Paradise at the Edge of Empire
There is a grand ballroom in the Bay of Bengal, a marvellous expanse of ornate, inlaid tiles and stone that once brought pleasure, entertainment and a little of England to a distant outpost of the British Raj. Today, the mirror finish and the parties of officers and their wives who glided across it, are almost a hundred years gone. The tiles, cracked and bleached under the tropical sun, barely indicate the grand proportions through the leaf litter and palm fronds. Hidden and unused, it lies on a low island, now overgrown and unremarkable against a backdrop of crystal sea and distant jungled shore.
Once the garrison of the Andaman Islands’ penal colony, Ross Island is now a ghostly reminder of British rule in India. Perhaps fifty buildings are scattered across the small island – Victorian residences, an officers’ and sergeants’ mess, stables and store houses, all connected with elegant stone walkways, promenades and staircases. A village chapel crowns the island’s low hill, serene with its roof decaying on the broken floor, the cloisters full of birds’ nests. Growing through the broken spire, a huge banyan tree forms an enormous umbrella over the moss and lichen-covered building. The jungle has reclaimed the island, each structure consumed by massive trees, thick tentacles of creepers and vines strangling the crumbling structures. The roots, like bunched muscles, slowly grow and flex in a macabre silence.
Across a shallow bay in what is now Port Blair, the bustling harbour and capital of the Andamans, is the prison – the infamous Cellular Jail. Almost elegant in its picturesque setting of palm trees, frangipane and harbour vistas, it is the final resting place of many of India’s freedom fighters. Today the Raj and its prison system is a distant memory, the jail a nationalistic attraction to the mainly Indian tourists who attend its nightly light shows and who picnic amongst the relics of Ross Island.