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The Indian islands that time forgot

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have a raw and visceral beauty, but there are stark reminders of the islands' cruel but fascinating history

  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands
    The Andaman Islands are home to indigenous people who have been there for tens of thousands of years.Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands
    An Indian elephant strides along the white sand of Radhanagar Beach.Image Credit: Getty Images
  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands
    Havelock Island has the 'Best Beach' in Asia, according to Time magazine.Image Credit: Getty Images
  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands
    The reefs and islets around Havelock still offer some spectacular options for diving and snorkelling.Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands
    The jail in Port Blair.Image Credit: Getty Images
  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands
    An abandoned church at Ross Island.Image Credit: Shutterstock

I could see a handful of distant figures through the shimmering haze. There were no voices to disrupt the hum of crickets in the forest, no swimmers to upset the languid waves. Between me and the next human being there was a 300-metre radius. I had territory.

If I'd wanted, I could have planted a flag here, declared it the Principality of Me and ruled it whimsically. The first law: do nothing. Second law: go and swim occasionally. Radhanagar - also known as Beach No 7, like some kind of coded secret - was once named the ‘best beach in Asia' by Time magazine. It lives up to the hype. Yet it's just one dazzling jewel in a box of treasures located in a seemingly forgotten corner of the Indian Ocean.

I'd been searching for a special island retreat, not too far away from the UAE, somewhere that most people have never heard of, let alone been to. Thailand had become old hat. The Maldives was too expensive. And I'd had it with all that Bali baloney. I was looking for more than just beaches and bums. I wanted history and mystery, thrilling biodiversity and intriguing culture; a sense of detachment from the rest of the world.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were the perfect choice. Havelock is just one of a chain of more than 500 islands scattered in the east part of the Bay of Bengal. Falling under Indian territory, but situated much closer to Myanmar, the islands were used by the British, in the days of the Raj, mainly as a strategic naval base and penal colony. Many of today's Indian settlers there can trace their ancestry back to that time. But The Andaman Islands are also home to indigenous people who have been there for tens of thousands of years. 

Some tribes are only just beginning to make contact with the world outside their forest dwellings. Others remain fiercely resistant to external contact. To the west of South Andaman is North Sentinel Island. Its inhabitants, the Sentinelese, are hunter-gatherers who are the last known pre-Neolithic tribe on earth to remain untouched by western civilisation. Attempts to make contact by fishing boats and helicopters have been met with hails of spears and stones. As recently as 2006 two fishermen were shot with arrows and killed.

The Sentinelese are now left to live independently, and the island remains out of bounds to visitors. Elsewhere on South Andaman Island, tribes such as the Jawara, have started to interact with other islanders. The building of the Great Andaman Trunk Road in the 1970s disrupted Jawara communities, forcing people to leave their settlements in the late 1990s. Although public access to their reserves is restricted by law, the Jawara are always at risk from disease and exploitation by outsiders.

Some tour operators have been accused of running ‘human safari' trips along the trunk road, where camera-toting tourists throw scraps of food from vehicles. Earlier this year, stories emerged of police officers allegedly forcing Jawara women to dance for tourists. It has caused fierce criticism and much embarrassment to officials, but the islands have long been a crucible of controversy.

Responsible tourists can learn about the indigenous tribes of the Andamans at the Anthropological Museum in the capital, Port Blair, on South Andaman Island. Reconstruction of tribal dwellings, examples of tools, weapons and ceremonial clothing shed light on the six surviving indigenous groups on the islands. 

The British established a penal settlement after the Indian Rebellion in the late 1850s. Political prisoners were shipped to Port Blair where they were confined in the Cellular Jail, so named because of its solitary cells. The jail had seven elongated wings, each pointing outwards from a central control tower like the spokes in a wheel. The cells were designed so that prisoners had no way of communicating with one another. They were forced to live an existence locked up, on their own. The conditions and treatment of inmates was so harsh, the jail was nicknamed kala pani or black waters.

