Leisure & Travel

Leisure & Travel

India's islands in the sun

News that there are 500 uninhabitated islands with tropical forests, deserted beaches, exquisite coral and marine life within India's territorial jurisdiction is likely to come as a pleasant surprise

Lakshadweep coral atolls
In the popular imagination despite its 3.28 million sq. km landmass and its vast unpeopled rural tracts, contemporary India is a heavily overly-populated country with "teeming millions". Therefore news that there are 500 virtually uninhabited islands, dense tropical forests, miles of deserted beaches, unique fauna and exquisite coral and marine life within the territorial jurisdiction of India is likely to come as a pleasant surprise for the footloose and fancy free who are terrified by American and European prices and service prices in particular.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie 1,220 km southeast off the coast of Bengal and 1,990 km east of Chennai (aka Madras). These islands are actually peaks of a vast submerged mountain range which rises from the Indian Ocean within the territorial jurisdiction of the Republic of India and extends two-thirds the way between India and Myanmar (formerly Burma) stretching almost to the tip of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. They are linked to the Indian mainland not by the ethnicity of their inhabitants but through complex confluences of colonial history. Discovery of the islands was first reported in the 9th century AD by Arab merchants sailing past to the Straits of Sumatra.

Jarawa tribals
With a population of 360,000 the islands’ indigenous tribes have been studied for several centuries because of their manifestly different ethnicity, most famously by anthropologist Radcliffe Brown in his book The Andaman Islanders (1922). The main aboriginal inhabitants of the islands are the Onges, who live on the Little Andamans. They number only about 100, although at the start of the 20th century their population was an estimated 600. Like the other smaller Andamanese tribes such as the Sentinelese and Jarawas, the Onges are of Negrito descent. They practice food gathering, hunting, honey-collecting and fishing and are the only tribe on the islands who freely accept contact with the outside world. The Jarawas are the largest tribe and inhabit the west coasts of middle and south Andaman Islands. The estimated 150 Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island and fiercely resist integration with outsiders.

Although the islands seem ideal for travellers looking for seclusion, significant restrictions apply. Access to the Nicobars as well as most of the Andamans is denied to everyone except Indian nationals engaged in research or government business. The official reason for restricted access is that the tribes are endangered and require protection. The establishment of an Indian Navy base is never cited as a reason, but is likely to have something to do with the restricted access regimen.

The first westerners to set foot on the islands were Danes who established a settlement in the Nicobars and left in 1768 due to poor health conditions. The British surveyed the Andamans in 1789 and established a penal settlement but had to abandon it in 1796 also due to unhealthy living conditions. The East India Company used the Nicobars in 1816 as a base to launch an attack on Rangoon during the Anglo-Burmese Wars, and reoccupied the Andamans in 1858. Finally as the Danes in the south officially renounced their claim to the Nicobars, the British India government annexed both groups of islands in 1872, together with the Great and Little Cocos that lie off Burma. The only point of settlement developed by the British was Port Blair, where a penitentiary was built for prisoners serving life terms.

Until World War II, the islands remained untouched by time. In 1942, however, they became the westernmost beach-head of the Japanese, who were not welcomed as liberators and local tribes waged a fierce guerrilla war against them. During this period, in December 1943, Subhash Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist leader who allied with the Japanese to oust the British from India, landed at Port Blair, and unfurled the tiranga jhanda, the Indian National Army’s flag. However, he could not, as he wished, establish an Indian Provisional Government administration there nor garrison the islands with the Indian National Army which he had raised.

When India became an independent nation in 1947, the Andamans and Nicobars were incorporated into the Indian Union, while the Cocos islands went to Burma.

Sri Lanka cane worker
Currently the Union government tends to trumpet its efforts to bring ‘civilization’ to these islands, but a growing number of sociologists believe that underlying this effort is a scant sensitivity to the cultures of the indigenous tribes and the government’s attitude towards them can at best be described as condescending. The government’s endeavour to spur economic development in the islands has resulted in vast tracts of tropical rainforest being cleared in the 1980s to promote teak and rubber plantations. It has also resulted in massive migration from the mainland, primarily people ousted from Sri Lanka — which has pushed the population from 50,000 to 180,000 in just 15 years.

Port Blair

Port Blair harbour: only sizeable town
This administrative capital was named after Lt. Reginald Blair who conducted a survey of the area in 1789. It is the only town of any size on the islands with a market — Aberdeen Bazaar — which has the cheerful air of any ragingly colourful Indian market. Precariously situated on the main harbour, its hilly topography offers breathtaking views of the Indian mainland from several vantage points. The government of India tourist office is ludicrously located, at least a 20 minute walk from any recognisable place, but it is the venue for information about boats to other islands, sightseeing tours, and the several permits which are mandatory. (Tel: 21006, 20380)

Cellular Jail. Now a museum, the Cellular Jail was built by the British at the turn of the century. Its massive whitewashed walls held 400 freedom fighters during the struggle for independence. The prison contained 698 cells, all of the same size: 3x3.5 m. A grated window allowed a small shaft of light but its position ensured that the prisoners couldn’t look out to sea. Although much of the structure is dilapidated, and three of its six wings have sunk into the sea, it still gives a fair impression of the morbid conditions under which political prisoners were incarcerated. A sound and light show provides a historical narrative of the jail.

