain in Burma to the fringes of Sumatra in the south. All but the most remote are populated in parts by indigenous tribes whose numbers have been slashed dramatically as a result of nineteenth-century European settlement and, more recently, rampant deforestation, now banned in theory at least.
Foreign tourists are only permitted to visit certain parts of the Andaman group. The point of arrival for boats and planes is the small but busy capital, Port Blair in South Andaman, which accounts for almost half the total population. Free thirty-day permits are granted on arrival by both sea and air and can be extended for fifteen days on production of a return ticket.
The most beautiful beaches and coral reefs are found on the outlying islands. These are not always easy to reach, as connections and transport can be erratic, frequently uncomfortable and severely limited. It’s also worth pointing out that a surprising number of travellers fall sick in the Andamans. The dense tree cover, marshy swamps and high rainfall combine to provide the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, and malaria is endemic in even the most remote settlements. Sandflies are also ferocious in certain places and tropical ulcer infections from scratching the bites is a frequent hazard.
The climate remains tropical throughout the year, with temperatures ranging from 24°C to 35°C and humidity levels never below seventy percent. By far the best time to visit is between January and April. From mid-May to October, heavy rains flush the islands, often bringing violent cyclones that leave west-coast beaches strewn with fallen trees, while in November and December less severe rains arrive with the northeast monsoon. Despite being so far east, the islands run on Indian time, so the sun rises as early as 4.30am in summer and darkness falls soon after 5pm.
The earliest mention of the Andaman and Nicobar islands is found in Ptolemy’s geographical treatises of the second century AD. Other records from the Chinese Buddhist monk I’Tsing some five hundred years later and Arabian travellers who passed by in the ninth century depict the inhabitants as fierce and cannibalistic. It is unlikely, however, that the Andamanese were cannibals, as the most vivid reports of their ferocity were propagated by Malay pirates who held sway over the surrounding seas, and needed to keep looters well away from trade ships that passed between India, China and the Far East.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European missionaries and trading companies turned their attention to the islands with a view to colonization. A string of unsuccessful attempts to convert the Nicobaris to Christianity was made by the French, Dutch and Danish, all of whom were forced to abandon their plans in the face of hideous diseases and a severe lack of food and water. Though the missionaries themselves seldom met with any hostility, several fleets of trading ships that tried to dock on the islands were captured, and their crews murdered, by Nicobari people.
In 1777, the British Lieutenant Archibald Blair chose the South Andaman harbour now known as Port Blair as the site for a penal colony, although it was not successfully established until 1858, when political activists who had fuelled the Mutiny in 1857 were made to clear land and build their own prison. Out of 773 prisoners, 292 died, escaped or were hanged in the first two months. Many also lost their lives in attacks by Andamanese tribes who objected to forest clearance but by 1864 the number of convicts had grown to three thousand. The prison continued to confine political prisoners until 1945 and still stands as Port Blair’s prime “tourist attraction”.
During World War II the islands were occupied by the Japanese, who tortured and murdered hundreds of indigenous islanders suspected of collaborating with the British, and bombed the homes of the Jarawa tribe. British forces moved back in 1945, and at last abolished the penal settlement. After Partition, refugees – mostly low-caste Hindus from Bengal – were given land in Port Blair and North Andaman, where the forest was clear-felled to make room for rice paddy, cocoa plantations and new industries. Since 1951, the population has increased more than ten-fold, further swollen by repatriated Tamils from Sri Lanka, thousands of Bihari labourers, ex-servicemen given land grants, economic migrants from poorer Indian states, and the legions of government employees packed off here on two-year “punishment postings”. This replanted population greatly outnumbers the Andamans’ indigenous people, who currently comprise around half of one percent of the total.
