A very significant event in the history of the Andaman Islands, the one that changed them, their demography, their environment and their history forever, happened just after the Revolution of 1857, when the British-Indian government hurriedly decided to set up a penal colony in these remote, isolated islands, miles and miles away from the mainland, to imprison the most notorious of criminals and rebels of 1857.

Before 1857, apart from a few short-lived and aborted attempts by the British East India Company in the last decade of the 18th century, the islands were never properly “settled” by the British or even earlier by people from mainland India and had remained inhabited only by the ancient, indigenous tribes who had been living there for millennia.

Contrary to popular belief, for several decades before the Cellular Jail was even conceptualised, Andaman was already a penal colony and the prisoners were kept in even more brutal conditionsin those initial years, often in the open, exposed to nature, far away and totally isolated from their homes and from all vestiges of familiar civilisation, surrounded by inhospitable and often violent tribes and miles and miles of kala pani.

In those initial years, they were kept in the nearby and much lesser-known Viper Island. Very few tourists today venture out to this island and not much of those days of the penal settlement is told. Therefore, the Cellular Jail has become synonymous with the Andamans as a penal colony.

Those initial years, almost five decades when the British had started settling in the Andaman Islands, must have been difficult for them as well as for their subordinate Indian officials. Naturally, it was infinitely harsher for the unfortunate prisoners. Those people had been born and brought up in mainland towns and cities, many of whom had worked as sepoys in the British, or more accurately, the East India Company’s army regiments. They had decided to, though sometimes forced by circumstances, take part in the tumultuous rebel activities of 1857 and now found themselves marooned and consigned by fate to live the rest of their lives in these islands.

The islands must have been at that time infested with deadly diseases, pests, insects, snakes and long spells of torrential monsoon rains. In addition, the prisoners would often find themselves surrounded by hostile tribes of indigenous people.

Not all of the inmates were deserted sepoys or farmers incited into violence; some wereeven learned and respected men of their times.

Even today, as one takes a leisurely morning stroll along Marina of Port Blair, overlooking the Bay of Bengal, one would come across the mazars (holy graves) of the learned scholars Maulana Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi and Maulvi Liyaquat Ali – learned scholars in Islamic and oriental studies, who were consigned by twists of fate and unimaginable circumstances to live out their last years and breath their last in these penal colony islands of the Andamans. Of the two, the former even taught Persian to the then British chief commissioner and had started the very first school, or rather a sort of madrasa, in the Andamans.

As we had crossed the holy mazars on our way back to the resort, Feroz had pointed out them to me. “This probably belongs to an ancestor of the famous actor Farhan Akhtar. He had visited it a few months ago when he had come here. Although, the mazar had always been here, and a few had been paying their respect and obeisance earlier too, suddenly people started noticing them afresh.”

Farhan Akhtar, the famous actor and film producer, is of course the illustrious son of his even more illustrious father, the famous lyricist, dialogue writer and poet, Javed Akhtar, who I knew, originally belonged to Khairabad, a mofussil in today’s Sitapur district, near Lucknow.

We had witnessed the spectacular sunset at Corbyn’s Cove only a day ago, but the sky over the Bay of Bengal was already aflame again that evening, in anticipation of the sunset that was still a couple of hours away. I could imagine Maulana Khairabadi standing on this very rocky coast, looking at the sun set, evening after evening, and remembering those equally beautiful evenings that used to set over the river Gomti, in earlier happier times, the famous “Shaam-e-Awadh.” But then I realised it was impossible for me to fathom and even imagine the terrible sense of hopelessness, longing and isolation the Maulana must have experienced at that very moment.

By that time, the British had decided to set up their own residential quarters on a different island, only a short distance away from the main island on which Port Blair stood, which they called Ross Island.

When the Cellular Jail was conceptualised, its location was selected in a way that it stood directly opposite Ross Island, separated from it by a stretch of water that was neither too narrow for comfort nor too wide to cross.

The idea of settling down on a separate island, away from the settlers – prisoners, their descendants and the indigenous tribes – might have been prompted by that natural desire of minority settlers – conquerors who came from a very different race and culture, a desire to live a private, secluded, secure, and more comfortable life, one that was familiar to them.

Excerpted with permission from Andamanush Nicobarese: A Travenovel, Partha Sarthi Sen Sharma, Rupa Publications.