Cellular Jail, Andaman Islands

Date of Submission: 15/04/2014
Criteria: (iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Coordinates: N11 40 29.8 E92 45 08.2
Ref.: 5888

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Cellular Jail is situated on South Andaman Island, one of 572 islands forming Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India. Inhabited since 2000 years, the islands were occupied by Europeans in the middle of 18th century. Few years later, British established naval base and a penal settlement on Chatham Island which was later shifted Viper Island.

The idea of establishing a permanent penal settlement in these islands was germinated in the minds of the British Rulers in 1857 to curb India’s First War of Independence. A Committee of experts visited the islands for a survey in December 1857 and submitted a report to the Government in January1858. The first batch of 200 convicts arrived on the island on 10th March 1858 under the overall charge of Dr. J. P. Walker.

Though the First War of Independence was quelled, the flame for achieving freedom could not be suppressed. Soon, freedom fighters taking part in various movements including Wahabi Movement, Manipuri Revolt, and a large number of Burmese from Tharawadda against British rule were also deported to the penal punishment in the Andaman. The prisoners were initially kept in the open enclosures.

As the time passed and the settlement grew in size, the authorities found it difficult to enforce strict discipline. A high security jail that could hold a large number in solitary confinement became necessary. A two-member committee headed by Sir Charles J. Lyall and Sir, A. S. Lethbridge visited Port Blair in 1890 and recommended the construction of penal facility near Port Blair. The construction of Cellular Jail building started in 1893 by the settlement order No.423 dated 13th September 1893. It was completed in 1905-06 using prisoners only as construction labour.

Cellular Jail is a massive three-storeyed structure with seven wings of unequal lengths, radiating from a central watch tower, shaped like spokes of a wheel. The architecture of Cellular Jail was conceptualized on the basis of ‘Pennsylvania System or Separate System’ theory in which separate confinement is necessary for each inmate for complete isolation from other inmates. No communication of any kind was possible between prisoners in the same or different wings. The design of Cellular Jail is heavily influenced by ‘Panopticon’ theory where radiating wings allowed a single guard to keep watch on all the prisoners from the central tower but without the prisoner being able to see him. Prisoners deported to Cellular Jail for long term imprisonment for opposing British rule in India included eminent political convicts; revolutionaries. Therefore, the Cellular Jail was designed to check exchange of ideas and to enhance the penal character of the settlement so that it could be considered as next to capital punishment.

The construction was carried out by the prisoners deported from the main land. Building material was brought in from Burma. The accommodation for the officers including Jailor and Assistant Jailors was provided within the building. The individual cells in the Jail are placed in one row along the 4’ wide verandah running the whole length of every wing. Each cell measures 13 1/2 ‘x 7’, secured by a heavy iron grill door with specially designed latch system. Confinement in the small cells gave this facility its name ‘Cellular Jail’. About 20,000 cubic feet of local stone and 30,00,000 bricks made by prisoners were used to construct the jail. The infrastructure for hard labour such as Iron grills, chains, fetters, shackles, flogging stands, and oil mills was brought from England.

Other than isolation, the work quotas given to these prisoners were frequently impossible to complete within the time and the dire punishment followed for those who failed to meet them. Often punishment was inhuman. Torture and flogging were frequently resorted to on iron triangular frame, bar fetters, crossbar fetters and neck ring shackle, leg iron chains and gunny bag uniforms, unhygienic diet were other deterrents for those who refused to submit to the brutal wardens. No cells in the Cellular Jail had toilet facilities. The punishment varied from handcuffs for a week and fetters for six months to solitary confinement. Remoteness and terror of the facility gave it a name, ‘Kala Pani’ (Black waters).

Distressed prisoners in Cellular Jail frequently rebelled against the tyranny of the jail officials. Mass hunger strikes were resorted to especially between 1932 and 1937. The last strike began in July 1937 continued for 45 day. The strike was terminated only on the intervention of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. The Government decided to close down the penal settlement and all the political prisoners of Cellular Jail were repatriated to their respective states on mainland India by January 1938.

The Japanese occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during World War II from 1942 to 1945. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose visited Cellular Jail as Head of the Provisional Government of India on 29th December 1943. He called it, Indian Bastille.

The four out of original seven wings of the Jail had to be demolished after the damage during the earthquake in 1941. After Independence in 1947, many of the erstwhile political prisoners visited the islands. Their association - "Ex-Andaman Political Prisoner's Fraternity Circle" put up a proposal to preserve remaining three wings. Then, Cellular Jail was declared a National Memorial by the then Prime Minister of India on 11th February 1979.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Cellular Jail was constructed during the phase in Indian history when the discontent against the British rule was on rise which was evident through the various civil movements all over India. The colonial rulers were making desperate attempts to suppress the freedom spirit. They resorted to penal hardships which involved complete isolation on the remote area like Andaman along with the brutal physical tortures and brutal punishments as one of the ways to crush these uprisings. This isolation from each other as well as from the main land was intended to repress nationalist feelings amongst the prisoners and the people rebelling in mainland India.