Today the Cellular Jail stands as a striking reminder of the atrocities committed in the name of the British Empire, but also as a monument to the courage and sacrifice of the men imprisoned here. Lush with green shrubs and trees, the peaceful grounds are immaculately kept. An eternal flame of hope burns in tribute to those brutalised in the jail, but the imposing brick walls and barred windows offer a chilling glimpse into the horrors of the past.

Wandering along stark corridors, peeking into claustrophobic cells, I felt the sharp contrast between this grim man-made edifice and the islands' natural beauty. I squeezed inside a cell and saw a plaque commemorating the ten-year incarceration of the writer, poet, member of the resistance movement and politician Vinayak (Veer) Savarkar. Denied pen and paper, he scratched his poems into the prison walls with sticks and stones.

There are even more colonial relics a short boat trip from Port Blair on Ross Island. These buildings, which were once the thriving British headquarters, are replete with grand architecture and landscaped gardens. Today, Ross Island stands populated by little more than ghostly ruined buildings - ballrooms, churches and hospitals strangled by roots and vines as the forest advances to reclaim lost territory. The British abandoned the island following an earthquake in 1941, but that wasn't the last seismic activity to strike the Andamans. 

The tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean caused damage to the low-lying Nicobar Islands to the south, and they are now off-limits for tourists. Port Blair and Havelock sustained less destruction, but the islands are only starting to recover now. Many homes were destroyed and over 6,000 lives were claimed. But despite the devastation, the tsunami offered insight into the ancient wisdom of the indigenous people. Using their knowledge of the island and the sea, passed down through the generations, one tribe on Little Andaman managed to escape to higher ground before the tsunami struck. Almost all of them survived. 

The reefs and islets around Havelock still offer some spectacular options for diving and snorkelling. There are steep reef walls and knolls to explore, riddled with all kinds of colourful marine life. But signs of coral bleaching around previously thriving sites like Lighthouse Reef and Minerva Lodge suggest that climate change and acidification of the waters are beginning to take their toll.

This is no man-made island theme park, carefully clipped and swept to maintain an image of paradise. Yet the very real challenges facing the Andaman Islands are also a large part of its appeal. Its vulnerability only adds to its beauty. As I lay alone on the beach at Havelock Island, the leaves of the forest whispering in the breeze, it seemed to me like an ephemeral beauty, destined someday to succumb to the perils of the outside world. I was glad I made it here before it does.

How to get there

Air Arabia fly from Sharjah to Chennai in India for around Dh2,400 return; from there take an Air India flight to Port Blair for around Dh900 return. Don't forget to get your Indian visa. Permits for travel in the Andaman Islands are available on arrival in Port Blair. 

Where to stay

Port Blair: Fortune Resort Bay Island With a hillside location overlooking the sea, this character hotel was built more than 30 years ago from beautiful red padauk wood found only on these islands. Communal areas are spacious and open-plan, with truly wonderful views of the bay, its turquoise waters and leafy green islands. It's showing its age a bit, but even though a full refurb is planned for the near future, it still has bags of charm.  

Havelock Island: Barefoot at Havelock Resort There's plenty of accommodation on Havelock, from ramshackle huts to tents on the sands. But if you've come all this way to frolic on Asia's best beach, you might as well do it in style. These luxury thatched cottages and villas nestle in pristine green forests behind Radhanagar. The eco-retreat isn't cheap, but how often do you visit paradise?

Getting around

Taxis Cars and auto-rickshaws are plentiful on the main islands. Be prepared to haggle from the outset. 

Island hopping There are boats from Port Blair to many of the Islands open to tourists. Every day there are slow (4 hours) and fast (2 hours) ferries from Phoenix Jetty to Havelock Island. You'll find ferries to Ross Island at the Water Sports Complex Jetty, also in Port Blair. Schedules change all the time according to the day and the season, so always check locally.