As the Indian outpost of Lakshadweep slowly emerges out of obscurity, we discover its visceral beauty and indigenous culture, one small island at a time. By Mukul & Shilpa Gupta
It must rank as the most inopportune moment for counting life’s regrets. I have just jumped off a boat into the middle of a calm, chameleon sea that keeps changing its shades of blue and green at differently angled shards of sunbeam. Right now, flapping within touching distance of its undulating bottom, I am in a hushed magical world, far removed from the one I inhabit on terra firma some four metres above and miles beyond. Weeds, plants, sea cucumbers, and gigantic corals bearing ineffable hues are swarming around me. Mimicking my dive instructor, I snap my fingers and something iridescent plays peek-a-boo like a touch-me-not plant. Shoals of colourful fish, big and small, and metallic and muted, nuzzle my fingers while greedily feeding on the crumbs I’m made to proffer; I’m tingled and thrilled. And just then, when I’m having possibly the most captivating time of my life—one I should be savouring—a grating regret chooses to emerge. If only I had paid enough heed to Sir David Attenborough’s programmes on the undersea.
Lakshadweep will rankle you too for your inadequacies. Imagine encountering turtles, carefree and in the wild, and not knowing if they’re the hawks bill or the green sea. Or not recognising sooty tern, the state bird. Imagine not being able to tell a damsel fish from a butterfly fish. Or mortifyingly realising that what I had analogously called the touch-me-not plant was actually the Christmas tree worm. But then, discovery of the unknown is what this archipelago of 36 islands does best.
We set sail from Kochi on the cruise ship of MV Kavaratti. The beginning is testy. Looking at our fellow holiday-makers at the wharf on Willingdon Island, off Kochi, where we gather to complete the formalities, we are disheartened. MV Kavaratti seems to be the carrier of the lackadaisical and the sardonic who appear keener to tick off a new destination—any destination—than this specifically. However, the probing glances will soon turn into familiar smiles as we converge on the deck every morning and evening. Meal times will become as much about socialising as about ingesting. And on our last night together, we’ll celebrate with music pooled from our smartphones. But let’s not jump the gun.
A perch on the highest deck, the fifth, is assigned to us. The bunk beds are just right for two; the bathroom and linen are clean; the air-con is comfortable. A desk, a cupboard, and a couple of chairs make the room perfectly functional. Before setting sail, we’re given the mandatory safety instructions. Once at sea, we glide over calm waters, chortle at the eddies, keep our eyes peeled for dolphins and cheer at the sightings of flying fish and seagulls. With a luminous halo around, as the golden orb dips into the horizon, the selfie-takers go into a tizzy. But come morning and everything’s eerily calm. A peek outside our window reveals only miles of delft-blue water. After breakfast, we are herded on to boats and taken to (what looked like) a dot in the distance where waiting cars drive us on tight roads swathed in palm trees, past huts, school children, and hijab-wearing women engaged in their chores, a milieu typical of any coastal Indian town. But then, without any warning, a blob of teal, unlike anything we have ever seen, conjures up ahead. Swiftly, like a Batik painting, it smudges to become wider and longer. Kalpeni, we’ve arrived.
The sprawling lagoon is a molten cyan that morphs into lime-green turquoise. Kalpeni, with a population of less than 5,000, is an atoll along with two tiny islets and the uninhabited island of Cheriyam. A violent storm in 1847 threw up huge coral boulders along Kalpeni’s shores; the coral debris are still visible. Our fellow passengers make up for their apathy for the surroundings with enthusiasm for water sports. As for us, we snorkel, swim, float and admire the vistas.
After an elaborate buffet meal, we are driven to a couple of factories germane to the islands’ development (one makes coconut products, the other, hosiery). The beach in Kalpeni’s northern tip is shallow, making it an ideal spot for snorkelling and kayaking. However, it’s only a show window for us, and within minutes of being there, we are urged to get back. Tea, snacks, and a performance of folk dance await. Just like that, our day at the island ends.