In Cellular Jail, extreme solitary confinement of every prisoner was achieved through the layout based on ‘Separate System’. The influence of ‘Panopticon’ theory on the architecture of the Jail allowed British rulers to keep effective surveillance on the large number of inmates with less number of guards. The design based on the combination of the concepts involving isolation and effective surveillance through minimum labors resulted in the dreaded penal facility on the remote island to further isolate whoever attempted jeopardize British colonial rule in India in order to stop exchange of nationalist ideas. Infrastructure employed for physical hardships like gunny bag uniforms, working on kolhu (oil mill) as well as execution room, fetters, crossbar fetters, neck ring shackle and leg iron chains as part of brutal punishments points out to the inhuman treatment given to the prisoners. Such was the terror of the facility that it became famous as ‘Kala Pani’.

The three wings of Cellular Jail which stand today symbolize its sombre history as a dreaded prison known for excruciating hardships forced on political prisoners to suppress the freedom movement although it was used for less than half a century since its conception. Distressed prisoners rebelled against these inhuman treatments through mass hunger strikes eventually resulted in closure of the Jail. Despite of the number of restrictions through design and torture, the site became the symbol of nationalist expression against the discontentment against the colonial British rulers.

Criteria (iv): The design of Cellular Jail which included seven (now 3 standing) wings radiating from the central tower containing 698 cells as well as remains of execution room, fetters, crossbar fetters, neck ring shackle and leg iron chains bears the testimony to the ways of extreme solitary confinement and physical hardships that were resorted to suppress the Indian freedom movement by British colonial rulers. The jail became infamous for the inhuman treatment meted out to the inmates by the jail officials which was reinforced through the architecture based on the Separate System and Panopticon theories.

Criteria (vi): TheCellular Jail was designed to incarcerate the political prisoners in utter isolation to prevent exchange of ideas in order to suppress the increasing discontent against British Government in India. The isolation and hardships inflicted upon these inmates failed to curb down the freedom spirit and had to be closed down. The stories of atrocities against the inmates in Cellular Jail became stories of freedom struggle. They took no time to spread all over India and contributed to the nationalists sentiments against colonial rulers. The direct association of Cellular Jail with Indian Freedom struggle has been significant in the independence of India and establishment of the largest democracy in the world.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity: The remaining three wings of the Cellular Jail retain the architectural features such individual cells located along the gallery, central tower for the surveillance as well as fetters, crossbar fetters, neck ring shackle and leg iron chains, enforcing the sombre history of extreme solitary confinement, physical hardships and brutal punishment inflicted upon by the colonial rulers to suppress the Indian Freedom struggle.

Integrity: The four out of original seven wings of the Jail had to be demolished following the damage due to the earthquake in 1941.  After Independence in 1947, due to the efforts of “Ex-Andaman Political Prisoner's Fraternity Circle" the Government of India declared remaining three wings and a central watch tower as a National Memorial. Since then, it has been protected by Union Territory Administration of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Regular maintenance efforts are carried out by Andaman Public Works Department under the technical guidance of Archaeological Survey of India to ensure the integrity of the structure.

Comparison with other similar properties

A massive three storeyed structure of Cellular Jail was constructed to incarcerate political prisoners in isolation and physical hardships in order to suppress freedom struggle against British colonial rulers.

Comparison for Cellular Jail can be drawn from similar facilities developed during same region of erstwhile British Empire where comparable ideology and methods behind the rule were prevalent. World Heritage sites of Robben Island, South Africa and Australian Convict Sites present comparable examples for Cellular Jail as they were also based on the concept of isolation of inmates. However, Robben Island comprises a cluster including a leper colony, an administrative area and churches other than the high security prison for political, military prisoners and criminals; while Australian Convict Sites present examples of large-scale convict transportation to remote area which led to colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts.

In other global comparisons, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, USA presents a comparable example for Cellular Jail. Architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary is based on the principles of Separate System and also influenced by Panopticon theory similar to the planning of Cellular Jail. Both the structures followed same design principles barring few infrastructural changes such as Eastern State Penitentiary had toilet facilities inside cells unlike Cellular Jail. Also, sheer scale of the Cellular Jail exceeds that of the Eastern State Penitentiary.

There are no sites at national level that are comparable to Cellular Jail.