The Cellular Jail, also known as Kālā Pānī was a colonial prison in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India. The prison was used by the British especially to exile political prisoners to the remote archipelago. Many notable dissidents such as Batukeshwar Dutt and Veer Savarkar, among others, were imprisoned here during the struggle for India’s independence. Today, the complex serves as a national memorial monument.
Although the prison complex itself was constructed between 1896 and 1906, the British had been using the Andaman islands as a prison since the days in the immediate aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.
Shortly after the rebellion was suppressed, the British executed many rebels. Those who survived were exiled for life to the Andamans to prevent their re-offending. Two hundred rebels were transported to the islands under the custody of the jailer David Barry and Major James Pattison Walker, a military doctor who had been warden of the prison at Agra. Another 733 from Karachi arrived in April, 1868. In 1863, the Rev. Henry Fisher Corbyn, of the Bengal Ecclesiastical Establishment, was also sent out there and he set up the ‘Andamanese Home’ there, which was also a repressive institution albeit disguised as a charitable one. Rev. Corbyn was posted in 1866 as Vicar to St. Luke’s Church, Abbottabad, and later died there and is buried at the Old Christian Cemetery, Abbottabad. More prisoners arrived from India and Burma as the settlement grew. Anyone who belonged to the Mughal royal family, or who had sent a petition to Bahadur Shah Zafar during the Rebellion was liable to be deported to the islands.
By the late 19th century the independence movement had picked up momentum. As a result, the number of prisoners being sent to the Andamans grew and the need for a high-security prison was felt. From August 1889 Charles James Lyall served as home secretary in the Raj government, and was also tasked with an investigation of the penal settlement at Port Blair.He and A. S. Lethbridge, a surgeon in the British administration, concluded that the punishment of transportation to the Andaman Islands was failing to achieve the purpose intended and that indeed criminals preferred to go there rather than be incarcerated in Indian jails. Lyall and Lethbridge recommended that a “penal stage” should exist in the transportation sentence, whereby transported prisoners were subjected to a period of harsh treatment upon arrival. The outcome was the construction of the Cellular Jail, which has been described as “a place of exclusion and isolation within a more broadly constituted remote penal space.
The construction of the prison started in 1896 and was completed in 1906. The original building was a puce-colored brick building. The bricks used to build the building were brought from Burma.
The building had seven wings, at the centre of which a tower served as the intersection and was used by guards to keep watch on the inmates; this format was based on Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon. The wings radiated from the tower in straight lines, much like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. A large bell was kept in the tower to raise an alarm.
Each of the seven wings had three stories upon completion. There were no dormitories and a total of 693 cells. Each cell was 4.5 by 2.7 metres (14.8 ft × 8.9 ft) in size with a ventilator located at a height of 3 metres (9.8 ft). The name, “cellular jail”, derived from the solitary cells which prevented any prisoner from communicating with any other. Also, the spokes were so designed such that the face of a cell in a spoke saw the back of cells in another spoke. This way, communication between prisoners was impossible. They were all in solitary confinement.