Last year I had traveled to Andaman islands in India, where I captured few pics of this lifeguard watchtower at Haveloke island (Unfortunately not manned by anyone out of Baywatch!). Yesterday night did this quick sketch of it in Pen and Ink, with tinting applied in watercolors.
Andaman and Nicobar islands are a set of nearly 575 tropical islands in the Bay of Bengal off the eastern coast of India. The islands are famous for their rich blue waters, full of colorful corals and a rich sea life.
Havelock is an island in the Andamans which has evolved as one of the best diving destinations, not only in India, but across the world. There are numerous dive sites near and far from Havelock, including 2 ship wrecks (one fairly shallow), India’s only active volcano (Barren Island) and numerous shallow and deep sites.
I spent few days in November 2013 diving in Havelock. There are many dive resorts in Havelock. I did my diving with DiveIndia, which was the first dive resort in Havelock. The resort is next to the excellent beach, from where dive boats depart. Below are some notes for prospective divers:
The facilities are fairly basic. Do not expect luxury. The ‘rooms’ are of 3 types – Huts with common bathrooms (cheapest), Huts with attached bathrooms (mid budget) and Tented Cabanas (most expensive). All 3 types are non-AC, with fans to quell the heat. Rooms have a double bed, fans and towels. All bathrooms have geysers for hot water. Rooms have no TVs. Every room has (thankfully) a mosquito net. Since the island is infested with lot of mosquitoes, be prepared with mosquito repellent.
There are power issues on the island, and as long as I was there (nearly a full week), every evening there was power outage for nearly half hour to 1 hour. This is not a big issue if not due to mosquitoes and heat inside the rooms. Due to heat it’s nearly impossible to remain inside the room when fans are not on (and this was November, one of the cooler months in India).
There’s a restaurant called ‘Full Moon Cafe’ inside the DiveIndia resort, but run by a different management. This restaurant is one of the best I have experienced in any resort. The food is varied, and excellent. It serves many dishes from traditional Indian dishes to Continental. The staff is helpful, and in case of power outages, this is the best place to sit and read/ eat. Even when the rooms are dissolved in darkness, the Full Moon Cafe is always lit, providing a respite from the stifling heat.
I had previously done PADI Open Water Diver course nearly 4 years ago, and had only 4 open water dives under my (weight)belt. So returning to diving after this long gap was bit intimidating at first. So I spent the first morning doing my refresher. And it was totally worth it! After the quick refresher, I did a 30 mins shallow dive with my instructor.
I was about to embark on a course of SSI Advanced Adventurer, which included the following dives:
1. Underwater Navigation (mandatory dive)
2. Deep dive (mandatory)
3. Peak performance buoyancy (optional)
4. Underwater photography (optional)
5. Night dive (optional)
Everyday, we would leave the resort on our dive boat by 7:30 am, after a sumptuous breakfast in the Full Moon Cafe. The dive boat was fairly basic Dinghy boat, which was very stable under even the worst currents (which we experienced on Day 3). Buscuits, samosas, babanas, water and tea/coffee was present on the boat for mid-dive refreshments.
Day 1 was spent in the refresher course and a shallow dive.
The first dive was at a shallow wreck site, M V Mars. This small vessel sank off Havelock island in 2004. The wreck is fairly intact. We were warned by our divemaster not to touch the wreck without looking carefully where we were placing our hands. The wreck has many scorpion fish present on it, and you don’t want to mess with them!
The visibility was poor due to a lot of mud and slit in the water, but the dive went on very smoothly, and we surfaced within 30-40 mins.
From M V Mars, we went to our next dive site, called ‘The Wall’. This is again a shallow site, with a wall or coral. Due to this unique structure, The Wall is teeming with many species of corals and varieties of fishes on both sides. The visibility was excellent, but there was a little current present where we were diving, and it was about to teach me some valuable lesson!
As we were about to complete the dive, my regulator came off, and salty water entered my mouth. Since this is not a pleasant sensation, I quickly put the regulator back in my mouth, and breathed. Then it came off again. Somehow I was not finding the grip on the regulator. So I straightened up in the water, and suddenly lifted off towards the surface due to a swift current.
I saw my buddies and divemaster many meters below me, and realized what had happened. I tried to fin back, but my fins were already above water. So I did the next best thing. I inflated by BCD and called the boat for help. They quickly came and grabbed me. By this time, I was flushed. My divemaster and buddies surfaced a couple of minutes after me. I was feeling like throwing up, and I was sick to the core because of fear of the bends. My divemaster and the boat crew assured me that I did not have bends, but the rest of the day was really bad for me. I slept through the noon and evening.
I started out the day still feeling sick. The first dive of the day was a deep dive, and I know if something like the previous day happened, I was in deep (pun intended) trouble! Fortunately, encouragement from my divemaster, and surviving some gritty moments and exertion did the job, and I came out of the deep dive hale and happy!
We went to another planned dive site, but the sea was really bumpy here, and many people started feeling sick. The dinghy was not able to hold anchor here, and we had to shift to a new dive site called ‘i95’.
In this dive site, I got my hands on a camera at last, and clicked some underwater photographs as well. It was a fun and different experience. This one too went smoothly.
In the evening came highlight of the day!
