Tag Archives: Kurusudai islands

Celebrating the festival of Love and lights at Varkala

Solo tripping during Deepavali has somehow been a ritual that has caught on to me since 2015. In 2019, I was out in Kerala. I was going to spend three days at a place considered somewhat to be a hippie destination. Train tickets were sold out and hence, I boarded an evening bus from Bengaluru. After a long journey, I alighted at Kollam on the following morning, from where I got a passenger train ride to my destination: Varkala Sivagiri.

The itinerary for three days is as follows:
Day 1: Janardhan Swamy temple visit, Lazing and hippying around the cliff and the Varkala Promenade
Day 2: Golden island, Sivagiri Mutt, Ajengo Fort, Varkala Light house and Munroe island
Day 3: Kappil beach

The Story:
It was a pleasant train journey along a scenic route. I had a nice Kerala breakfast at a restaurant across the railway station and then followed google maps to the hostel that I had booked online. I did not mind the long walk to the hostel that was located close to the famous ‘Cliff point’. I always consider walking as an opportunity to explore the streets and get acquainted with any place that I visit. After checking in at the hostel and freshening up, I headed out to visit the ancient Janardhan Swamy temple. After offering my prayers, I walked back to spend the rest of the day at the beach.

While I was walking along the beach and silently enjoying the romance of my feet with the waves, I noticed a woman (in her sixties, which she later mentioned during our conversation) walking on the beach too. With a smile on her face, she was enjoying her lone time. But at the same time, she seemed to be struggling with something. I felt as if she wanted to mingle with the people around there, she wanted to get herself photographed, but something was holding her back. I smiled at her and she smiled in return. I offered to take her photo and she was glad. Eventually as I spoke to her, I realized that she wanted to socialize with the locals but was struggling with the language. She was French and couldn’t speak neither the local language nor English.

As I spoke slowly, she translated it on her phone and communicated back with me through the mobile phone translator. we had become good friends by the next hour. She mentioned to me that she was in India to help herself with the loss of her husband and was accompanied by a friend who had traveled all the way only to be by her side. She was in Varkala since a month and was staying at her cousin’s house who was married to a localite. She was learning Yoga and aromatherapy and was keen on buying good incense sticks from India. She walked me along the entire beach and showed me around the marketplace. She then sought my help to negotiate with a local vendor to buy her a ‘Hapi pan’, a musical instrument that she had been eyeing since the past month that she had been living there.

A demonstration of playing the hand pan/ Hapi pan by the vendor

I managed to get it for her at almost half the price that he had quoted to this ‘Foreigner’ and I can’t explain how happy she was with her new possession. She then walked me down the cliff, laid down her shawl on the ground and sat me down. She started to play her musical instrument and it was a sight to see the sparkle of happiness in her eyes. Sometimes, these little things of bringing joy in others’ life means EVERYTHING!

My friend enjoying her time with the happy pan (Image blurred intentionally)

Post sunset, she walked me till my hostel and bid goodbye with a REALLY tight hug! She said she was extremely glad that she had met me and asked me to join her at the Yoga classes on the following morning if I had time. “The morning recitation of the Shlokas by the beach is my favorite time of the day” she said. I informed her of my plans of exploring other places around Varkala and that I wouldn’t be able to meet her. I gave her my phone number to get in touch if she needed any help and we both parted.

It was a night of celebration at the hostel. The hostel had people from various corners of India and the world and were all dressed up in traditional Indian wear. The premises were decorated with diyas and rangolis. It was a special Diwali, for sure 😊

My visit to the Golden island

The following morning, I hired an auto rickshaw and did a quick visit to the Sivagiri Mutt and the fort before heading towards Ponnumthuruttu. Fondly called as the Golden Island, it is a protected forest area reachable only by boat. It has a few ancient temples and it reminds me much in line of ‘Devarakaadu’ or sacred groves in my hometown. It was indeed a pleasant ride. Apart from the auto driver and the boatman, I was the only other person in the boat, in the island and hence had the blissful time with nature. Although I had plans of taking a boat ride in the nearby Munroe island at Sunset, I later decided to stay back in Varkala itself. By evening, I returned to the cliff again at sunset time. Believe me when I say, the BEST Diwali of my life was in that day’s evening sky. It was a riot of colours.

