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Cellular Jail ………..LEST WE FORGET!

 LEST WE FORGET………..the Sacrifice, the Endurance, the Architecture

Uploading full text of my write up on Cellular Jail, Port Blair, which has been awarded a  ‘CERTIFICATE of APPRECIATION’ in Architectural Journalism Competition and also finds a mention in World Architecture Community.

A sneak peek into the architecture of CELLULAR JAIL…….

Architecture is not just a structure of bricks and cement but is like a piece of music that influences emotions, conveys feelings, creates an atmosphere where either we flow with its rhythm of being exceptionally beautiful or get perplexed with it being exceptionally arrhythmic.

Architecture is associative with the emotional character it conveys. Buildings trigger our emotions and envelop us in the sense of passion and intensity they behold. A building if ignites the feelings for the purpose it is designed for I would call it no less than a masterpiece. One such masterpiece I experienced which is less talked about is Cellular jail, Port Blair.

As the flight descends over an overwhelming panoramic view of deep blue seas , pristine white beaches and the wheels gurgle, ready to touch the ground my eye catches the board  ‘Veer Savarkar  International airport’.  That very moment, I get inquisitive to know about the legacy of Veer Savarkar and many more who braved the so called ‘Saza – e – kaala pani’.  Yes, the three hour long flight from Chennai brings me to the land of Port Blair, the place which though has unmatched beauty and is a gateway to tranquility for many today, was once a living hell for Indians.

Port Blair, was chosen by the British for establishment of permanent penal settlement for Indian convicts. The idea was germinated in the minds of the British Rulers in 1857 to curb India’s outcry and the First War of Independence. The Cellular Jail, was established as a colonial prison in the city of Port Blair in the Andaman Islands of India. The prison was used by the British especially to exile political leaders & freedom fighter to the remote archipelago. Today, the complex serves as a National Memorial monument and a UNESCO world heritage Centre.

Fig 1: The colonial entrance to the complex

The building Speaks……

The next  morning with the sun shining bright, as I enter the majestic gateway of the famous Cellular Jail better known to me since childhood as ‘kaala pani’, I sense a shiver down my spine, my legs tremble and with each footstep I take, the feeling grows stronger. This was the place where the British Raj had sent Indian dissidents and mutineers to exile and had experimented their endurance inducing torture, stringent medical examinations, solitary confinement, forced labor and death by hanging for whosoever revolted. The sole aim of the British was to break the spirit of the fighters with beatings, torture, insult and hard labour to ensure every Indian dreaded to be pronounced guilty.

The impact of suffering and torture was not just because of the severe rules imposed by the British Sarkar on the inhabitants in the jail but the sheer design, layout and architecture of the complex had a major role to play. The famous quote by Julia Morgan seemed so true there ‘Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves’.

The architecture of Cellular jail is influenced by ‘Panopticon’ 1 theory of radiating wings and was conceptualized on the basis of ‘Pennsylvania System’ 2  in which separate confinement is compulsory for all inhabitants for complete isolation.

The jail could accommodate 700 prisoners, hundred in each wing but post war only three wings and the central core with an alarm bell stands boldly beside the deep oceans.Moving around the strong standing walls, each brick, each pillar and each cell seemed to have a story to tell. The plan of the complex was originally in the form of a huge wheel structure with a central core observation tower and wings radiating from it like spokes of wheel, each constructed with three storeys. The central tower natively known as ‘gomati’  acted as a watch tower as well as an alarm bell to announce an alarm. The guard at the watch tower could keep a watch on all prisoners but the prisoners could not see him.

Fig 2: Side view of one wing from the central tower

FIG 3: Awnings on the ventilator to restrict view

FIG 4 : Front façade with walls at ground floor painted white

The walls of the jail are made of exposed brick work except at the ground floor where they are plastered white. The wings were planned such that no two wings faced each other, the front face of one wing looked upon the back of the next which only had ventilators covered by awnings.

Each wing had cells barred by small metal doorways latched with long iron bolts which went through the thick wall upto around two feet making it  inaccessible. The prison had no dormitories, cells meagerly 4.5 m x 2.7 m with a 6 ft x 2 ft iron barred door and a ventilator where the prisoners were left under solitary confinement.

FIG 5 : Peculiar design of Long iron bolts through the thick walls used as inaccessible latch

Each cell had a ventilator on the rear wall which had a sill level of 3 m which allowed no view for the imprisoned. A 2m wide corridor ran infront of the cells which was again barred by an arched colonnade in the façade.  The metal barred door of each cell was centered in the arch of the façade. Moving from one end of the long corridor at second floor, it seemed as if each arch of the colonnade stood witness to the pain and suffering of its inhabitants.

Each wall seemed to bleed with the sweat and blood of the brave Indian men until I reached the end of the corridor where a double metal barred doorway led to the special cell which bears the name of Veer Savarkar. There stands his picture hung on the wall and the story of his courage, strength and his unshakable spirit. The legendary Vinayak Damodar Savarkar commonly known as Veer Savarkar endured all odds and harsh 

FIG 6 : Veer  Savarkar was imprisoned in this cell from 1911 to 1921 for ten long years

FIG 7 : Blank walls of corridor leading to Veer Savarkar cell

punishments the British forced upon him but his determined belief that India
would gain freedom from this autocratic rule made him survive in total solitary confinement in this cell for a decade.

Such is the architecture and design of the building that it evokes a sense of fear and depression even till today. The bare walls, the peculiar latch system, the restricted line of vision, the play of darkness and dim light in the cells in itself seemed enough to break the toughest of spirits and break the soul of the inhabitants. As Winston Churchill said,  ‘we shape our buildings thereafter they shape us’, the plan of cellular jail was successful in meeting the purpose it was designed  for,  way beyond the imagination of the British. The building is now a UNESCO heritage site with tourists thronging it throughout the year.

FIG 8 : Standing there, I firmly believed that architecture touches our senses and gives us sense of place. These walls speak of the willpower and endurance of our forefathers…..

The judges for the comeptition were:
Prof Krishna Rao Jaisim: Principal Architect Jaisim-Fountainhead
Ar. Pappal Suneja: Freelance Architectural Journalist, India
Ar. Sarbjit Bahga: Chief Architect Bahga Design Studio, Chandigarh
Dr. Gauri N.Shiurkar: Principal, McGAN’S Ooty School of Architecture
Links:Result Winner  ,
https://worldarchitecture.org/
#architecturaljournalism #worldarchitecture #andaman #cellularjail #UNESCO

References:

  • http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5888/
  • All photographs and illustrations – Author
  • Sketches -Author
  • The article also got published in Council of Architecture Monthly Magazine (March’17 issue)

 

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