Island Cruises. As most of the islands are reserves where tribes are protected from contact with the outside world, only a limited number are open to visitors. Hotels and tour operators in Port Blair organise day picnics, scuba-diving and snorkelling trips to Bird, Grub, Jolly Boy, Red Skin, Ross and Snob islands, and overnight excursions to Cinque Island which include a small trek through the forest offering much scope for bird watching.

From the Marine Jetty, daily ferries ply across the harbour to Aberdeen Market and Vyper Island, where the remains of the gallows tower built by the British are still visible. The ferry rumbles past the Chattam Saw Mill, situated on an island off Haddo, and the huge, floating dry dock facility. The cruises are organised by the department of information, publicity and tourism, as well as hotels.

Beaches. The closest beach is Corbyn’s Cove, 10 km from Port Blair. The easiest way to get there is to hire a bicycle from Aberdeen Bazaar and cycle out for the day. There are facilities to windsurf and enjoy other water sports, and after a long, sunny day you could step into the Andaman Beach Resort for a beer, provided your wallet is not too thin. There are other inviting beaches at Wandoor (25 km) and Chirya Tapu at the southern tip of the island. The nearby Snake Island is surrounded by coral reefs. You can sometimes catch a ride to the island in a fishing boat but it is inadvisable to swim out to sea because of strong currents. If you do visit the island, keep an eye out for snakes.

Mini Zoo & Forest Museum. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to over 200 indigenous animal species found nowhere else in the world, some of which can be seen in the mini zoo on Haddo Road. These include the green imperial pigeon and the Andaman pig, the staple diet of some tribal groups. The zoo’s saltwater crocodile breeding programme has done remarkably since its inception with many reptiles having been successfully released into the wild. Some rare animals such as the crab-eating macaque, which eats crabs only when there are no fruits, are classified as highly endangered species and enjoy maximum protection. As in zoos generally, the animals look jaded, but they do provide an insight into the spectacular ecology of the Andaman and Nicobar forests.

Anthropological Museum. The anthropological museum exhibits a mini-reproduction of the settlements of local tribes and is a good source of information about their lifestyles and culture. Although small, it has a well-stocked library of ethnographic and anthropological books and journals.

Other Places of Interest. Check out the Burmese temple in Phoenix Bay, and Ghol Ghar spice stores as well as the local Cottage Industries Emporium. Excursions can be arranged from Port Blair to the Botanical Gardens (14 km), Burmah Nullah and the Wimberygunj Lumber Centre, in the jungle. The aquarium and the Samudrika Marine Museum display some of the 350 species of fish found in the Andaman Sea.

Accommodation. Top-end: Welcomgroup Bay Island Hotel (Rs.4,150-4,900 per night), Peerless Resort (Rs.1,850-3,600), Hotel Sentinel (Rs.1,500-4,000). Mid-range: Hotel Dhanalakshmi (Rs.300-750), Hotel Abhishek (Rs.250-370), Holiday Resort (Rs.350-800). Budget: The Sampat Lodge (Rs.100-150), Jagannath Guest House (Rs.200-450), The Central Lodge (Rs.175).

The Lakshadweeps

Situated between 300-400 km off the coast of Kerala is a group of islands that make up India’s smallest Union Territory — the Lakshadweep Islands. This is an archipelago of coral atolls spread out on a roughly north-south axis, along a huge underwater ridge believed to be an extension of the Aravalli mountain range of India. Only 10 of the 35 islands are inhabited by an aggregate population of 58,000. Although the islands are opening up to tourists, visitors still require a special permit to visit.

The early history of the Lakshadweeps is a matter of speculation. According to popular legend, the archipelago was discovered when Cheraman Perumal, a ruler of Malabar converted to Islam and set off for Mecca. His search party was shipwrecked on Bangaram Island and mariners were awarded the right to settle on the islands. However, most historians now agree that the Cheraman Perumal legend has little foundation; in fact there is no real evidence to suggest who were the first settlers on the Lakshadweeps. The islands are situated on trade routes that have been in use for at least 2,000 years. Given their fresh supply of food and water, they would have been ideal rest stops for mariners of all varieties and persuasions.

The occupancy of the islands of Lakshadweep oscillated between Portuguese garrisons and mainland rulers, the Ali Rajas of Cannanore, until the British assumed suzerainty in 1908. Although British rule over the islands was even handed, there was no attempt to develop them in any way. It is believed that when India achieved independence in 1947, it was several months before the islanders knew about it. For the next ten years, this situation persisted until the Union government decided that the islands were so far behind the rest of the country in development that the Delhi government should administer them.

