Surrounded by the blue waters of the Arabian Sea, the tiny island of Minicoy in Lakshadweep can be explored in a day’s time, discovers Esther Elias
Five hours off the shore of Kochi, the Arabian Sea looks like wrinkled blue skin stretched taut to the end of the world. There’s not a spot of land in sight. Time is marked by a swiftly setting sun, and distance by the changing colours of the sea — dirty black at mainland, pale green further out and matted blue in deep waters. By late evening our little ship ‘Lakshadweep Sea’ is alone in a sea of midnight black that gently cradles us to sleep. Morning breaks as the sun slowly crawls out of the sky, rises over a silhouette of coconut palms, and bathes a tiny island in sunshine, almost to say, “Welcome to Minicoy”.
Minicoy is a hockey stick-shaped island, southern-most in the archipelago of the Lakshadweep islands. Kavaratti, the Union Territory’s capital, is six hours away by ship. For its proximity to the Maldives, it is Lakshadweep’s only island that speaks Mahal — a dialect of Maldives’ Dhivehi language, and its culture is markedly different too. As we alight from ferries that connect our ship docked at sea to Minicoy’s lagoon shore, white sands extend as far as the eye can see. A little over 11 km in length, including an islet named Viringili at its southern end, Minicoy is small enough to be driven across in a day.
The lay of the land reveals its history. Ten villages with 10,444 people huddle close at the north, government land — panchayat offices, a hospital, schools and a playground — occupies the central 50 acres, and vast coconut plantations fill the remainder. “Folklore has it that human habitation fled to the north and lived together in tightly-knit communities in fear of the British who inhabited the south,” narrates Ahmad Shahir, district information officer. Journey long enough to the island’s tip and you’ll witness Minocoy’s sole remnant of British rule (and now its key tourist attraction) — a towering lighthouse built by the British in 1885.
The lighthouse falls along the world shipping route that skirts the Indian coast toward Colombo. It is known by its powerful flash every 15 seconds and is visible from 18.5 nautical miles away. On a deserted plot adorned only by the watch keeper’s rundown house, the lighthouse climbs 41.7 m high. In human terms, that’s 216 breathless steps up a winding staircase punctuated by ancient oil jacks, outdated lenses, incandescent lamps and other historic artefacts that once ran the lighthouse. Today, it’s a blinding contraption of brilliant mirrors, electrified, automated and GPS-equipped.
At its summit is a breathtaking eagle’s eye view of Minicoy, a sliver of land slapped by the rough sea on one side and caressed by a gentle blue lagoon on the other. As the waters draw away they reveal the yellow, calcified rocks that make Minicoy’s surface. Closer to the sea, they powder into the soft sand that’s home to tiny crabs, shells and broken corals. There’s nothing quite like seeing these corals whole though. We step into a glass-bottomed boat and are rowed into the depths of the lagoon. Sunlight bounces off clear white waters and in between the reflections you catch glimpses of finger corals in clumps.
Tiny flying fish dart around our boat; in the lagoon, little ones sneak in and out of the coral’s shelves. Spotted, striped, polka-dotted or bare, in brilliant blue, sharp red or bright yellow, the fish tuck themselves into the coral edges as our boat arrives. We switch off our motor for a while and in the silence, the underwater world grows bold. “We call these ‘potato corals’ because of their large size and shape. Just after the monsoon, they’re full of fish. In the summer, they become too hot for the fish to house in. The larger they are, the healthier for the fish,” says Basheer A.P. assistant manager of water sports, and our guide. With its pristine, unpolluted lagoon and endless beaches, water sports are Minicoy’s obvious attraction. Many of its people are qualified scuba divers and will take you down to be better acquainted with the sea’s secrets. If you’re less adventurous, you could paddle a kayak, snorkel or just swim. Or better yet, wander around town and converse with Minicoy’s culture. Its 10 villages line the edge of the lagoon, each with sandy paths meandering toward the sea. Most houses are several storied and built so close to each other that often, only the elders know where one village’s borders meet the other’s. By custom, Minicoy is matrilineal for 90 per cent of its men are away as crew on ships across the world. Sunitha Ismail, chairperson of the Social Welfare Board, takes us to her home in Bada village where 25 people across four generations live together. The men who have married into her family from other villages live here too.
Each village is governed by two sets of elected elders — ‘Boduthatha’ is the title given to the lady who heads the women, and ‘Bodukakka’ is the male equivalent. In the 130-household Bada village, all activity centres around the village houses (athiri), one each for the women and men. Weddings, birth ceremonies and religious festivities are held here. Pride of place though goes to the enormous, hand-made wooden snake boat - jahadhoni. Every year Minicoy conducts the Nehru rolling trophy boat race when the entire island comes out in its traditional finery to watch its village men row their boat to triumph. This year, as with the last, Aoumagu village took the honours. In its victory walk home, the craft is carried upturned on the men’s shoulders and marched singing into its designated home until the next year.
For all its intense beauty, Minicoy has its trials too. Its amenities are almost entirely shipped in from the mainland. Its one hospital is ill-equipped and any medical emergency must be evacuated by helicopter in an hour-long flight to Kochi. But its people live largely in peace. Bollywood music blasts from the boom box speakers all around. The sea licks the leaves of coconut palms bending over and a blessed breeze blows in tidings of good times.
(The writer was at Minicoy at the invitation of the Department of Tourism Development, UT of Lakshadweep)