Just under 200 kilometers (120 miles) west of southern Burma and only 140 kilometers (88 miles) from Indonesia lies one of India's least-known but most exciting destinations. The 293 islands that form the Andaman and Nicobar Islands stretch 800 kilometers (500 miles) north to south and are over 900 kilometers (600 miles) east of India. They are in fact the remains of a now-submerged hill range that extends from the Arakan to Sumatra.
The Andamans are made up of 274 islands, of which only 26 are inhabited; 12 of the 19 Nicobar Islands are inhabited, but all are unfortunately closed to tourists. Only a few of the Andaman Islands are accessible, but the pleasures of relaxing at Corbyn's Cove, exploring the colonial ruins on Ross Island, visiting a lumber operation with working elephants, or bird-watching on Chiriya Tapu, are only a few of the activities that are available.
Many of the islands have been challenged by the dual threats of the axe and human migration from the mainland. At Independence, the islands' total population was only 50,000, made up of a mix of tribals, convicts, Burmese labour and a small administration. The population is now close to two million, only a fifth of whom are aboriginal. The tribal groups are of Mongoloid stock in the Nicobars, while the original Andamanese are Negreto and form four tribes: Onges, Jharwas, Sentinelese and Andamanese. The Great Andamanese, once the most prolific tribe, now number only 26 and live on Strait Island. The Onges, who live on Little Andaman, now number only 98, while the Jharwas number 250. 'Civilization' has been, and still is, the greatest threat to the indigenous population.
Although remote, the islands have long been known. In the second century, Ptolemy called them 'islands of good fortune'; in the seventh century, Buddhist pilgrims traveling between India and Southeast Asia used to stop here; and in the 15th century, Nicolo Conti referred to them as 'islands of gold'.
Modern records of the islands date from 1789 when Lieutenant Archibald Blair was sent to survey the area and established the short-lived settlement at Port Cornwallis. Development came only after the 1857 Mutiny, or the War of Independence, when the British government established a new settlement at Port Blair and developed a penal colony. 'Freedom Fighters' and convicts were transported to the islands and one of the few man-made sites was developed. The Cellular Gaol was completed in 1906 and today part of it is a national monument; remarkably it is still a functioning gaol. Incidentally, the food is reported to have improved!
Port Blair is the entry point for both air and sea travelers. Indian Airlines has thrice-weekly flights from Calcutta and Madras plus flights from New Delhi via Bhubaneswar. While the tribal islands are strictly protected, the small but interesting Anthropological Museum (closed on Saturdays) has a collection of old photographs, models and tools which give some idea of their 'primitive' way of life. The population of the town includes migrants from all parts of India, with Burmese and Bengalis predominating.
Apart from the gaol and the museum, the natural beauty of the islands coupled with the extraordinary range of birds, flowers and marine life and the relics of colonial history make a visit rewarding.
Probably the best way to explore Port Blair is bicycle, hired from a shop in Aberdeen bazaar for about Rs 15 per day. Some of the roads are hilly but the effort is rewarded. Two kilometers (just over a mile) out of Port Blair, at Haddo, is a small zoo (closed on Mondays) where estuarine crocodiles are being bred for reintroduction to the island's small rivers and mangrove swamps where they were previously found. The avian collection is representative of the islands and includes such species as the Nicondam Hornbill which is otherwise restricted to single island. Beyond Haddo, the Chatham Saw Mill is on an isthmus to the north. Both the Botanical Survey of India and the Zoological Survey have active units in Port Blair and their collections, especially the herbarium, are of interest.
While most of the islands are off-limits, local permission is available for Redskin, Grub, Jolly Bay and Snob islands. Permission is also occasionally given to visit Ross and Viper islands.
Wandoor Beach on the west coast, about an hour's drive from Port Blair, is ideal for snorkeling and diving. The Marine Department runs boats to the smaller outlying islands from here.
A visit to Jolly Bay takes most of the day (you cannot stay overnight) so food must be taken. The reefs around the island are best viewed from one of the glass-bottomed boats.
At the southernmost tip of South Andaman is Chiriya Tapu (Bird Island), with dense mangrove forest fringing an attractive beach noted for its butterflies. The guesthouse on the hill overlooking Chiriya Tapu also has a commanding view of the outlying islands and reefs.