India wakes to find the millennium dawns on its doorstep

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NEWS THAT the first sunrise of the next millennium will not be out in the Pacific somewhere, but over a small tropical island in the far south of the Bay of Bengal, has come as something of a shock to the Indian authorities.

On Monday the new Minister of Tourism, Uma Bharati, said that "elaborate plans were being made to attract people to Katchall island, which Greenwich Observatory has recognised as being the first place in the world where the sunrise of the new millennium will occur.

But Katchall rang no bells with Delhi travel agents. "Where?" said one. "You might be able to get there," said another. "But I don't think it's been marketed enough - and it's too late to market it now."

Experts from Greenwich confirm that, if the millennium starts at zero hours GMT, the first sunrise must be where the Sun is rising at that exact moment. This encompasses half of a great circle running from eastern Russia through China, across the Bay of Bengal and on towards the Antarctic Circle. On its passage through the Bay of Bengal the line alights, at precisely the right time, on the island of Katchall in the Nicobar chain.

For the truly intrepid, then, Katchall, though entering late into the millennium race, would seem to be the destination of choice. Travellers can get most of the way there without much fuss; the round trip from Delhi to Port Blair, capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with an overnight stop in Calcutta, costs $800 (pounds 500).

From Port Blair to Katchall is 230 nautical miles and, although the travel trade disclaims much knowledge of it, India's director general of tourism, Ashok Pradha, said: "We have made arrangements for at least seven ships to sail to Katchall to bring visitors to have a look at the first sunrise of the millennium."

The ships are important because, although visitors will be able to see Katchall and the Sun's rays falling on it, they will not be allowed to disembark. Katchall is more than 12 miles in circumference and contains rubber plantations, but foreigners are banned from setting foot on all the Nicobar islands, for unknown reasons.

Port Blair, from where the ships will sail, would itself make a distinctively different place to celebrate the millennium, or at least to wish good riddance to the one just finishing.

The tribal residents of the chain have been decimated by the usual Western menaces of Christianity, syphilis and deforestation.

The eponymous Lieutenant Blair sailed here in 1777, instructed to set up a penal colony, but was defeated by disease and lack of food and water. On the third attempt, in 1858, the colony was established, and Port Blair's only historical monument is the grim Cellular Jail, a classic panopticon (completed in 1905) where prisoners could be kept under constant surveillance.

Thousands of Indian freedom fighters suffered in the hideous conditions and many died. When the Japanese invaded in the Second World War they carried on the work.

Diversions are offered by Andaman's many tribal groups, including the Andamanese, exceptional in that they never discovered fire-making, and the Jarawa, who sing and dance at each full moon and, "in apparent friendliness", as a recent guide book puts it, "fart in the face of the visitors".