The sunset from Varkala cliff on Deepavali 2019

After the sun sank into the horizon completely, I decided to treat myself with some nice sea food. It is one of those strange moments when you are made to feel at home in an unknown land. As I was strolling along the promenade, undecisive of which restaurant to go, I heard someone say: “Akkayya, ninga Kodagu-l elli?” in a male voice. In my mother tongue, that translates to: “Sister, which part of Kodagu do you belong to?” I was astonished and surprised for a moment. We got talking and he said he belonged to a native tribe from Kodagu, settled in Varkala. He had been working at a restaurant there since several years. On being asked how he recognized me to be a Kodavati, he pointed out at my unique Kodava facial features. That was SOMETHING for me to hear now! He volunteered to choose the lobsters and the crab for me from the aquarium, got me a beach-facing-candle-lit table and served the best sea platter I had tasted in a while. It is one of those overwhelming evenings of my life. All time for myself on a Solo-date-dinner night and still made to feel at home by a random person.

My sea view dinner table at Varkala

The next morning, I headed to the beach to grab some English breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised when my French friend and her friend, both arrived at the same restaurant. We three conversed on a multitude of topics and spent good long time together. While the two of them later dispersed, I stayed back at the restaurant waiting for a friend who was riding down from Kochi to meet me. On his arrival, I walked up to settle my restaurant bill at the counter. The cashier said: “No madam, your bill is already settled.” I was amused and told him that I had been eating until now and hadn’t left my table. So, he informed me that a foreigner lady had paid for my orders. There I was, in yet another overwhelming situation. My French friend had paid for my share of the bill too.

Kappil beach

My friend and I then commenced our ride towards Kappil beach, situated on the outskirts of Varkala. It is one of the finest beach side roads I have been to. Somehow, I drew parallels with Maravanthe beach in coastal Karnataka. But moving away from the highway, my friend took me to some deep hidden jewel of locations. I guess it would be fair to call this as my 4th best part of the same trip. Some amazing places can be explored only by hanging out with the locals. He is a Malayali and knowing the offbeat locations enable me to experience one of the craziest bike rides of my life. We drove several kilometers LITERALLY along the edge of the world; like the EDGE! Even if the moist soil under our wheel slipped or the rider went slightly off balance, we both would’ve gone along with the sea, beyond the cliff. All this, while riding through poor visibility due to wild shrubs that were standing taller than us. And then, the shrubs opened into yet another beautiful sunset.

Upon return to Varkala, I picked up some incense sticks with essential oils and dropped them off as souvenirs to my French friend at the Yoga center (A surprise that she would receive only the following morning, after I was gone). Then, I did a quick check out from the hostel and boarded the night train back to Bengaluru. The train route is for yet another post, someday!

My Deepawali of 2019 was all about spreading love and feeling loved. How often have you got lucky and overwhelmed with warm experiences during travel? And how often has it been multiple times on the same trip?

Kurusudai island- A new world off Indian coast

Fisheries, Coastal police, wildlife conservation NGOs.. We have dialed any random and all possible numbers to get clarity and the permission to go to the Kurusudai island.. Thanks to Madhu, with a struggle for over a month to get permission from the authorities- the right phone number struck,  and we finally pulled it off… 🙂 Kurusudai is one among the 21 islands in the gulf of Mannar and a site of importance in research due to its rich marine bio reserves.

Gulf of Mannar marine national park area
Gulf of Mannar marine national park area

So, our last day at Rameshwaram- Our destination ahead was fixed 🙂 An early morning bus from Pamban dropped us half way till Manimandapam. From there, a rickshaw ride took us to Vivekananda memorial hall where the 2 forest guides, the oarsman and the motorboat were all waiting for us 🙂 without wasting much time, our boat set sail.. We could see Kurusudai island at a kilometer’s distance across the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Mannar. We had to contain our excitement lest be quoted as psychos by the people who accompanied us.