After only 1 hour of rest, I was back on the boat for my first night dive!
By the time we reached the dive site of ‘The Wall’, it was already pitch dark. As soon as I entered the water and looked below, it seemed like I was entering a bottomless abyss (when in fact it was only 15-16 m deep). For first few seconds, it totally freaked me out and it was only due to my divemaster’s insistance that I went in. And boy, what an experience it was!
Night underwater is alive with so many creatures that are rarely seen during the day. We saw eels, and so many lionfish. But the best part was when we came near the rope and taking our stop few feet below water. We all switched off our torches, and in the pitch blackness around us, we just waved our hands together. This caused the plankton in the water to emit light. Wherever we moved our hand, it was followed by a green bio-luminescence. It was one of the most surreal and magical experiences I ever had. If you want to do one dive, I will always advise you to do a night dive. It’s an experience to have for life!
Now I am looking forward to my next diving trip, and hundreds more to come in the next few years. Because there’s no such thing as a one time diver. If you are a diver, you are a diver for life. And I definitely am that diver!
I visited Andaman Islands in the November of 2013.
Andaman and Nicobar islands is a group of tropical islands off the coast of India in Bay of Bengal. It takes approximately 2 hours to reach by flight. Andaman and Nicobar is a cluster of nearly 575 islands, most of them either uninhabited, or inhabited by primal adivasis (the ancient tribal residents of Andaman, untouched by modern civilization).
Andaman and Nicobar are extremely beautiful and teeming with exotic corals and wildlife. But Indian history has a very dark era, where these islands were used to destroy hope and lives of so many people.
During the British rule of India, near the start of 20th century, Indian struggle for independence from their British overlords was gaining momentum after the failed uprising of 1857. The Indian youth were demanding more rights. The British rulers were feeling the heat of organized peaceful political protests on one hand, and violent revolt of the revolutionists on the other.
The British realised that killing and punishing few would not serve to break the moral of others. So they devised a jail called ‘Çellular Jail’ in the Port Blair island of Andaman. Cellular jail was built from the slave labour of Indian prisoners over the course of 5 years.
Cellular jail is so named as it has 693 tiny cells, out of which 663 were built for solitary confinement of prisoners. From the beginning of 20th century till the Japanese occupation of the island during WW-II, the jail witnessed one of the blackest chapters of torture, misery and unbreakable human spirit of freedom.
The prison sentence imposed on the political prisoners being sent to Cellular Jail was termed ‘Kala Pani’ (Black water). The sentence consisted of solitary confinement of prisoners in their respective cells, very small rationing of food and water, just to keep them alive, constant humiliation, and slave labour, where they were forced to do inhuman tasks like producing 30 pounds of coconut oil etc. Failing to do these tasks invited further punishment like flogging, food deprivation and being bound in chains for days.
Many prisoners went insane due to this torture, many died. When prisoners went on hunger strike to demand better conditions, they were force fed milk to break their strike. Many died during this force feeding, because the milk entered their lungs. One of them was Mahaveer Singh, a close associate of Bhagat Singh. There’s a garden across the road from Cellular jail now, where statues of 6 martyrs are erected. Four of them have died due to such force feed.
Cellular jail is today a national monument to the sacrifice of innumerable people, who were unreasonable enough to denounce the foreign rulers, who were stubborn enough to sacrifice their today for others’ tomorrow, and brave enough to endure the relentless torture in this bleak prison.
Every day, a light and sound show is held twice in the Cellular jail premises to remind us of their sacrifices. I attended such show on 31st Oct last week.
I must admit that I was a bit sceptical about the quality of show when I entered the premises. It’s one thing to have a great subject material, it’s another thing to represent it correctly, effectively and by touching the viewers’ emotions.
When the show ended, I was extremely grateful to the organisers that they came up with this show!
The show has no live human characters, it has no moving statues. The whole show is based on light and sound effects emanating from various places in the jail premises, cells and walls.
The show takes us through a brief history of Andaman, and the conception and construction of cellular jail. There’s a solitary Banyan tree in the premises. It was there before the construction began, and it survived the logging and deforestation of the land where the jail now stands. It was a very nice and touching idea to tell the history of jail by this tree, as it has seen it all.
One of the greatest freedom fighters India has ever seen, Veer Sawarkar was given a sentence of 50 years of kala pani. When he entered the jail, the jailer met him and sarcastically asked him, “So Sawarkar, you are here for life now. Do you want to spend 50 years here, or go insane before that, so you can at least spend some time outside?”. Sawarkar replied, “Mr Jailer, do you seriously think the British rule will last for next 50 years in India?”. Sawarkar’s prophecy came true eventually.
The tales of suffering, torture, humiliation told were heart wrenching, and I am not ashamed to say that I cried during the show. Not once, but many times. However the tears were not borne of depression, but gratitude, towards those who gave their present for our future.
Today, we talk about globalization, and Indian tiger in the great game of global economics. We talk about getting to be a world superpower, and touching the Moon, and the Mars. We talk about Indians getting recognized and celebrated in the same vein as our European and American counterparts.
But all this started with the self respect which we earned by earning our independence. And these were the thousands of unnamed people who refused to let the circumstances break their spirits.
As I walked out at the end of the show, I was proud to be their fellow countryman.