India’s most remote state, the Andaman Islands are situated more than 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 Visakhapatnam. 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.
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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 at least in theory.
With the timber-extraction cash cow now largely tethered, tourism has gradually been replacing tree-felling as the main source of revenue on the Andamans. However, the extra visitor numbers are already beginning 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 about how these issues will be managed. Consequently, it’s no small mercy that plans to allow flights from Southeast Asia and even further afield to enter India at Port Blair seem to be on permanent hold, as the impact on this culturally and ecologically fragile region could be catastrophic.
The point of arrival for boats and planes is the small but busy capital, Port Blair in South Andaman, which holds almost half the total population. The only island to have fully developed a tourist infrastructure is Havelock, although its smaller neighbour Neil is heading in the same direction; these two are the only inhabited islands of Ritchie’s Archipelago. The other places where foreigners can spend the night are on the large islands of Middle and North Andaman, connected to South Andaman by the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), diminutive Long Island and remote Little Andaman, a long voyage to the south. The outlying islands are richest in natural beauty, with the beaches of Smith and the coral around Cinque of particular note. Such spots are not always easy to reach, as connections and transport can be erratic, frequently uncomfortable and severely limited.
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 tenfold, further swollen by repatriated Tamils from Sri Lanka, ex-servicemen given land grants, economic migrants from poorer Indian states including thousands of Bihari labourers, 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 0.5 percent of the total.
South Andaman is the most heavily populated of the Andaman Islands – particularly around the capital, Port Blair – thanks in part to the drastic thinning of tree cover to make way for settlement. Foreign tourists can only visit its southern and east-central reaches – including the beaches at Corbyn’s Cove and Chiriya Tapu, the fine reefs on the western shores at Wandoor, 35km southwest of Port Blair, and the environs of Madhuban and Mount Harriet, on the east coast across the bay from the capital. With your own transport it’s easy to find your way along the narrow bumpy roads that connect small villages, weaving through forests and coconut fields, and skirting the swamps and rocky outcrops that form the coastline.
An odd combination of refreshingly scenic hills and characterless tin-roofed buildings tumbling towards the sea in the north, east and west, and petering out into fields and forests in the south, Port Blair merits only a short stay. There’s little to see here – just the Cellular Jail and a few small museums – but as it’s the point of arrival for the islands and the place with the most facilities, you may well find yourself staying longer than you’d ideally want to. The hub of the town’s activities and facilities is the cluster of streets known as Aberdeen Bazaar. Generally, street names are in short supply all over town, and are rarely used.
Much the most popular excursion from Port Blair is to Wandoor, 30km southwest. The long white beach here is littered with the dry, twisted trunks of trees torn up and flung down by annual cyclones. It’s fringed not with palms but with dense forest teeming with birdlife. You should only snorkel here at high tide, as the coral is easily damaged when the waters are shallow.
Cinque, two hours south of Chiriya Tapu, actually comprises two islets, joined by a spectacular sand isthmus with shallow water either side that covers it completely at high tide. The main incentive to come here is the superb diving and snorkelling around the reefs. However, heaps of dead coral on the beach attest to damage wreaked by the Indian navy during the construction of the swish “cottages” overlooking the beach. Rumour has it that these were built for the visit of a Thai VIP in 1996, but local government officials now use them as bolt holes from Port Blair.
Tiny, triangular-shaped Neil is the most southerly inhabited island of Ritchie’s Archipelago, barely two hours northeast of Port Blair on a fast ferry. The source of much of the capital’s fresh fruit and vegetables, its fertile centre, ringed by a curtain of stately tropical trees, comprises vivid patches of green paddy dotted with small farmsteads and banana plantations. The beaches are mediocre by the Andamans’ standards but worth a day or two en route to or from Havelock and, as it is far less developed with little more than ten accommodation options, some visitors prefer it to its busier neighbour for more extended stays.
Neil boasts five beaches, all of them within easy cycling distance of the small bazaar just up the lane from the jetty. The best place to swim is Neil Kendra, a gently curving bay of white sand on the north coast which straddles the jetty and is scattered with picturesque wooden fishing boats. This blends into Bharatpur to the east and Lakshmanpur, which continues for nearly 3km west: to get to Lakshmanpur by road, head right when the road from the jetty meets the bazaar and follow it for around twenty minutes until it dwindles into a surfaced track, then take a right. Wrapped around the headland, the beach is a broad spur of white-shell sand, with shallow water offering good snorkelling, although footing is difficult when entering the water at any time other than high tide.