Easily the most beautiful and unique of the three islands MV Kavaratti takes us to is the crescent-shaped Minicoy that forms the southern fringe of the archipelago. Blessed with one of the largest lagoons, it has more than an abundance of shells and corals. All along the ridged shoreline, we spot melancholic green sea turtles bobbing in the minty waters. The deserted stretch encourages the herbivorous loners to venture ashore and as soon as they sense us approaching, they flee into the sea.
Earlier that morning, we had climbed up the lagoon’s 19th-century lighthouse, the sole vestige of British rule in Lakshadweep. As we’d gasped and panted up the winding staircase to summit the 216 steps, exhaustion had made way for enchantment. In the distance was the infinity of midnight-blue waters skirting the lagoon, and closer to us, the splotchy lush greens of coconut trees so dense they obliterated all signs of land.
In Mahl, a dialect of the Maldivian language that Minicoy’s denizens speak, the island is called Maliku or of the king (the tongue of the rest of Lakshadweep is Malayalam). It could plausibly be a distortion of the apocryphal moniker mahila-du or island of women, since it is known to have always accorded high status to women. Many believe the ‘female island’ off the coast of India that Marco Polo had written about was present-day Minicoy. If it was indeed the land, which the peripatetic Ibn Batuta had described as the place where women were independent, Minicoy continues to remain so. Some of its 10 avahs or villages are presided over by a moopathy or female head while the rest have moopans or male heads. How do we know all this? We’re taken to Falessery, one of the oldest villages with 287 houses. One of the high points in Minicoy’s social and cultural calendar is a prestigious boat race, usually held in December, where all 10 villages compete for a hefty prize money.
The transcendental aura of the archipelago extends to its primordial history. Some say the islands were first mentioned by a Greek sailor several centuries ago. What is certain is that Lakshadweep was originally Hindu and ruled by women. Abiding contact with Arab traders led to conversion of the islanders to Islam. Tipu Sultan, the erstwhile ruler of Mysore, had wrested control until the British had taken over.
After a 30-minuteboat ride, our first look of island no.3 Kavaratti is hardly favourable. The beach is narrow with too many boats, and after Minicoy, it feels anti-climactic. Laconically, we wear our life vests for the free activity of the day: a ride in a glass bottom boat. As the motor whirs up and we are transported deeper into the lagoon, wondrous marine life begins to show up: corals, star fish, sea anemones, octopuses, and sea cucumbers. It is as though we are dry-snorkelling, minus the snorkels, of course. Apologies, Kavaratti, we’ve been hasty in dismissing your deep, almost ethereal beauty.
The kaleidoscopic underwater world I preview from the boat whet my appetite, and I’m uncharacteristically audacious to scuba-dive—my life’s first attempt. “Whoever can tell me the full form of SCUBA will get an extra 15 minutes,” the PADI-certified coach begins his briefing. I’ll admit I get only the prescribed 30 minutes; those pass by in a jiffy, and in regret.
Or, maybe not. After all, I get an intimate look at an aquatic wonderland that the world is just beginning to learn about. What’s more, I do it with a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Did you know that’s what SCUBA means? Hakuna matata. We live and learn.
Lakshadweep, on the Arabian Sea, is an archipelago of reefs, atolls, and several islands. Of these, Agatti island alone is connected to mainland India (Kochi, Kerala) by air; all others are connected by sea. Air India operates one non-stop daily flight between Kochi and Agatti. Or, you can choose a cruise. Lakshadweep Samudram offers afive-day cruise to the islands of Kavaratti, Kalpeni, and Minicoy on MV Kavaratti. The island tour is organised during the day while nights are onboard.MV Kavaratti has a 700-passenger capacity comprising five decks and 75 first-class rooms of twin berths. Diamond Class starts from INR32,000.
When To Visit
October to Februaryis the best time to visit though the cruises operate till May.
Old couples and families.
Besides Kalpeni, Kavaratti, and Minicoy, one can also explore Agatti island for its Golden Jubilee Museum, Bangaram island for bird-watching, and Kadmat island for its shallow lagoons and water activities.