We stepped on land in no time- we were briefed about the island in the information center and were also instructed not to use our cameras for any sort of photography. There are nearly 3600 marine species spread around 10,500sq.kms of the marine reserve. 117 coral species, 13 mangrove species, 460 molluscan species and 12 species of sea grasses are found here.. A haven for a bird watcher too with over 217 species of birds found here.. And then our guided tour around the island took wings.. or rather.. set sail 🙂

We first sighted a vibrant red star fish seated comfortably on a barrel coral.. But we soon realised.. that echinoderms were the highlight of the walk.. about 100 species of echinoderms are found in this marine reserve. Sea urchins, Sea potatoes, Sea cookies(sand dollar, snapper biscuit, pansy shell, sea biscuit, sand disc, sand cake, cake urchin and sea pancake are other common names given for these relatively shy invertebrates), sea cucumbers (of varying colours and sizes)  dotted the entire shoreline of the island.. Sea lotus of different colours was another highlight of the walk.. We saw the marine plant- Pemphis acidula- an endemic plant to this area. The sea grass(Enhalus acuroidus) is another plant endemic to these reserves found abundantly all around. However, we were more keen on spotting the  Balanoglossus(Ptychodera flura)- which happens to be the only living fossil in the world which links vertebrates and invertebrates; endemic to this area as well.. However, our guide could not understand what we were trying to ask due to the language barrier of Tamil:(

Since it was low tide, we could walk into the sea- all along the shore where an infinite range of sea weeds, multi-hued reefs and sea grasses spread over the shallow bed of the sparkling water brightened up the entire ambience of the place. From shades of violet to red, the raised coral reefs of the Islands are not only a special attraction of the place but also chart high on the list of marine biologists. We also spotted a notable array of algae, sponges, sea anemones, cowries, volutes, whelks, crabs, strombids, tonnids, sting rays, oysters among others too..

However, in high tides– this island is a good sighting place for the endangered Sea cows(Dugongs) and dolphins(bottle-nosed dolphin, the common dolphin and the finless porpoise). The land is also home to 3 species of turtles which includes the Hawksbill, Green and Olive Ridley turtles. No.. we didn’t sight them… We had to be EXTREMELY LUCKY for that and needed more time(which we were deprived of:( )

However, the main purpose of this blog post…. Tourism is prohibited here and getting permission for a genuine research itself is such a tough deal.. And we really hope that the general public behave themselves when they encounter such rarity of sightings, do not pollute and RESPECT mother nature for the immense amount of patience she beholds and admire the beauty of what she has to offer.. it really hurts when we find even a small candy wrapper sailing or flying up in the otherwise clean atmosphere where so many other genuinely interested people put in their hearts and souls in the conservation activities. What we give only comes back.. Give respect and take respect.. If not, nature has her own ways to take a toll on all the disrespect..!!

Offbeat Places to Visit in Rameshwaram on a Weekend

This was a destination that my friend and I had been contemplating to travel for some time. The trip turned into certainty only when my friend had the confirmed tatkal tickets in her hands after a wait of over an hour in the queue at the railway station. Then on the following evening, the two of us commenced our weekend journey towards Rameswaram by boarding our train from Bengaluru cantonment station to Madurai. We had a few important things to check-off on our small list for places to see and things to do at Rameswaram. Since the travel tickets were confirmed in the last moment, we had barely any time to make hotel reservations. We decided to go there and find something for ourselves.

Our Itinerary:

Day 0: Evening train to Madurai from Bengaluru Cantonment railway station.
Day 1: Arrival at Rameswaram and visit to Ramanathaswamy temple (TNSRTC bus from Madurai to Rameswaram)
Day 2: Visit to Dhanushkodi (Local bus from Rameswaram to Dhanushkodi), Rameswaram local sightseeing (hire an autorickshaw for half day), Sunset & Beach walk near Pamban bridge.
Day 3: Visit to Kurusudai islands (Local bus to Vivekananda Mandapam & hire a local boat from there to reach Kurusudai islands), Return to Pamban boat jetty; Return to Bangalore (Train to Madurai & change train from Madurai to Bangalore).

The details:

Day 1– Arrival at Rameswaram and visit to Ramanathaswamy temple

The train reached Madurai by 7.20.a.m. After freshening up at the station itself, we left for our main destination. The TNSRTC buses are quite frequent and it took us a journey of 3.5 hours to reach Rameswaram. Enroute, we passed through Ramanathapuram- the last stretch of mainland India. Once we reached Mandapam, the entry point to the island town of Rameswaram, we had our excitement running at its peak. For the next 15minutes, our bus was cruising over the bow shaped road bridge that oversaw the famous Pamban rail bridge. Pamban bridge is an edifice of engineering that is still standing strong on its 100th year in commissioning. This is a bridge that would connect us to the other side of the land, to a town that would host hundreds of stories from the Ramayana during our stay there, over the next couple of days.

