Why Cellular Jail in India is more than a National Memorial

I was born in post Independent India and grew up in the 80’s of Kolkata. Storytelling afternoons with a dadu (grand uncle) who lived with us were nearly always about Indian Independence. In between the stories of his childhood that revolved around ponds and trees in his small village he spoke of his teacher and a friend who had joined the Swadeshi movement to free India from the Imperial Raj. The freedom heroes he spoke about seemed to be men next door with a flaming passion for the motherland. They endured deep torture in the hands of the British masters for rebellion and heroism. Many were incarcerated in different prisons across the country. There was one Prison in a distant land, somewhere in the middle of the ocean in Andaman Island often referred as “Sazaa e Kala Paani” the prison sentence across the seas from where few or rather none returned. This infamous prison is Cellular Jail in Port Blair which was our first stop during a recent visit to Andaman.Cellular Jail in Port Blair

Why the name “Cellular Jail”

There are exhibition halls on either side of the entrance where pictures, memorabilia and stories related to the inmates and their struggles within the Cellular Jail are displayed. The miniature model of Cellular Jail encased in a glass box caught my attention. The building was designed like the spokes of the bicycle with 7 spokes or buildings comprising 3 Floors with rows of tiny rooms or cells. The guards kept watch over all the 696 cells from the tower in the centre of the spokes. These 15 ft by 7 feet cells had a small window located high on the wall and the inmates were served food through a gap on the wall. The Cellular Jail was constructed over a period of 10 years between 1896 and 1906 by the rebels of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 with bricks brought from Burma.Cellular Jail in Port Blair

Walking around the Cellular Jail Complex

The entrance opens out into a courtyard which is in between 2 spoke like buildings. The first thing that strikes is the demonstrated image of the man being sent to the gallows. Cellular Jail in Port BlairThere is a small workshed in the centre with life like installations demonstrating the day in a life of an inmate. It was torture, torture and more torture on the whims and fancy of the British Master.Cellular Jail in Port Blair

I could feel anger well up within the pit of my stomach for such demonstrated inhuman behavior.They were flogged, chained or given nearly impossible laborious tasks of churning oil or pounding husks to extract fibre. It is humanely impossible to manually churn 30 pounds of coconut oil and 10 pounds of mustard oil in a day.

I paid a quick visit to the area demarcated as the erstwile gallows and stepped into the building which was one of the spokes. As I walked along the long corridor, I peeped into the small cells. The lone windows perched high up on the wall was barely enough to get a glimpse of the sky, to hear the bird song and know the season. At the end of the corridor there are names of inmates and the states they belonged to inscribed on a pillar and along the walls.Cellular Jail in Port Blair

This was repeated on all the floors and most of them seemed to belong to Bengal. The known unknown names on these walls may just be a statistic for most but without their supreme sacrifice and contribution we may have experienced a different future.

On the 2nd Floor, I visited the room where Veer Savarkar spent his days of imprisonment. His pictures still adorning the wall and a few floral homages around. The airport in Port Blair is named after him in memory of his contribution to Indian Independence. Incidentally, his brother Babarao Savarkar was also confined in the cellular jail at the same time but they had no contact. The next level is the terrace which opens out towards the sea. The cool sea breeze was pleasant on my face and partially succeeded in diverting my attention away from the anger that was welling up as I pondered over the past. I forced myself to focus on the sunset instead which seemed to have a calming effect; the end of something giving way to the new and a day consigned to history

Brave Sons of India in Cellular Jail

Some of the famous and popular names were Batukeshwar Dutt; Barin Ghosh, Sohan Singh, Vaman Rao Joshi, Biren Sen, Jatish Pal, Yogendra Shukla, Nand Gopal, Maulana Ahmadullah, Diwan Singh, Fazl – e- Haq Khairabadi and many more. Ref Wikipedia 

Cellular Jail in Port Blair

Cellular Jail ~ Light and Sound Show

Later that evening; during the Light and Sound show; the anger that had taken shape was further aggravated after hearing the narration of various incidents. The prisoners were denied the right to relieve themselves and had to seek permission which was mostly denied. Some prisoners succumbed to losing their mind and some revolted against the inhuman torture and went on a fast they were force fed to death. The force feeding led to choked windpipes and food and water entering the lungs. Mohan Kishore Namdas, Mohit Maitra and Mahavir Singh succumbed to death as a consequence of this inhuman act. I had already seen their statues in the park opposite to the Cellular Jail Complex. My eyes welled up in the dark and almost everyone reached out to the edges of their saree, dupatta or handkerchief. Some of the inmates surrendered with their lives under extreme torture with on their lips as the dying wish and yet others just lived through it to see the Tiranga our National Flag fly higher than the Union Jack.The sacrifice of these young men confined here and countless others led to the hoisting of our tricolor on 15th August, 1947 !! The evening after, was one of gratitude; looking up at the sky and thanking the stars to have been born in a free country and the right to live my own way.

  • Light and Sound Shows are held for an hour twice in the evening at 6pm and 7.15 pm. The Second show is in English only on 3 days during the week Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Priced at Rs 50/- per person; tickets are obtained from the counter at the entrance. Free seating so queue up early to grab a good place.
Visit to Cellular Jail is a Pilgrimage

Cellular Jail in Port Blair and Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar are perhaps the only 2 memorials which connect to Indian Independence. Rest of them are more historical in nature with architectural significance. A Visit to Cellular Jail in Port Blair is more like a pilgrimage with respect and thanksgiving for presenting us a free India. It was dedicated to the nation as a National Memorial in 1979 by the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai. 

For the children of the 21st century Cellular Jail is just another National Memorial. Born several years after Independence, they do not relate to slavery and subjugation. Independence Day is like any other day but to fly the flag, to perform a drill and sing the anthem and 15th August 1947 is just another date in History. We need to evoke passion and thanksgiving in them for the men and women who gave up their today for our tomorrow. I wish to see more school trips from mainland India to Cellular Jail in Andamans for a first hand brush with history and the very existence of post independent India.

Travel Tip
  • Cellular Jail is in the heart of Port Blair and is easily accessible by car and auto. The adjoining park is a must visit where life like statues of freedom heroes have been installed.
  • Open all days except National Holidays; from 9am to 4.45pm. it will take about an hour to go around. Recommend hiring a guide to go around to get a perspective on history
  • Entry tickets can be purchased at the gate. Currently it is Rs 30/- per person. They are reluctant to accept cash (good) and hence be ready to buy with card or e-wallets
  • The views from the terrace are gorgeous and would highly recommend climbing the flight of stairs.
  • Light and Sound Shows are held for an hour twice in the evening at 6pm and 7.15 pm. The Second show is in English only on 3 days during the week Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Priced at Rs 50/- per person; tickets are obtained from the counter at the entrance. Free seating so queue up early to grab a good place.
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2 thoughts on “Why Cellular Jail in India is more than a National Memorial

  1. Jyotirmoy Sarkar

    Such a vivid description of the jail, places like these always amazing to visit but simultaneously its really very pathetic to see how our freedom fighters suffered for the independence specially now when we look at our country…what they dreamt and what is the condition.
    Very touchy post,nicely narrated.

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