With the timber-extraction cash cow now partially tethered, the hope is that tourism will replace tree-felling as the main source of revenue. However, the extra visitor numbers envisaged are certain to overtax an already inadequate infrastructure, aggravating seasonal water shortages and sewage disposal problems. Given India’s track record with tourism development, it’s hard to be optimistic. Delhi has already given the go-ahead for air services from Southeast Asia and eventually charter flights from Europe to land on the extended airport runway. If only a small percentage of the tourist traffic between Thailand and India is diverted through the Andamans, the impact on this culturally and ecologically fragile region could be catastrophic.Read More
Native people of the Andaman and Nicobar islands
Native people of the Andaman and Nicobar islands
Quite where the indigenous population of the Andaman and Nicobar islands originally came from is a puzzle that has preoccupied anthropologists since Alfred Radcliffe-Brown conducted his famous field work among the Andamanese at the beginning of the twentieth century. Asian-looking groups such as the Shompen may have migrated here from the east and north when the islands were connected to Burma, or the sea was sufficiently shallow to allow transport by canoe, but this doesn’t explain the origins of the black populations, whose appearance suggests African roots. The survival of the islands’ first inhabitants has long been threatened by traders and colonizers, who introduced disease and destroyed their territories through widespread tree-felling. Thousands also died from addiction to the alcohol and opium which the Chinese, Japanese and British exchanged for valuable shells. Many have had their populations decimated, while others like the Nicobarese have assimilated to modern culture, often adopting Christianity. The indigenous inhabitants of the Andamans, divided into eramtaga (those living in the jungle) and ar-yuato (those living on the coast), traditionally subsisted as hunter-gatherers, living on fish, turtles, turtle eggs, pigs, fruit, honey and roots.
Although they comprised the largest group when the islands were first colonized, only around fifty Great Andamanese now survive. In the 1860s, the Rev Henry Corbyn set up a “home” for the tribe to learn English on Ross Island, insisting that they wear clothes and attend reading and writing classes. Five children and three adults from Corbyn’s school were taken to Calcutta in 1864, where they were shown around the sights but treated more as curiosities themselves. Within three years, almost the entire population had died, victims of either introduced diseases or addiction. In recent years the surviving Great Andamanese were forcibly settled on Strait Island, north of South Andaman, as a “breeding centre”, where they were forced to rely on the Indian authorities for food and shelter. Sadly, the last speaker of Bo, one of the oldest Andamanese languages, died in January 2010.
The Jarawas, who were shifted from their original homes when land was cleared to build Port Blair, currently number around 270 and live on the remote western coasts of Middle and South Andaman, hemmed in by the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), which since the 1970s has cut them off from hunting grounds and freshwater supplies. During the 1980s and 1990s, encroachments on their land by loggers, road builders and settlers met with fierce resistance, and dozens, possibly hundreds, of people died in skirmishes, mostly on or near the ATR. Some more amicable contact between settlers and tribals was subsequently made through gift exchanges at each full moon, although the initiative was later cancelled. These meetings nevertheless led to some Jarawas becoming curious about what “civilization” had to offer, and they started to hold their hands out for goodies to passing vehicles and even visiting Indian settlements near their territory. Despite the authorities trying to minimize contact, it is still a common sight to see Jarawas beaming up at your bus and some private vehicles ignore the rules and stop for photoshoots. The government has increased Jarawa land by 180 square kilometres, but lodged an ongoing appeal over a 2002 Indian Supreme Court order to close the ATR – a ruling made following protests by international pressure groups such as Survival International.
Relations with the Onge, who call themselves the Gaubolambe, have been relatively peaceful. Distinguished by their white-clay and ochre body paint, they continue to live in communal shelters and construct temporary thatched huts on Little Andaman. The remaining population of around one hundred retain their traditional way of life on two small reserves. Contact with outsiders is limited to an occasional trip into town to purchase liquor, and visits from rare parties of anthropologists. The reserves are strictly off-limits to foreigners, but you can learn about the Onge’s traditional hunting practices, beliefs and rituals in Vishvajit Pandya’s wonderful ethnography study, Above the Forest.
