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The Andaman and Nicobar group comprises about 300 islands formed by a submarine mountain range which divides the Bay of Bengal from the Andaman Sea. The islands lie between latitudes 6° to 14° north (about level with Chennai and longitudes 92-94° east, a span of 725 km). The land rises to 730 m (Saddle Peak), formed mainly of limestones, sandstones and clays. The Andamans are separated from the Nicobars by a 90-m-deep 150-km strait. The Andamans group has 204 islands (26 inhabited) with its three main islands of North, Middle and South, which are separated by mangrove-fringed islets and are together called Great Andaman. The Nicobar Islands comprise 12 inhabited and seven uninhabited islands including three groups: Car Nicobar in the north, Camorta and Nancowry in the middle and the largest, Great Nicobar in the south.
Tropical, with temperatures of 20-32°C. Annual rainfall is 2540 mm. Monsoon seasons are usually May to mid-September, and November to mid-December (though the first may arrive as early as mid-April, bringing heavy rain on most days). The best time to visit is end-November to mid-April. The climate has no extremes, the main contrasts coming with the arrival of the monsoons and tropical storms.
Lying on the trade route between Burma and India the islands appeared on Ptolemy’s second-century map and were also recorded by the Chinese traveller I-Tsing in the seventh century. At the end of the 17th century the Marathas established a base there to attack the trading British, Dutch and Portuguese ships. Dutch pirates and French Jesuits had made contact with the islands before the Danish East India Company made attempts to evangelize the islands in the mid-18th century. The reputation of ferocity attributed to the Nicobarese may have been partly due to Malay pirates who attacked and killed sailors of any trading vessel that came ashore (some anthropologists believe that in spite of common belief, the aboriginals themselves were not cannibals). The first British attempt to occupy the islands was made in 1788 when the governor general of India sent Lieutenant Blair (whose name was given to the first port) and, although the first convicts were sent there in 1794, it was abandoned within a couple of years.
After the ‘First War of Independence’ (the ‘Mutiny’) in 1857, the British gained control of most of the islands and used them as a penal colony for its prisoners (who until then had been sent to Sumatra) right up to Indian Independence, with a short break from 1942-1945 when the Japanese occupied Port Blair, Ross Island and the Nicobar Islands. However, political prisoners were sent in large numbers only after the completion of the Cellular Jail in 1906. Each revolt on the mainland resulted in the transportation of people from various parts of India, hence the presence of Bengalis, Malayans and Burmese among others. Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian Nationalist, first raised the Indian tricolour here in 1943.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1890 described the islanders as “perhaps … the smallest race upon this earth … fierce, morose and intractable”. In the mid-19th century, the British guessed the tribal population was around 5000 but the number has been steadily dwindling. Today most of the inhabitants are Indians, Burmese and Malays – some being descendants of the criminals who were taken there. Since the 1950s, refugees from East Pakistan (Bangladesh), Burma and Indian emigrants from Guyana have settled on the main islands to be followed more recently by Tamils from Sri Lanka. The largest concentration is around the capital, Port Blair, with the majority of tribal people (about 15% of the population) living in the Nicobars.
Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and English are spoken. The Andamanese language does not resemble any other; it uses prefixes and suffixes to indicate the function of a word and is extraordinary in using simply two concepts of number, ‘one’ and ‘greater than one’.
Modern Andaman and Nicobar
Before the tsunami, tourism was rapidly becoming the islands’ most important industry and the runway at the airport was extended in 2003. Forests represent an important resource. The government has divided 40% of the forests into Primitive Tribal Reserve areas which are only open to Indian visitors with permits, and the remaining 60% as Protected Areas set aside for timber for export as plywoods, hardwoods and matchwoods (a Swedish multinational owns extensive logging rights). Rubber and mahogany have been planted in addition to teak and rosewood which are commercially in demand. Fishing – lobsters, prawns and sea fish – and agriculture are also important, with rice a staple food crop.
GovernmentAs a Union Territory the Andamans and Nicobar Islands have a lieutenant governor, Shri Nagendra Nath Jha, a retired member of the Indian Foreign Service and member of the BJP’s National Executive since 1994.
Getting aroundHiring a scooter is the most enjoyable and practical way to visit places around Port Blair (recommended particularly for trips to Wandoor, Chiriya Tapu, Mount Harriet and Corbyn’s Cove). Buses cover sights and towns on the limited road network. Inter-island ferries sail to coastal towns and islands, which are far more relaxing than the capital.
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