Travel Bucket List: India – Andaman & Nicobar Islands Part 1

One place that’s been forever in my bucket list has been the island chain known as the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. A Union territory of India comprising 572 islands of which 37 are inhabited, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are a group of islands at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

The islands are about 150 km north of Aceh in Indonesia and separated from Thailand and Myanmar by the Andaman Sea. It comprises two island groups, the Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands, separated by the 150 km wide Ten Degree Channel, on the 10°N parallel, with the Andamans to the north of this latitude, and the Nicobars to the south by 179 km. The Andaman Sea lies to the east and the Bay of Bengal to the west of the islands.

The capital of the entire Union Territory is the city of Port Blair. The total land area of the islands is approximately 8,249 sq km and is divided into three districts: Nicobar District with Car Nicobar as capital, South Andaman district with Port Blair as capital and North and Middle Andaman district with Mayabunder as capital. The islands host the Andaman and Nicobar Command, the only tri-service geographical command of the Indian Armed Forces.

The Andaman Islands are home to the Sentinelese people, an uncontacted people. The Sentinelese might be the only people currently known to not have reached further than a Paleolithic level of technology, however, this is disputed, as evidence of metalwork was found in their island.

The earliest archaeological evidence of life in the islands go back some 2,200 years. However, genetic and cultural studies suggest that the indigenous Andamanese people may have been isolated from other populations during the Middle Paleolithic, which ended 30,000 years ago. Since that time, the Andamanese have diversified into linguistically and culturally distinct, territorial groups.

The Nicobar Islands appear to have been populated by people of various backgrounds. By the time of European contact, the indigenous inhabitants had coalesced into the Nicobarese people, speaking a Mon-Khmer language, and the Shompen, whose language is of uncertain affiliation. Neither language is related to Andamanese.

King Rajendra Chola I or Rajendra I was a Tamil Chola emperor of South India who ruled between 1014 to 1042 AD, used the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a strategic naval base to launch an expedition against the Srivijaya Empire, which is modern-day Indonesia. The Cholas called the island Ma-Nakkavaram or the great open or naked land, which can be found in the Thanjavur inscription of 1050 AD. The European traveller Marco Polo also referred to this island as ‘Necuverann’ and a corrupted form of the Tamil name Nakkavaram would have possibly led to the modern name Nicobar during the British colonial period.

The history of organised European colonisation on the islands began when settlers from the Danish East India Company arrived in the Nicobar Islands on 12 December 1755. On 1 January 1756, the Nicobar Islands were made a Danish colony, first named New Denmark, and later in December of the same year as Frederick’s Islands. Between 1754–1756 they were administrated from Tranquebar, in continental Danish India. The islands were repeatedly abandoned due to outbreaks of malaria between 14 April 1759 and 19 August 1768, from 1787 to 1807/05, 1814 to 1831, 1830 to 1834 and gradually from 1848 for good. From 1 June 1778 to 1784, Austria mistakenly assumed that Denmark had abandoned its claims to the Nicobar Islands and attempted to establish a colony on them, renaming them Theresia Islands. In 1789 the British set up a naval base and penal colony on Chatham Island next to Great Andaman, where now lies the town of Port Blair. Two years later the colony was moved to Port Cornwallis on Great Andaman, but it was abandoned in 1796 due to disease. Denmark’s presence in the territory ended formally on 16 October 1868 when it sold the rights to the Nicobar Islands to Britain, which made them part of British India in 1869. In 1858 the British again established a colony at Port Blair, which proved to be more permanent. The primary purpose was to set up a penal colony for criminal convicts from the Indian subcontinent. The colony came to include the infamous Cellular Jail. In 1872 the Andaman and Nicobar islands were united under a single chief commissioner at Port Blair.

During World War II, the islands were practically under Japanese control, only nominally under the authority of the Arzi Hukumate Azad Hind of Subhash Chandra Bose. Bose visited the islands during the war and renamed them as Shaheed-Dweep or Martyr Island and Swaraj-Dweep or Self-rule Island. The Japanese surrendered the islands to the British on 7 October 1945 in Port Blair. During the independence of both India in 1947 and what was then known as Burma in 1948, the departing British announced their intention to resettle all Anglo-Indians and Anglo-Burmese on these islands to form their own nation, although this never materialised. The islands became a part of India in 1950 and was declared as a union territory of the nation in 1956. Since the 1980s, India has been developing defence facilities on the islands and the islands now play a key role in India’s strategic role in the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Strait.