On the Nicobars, the most assimilated and numerous tribe, the Nicobarese, are of Mongoloid descent and number over twenty thousand. They live in villages, ruled by a headman, and have largely cordial relations with the Indian settlers. By contrast, only very limited contact is ever had with the isolated Shompen tribe of Great Nicobar, whose population of around 180 manage to lead a traditional hunting-and-gathering existence. The most elusive tribe of all, the Sentinelese, live on North Sentinel Island west of South Andaman. Following the first encounter with Indian settlers in 1967, some contact was made with them in 1990, after a team put together by the local administration left gifts on the beaches every month for two years, but subsequent visits have invariably ended in a hail of arrows. Since the early 1990s, the authorities have effectively given up trying to contact the Sentinelese, who are estimated to number anywhere between fifty and two hundred. Flying in or out of Port Blair, you pass above their island, ringed by a spectacular coral reef. It’s reassuring to think that the people sitting at the bottom of the plumes of smoke drifting up from the forest canopy still manage to resist contact with the outside world.
For more information on the islands’ original inhabitants, visit Survival International’s website, wwww.survival-international.org.
Scuba diving in the Andaman Islands
Scuba diving in the Andaman Islands
The seas around the Andaman islands are some of the world’s most unspoiled. Marine life is abundant, with an estimated 750 species of fish existing on one reef alone, and parrot, trigger and angel fish living alongside manta rays, reef sharks and loggerhead turtles. Many species of fish and coral are unique to the area, and fascinating ecosystems exist in ash beds and cooled lava based around the volcanic Barren Island. For a quick taste of marine life, you could start by snorkelling; most hotels can supply masks and snorkels, though some equipment is in dire need of replacement. The only way to get really close, and venture out into deeper waters, is to scuba dive.
The undisputed home of diving is Havelock, with seven centres up and running at the last count, but there’s already one small operation on Neill as well. The premier dive centres are Andaman Bubbles (t03192/282140, wwww.andamanbubbles.com), next to partners Wild Orchid on Beach #5, and Barefoot Scuba Dive Resort (t9566 063120, wwww.barefootindia.com) on Beach #3; both offer excellent equipment, nitrox diving and mainly Western instructors. Andaman Bubbles should also be operating on Neill by the time you read this and Barefoot have plans for Long Island and South Andaman. Two other PADI-certified centres are Dive India (t0319 2214247, wwww.diveindia.com), based at Island Vinnie’s on Beach #5, and Ocean Pearl (t03192/282228, wwww.dive-andaman.com, a relative newcomer up at Beach #2. The aforementioned centre on Neill is India Scuba Explorers (t9474 238646, wwww.indiascubaexplorers.com) at Neill Kendra.
Prices are very similar at all the centres, with dives for those already certified running around Rs2000 for one tank, Rs3500 for two; more economical packages, often including accommodation and food, are available for multiple dives, while Discover Scuba introductory days go for Rs4000–5000. Courses cost about Rs18,000 for a basic four-day PADI open-water qualification, Rs13,500 for advanced or Rs45,000 to go all the way up to Divemaster, including all the tanks.
Underwater, it’s not uncommon to come across schools of reef shark, which rarely turn hostile, but one thing to watch out for and avoid is the black-and-white sea snake. Though these seldom attack – and, since their fangs are at the back of their mouths, would find it difficult to get a grip on any human – their bite is twenty times deadlier than that of the cobra.
Increased tourism inevitably puts pressure on the delicate marine ecosystem, and poorly funded wildlife organizations can do little to prevent damage from insensitive visitors. Ensure your presence in the sea around the reefs does not harm the coral by observing the following Green Coral Code while diving or snorkelling:
- Never touch or walk on living coral, or it will die.
- Try to keep your feet away from reefs while wearing fins; the sudden sweep of water caused by a flipper kick can be enough to destroy coral.
- Always control the speed of your descent while diving; enormous damage can be caused by divers landing hard on a coral bed.
- Never break off pieces of coral from a reef, and remember that it is illegal to export dead coral from the islands, even fragments you may have found on a beach.