After arriving at the Rameswaram bus stand, we noticed the tourist office that stood right opposite. We wanted to try our chance to get permission to the Kurusudai island and hence, registered our names as tourists in their logbook. This island is a protected area and we had tried hard to get permission for our visit even before starting our trip. Though indirectly, our random chance visit to the tourist office in fact helped us BIG time (Click here to read the story in detail).

Lord Rama is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Then, why is the city named after Eshwar? It is important to know at least this while you are there in Rameswaram. Here goes the story… Ravana, (a Brahmin) was a devotee of Lord Shiva (aka Eswaran). On performing penance, Ravana was blessed with a boon by Shiva such that- anyone who tried to harm Ravana would face Brahma dosha. Further, during the war between Rama & Ravana, Rama (a Kshatriya) killed Ravana who then happened to face the wrath of the dosha. Rama then, had to perform pooja to Shiva, the only one who could help him out of the dosha. Here, Eswaran helped Rama. Thus, the name to the town- Rameshwar. I was told that there is a similar story for a town called Ravaneshwar in Lanka.

We walked towards the temple road, roamed around a bit and finally checked into a decent looking hotel close to the main temple. After freshening up, we headed to the main landmark of this pilgrim town, Sri Ramanathaswamy temple. The world’s fifth largest monolithic Nandi statue guards the entrance of this temple. We were overwhelmed to walk across the longest temple corridor in the world and felt blessed after bathing in the water from the 22 sacred wells on the temple. Since it was quite a tiring day due to all the traveling, we decided to sleep early as we had a long day of exploration on the itinerary, next.

Day 2: Exploring Dhanushkodi and local sightseeing at Rameswaram

On the following day, it was Holi: The festival of colors. We were sitting at the Agnitheertham beach at 4.30.a.m watching hundreds of devotees taking a holy dip in the sea. But we were waiting for something else. We were waiting to welcome a day that would unfold with a palette of the best colors that nature could show. Although the wait was long, it was only by 07.00.a.m. when we witnessed what is by far, one of the best sunrises we had seen till date.

Sunrise viewed from Agnitheertham beach
Sunrise viewed from Agnitheertham beach

We boarded a bus from there to Dhanushkodi- The ghost city. Although a visit to Dhanushkodi was one of the most awaited part of the trip, it was not our best. From all the stories and experiences, we had imagined of Dhanushkodi, we had expected to need at least one full day there. It is a place that we wanted to explore and not run through which can be best done only if one had a vehicle at his / her own disposal. However, we were at the mercy of public transportation on this budget trip. Like all visitors or “tourists” who had come down there, we too had to settle for a tour of this deserted city in one of the local tourist buses. A round trip was completed in about 3hours with a cost of 100Rs per head not satiating our need to see more of this abandoned town.

  • Apart from the few main structures and temples (old railway station, church, temple of the floating stone, etc.) that you would see during your tour package(local bus), a few other things that you can do during your trip to Dhanushkodi are:
    • A walk through the waters of the Bay of Bengal till the Kodandaramasamy temple is a must do. The water level never goes above your knees.
    • The Ramasetu or the Sethusamudram is something that can be visualized if you have a proper guide with you.
    • A drive on the asphalt road that stretches up to Dhanushkodi is something to die for. With the calm Bay of Bengal on one side and the rough Arabian sea on the other, the drive is every traveler’s delight.
    • On your return, you can cover Jada Teertha & Nambu Nayagiamman temple (both located at just a couple of kms before Dhanushkodi.
Ruins of the old church
Ruins of the old church

One hour up on our watches and we were back in the main town. We settled a deal for Rs.250 with an autorickshaw guy who would take us on a quick visit of the major places around the town. Some of the places thus covered include:

• Gandaparvatham / Rama paadam- the highest point in the island town from where one can catch a good view of the scenery around.
• Sugriva Teertha (a small pond)
• Saatchi Hanuman temple
• Bhadrakali Amman temple
• Rama Teertha
• Krishna temple
• Lakshmana Teertha
• Five-faced Hanuman temple- The floating stones used for the construction of Rama Sethu can be seen here as well.
• The house of former President of India, his honor: A.P.J. Abdul Kalam- It is now converted into a museum.