Just off the southeast coast of Middle Andaman, Long Island is attracting a growing number of travellers, with a couple of excellent beaches in Marg Bay and Lalaji Bay. Both of these are most easily approached by chartering a fisherman’s dinghy from the jetty, if you can find one, although Lalaji can be reached on foot by following the red arrows across the island and then turning left along the coast. You should not attempt this at high tide, and even when the sea is out it’s quite an obstacle course of rocks and fallen trees.
The main settlement by the jetty has the island’s only facilities, which amount to a handful of shops, a couple of basic dhabas, and the only two places to stay.
For most travellers, Middle Andaman is a gruelling rite of passage to be endured en route to or from the north. The sinuous Andaman Trunk Road, hemmed in by walls of towering forest, winds through kilometres of jungle, and crosses the strait that separates the island from its neighbour, Baratang, by means of a rusting flat-bottomed ferry. The island’s frontier feeling is heightened by the knowledge that the impenetrable forests west of the ATR comprise the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. Of its two main settlements, the more northerly Mayabunder, the port for alluring Interview Island, is slightly more appealing than characterless inland Rangat because of its pleasant setting by the sea, but neither town gives any reason to dally. Baratang, meanwhile, has some interesting mud volcanoes and limestone caves, which can be accessed on the boat trips that run daily except Sunday according to demand.
Mayabunder is the jumping-off place for Interview Island, a windswept nature sanctuary off the remote northwest coast of Middle Andaman – if you’ve come to the Andamans to watch wildlife, it should be top of your list. Large and mainly flat, it is completely uninhabited save for a handful of unfortunate forest wardens, coastguards and policemen, posted here to ward off poachers. Foreigners aren’t permitted to spend the night on the island, and to do a day-trip you must first obtain a permit from the Forest Museum in Mayabunder. The only way to reach Interview is to charter a private fishing dinghy from Mayabunder jetty. Arrange one the day before and leave at first light. Ask your boatman to moor by the beach at the southern tip of the island, which has a perennial freshwater pool inside a low cave; legend has it that the well, a nesting site for white-bellied swifts, has no bottom. At the forest post, where you have to sign an entry ledger, ask the wardens about the movements of Interview’s feral elephants, descendants of trained elephants deserted here by a Kolkata-based logging company after its timber operation failed in the 1950s. Saltwater crocodiles are found on the island’s eastern coastline.
Shrouded in dense jungle, North Andaman is the least populated of the region’s large islands, crossed by a single road linking its scattered Bengali settlements. Although parts have been seriously logged, the total absence of driveable roads into northern and western areas has ensured blanket protection for a vast stretch of convoluted coastline, running from Austin Strait in the southwest to the northern tip, Cape Price; it’s reassuring to know at least one extensive wilderness survives in the Andamans.
Despite the completion of the ATR’s final section and the bridge from Middle Andaman, the main settlement of Diglipur continues to exist in relative seclusion, though this may well change if the projected airport towards Kalipur opens. Known in the British era as Port Cornwallis, North Andaman’s largest settlement is another disappointing market town where you’re only likely to pause long enough to pick up a local bus further north to the coast. Unless you are catching a boat (to Smith or Ross islands or back to Port Blair) straightaway from the port of Aerial Bay, 9km northeast, it’s better to continue another 9km to Kalipur, where there’s an excellent deserted beach, backed by lush forest and covered in photogenic driftwood. Swimming is best at high tide because the water recedes across rocky mud pools. Offshore snorkelling is also excellent, especially along the reef that runs towards the islet barely 500m away.
It’s possible to walk from Kalipur to Saddle Peak, the highest mountain in the Andamans at 737m, which rises dramatically to the south, swathed in lush jungle. A permit to make the three- to four-hour climb must be obtained from the Range Officer at the forest checkpost near the start of the ascent, but don’t attempt it without a guide and plenty of drinking water. Another enjoyable day-trip is to the limestone caverns, 12km south near Ramnagar beach, best accessed by dinghy from Kalipur. You can arrange a dinghy, or guide for the Saddle Peak climb, at Pristine Beach Resort.
