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A Trip to India's Biggest Union Territory

November 2008
A Trip to India's Biggest Union Territory

India’s biggest union territory in terms of size, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, is also the farthest from the mainland. Chandigarh, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman & Diu, Lakshadweep, and Pondicherry complete the list of union territories—which, unlike India’s 27 states, are directly ruled by the central government. Delhi, now part of the National Capital Region (NCR), is no longer classified as a union territory, although the central government still partly controls it.

Humans inhabit only 38 out of the 572 Andaman & Nicobar Islands. In 2001, according to census figures, the population was 356,152. The native tribes include the Great Andamanese, Jarawas, Sentinelese, Onges and Shompens. Recently, a study by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology showed that these indigenous people are the descendants of Africans who migrated about 65,000-70,000 years ago.

Known as the Emerald Islands, this union territory forms an arcing, unbroken chain in the Bay of Bengal. Following the Sepoy Uprising of 1857, the British set up a penal colony here for Indian rebels. The first colonial prison came up on Viper Island in the Andamans, but it was Cellular Jail in Port Blair, the capital, that became the most notorious. Tourism, agriculture and handicrafts are the mainstays of the economy today. The principal languages spoken are Nicobarese, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu. Though most people are Hindu, there are substantial Christian and Muslim populations.

Did you know that India’s only active volcano is on Barren Island in the Andamans?

The devastating tsunami of 2004 killed about 6,000 people in these parts. Now that the economy has made some progress, tourists are back, especially for the picturesque—and largely unspoiled—beaches. Middle Andaman Island is the biggest landmass, while Ross Island in the Andamans is less than a square kilometer. The winter months, particularly January, are a festive time of the year. Apart from the Subhash and Vivekananda Melas to commemorate two important anniversaries, there is an Island Tourism Festival and a Block Mela that highlights rural life. The well-known Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park sprawls over 15 islands and the surrounding water.

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