The culture of the islanders is a peculiar mix of Indian and foreign influences, and Lakshadweep society reflects, in particular, a cross between Hindu and Arab traditions. One of the most unusual features of this society is the relative independence enjoyed by women. This is largely due to the matrilineal system of inheritance, where property and wealth assets are passed down the woman’s family. Even after marriage, women continue to live in their own houses, which their husbands visit. Having their own property, the island women are not reliant on their husbands and enjoy unusual financial freedom. It’s plausible that this tradition grew from the necessities of island life where the men were away at sea for long periods of time. The legendary traveller Marco Polo called Lakshadweeps the "female islands", perhaps for the very reason.

However, despite the peace and tranquility of the islands’, they are one of the most crowded areas of India, with an average population density of 1,812 people per square kilometre. Overcrowding has put pressure on the supply of fresh water, which the people obtain by rainwater harvesting. The main source of livelihood is trading in coconut and coir and fishing. Malayalam is spoken in the northern islands and the vernacular mahl in Minicoy.

The Society for the Promotion of Recreational Tourism and Sports in Lakshadweeps is the main tourist office, which can be approached for queries and support. Its office is on IG Road, Willingdon Island, Kochi, 682 003. (Tel: 0484 – 668387). Foreigners are only permitted to stay on Bangaram, Agatti and Kadmat Islands, whereas Indian nationals may also stay at Karavatti, Kalpeni and Minicoy.

Kadmat. The northern group of islands was traditionally known as Amindivi Islands. Kadmat is the base for the Lacadives Diving Centre. Until recently, there was no accommodation for non-scuba divers but now arrangements can be made for those who want to laze and relax in the islands’ peaceful settings.

Agatti. This southern group of islands were traditionally the Laccadive Islands. More than 400 km from Kochi is Agatti, the westernmost island of the group. Roughly 6 km long and only 1 km wide at its broadest, Agatti hosts the only airstrip in the Lakshadweeps.

Bangaram. These islands shot to fame when Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi holidayed at the Bangaram Island Resort in the 1980s. North east of Agatti and barely visible on the horizon, they are two hours by boat.

Karavatti. Karavatti is the headquarters of the Union territory. Its people are skilled wood carvers and stonemasons. The Ujra Mosque is famous for its intricate woodcarving.

Minicoy. Sited 211 km south of the southern group of islands, Minicoy is reported to have been visited by Marco Polo. The island is more than 10 km in length and has a deep lagoon. There is a small island at the northern tip of the main island where small pox victims used to be isolated.

Scuba diver: excellent visibility
Scuba Diving.
The Lakshadweep Islands are ideal for sub aqua and marine enthusiasts. Surrounded by perfect coral reefs, they offer great variety as well. Within the lagoons, the shallow waters are perfect for amateur divers and provide the possibility of diving in rough weather. Beyond the reefs, there are dives into crystal clear waters with excellent visibility of coral, fish and rare marine species.

Near Bangaram Island are a couple of wrecks which make interesting excursions; the 200-year-old wreck of the Princess Royal is a regular dive site. Hammerhead sharks, manta rays, green turtles, hawksbill and barracudas are among the larger inhabitants of the reefs, and once in a way a lucky diver may catch a glimpse of an octopus lazing among the reefs.

Currently there are only two dive centres in the Lakshadweeps, both run by the Lacadives Diving Centre. One is based at the Bangaram Island Resort, the other on Kadmat Island. The Lacadives school is trained to certify divers through a CMAS (two star) registration, although PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certified divers are also allowed to dive. The various training packages include a ‘resort course’ for beginners (Rs.6,750); a course in CMAS open-water certificate along with a certification identity card that lets you dive anywhere in the world (Rs.13,500); an eight-day package with two dives a day, accommodation, air travel and food costs (Rs.67,500). Experienced divers can opt for a six dive package (Rs.11,250); 12 dives (Rs.20,250); 18 dives (Rs.27,000). For queries or bookings, contact the Mumbai office (022 24942723); email: lacadives@rediffmail.com or write to them at E20, Everest Building, Tardeo, Mumbai 400 034. Information is also available through the Casino Hotel office (0484 668221, 668421); casino@vsnl.com.

Accommodation. The Bangaram Island Resort offers packages including food and water sports (snorkelling, water skiing, deep sea fishing, and sailing) from Rs.10,350-22,500 for various combinations.

Agatti Island Resort (Rs.6,750 per person for 2 nights; Rs.13,500 per person for seven nights).

Lacadives at Kadmat. There’s a diving centre on Kadmat Island and guests stay in the tourist cottages. People who want to stay on Kadmat, but don’t want to dive are charged Rs.4,500 per night.

The Lakshadweep Islands are the perfect place for a relaxed and peaceful holiday. You will avoid the regular tourist traffic and the beach-junkies typical of other sea side destinations. Accommo-dation on most of the islands tends to be very basic with little else to do other than laze on hammocks and saunter around the island watching sea birds. However, the scuba diving is world class and on a par with the Maldives, Mauritius or Thailand, and completely free of commercial baggage. An hour of gliding lazily through the atolls, navigating among manta rays and keeping a close watch for sea turtles is likely to prompt you to keep coming back for more.

Arshiya Urveeja Bose