These volcanic islands and their waters are considered to be one of the last unexplored stretches on the planet. There’s no doubting the archipelago’s natural beauty, with its sandy beaches (the equal of any in the world) and rainforests of incredible verdancy. The Andamans offer a range of biodiversity rarely found in one place. And because of a still underdeveloped tourism infrastructure, the marine bionetwork has thankfully escaped environmental despoliation. The stunningly beautiful coral reefs in the azure-blue waters here offer wonderful opportunities for scuba diving (besides which one can also enjoy snorkelling, fishing, camping and swimming), while also hosting a kaleidoscopic cornucopia of marine life. Alongside coral species unique to the islands are shoals of rare and exotic tropical fish (among the many thousands of fish species). Meanwhile, the forests are home to 250 species of birds and 3000 species of plants, besides a fair number of mammals not seen anywhere else (thanks to the islands’ isolation). Some of the oldest of India’s Aboriginal tribes, like the Jarawas and Sentinelese, are found here (note that the Primitive Tribal Reserve Areas remain out of bounds for tourists, while the Nicobar Islands are out of bounds to non-Indians).
The serenity of this island paradise obfuscates a dark and tragic past. The Andamans were settled twice over by the erstwhile British rulers, the second time in 1858, the year after the First War of Independence, when the islands became a penal colony – the British banished prisoners and members of criminal tribes to the islands. Later, during India’s fight for Independence, freedom fighters were detained, and often tortured and killed, here (the sombre Cellular Jail in Port Blair, in particular, plays a poignant role in India’s often-troubled story of Independence).
In recent history, the islands suffered in the December 26, 2004 tsunami, which followed a devastating earthquake that struck the Indian Ocean. Almost 6000 islanders are known to have perished in the natural disaster. The Nicobar chain was especially badly affected, a few parts being submerged and many others flattened beyond recognition. The road to recovery has been slow, and often painful.
Today, the indigenous peoples are in a minority, with a major part of the population consisting of migrants from the mainland, or descendants of the first mainland settlers.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a constellation of 362 tropical isles and islets (36 unpopulated) in the south-eastern part of the Bay of Bengal. The Andamans make up the northern part of the chain, the Nicobars the southern. Much of the islands’ land area (92 percent, in fact) is made up of rainforest, while mangrove swamps are also a visible feature of the topography.
The islands are geographically closer to Southeast Asia (Thailand, but particularly the Indonesian islands of Aceh and Sumatra) than they are to the Indian mainland.
Though situated in the tropics, the islands have a pleasant temperate climate, due to the regular breezes coming off the sea. Humidity rarely ever dips below 70 percent. The islands receive both the southwest monsoon (mid-May to October), and the northeast monsoon (November, December), the former bringing torrential downpours.
How to reach
Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, on South Andaman Island, is served by an airport, with regular flights to Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata.
If you have time, and are looking for a relaxed voyage out to the islands, you can also board a ferry (recommended) to Port Blair from Chennai (60hrs), Visakhapatnam (56hrs) and Kolkata (66hrs). The journeys are usually once or twice weekly (frequency from Visakhapatnam is less, mostly once a month). Port Blair has two jetties, one for ferries arriving from the Indian mainland, the other for inter-island ferries.
While the main group of islands – South, Middle and North Andaman – is connected to Port Blair by buses, the best – and most charming – way to see the Andamans is by ferry or boat, with many services plying regularly between the islands.