A year on and we are back in India. The snows of Kashmir are a not altogether pleasant memory.
It was Christmas 2009 when we were last in Kerala so we arrived here expecting a number of changes and some extensive development, especially on the secluded and relatively unvisited cove below our room at Hotel Aparna on Lighthouse Road. But all is much as we remembered it. In our absence the Russians have been but have now largely gone we are told.
Those who knew Lighthouse Beach when it was on the hippie trail from Goa to Sri Lanka must shake their heads at the transformation that it has undergone. But then again, they themselves initiated the influx of tourists that is the principal source of income for many of Kovalam’s residents and the Kashmiris who run the tourists shops. And the hippies were themselves preceded by the European tourists of the 1930s who came to what was then the Principality of Travancore to stay at the evocatively named Halcyon Castle, built by the Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore as a beach resort. What wonderful pictures of decadence it conjures up. The place is now the luxury hotel the Leela, way out of our budget.
On Lighthouse Beach the ring seine net fishermen still share the beach with the tourists, fruit and trinket sellers and the dogs. There are posters up promoting a campaign to have them inoculated against rabies and advice about how to avoid provoking them. The English have been here it seems. The lifeguards have built themselves a new watchtower although it seems unoccupied. Five years ago we sat and watched a boat operated by New Zealanders working out in the bay dropping sand bags to create an artificial reef to encourage surfing. Apparently most of it disappeared in the first monsoon. There’s no sign of it or of a decent wave but nevertheless there is a low key nascent surf scene on Lighthouse Beach with a handful of locals and tourists trying their luck on the battered rental boards.
In the open restaurants that run along the back of the beach there are some familiar faces among the waiters although most seem to have shifted establishment during our five year absence. In the evening they still tout for custom, showing off the trays of ice on which are piled an exotic array of fresh sea food – tiger prawns, crab, squid, marlin, barracuda, kingfish, sear fish, butter fish, red snapper, grouper, sword fish and sea salmon. Who would consider eating anything other than seafood here? Licences to sell alcohol are expensive here but in India there is always a way. Cold Kingfisher beer appears in a bottle wrapped in newspaper; the waiter fills a large tea mug and puts the bottle discreetly on the floor by the leg of the table. It appears on the bill as ‘pop’.
Beyond Lighthouse Beach and the rocky promontory where the new lifeguard tower stands and where they used to set off the New Year fireworks, Hawa Beach, seems quieter. This is where the families come on Christmas Day in their colourful finery to paddle and splash in the waves and where hundreds of rowdy and inebriated fishermen come in an armada of boats from nearby Vizhinjam to land, drink, shout and play under the watchful eye of a platoon of smartly dressed policemen.
Hawa Beach translates as Eve’s beach, apparently named after the hippies who came here in the 60s to bathe topless. Nude or topless sunbathing is no longer permitted on India’s beaches. The hippies have long gone, unless they are the groups of portly leathery skinned pensioners who sit drinking Kingfisher beer in Kovalam’s restaurants.
We breakfast on the terrace of the Rockholm Hotel with its enviable location above Kovalam’s secret spot, a palm fringed sandy cove which attracts only a handful of tourists and the local fishermen, and beyond that on the headland, the minarets of the mosque. Why more people don’t make the short walk beyond Lighthouse Beach to this beautiful quiet retreat remains one of Kovalam’s mysteries. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t have an official name. Perhaps because access is via one of the two hotels which sit on it they assume it’s a private beach. Whatever the reason, long may it continue.
The Rockholm Hotel has seen better days. The whole place has a tired and neglected air. The owner has grown old and his staff have grown old with him although he still refers to them as his ‘boys’. The elderly waiter shuffles up to the table on the terrace with the dog-eared menus. ‘Do you have banana porridge?’ we ask.
‘Fresh fruit salad?’
We settle for porridge, without the bananas, spicy Marsala omelette, tea and coffee and toast made with the sweet white bread, all good.
On the beach below the fishermen have launched the boat and are rowing out trailing the seine net behind them in a huge loop far out into the bay. On shore, others wave their shirts vigorously to indicate where the boat should steer. What can they see that the rowers can’t we wonder.
Two hours or so later, braving the heat which will rise to 97 degrees before the day’s end, we are down on the beach watching them bring the net in, two rows of fishermen like tug of war teams side by side and singing a type of Indian sea shanty as the catch is hauled up on to the beach. There is great excitement. The catch is good. 150 or so tuna, each a foot and a half long. Each fisherman takes one for himself. The rest will be taken by boat around the promontory to the market at Vizhinjam. The restaurants will pay 100 to 150 rupees per fish they tell us. A pound or one pound fifty.
In the evening, walking down to Lighthouse Beach to eat, we hear the sound of drums. On the beach a small crowd has gathered around the drummers who play for three elaborately costumed dancers. Tonight is a full moon and this is the Theyyam, a spiritual dance that has its origins in northern Kerala. As we watch, far out at sea, the towering plum coloured clouds pulse incessantly with lightning. It is an unforgettable sight.
The photos here were nearly all taken with a mobile phone. Check out Rob ‘ s travel and landscape photography website for images taken with a camera at