Tucked away in Southern Kerala, four hours away from Cochin, is the tiny temple town of Varkala. The town is nothing much to speak of but if you’re in the know, you know exactly where to head. Hidden beneath a majestic cliff is the untouched beach of Varkala, a haven for European tourists and an unparalleled delight to witness. Accustomed as we were to the murky waters and littered sands of Mumbai beaches, my friend and I were spellbound by the bright white water of the Varkala sea. In the peak of the sunlit day, the sky lent an azure glow to the water and under the starlit night, the beach became completely deserted, save for a daring soul or two who ventured for a moonlit walk by the dark, impenetrable sea.
I love the sea. I don’t know if it has something to do with being born in a coastal city like Mumbai or if it is just the endless alternating calm and turbulence that calls out to me. But it was the sea that I inevitably sought when I landed on the shores of Kerala.
God’s own country, they call it. Is that an exaggeration or a justified eulogy? A whirlwind trip of four nights and five days hardly qualifies me to answer that. What I will do, however is tell you the story of the secret getaway that is Varkala.
We merely caught a glimpse of the beach on our first evening in Varkala. The next morning, we arose at the crack of dawn to partake of a delicious breakfast of coconut pancakes and Kerala coffee at one of the picturesque cafes atop the cliff overlooking that magnificent sea. The elevation afforded us a breathtaking view and the serenity of sitting there in the cool morning air, sipping rich filter coffee with the comforting lapping of waves in my ear, is something I will never forget.
The cliff was dotted with massage and health centres, cafes and vendors of beachwear, music and Ayurvedic medicines, all of which catered to the predominantly white clientele. We were possibly the only Indians there, save a couple who passed by in the evening. Even the owners of the eateries were rarely of native descent. One such coffee shop, Coffee Temple, owned by a British fellow, captured our fancy. The owner and the restaurant managers were all chatty and welcoming and we spent more than one pleasant evening there, sipping on their creamy mochaccinos and being regaled by tales of their Bohemian lives. Philip was an ex-army man who had served in Afghanistan for most of his tenure while Daniel had quit his job at Google USA after six years to go backpacking around the world. Neither of them was certain about how long they would spend in Kerala. Those were men who truly lived life on their own terms, with nothing to hold them down and no care for the challenges of tomorrow.
In the evening, we lazed on the glorious beach, surrounded by the sculpted, bronzed bodies of incredibly fit European men and women. Not a single one of them ever littered the beach or the water, making us wistful with their admirable civic sense. Why is it that most of us Indians have to be punished and pushed into displaying a semblance of civic sense? Why can’t we respect our environment and commit ourselves to cleanliness the way humans everywhere else in the world seem to effortlessly do? We found ourselves confessing guiltily that perhaps it was a good thing such few Indians frequented the Varkala coast. Such unparalleled beauty and virginity deserved to be maintained, whatever the cost.
It was with a heavy heart that we bid goodbye to Varkala in the wee hours of the morning. I saw much more of Kerala in Fort Kochi than I did in Varkala. And for that reason, I enjoyed this leg of the trip as much, despite the disappointingly messy and over-crowded beach. Fort Kochi was most memorable for its spice markets, relics of Dutch colonialism and the quaint Jew Town. But before I begin, a word of caution about procuring alcohol in Kerala. The state government exercises complete monopoly over the sale of alcohol and we were hard put to find a single shop in the tiny town of Varkala. When we did find one discreetly tucked away into a by-lane after an hour of fruitless searching in the unyielding Kerala sun, it turned out to be unfit for female presence. I waited by our bike on the other side of the road while my friend braved the serpentine queue of thirsty men in various states of intoxication, even though it was only 11 in the morning. After all that pain, the alcohol wasn’t too cheap either.
The early morning train ride to Ernakulam, the closest station to Fort Kochi, was gratifyingly pleasant, in direct contrast to the gruelling five-hour journey we had endured from Cochin to Varkala in the afternoon heat. It is advisable to schedule a trip to Kerala in the winter or the monsoons only. If you happen to travel between February and June, ensure that the majority of your travelling is completed before noon. Varkala had exceeded our budget as we succumbed to the charms of luxury. But in Fort Kochi, homestays are the norm and we paid a mere 500 per head for a frill-free non AC room that was actually very comfortable and airy enough. Real estate in towns like Fort Kochi is extremely cheap and several own two-storied, terraced bungalows that can easily host half a dozen guests at any given point in time. For many, the tourists are the primary source of income. Our host was a retired seafarer who extended us gracious assistance in terms of navigating around the place and recommendations on places to dine at.
Fort Kochi teemed with temples, mosques, synagogues and churches, a glowing testimony to the religious diversity of Kerala. All is not always well in the Southern hinterland, however. The day we arrived in Kerala, we were unable to board the train to Varkala from Aluva, the nearest station and had to go to the next one instead, because the BJP had called for a strike at Aluva. The reason? A few Muslims had held a conference in the premises of a Hindu temple. The secularity of Kerala is but a thin veil for the religious undercurrents that are generously stoked by political parties with vested interests. Nevertheless, I spent a glorious time admiring the architecture of the Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town, the Saint Basilica Church on Fort Kochi beach and the scores of temples along Palace Road.
A long walk along the seemingly endless Palace Road brought us to the famed Jew Town, a mini township that attracts Jews from all over the world. Strangely enough, most of the purportedly Jewish artefacts were being sold by Kashmiris. Our homestay owner had warned us beforehand that everything the Kashmiris sold was overpriced and we were better off buying from natives. Nevertheless, those ornate carpets and indescribably beautiful objets d’art tugged at my heartstrings.
I was on my own during my last day in Fort Kochi as my friend had an early flight. For those precious few hours, I indulged in my fantasy of writing by the seaside, with the breeze and the foreign tongues in the air providing more than enough stimulation. I inhaled the fragrance of organic spices and essential oils at one of the myriad spice boutiques and walked out with handmade soaps, spiced and chocolate-infused tea, the country’s spiciest pepper and best quality cinnamon. I walked for hours, combating the unrelenting heat with copious amounts of fresh coconut water and buttermilk. And I never encountered any eve-teasing or even excessive staring which is routine in Mumbai despite its justified reputation as a safe haven for single women. On my flight back to the city, I bumped into an old classmate who looked exactly the same as she did years ago! As the aircraft descended upon the star-studded city of Mumbai, I was struck by the difference in landscapes. Where Kerala had boasted of lofty mountains and dense green cover, Mumbai spoke of unapologetic opulence and prosperity. Will Pondicherry have a different story to tell? I shall find out, on the 28th of March.
Practical information: Kerala is connected by two airports and several railway stations. Kerala tourism infrastructure is fairly advanced and your choice of accomodation depends on your budget. Read about my luxury stay at The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal.
(Photos: Ankita Shreeram)