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Cellular Jail - Darkness At Noon

Built In 1896 AD
Built By The British
Location Port Blair

The Cellular Jail in Port Blair is symbolic of the hardships faced by the Indians in their endeavor to attain freedom from their colonial rulers. The jail became infamous throughout the world for the inhuman treatment meted out to the inmates by the jail officials. This monument stands and reflects the tenacity of the Indians, who were struggling to attain freedom from the shackles of the British rule.

The period of European colonization and the subsequent British rule in India had its impact on Indian architecture. The British introduced the European style of architecture in India. The main manifestations of this style of architecture were churches, barracks, forts, residential quarters, administrative quarters etc.The British also introduced new techniques in the construction of buildings, which were different from the ones used by the indigenous people of India at that time. The British came in to India as traders under the banner of the British East India Company and built a number of small trading posts on the Indian coastline. As these settlements grew, forts were constructed to protect them and house the British garrison. The British built a number of residential and administrative buildings apart from the barracks within these forts. Fort Saint George in Chennai is the oldest British fort in India built in AD 1640. It is a good example of early Colonial architecture in India having a number of residential and administrative buildings within its precincts.

The British also built magnificent churches throughout India not only to cater to the spiritual needs of the British living in India but also to spread the gospel of Christianity. In course of time, the whole of India came under the British rule. The buildings dating between 1857, when the reins of India passed into the hands of the British Crown, and 1947, when India gained independence are good examples of the colonial style of architecture. Buildings like the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, and the Rashtrapati Bhavan or the official residence of the President of India in New Delhi etc. are examples of this style. The colonial style of architecture was a combination of the British-European style and the Indo-Islamic style, which was in itself a unique combination of Hindu and Islamic styles. This style of architecture paved the way for modern architectural styles to develop in post-independent India.

The infamous Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands is a good example of the colonial style of architecture, which developed in India during the British period.

The genesis of the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands can be traced back to the British efforts of suppressing the rampant hoards of thugs or thuggies (clan of dacoits), who ravaged large tracts of India. However, the jail became significant and grasped the imagination of the people of mainland India and abroad when, during the course of India's freedom struggle, the British began deporting political prisoners to Port Blair. The penal settlement in Andaman goes back to 1857 (the first war of Indian independence), when the revolutionaries from the mainland were deported to this island. Though not much literary and material evidence of that colony is available, it is said that the deportees were ill treated and made to live in sub-human conditions.

The construction of the jail was started in 1896 and took 14 years to complete. Located at Aberdeen, it stands on an outcrop overlooking Sessostris Bay facing the Ross Island. The original building was a seven pronged, puce-colored brick building with a central tower as the fulcrum. Each wing was four-storied, with cells on the first three and a watchtower on the fourth. These spanned out in straight lines from the central tower, rather like the spokes of a bicycle. The tower used to house a bell which tolled the hour, but which was also sent into a frantic, frenzied alarm during a crisis. On each story near the fulcrum, was posted a guard who had to merely walk around like the hand of a clock to get a clear, unobstructed view of the verandas, which faced the cells and from which he was protected by iron grilled doors. When completed in 1910, the Cellular Jail had 698 cells. Each cell was 4.5 meters x 2.7 meters with a solitary ventilator located three meters off the ground. Thus, a prisoner could neither see anything nor communicate with other inmates. And to make it just a little harder for the prisoners, each wing faced the rear of the other. Even now, as one walks around the Jail Complex, the execution room where prisoners were hanged, the shed where they worked at the oil press, the walls with hooks from which the prisoners were tied as punishment, and the eerie silence in the long corridors are enough to send shivers down ones spine.

The increased tempo of the Indian freedom movement in the last few years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century led the British to confine separately, prominent rebels who were too dangerous to be allowed to mix with ordinary convicts. The Andamans offered a natural answer and hence political prisoners were deported to the island and kept in solitary confinement. The prisoners included not just those actively involved in the freedom movement, but also journalists convicted of seditious writing. Such men and women were nearly all sentenced to life imprisonment.

The quality of life in the Cellular Jail was poor. Prisoners were incarcerated, tortured and subjected to most inhuman living conditions by the British officers. In 1942 during World War II, the Japanese imperial forces captured the island and freed the Indian prisoners. However, their occupation of these islands was not without its own tales of horror and brutality.

On August 15, 1947, the day India became independent, the penal settlement was closed down. On public demand, the central tower of the Cellular Jail has been declared a protected monument with plaques put up to commemorate the famous occupants of these dreadful cells. Not surprisingly then, to many the Andaman Islands stand haloed by the sacrifices of martyred freedom fighters. For them it is a place of pilgrimage.

Cellular Jail is located in the city of Port Blair, which is the capital of the Indian Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a group of about 300 islands in the Bay of Bengal. Port Blair is accessible by air from important Indian cities. Travelers can also reach Port Blair by sea from various ports like Chennai, Calcutta and Vishakhapatnam. This monument is located in the northern part of the city and travelers can reach it by bus, auto-rickshaw or taxi. They can also take mopeds, scooters, or motorcycles on rent to visit this monument.