Rock Talk

“You must take a walk to Kala Pathar”, said the General Manager of our hotel in Port Blair. “Just keep walking though, don’t stop. Otherwise the leeches get you”, he added casually. His insouciance made me hesitant about this parasite laden path. But his next statement was intriguing. “It’s a rock from where the prisoners used to be thrown down to their death.” It sounded morbid.  But the torture and soul crushing cruelty meted out to prisoners in Port Blair in pre-Independence India is an integral part of the area’s dark history.  There is not too much information online about Kala Pathar, but some accounts mention this grisly punishment being meted out to British supporters by the Japanese, who occupied the Andaman Islands for a few years during World War II. Leeches baying for blood and captives being plunged to their death – a 5 kilometre walkway of veritable cheer.  But the setting for this morose sounding trail is in a beautiful part of the Andaman islands – the Mount Harriet National Park.

It’s a short ride from Port Blair aboard a busy ferry packed with cars; auto rickshaws with ladies who
stay seated within as they continue excited conversations from shore to shore; and impatient two wheelers who zoom ahead as soon as the ferry pulls in. Mount Harriet National Park is a glistening emerald mound, 47 square kilometres of dense forests, sandy beaches and brimming with exotic wildlife and flora. Crowning the park is Mount Harriet at 343 metres, the 3rd highest peak in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, with sweeping views over the lush forest to Port Blair, Ross Island and Havelock Island. The erstwhile summer headquarters of the Chief Commissioner during the British Raj, the park is named after Harriet Tytler. She was the wife of Robert Christopher Tytler, a British army officer who was appointed Superintendent of the Convict Settlement at Port Blair in the Andamans from April 1862 to February 1864. The Tytlers are remembered for a collection of their photographs of various sites in Delhi, Lucknow and Kanpur after the Indian Rebellion and Harriet’s memoir, “An Englishwoman in India”. The peak is a pleasant enough touristy bit to tick off your list when exploring the area. There
is a circular 360 degree revolving anti-aircraft gun, built by the British; elevated viewpoints; a guesthouse; a children’s park and a live view of the image found on the back of the Indian 20 rupee note.

But the best way to experience the park is to trek through it. There are popular trails like the 16 kilometer stretch from Mount Harriet to Madhuban Beach where visitors can traipse through the park’s rich birdlife and flora. Lush and plump in the monsoon rain, the dense forest, fluttering butterflies and chirping birds demand a walk about to enjoy the tropical scenery. An arched entrance points to the start of the 2.5 kilometer (one way) trail to Kala Pathar.  A smaller upright sign warns entrants that it is a ‘leech
prone zone’ – the rhyming words lending a frivolity to this cautionary note. It is advisable to not mull over this too long.  Just pull up your socks, quite literally as you don’t want to make it easy for those slimy suckers to get to you, and get walking.

The trail is well trodden, carpeted with leaves and twigs and after the bright open sky on Mount Harriet, walkers are shadowed by a dense canopy of trees. It’s a peaceful and calm pathway, a few butterflies flutter by, and crickets and birds chirp in the hanging branches. There is a sense of profundity and secrecy, the air tingling with stories long forgotten within the deep forest.  Though not crowded, a motley stream of people crop up at intervals. A young couple walk closely together, whispering sweet nothings presumably, oblivious to the scenic charms of the forest, but grateful for the cover it provides. A group of burly young men race past, sliding on the sludgy portions, leaving imprints of their clunky sandals (definitely not advisable footwear) for us to follow. Watching them slide, I remember a hurried exchange of texts with a friend the previous night.

“We’re planning a walk in the forest tomorrow to see a rock. And some leeches. Nervous about the latter.”
“Just stuff your socks with lots of salt, you’ll be fine”
“What if they crawl northwards, you know to my hoo ha? ”
“Hmm, I don't know about your hoo ha or boo ba. Just try not to fall, you'll be giving them more surface area to work with. Don’t forget the salt!”
We forgot the salt.

A considerable amount of time was spent stopping, hopping in place, and using sticks and stones and sometimes bare fingers to pull off the little wrigglers. The peaceful air was rent by much squealing and shrieking. Binoculars are a good idea if one wants to cram in some birdwatching, but may not be possible if your single minded agenda is to keep moving. The trail gets narrower and steeper, thick woody vines with serpentine silhouettes flanking the path – the setting reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie! Though the national park is home to various birds, reptiles and animals, they aren’t spotted on our walk, probably because we were thumping loudly along the path to keep the leeches at bay. Unfortunately, my attempt to be casual and steel myself for the onslaught was in vain. Without leech socks or saline defence mechanisms, we decided to abandon the rock and head back. A light breeze rippled through the leaves, almost like the forest was tittering in amusement at my cowardice!
From what I read about Kalapathar, I understand that the trail comes to an end with the appearance of
the large rock – literally a ‘kaala pathar’. In my head, I imaged a deep chasm yawning beneath one side of it. There is mention of graffiti and names etched into the weathered stone by visitors over the years, perhaps left behind by visiting picnickers, trekkers or summer retreating British families. But what about those for whom the rock symbolized a sinister end? I thought of what it must have been like for the prisoners who were brought there. It was the last step for them, before nothingness. In retrospect, it felt really silly to be squealing about leeches!

Back at the peak, as I settled in on a bench to check my socks and shoes, I resolved to return at some point (not the monsoon) to walk along the beautiful trail again and make it to the rock. Whether to whisper a quick blessing for those who met a sad end there, enjoy the deep peace and calm that is sorely missing in our frenetic paced lives, or just to wander and take in the beauty of the forest.  And this time, I won’t forget the salt!  


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