From the outside, it seemed like an innocuous building. A two storeyed, unimposing structure, painted yellow with green window shutters and a balcony running around the ledge, the two turrets looked onto the bustle of Port Blair and the throng of tourists being spewed out by the buses and the autos that parked themselves a respectful distance away.

cellular jail port blair
At Cellular Jail in Port Blair

Cellular Jail, read the signage over the arch of the main entrance. Reading those words itself sent a chill down my spine. We’d learnt about it, over the years in school. The colonial penal colony, the Andaman Islands, and in its capital city Port Blair, the Cellular Jail, or Kala Paani as it was known, where the freedom fighters of our independence movement were sent to. Far away from the mainland, they lived, exiled and isolated for years, nay decades.

Cellular Jail, read the signage over the arch of the main entrance. Reading those words itself sent a chill down my spine.

We were here in Port Blair for the first edition of the Andaman Literature Festival, and on one of the days post our sessions, the director of the Art and Culture Department, Ms. Shimray Asaiwo Bellrose, kindly took us on a tour of the Cellular Jail. To be honest, I had but a vague idea of what the Cellular Jail would be like, but nothing prepared me for the pall of pain that still lingers over the premises even though it is now just a regular tourist site, with the pell mell of voices and tourist groups traipsing through it.

cellular jail port blair
Image Credit : Kiran Manral

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While the Andaman islands had been used as a colonial penal colony post the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the Cellular Jail was built much later, over a period of ten years, from 1896 to 1906 by prison labour. Many of the convicts were put to work to construct the prisons, the buildings as well as the harbour. Quite a number of them died due to the overwork and the mistreatment. The original complex had seven linear wings radiating from a central watchtower, based on Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon. Each wing had three stories and the total complex had 696 cells, all meant for solitary confinement and built in such a manner that no interaction or communication was possible between the prisoners. An estimated 80,000 prisoners were held at the Cellular Jail. Of these, very few have been said to have survived. Noted independence activists like Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, Yogendra Shukla, Batukeshwar Dutt, Babarao Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Bhai Parmanand, and Trailokyanath Chakravarty were held here. In fact, the Savarkar brothers, Babarao and Vinayak, didn’t know that they were in different cells in the same jail for two years according to Wikipedia. The idea of constructing a jail across the ocean was also meant to demoralise caste Hindus who would be breaking a taboo, that of crossing the ocean, thus making them social outcasts. While the prisoners lived a life of horror and torture in the Cellular Jail, just across the water, barely three kilometres away, the British officials lived in absolute luxury in Ross Island.

Cellular Jail
Image Credit: Kiran Manral

Each wing had three stories and the total complex had 696 cells, all meant for solitary confinement and built in such a manner that no interaction or communication was possible between the prisoners. An estimated 80,000 prisoners were held at the Cellular Jail. Of these, very few have been said to have survived.

Of the original seven wings only three exist now. The view from the top of the wings and the watch tower is breathtaking, with the spread of the ocean across as far as the eye can see, fringed with the curve of the island shore. The cells, bereft of their prisoners, still carry the miasma of the pain of those incarcerated within. Stepping into any cell is a terrifying experience and a claustrophobic one even if for just a few moments. To imagine people confined in these for years on end is heartbreaking.

cellular jail
Image Credit: Kiran Manral

A hospital was set up in the premises of the Cellular Jail in 1963. The Cellular Jail celebrated its centenary year in 2006. The Jail is now a national memorial. It houses several galleries, including photos of the freedom fighters and the Netaji Gallery. Eternal flames burn on the premises in honour of those who sacrificed their lives here. Walking through the reconstruction of how life must have been for the prisoners, with the flogging rack, the punishment suit made of raw sackcloth, the oil mill, the sheer labour and torture the prisoners went through is a timely reminder to us, the post independence generation to not take the Independence we now enjoy lightly. It has been fought for by the generations who were condemned to a pitiful existence at the Cellular Jail and we must honour their memory by cherishing the freedom we now have and the rights we so take for granted.

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The views expressed are the author’s own.

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