The weather report told us that it the temperature was 94deg but with a dense haze, a breathless atmosphere and 70 percent humidity we weren’t arguing with their assessment that it would feel like 101. Travelling north along the road heading to Kollam we sympathized with the policeman directing traffic with one hand and holding an umbrella above his head in the other.
This was a return to Varkala, first visited 12 years ago and again a year later. Inevitably the place has grown. The cliff top guesthouses, shops and restaurants now have a much more substantial air; many of the once flimsy stalls now have glass fronted windows and fan cooled interiors and everything has expanded, north and south along the cliff top path but also back from it through the coconut palms. The scruffy collections of thatched bungalows are now calling themselves resorts and there are some set ups that look as though they might just about merit the name. But there is still token homage to the hippy spirit that drew travellers here a few decades ago: in the restaurant and guesthouse names – Little Tibet, the Temple of Poetry, Divine Bliss, the Bohemian Masala Arts Cafe, Dream, Soul and Surf, although the Santa Claus Village Resort and the SS Beach Resort take some explaining, but this is India; the Tibet Market is still here, along with the Nirvana Yoga centres, the Ayurvedic massages, the Eco mud cottages and Tibetan Singing Bowl Therapy; on the beach below the cliff there are still individuals striking the meditation pose and sunrise and sunset yoga classes.
The bookstalls promote the usual stuff: Khalil Gilbran, the Mahabaratha, and, bizarrely, right in the centre of the book stand, Carol Thatcher’s ‘A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl’. India again. It had disappeared by the following day – bought or removed from the display as unsuitable. Who knows? In the restaurants, Nepalese waiters offer everything from momos to chow mien and spaghetti carbonara, Mexican enchiladas to Israeli falafel lafa and Keralan Meen moilee and palak paneer – and the best peanut masala we have tasted.
Varkala is laid back, comfortable, indulging. There’s no hard sell from the shop keepers: ‘Will you come and look at my shop, my lovely shop’. Many come here to chill out for weeks, months on end and, as seductive as the Land of the Lotos Eaters, you could see that you could quite easily fall under its spell. But the music that plays all day and into the evening in its restaurants is as likely to be Abba as a Shivan chant and that seems to sum Varkala today very appropriately.
The place we are staying, the InDa, is that sort of place, although with much better taste in music, jazz and French chansons. A collection of brick built white-washed cottages in a garden 150 metres back from the cliff top, it’s run by a delightful young Ukranian couple, Alorna and her husband, Alexei. In the shaded seating area you’re as like to hear Russian as well as French and English spoken and it’s a friendly place to while away a few hours, drinking masala tea or iced coffee.We breakfast In one of the cliff top restaurants watching a lone swimmer impossibly far out in the Arabian Sea down below us and above, on the uplift air currents above the coconut palms on the cliff top, soaring sea eagles harassed by flocks of Indian crows and an occasional paraglider.
Varkala is the site of the two thousand year old Janardhana Temple and a place of pilgrimage and on the sands at the end of Papanasam Beach where the road from the town runs down to the sea come a succession of families, the men in white dhotis, to receive blessings from the holy men who sit beneath their umbrellas and to carry the offerings of flowers on their head to the water’s edge where they turn and throw them behind them into the waves. The springs which run from the face of the cliff here are believed to have medicinal or holy properties, perhaps both, and these too attract a constant stream of pilgrims.
A few kilometres along the coast to the north is Edava Fishing village where the catch, baskets of small silver fish, is unloaded and spread out in the sun on nets to dry and sea eagles, fifty or more of them, swoop down taking what they can. Here is the best surfing wave we have seen in India although we are not the first to discover it. Between the fishing boats which come and go, and amongst the fishermen sorting their catch and mending nets, a dozen our so beginners are taking their first lesson on rented boards.
We read in The Hindu that the first ever recorded fatality from an object from outer space took place in the grounds of a college in Vellore in Tamil Nadu. And to think, if it had been only 100 kilometres closer – and hit six days later – it could have been us. In the grand scheme of things, in astronomical terms, that’s got to be a very close shave.
South again from Varkala Station to Trivandrum, 10 rupees for the one hour journey.