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Retreat by the sea

If you enjoy the sun, sea and cliffs, then Varkala is the place for you, says P. KARR.

Varkala... have a break by the seaside.

THE sun has just risen as I hop off the train from Thiruvananthapuram at Varkala station. The town has barely risen as I make my way to the Papanasham beach about 15 minutes away. On the beach, there is a small group of families that has come to pay tribute to the dead — the `bali' ceremony. The cliffs of red soil rise high on both sides. Atop the cliffs are coconut palms. The sea is rough and grey. The waves come rolling in, bursting into a million droplets of foam as they hit the rocks lining the shore. A few fishermen repair their nets as they wait to join their companions who have already been at sea for the past couple of hours at least. It is yet another glorious morning.

Varkala, a seaside town, is nearly 40 km from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala's capital. Easily accessible by rail and road, it is now increasingly popular with tourists, both Indian and foreign. Legend has it, the sage Narada was approached by a group of sadhus who confessed to having sinned. The sage removed his Valkallam (cloth made of bark of a tree) and threw it into the air. The place where it landed was subsequently named Varkala. The sadhus were directed by Narada to pray at the newly created sea shore to atone for their sins. Thus the beach came to be known as the Papanasham beach.

Varkala's terrain is hilly. The Janardhana Swamy temple to Lord Vishnu, which is believed to be almost 2,000 years old, is built on a very steep hill. It is the waters from a spring below this deity that is supposed to make the sea water here holy. The temple is an example of traditional Kerala architecture. The circular building with a red-tiled roof houses the main shrine. Under a banyan tree are a cluster of stones streaked with vermillion and considered the dwelling place of the snake god. This Saturday morning was a particularly auspicious day and Rajamma had come from a distant town to sing the Pullavan songs and bless infertile women. She blessed me profusely, singing away all my doshams while shrewdly negotiating a reasonable fee for herself.

In contrast is the samadhi of Sree Narayana Guru at Sivagiri about eight kilometres away from town. Born in 1856, he became a radical social reformer who preached the adage of "one caste, one God and one religion for all men". It is here that he came in 1904 and settled down. Atop a hill, one can see his original cottage that was visited by Tagore and Gandhi. A samadhi built in his memory after his death in 1928 is now used as a prayer hall. To one side is the Sharada mandir — a temple of the Goddess Saraswathi that was established by the guru in 1912. With pilgrims and tourists flocking daily by the hundreds, a trust that manages the temple has even built a guesthouse where basic accommodation is available.

Varkala town has narrow streets lined with shops, typical of small towns. In the olden days the waterways in Kerala were its lifeline for transporting both goods and people from place to place. In 1870, a tunnel was dug under one of the cliffs in Varkala to enable the passing boats to connect with the Thiruvananthapuram-Kollam line. A well at the top of the tunnel allowed sunlight. In its day this was a unique engineering feat. Though the waterways are now not used for commercial purposes the government proposes to revive it for tourism.

The government run Nature Cure hospital established in 1981 has now grown to a hospital with three doctors and a steady stream of patients who come for anything from rheumatism to cancer. The basic premise of Naturopathy is that the human body has an innate capacity to heal itself and need only be assisted by natural means. Thus changes in diet along with sun bathing, mudpacks and various baths form part of the cure. People come and stay there for free treatment from a week to a month depending on the severity of the disease.

The sun climbs high and I decide to relax in the `Taj Garden Retreat'. An initiative of the Taj Group of hotels, it was built in 1996. Clean and peaceful, the property has rooms overlooking the sea and the hotel's sculpted garden. I must have spotted at least four of five types of palms, not to mention bright flowers and a variety of crotons. With a swimming pool facing the restaurant, tourists and people on business alike frequent the hotel. The massage and ayurveda centre has a steam bath, a Jacuzzi and, most importantly oil massages — all useful in de-stressing and relaxing. . In this place, time certainly stands still. I wake up after my siesta in the afternoon. The sun is coming down and I walk to the cliff where there is a maidan. This was built in 1983 as a helipad when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son, the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Varkala. One can walk along the cliff for at least a mile. Numerous restaurants, hotels and curio shops line one side. The other side is the Arabian Sea — stretching as far as the eye can see. The sea has changed colour since morning. It is blue and much more calm. The waves are smaller and they are now lapping gently against the craggy rocks. For some interesting geological reason, the Varkala beach dwindles to a small stretch comprising just the Papanasham beach from May to October. Starting in November, the full beach which is well over a kilometre long forms. The restaurants are getting ready for the evening. The fresh catch of the day is ain — pomfret, shrimp, tiger prawns, sardines, mackerel and even a baby shark. These will be bought by patrons and the chefs will cook it according to specifications. The sun has now set — there is a cool breeze. In the darkness one can sense the sea gently going to sleep. The restaurants and shops are now doing good business. The smell of frying fish wafts my way as I sip coconut water and relax in an easy chair. It is this sea that stretches in front of me that brought here the first missionaries, traders and travellers to Kerala. Arabs, Portuguese, Chinese, French and finally the British.

If you enjoy the sun, sea, sand and cliffs with countless coconut palms in the backdrop, then Varkala is certainly the destination for you.

I make my way through the darkness to the station where I catch the last train back to Thiruvananthapuram.

How to reach there: Varkala can be reached very easily by road or train from Thiruvananthapuram.

Best season to visit: This depends on individual preference as the sea is gorgeous all through the year. However November to April are generally busy months.

Clothes: Light clothing and some protection against sunstroke is advisable for those not used to intense sun.

Short trips: Can be arranged to Kappil beach where it is possible to see both the sea and the backwaters at one go. Paravur, further down, is also being developed as a tourist spot beside the backwaters. House boat trips on the backwaters can be arranged through authorised agents.

For more information: Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC), Thiruvananthapuram. Tel: 0471-315397. Fax: 0471-313606.

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