On 26 December 2004, the coasts of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were devastated by a 10 m massive tsunami following the undersea earthquake off the Indian Ocean. More than 2,000 people lost their lives, more than 4,000 children were orphaned or suffered the loss of one parent, and a minimum of 40,000 people were rendered homeless. More than 46,000 people were injured with the Nicobar Islands of Katchal and Indira Point being the worst affected. Indira Point actually subsided almost 14 feet and was partially submerged in the ocean. The lighthouse at Indira Point was damaged but has been repaired since then. The territory lost nearly ten percent of its area which is now submerged. While locals and tourists of the islands suffered the greatest casualties from the tsunami, most of the aboriginal people survived because oral traditions which was passed down from generations warning them to evacuate when large waves follow large earthquakes.

There are 572 islands in the union territory, with about 38 being permanently inhabited. The Andaman group has 325 islands covering an area of 6,170 sq km while the Nicobar group has 247 islands with an area of 1,765 sq km. The highest point is located in North Andaman Island is Saddle Peak at a height of 2,402 ft. The northernmost point of the Andaman and Nicobars group is Landfall Island lying 220 km north of Port Blair, and 300 km south of Myanmar and is home to the Kari tribe. Indira Point at the southern tip of the southernmost island, Great Nicobar, is the southernmost point of India and lies only 200 km from Sumatra island in Indonesia. The only volcano in India, Barren Island, is an active volcano which last erupted in 2017 and is located in the union territory. It also has a mud volcano situated in Baratang island and these mud volcanoes have erupted sporadically, with recent eruptions in 2005 believed to have been associated with the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. This island’s beaches, mangrove creeks, limestone caves, and mud volcanoes are some of the physical features.

The Sisters are two small uninhabited islands, East Sister Island and West Sister Island, in the Andaman Archipelago, at the northern side of the Duncan Passage, about 6 km southeast of Passage Island and 18 km north of North Brother. The islands are about 820.21 feet apart, connected by a coral reef; they are covered by forests and have rocky shores except for a beach on the northwest side of East Sister Island. Before the British established a colony on the Andaman, the Sisters were visited occasionally by the Onge people of Little Andaman Island for fishing. The islands may have been a waystation on the way to their temporary settlement of Rutland Island between 1890 and 1930. The islands have been designated as a wildlife refuge since 1987, with an area of 0.36 sq km.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have a tropical rainforest canopy, made of a mixed flora with elements from Indian, Myanmar, Malaysian and endemic floral strains. So far, about 2,200 varieties of plants have been recorded, out of which 200 are endemic and 1,300 are unique to the islands and do not occur in mainland India. About 50 varieties of forest mammals are found to occur in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Some are endemic, including the Andaman wild boar. The State Animal of Andaman is the dugong, also known as the sea cow, which can be found in Little Andaman. There are 96 wildlife sanctuaries, nine national parks and one biosphere reserve in these islands.

Tourism to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is increasing due to the popularity of beaches and adventure sports like snorkelling and sea-walking. There are also plans to develop various islands including luxury resorts being constructed with participation from the government in Avis Island, Smith Island and Long Island. Indian tourists do not require a permit to visit the Andaman Islands, but if they wish to visit any tribal areas they need a special permit from the Deputy Commissioner in Port Blair. Permits are required for foreign nationals. For foreign nationals arriving by air, these are granted upon arrival at Port Blair.

The best time to vist the Andaman & Nicobar Islands is during the months of April to June which is the summer season. The weather is quite sunny and warm at this time, but since this is the best time to hit the beaches, make sure you go during this time. The rainy season in this region begins in the month of June and goes on till the month of November. This is usually the offseason in the islands and there are not many tourists during this period. This is also the cheapest time to visit the island as all the hotels and resorts offer great discounts during this period. Tourists can also consider this season if they don’t mind getting wet. The most popular season to visit the islands among the tourists is the winter season, during the months of November to March. The climate during this season is optimal for tourists, as it is not too hot to explore the tourist attraction in the towns, but also still warm and pleasant enough to spend time at the beaches.

So without further ado, lets start our journey in the union territory’s capital of Port Blair.

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