Sri Rama theertham
Sri Rama theertham

An interesting thing we noticed in the architectural style of all the structures in Rameswaram was that with the Ramanathaswamy temple being an exception, all the other temples that I have mentioned above are typically built in the Nagara style of architecture. Having covered Rama, Sugriva and Lakshmana teertha, we were curious to enquire if there was a ‘Sita Teertha’ too. Our guide cum autorickshaw driver nodded and brought us to a place on the highway. And to our dismay, he pointed to a small tank by the roadside. It was filled with green stagnant water and a good mosquito breeding ground. “Damn…!! this patriarchal Indian society…!!” I exclaimed.

We were done with local sightseeing by early evening, and still had a LOT of time left until sunset. Standing on the road bridge and peeking down at the train tug over the century old engineering marvel- Pamban was a sight not to be missed. So, we decided to head towards Pamban bridge.

Once we saw a train pass over it, we decided to stroll around a small fishing hamlet that we just across the street. We got some good clicks of the Pamban from the boat jetty in this fishing hamlet. While straying around there, my eyes fell on the light house that was located a few meters across the village. We asked for directions and reached there in less than half and hours’ time. While we waited for the gates to the lighthouse to open, we tagged along with a few kids, our new friends at the fishermen’s cove. With the kids excited to converse in English with us, we did so while taking a walk further down to the seashore. With a magnificent view of the sun setting in the backdrop of the Pamban in the distant end, we settled down under the shade of a mangrove tree until the sun went down completely.

The sunset from the fishermen's cove
The sunset from the fishermen’s cove

It was soon dark, and we had to head back to the temple road for a safer crowd. We bought some peanuts masala from the vendor on the seashore and found a comfortable seat for ourselves to catch some peaceful time. It was a full moon night.

On that wonderful day: We had seen the faint horizon emerge out from the pitch darkness of the sky that brightened into broad daylight with a series of color change and then the white sky of the day fade into the black of the night … And again, the night’s sky was lit up by the beautiful full moon… Yes… We had witnessed one COMPLETE day…

Full moon lit night sky as seen from the Agnitheertham boat jetty
Full moon lit night sky as seen from the Agnitheertham boat jetty

Day 3: Visit to Kurusudai island and return to Bengaluru

Based on some local contacts, we had got a last-minute permit to visit the Kurusudai island. As per the directions given, we had to check out early and catch the 8.00.a.m bus from Akka-Madang to Vivekananda memorial hall. Our boat was waiting for us with the guide to take us to another world- A world of exotic marine animals- ‘the Kurusudai island ‘. (A more elaborate article on this visit can be read by clicking here). To sum up- “We were lucky to get there”.

From Kurusudai island, we got dropped at the Pamban boat jetty. Our boat was anchored somewhere amid hundred other boats and hence, we had to walk across through knee deep sea water to get to the shore. This walking experience was unique in its own way as one doesn’t get such a sight in any other boat jetty. We had to place every step of ours’ so carefully that we did not want to accidentally step on and kill the in-numerous star fishes or sea cucumbers that were lying on the shore bed.

We walked further up to the Pamban railway station and bought our tickets for the 12.00. O’clock train to Madurai. And soon the train arrived. We boarded and our hearts were pounding hard with excitement. We had bought tickets for a train…. A train to Madurai which would actually ply over the Pamban bridge, an experience that we were waiting to live through. It was an even special ride since it was a journey over the historical Pamban bridge on its 100th year of existence. We couldn’t ask for more…!!!

View of the bow shaped road bridge from the Pamban bridge
View of the bow shaped road bridge from the Pamban bridge

In 4 hours, we alighted at the Madurai junction… But yeah, even as I was wondering how everything went so fine through this entire trip, the surprise was waiting for us at the station- our train to Bengaluru would arrive 3hours late. And what followed is… history.

Have you visited Rameswaram? What was the purpose of your visit, Pilgrimage, family vacation or backpacking? What is your story from your visit? I would be excited to hear from you!