Smith and Ross islands
Many tourists find their way up here in order to explore the various islands dotted around the gulf north of Aerial Bay, particularly Smith and Ross (not to be confused with its namesake near Port Blair), whose white sandbars, coral reefs and flora are splendid. At low tide it is possible to walk between the two islands. You can organize the requisite permit from the Wildlife Information booth at Aerial Bay and rent a boat for the return trip yourself, or through one of the area guesthouses – try Pristine Beach Resort.
Despite its name, Little Andaman island is actually the fourth largest on the Andaman islands. The island packs in plenty to do in the form of chilled activities, boating through mangrove-lined creeks, snorkelling and viewing the colourful corals and relaxing on the white sands of the beach. There are cute tourist huts that sit on the beach itself, flanked by coconut plantations, like a scene from a post-card.
Tourism on Little Andaman
Little Andaman is the furthest point south in the archipelago that foreigners can travel to on their tourist permit. Most of the island has been set aside as a tribal reserve for the Onge and is thus off-limits. It was also the only island open to foreigners to sustain extensive damage in the 2004 tsunami, but although a number of buildings were destroyed, and 64 people died, Little Andaman has recovered well. Relatively few visitors make it down here, although a slight improvement in tourist infrastructure renders it increasingly worthwhile for those who do. Still, it is worth noting that boats can be infrequent outside peak months and not all accommodations operate outside high season.
Navigating Little Andaman
The main settlement, Indira Bazaar, is 2km north of the jetty at Hut Bay, which curves gradually round in a majestic 8km sweep, the quality of the sand and beauty of the adjacent jungle increasing the further north you go. The top stretch is named Netaji Nagar after the village on the island’s only road, which runs behind it. En route, you can detour 1km inland at the huge signpost about 2.5km north of Indira Bazaar to see the White Surf Waterfalls. Made up of three 10- to 15m-high cascades, it’s a relaxing spot; you can clamber into the right-hand fall for a soothing shower – yet crocodiles are said to inhabit the surrounding streams. Over the headland at the top of Hut Bay, 12km or so from the jetty lies the smaller but equally picturesque crescent of Butler Bay. There’s not much to do here but swim, sunbathe or look around the slightly eerie remains of the government beach resort, which was swept away by the tsunami – that is unless you’ve brought your surfboard with you: Little Andaman has a cult reputation among surfers for having some of the best conditions anywhere in South Asia.
Early archaeological evidence suggests that the first inhabitants on the island date back 2,200 years ago. The indigenous people have been isolated for thousands of years, and have therefore diversified into linguistically and culturally distinct, territorial groups. During the 2004 Boxing-day tsunami, the indigenous Onge tribe living on Little Andaman Island miraculously survived due to ancient knowledge of the movement of the wind, sea and birds that warned them to evacuate deep into the forest.
During World War II the island was occupied by the Japanese but was surrendered back to India in 1945.
Best time to visit the Andaman Islands
The Andaman Islands enjoy a consistently warm climate, rarely departing from the parameters of 22–32°C all year round, even at night, while humidity never drops below seventy percent. There is a lot of rain from May to September and they also catch the northeast monsoon in the autumn, with occasionally violent cyclones prone to hit during either period, so the ideal months to visit from a climatic perspective are December to April. Increased tourism, however, means that Diwali and the Christmas/New Year periods are busy, with prices at their peak. Not all accommodation in the more remote parts such as Little Andaman opens outside peak season.
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 fieldwork 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 that 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. For more information on the islands’ original inhabitants, visit Survival International’s website, survival-international.org.
The Great Andamanese
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 three hundred and live on the remote western coasts of Middle and South Andaman. They are 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 to passing vehicles and even visiting Indian settlements near their territory. Despite the authorities trying to minimize contact, it is still common for Jarawas to approach buses, and some private vehicles ignore the rules and stop for photo shoots. 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. A disturbing legal reversal made early in 2013 has also once again allowed “human safaris” to take place.
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 just under 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 ethnographic study, Above the Forest.
The Nicobar People
On the Nicobars, the most assimilated and numerous tribe, the Nicobarese, are of Mongoloid descent and number well 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 four hundred 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 and two Indian fishermen who ventured too close to the island were killed in 2006. Since the early 1990s, the authorities have effectively given up trying to contact the Sentinelese, who are estimated to number anywhere between forty 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.
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 eight centres up and running at the last count, and there are also operators on Neil, Long and South Andaman. Since 2013 the decompression chamber at the naval base in Port Blair has been open to any divers with suspected bends, boosting safety.