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..!!

Celebrating 100 years of Pamban bridge at Rameshwaram

The weekend trip turned into certainty only when Madhu had the confirmed tatkal tickets in her hands after over an hour long wait in the queue at the station.. So the next day evening, the all girls’ trip started from cantonment station. We just had a small chit with a list up of places to see.. No room reservations, no other tickets booked.. Totally unplanned.. We wanted to explore 🙂

The train reached Madurai by 7.20.a.m and we freshened up at the station itself.. Left for Rameshwaram by TNSRTC bus which are quite frequent.. 3.5 hrs through and we passed Ramanathapuram- the last stretch of mainland India. We entered Mandapam, the entry point of the island town of Rameshwaram.. 15min further, we couldn’t contain our excitement as our bus was cruising over the bow shaped road bridge overseeing the infamous Pamban rail bridge 🙂 A very very warm welcome to the town that would host 100s of stories from the Ramayana in the next couple of days.. Once, we had safe landed at the bus stand, we registered ourselves at the tourist office that stood right opposite. We wanted to try our chance to get permission to the Kurusudai island. Our visit there did help us BIG time(indirectly though 😉 )

We walked towards the temple road, checked into a decent hotel, freshened up and headed to Sri Ramanathaswamy temple. Lord Sri.Ram is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Then, why is the city’s named after Eshwar? It is important to know atleast this while you are there in Rameswaram. Here goes the story.. Ravana, (a Brahmin) was a devotee of Lord Shiva(aka Eshwar). On performing prayers, he was blessed by Shiva such that- anyone who tried to harm Ravana would face Brahma dosha. During the war between Ram & Ravana, Ram(a Kshatriya) killed Ravana and happened to face the wrath of the dosha. He had to perform pooja to Shiva, the only one who could help him out of it.  Here, Eshwar helped Ram. Thus, the name to the town- Rameshwar. There’s a similar story for a town called Ravaneshwar in Lanka 🙂 The world’s fifth largest monolithic Nandi statue guards the entrance of this temple..  Ok, thus said- 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. It was quite a tiring day due to a lot of traveling. We decided to sleep early as we had a long day tomorrow. 

Next morning- it was Holi day- The festival of colours. 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 colours that nature could show.. 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. Though this part was the most awaited part of the trip, it was a let down by the end.. 100Rs per head for a round trip of the deserted city can be done in 3hrs for a tourist. But, we wanted to explore.. This can be best done if you can drive down in a jeep all for yourself without having to abide by other fellow traveler’s convenience. The road stretch upto Dhanushkodi is to die for.. It is BEAUTIFUL….!! You can do and explore LOT MORE if you have a vehicle at YOUR own disposal..

Ruins of the old church
Ruins of the old church

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 Sethusamudram can only be visualised if you have a proper guide with you. On your way back, you can also cover Jada Theertham & Nambu Nayagiamman temple which are just a couple of kms before Dhanushkodi..

One hour down line the timeline.. We were back in the main town.. an auto guy charged us Rs.250 for a quick round of the places around the town. Gandaparvatham / Rama paadam is the highest point in the island town from where one can catch a good view of the scenery around. Also cover Sugreevar theertham(a small pond), Satchi Hanuman temple, Bhadrakaliamman temple, Rama theertham, Krishna temple, Lakshmana theertham, 5-faced Hanuman temple(The floating stones used for the construction of Rama Sethu can be seen here) are the other places of interest. Except the main temple, rest of the temples are all typically North-Indian in architecture.

Sri Rama theertham
Sri Rama theertham

And we enquired where Sita theertham was.. And to our dismay, the auto driver stopped at a small tank with stagnant green mosquito breeding water body.. “Damn..!! Male dominated Indian soceity…!!” I exclaimed. It was followed by a quick visit to former President, his honour; A.P.J.Abdul Kalam’s house which is now converted into a museum. We were done with local sight seeing by early evening. And we had a LOT of time till sunset.

We headed towards Pamban. Standing on the road bridge and peeking down at the train tug over the century old engineering marvel- Pamban is a sight not to be missed. Once done, we decided to stroll around the fishermen’s village just across. We got some good clicks of the Pamban from the boat jetty. My eyes fell on the light house a few mts across the village. We asked for directions and reached there in less than half and hour’s time while we tagged along some new friends- from the fishermen’s cove. The kids were excited to converse in English with us as we did look foreign to the. Once near the lighthouse, we further walked down to the sea shore from where we got a sight to behold. We settled down there under the shade of a mangrove tree until sunset.

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 seahsore and found a comfortable seat for ourself to catch some peaceful time. It was a full moon night.

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

We saw the faint horizon emerge out from the pitch darkness of the sky that brightened into broad daylight with a series of colour change and then the white sky fade into the black of the night’s sky… And again the night’s sky being lit up by the beautiful full moon… Yes.. We witnessed one COMPLETE day… 🙂

Day 3: 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 totally another world- World of exotic marine animals- ‘the Kurusudai island. This place needs a more elaborate presentation and hence, will be done in my next post. to sum up here- “A MUST VISIT”. From there, we got dropped at the Pamban boat jetty.. Our motor boat was anchored somewhere amid hundred other boats and hence, we had to walk across to the shore. This walking experience was unique in its own way as you don’t get such a sight in any other boat jetty. Also, every step had to be placed carefully so that you may not accidentally step on the in-numerous star fishes or sea cucumbers and kill them.

We walked further up to the Pamban railway station and bought our tickets to the 12.00.O’clock train to Madurai. And soon the train arrived. We boarded and our hearts were pounding hard with excitement.. And MY My… An experience of a lifetime.. the train journey over the historical Pamban bridge on its 100th year of existence.. 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 hrs, we alighted at Madurai junction… But, yeah I was wondering how everything went so fine through the entire trip.. And the surprise was waiting for us at the station- our train to Bangalore would arrive 3hrs late.. and what followed is.. history.. 🙂