Nine am, Kochi airport. “Would you like to be upgraded to business class?” What did they think? But a few minutes later, boxed into a 1970s Dornier aircraft, I knew I had been had. The small plane could seat only 12 in two single elbow-knocking files and the captain’s cabin was a hole. The rewards, I found, were elsewhere: I looked out of the window, at the Lakshadweep Sea which stretched far into the horizon, vast and mysterious. A cramped hour later, I alighted at Agatti island. My first stop of five in the 36 coral islands that make up the Union Territory of Lakshadweep.
Two hundred metres from the airport lay my hotel, the Agatti Island Beach Resort. Stiff legs carried me stumbling to the beach. There, stretching as far as the eye could see, lay the shimmering aquamarine lagoon fringed by a coral reef that appeared to merge with the bright blue horizon, swallowing as it were, the ink-blue sea sprawled in the vastness beyond. The sheer range of blues stunned the senses and provoked a reasonable urge to swim the colours.
An hour later, having had my fill of snorkelling and chasing colourful schools of fish, I lunched on Kerala-inspired continental cuisine at the resort. Lots of rice, fish curry and pasta salad. The sea was calm, the February sun strong. Drowsily, I crawled into bed. Early evening had me excited all over again. I was scheduled to go diving but the instructor being busy, I took the road to the village instead. My destination was the only museum dedicated to Lakshadweep history.
The 4km ride to Agatti village, or rather its administrative centre in the north, snakes through sparse palm groves, coconut-laden trees and tiny fishing settlements situated on the eastern and western bank of the island. Then, about three years ago, along came a solar power plant, a high school, a mini-stadium and a dak bungalow—features common to all the islands in Lakshadweep, as I learnt later. Particularly stadiums, where islanders play football day and night. Throughout my stay, the sea kept me company, winking through the trees.
Currently Agatti supports an estimated 7,000-strong population—up seven times since 1920. The Malayalam-speaking inhabitants are friendly and hospitable. Here and there one can still spot traditional headgear of the women called makanna.
I found the museum, not more than two minutes walk from the Agatti jetty. Called the Golden Jubilee Museum, it is the proud owner of a boat model of the traditional Minicoy jagdhoni (sailboat), a room full of jars, pots, platters and wooden chests recovered from various islands and shipwrecks besides two crumbling busts of the Buddha (dated variously between the 9th and 12th centuries AD) and three gold coins found in the graveyard of Agatti Jama Masjid, said to be issued by the 16th-century Ottoman ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent.
I returned to the resort, on the way bumping into a swaying middle-aged toddy-tapper who slunk away sheepishly before I could say anything. At the resort, I lay on the sand searching for the shooting star in the twinkling sky, wishing I could have had a shot of toddy instead of the coconut juice I was sipping. (Prohibition rules are strictly observed on all the islands except Bangaram.)
Next morning had me exploring the belly of the sea, some 25 metres underwater. Walking the seabed littered with coral debris, alive with marine creatures had me enthralled. A brief encounter with a turtle and a manta ray left me gasping. What more could I have asked for on my first ever deep-sea dive?
By afternoon I was aboard Bitra, a small but sturdy sea boat, on my way to Kadmat island with a group of IAS trainees. Frothy sea hours later, a new wondrous sight met my eyes. An eight-kilometre-long club-shaped island beckoned in the distance. The moon was missing but the stars led the way into its shallow turquoise waters. I waited impatiently for dawn. Kadmat was much more than I expected. A pre-breakfast solitary walk had me measuring the beach with the alacrity and enthusiasm of a 16-year-old. I found milky white sand, scurrying hermit crabs, and a tranquil, languorous and completely empty lagoon.
Unknown and unexplored by the world till the 18th century, Kadmat was used as a fishing outpost by adjoining Amini island fishermen, who’d explore its waters during the monsoon when fishing in the sea became dangerous. Today, life on the island is no different from elsewhere in Lakshadweep. There are coconuts to be picked and dried, fish to be caught, and coir to be soaked, dried and turned into ropes. With just over 5,000 residents, Kadmat has it easy. This island must be visited, at least once in a lifetime.
It was time to sail on, first to the capital, Kavaratti, then Kalpeni and, finally, Minicoy. Kavaratti bristles with the activity and officiousness of an administrative centre. People are everywhere—on land, in the sea, in boats, working on the offshore water pipeline, at the jetty, on the trees and beneath them. Imagine 10,000 people crammed into five sq km.
Unlike other islands Kavaratti does not offer a decent beach. It does, however, house the Dolphin Dive Centre, the only diving school in Lakshadweep run by the tourism department and a marine aquarium-cum-museum. But its pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the marvellous Ujra Mosque.
Situated in the southeastern part of the island, the 17th-century whitewashed mosque is said to have been built by Sheikh Mohammad Kasim, who introduced the practice of ratheeb (a religious performance conducted to invoke blessings of preceptors, known as thangal) on the island. Many miracles are attributed to him, including the absence of crows on the island! His grave is set in the Ujra Mosque complex and is a place of pilgrimage for people from all the islands.
The mosque is open to all, though women are not allowed inside the prayer hall. Built without minarets, it includes a beautifully carved ceiling and pillars believed to have been carved a century ago. The lore is that the entire ceiling of the mosque’s verandah was carved out of a single piece of driftwood. At the back of the mosque are the graves of the Sheikh’s family members. Its tombstones display the dexterity of stone carvers who chiselled the delicate Arabesque designs on its frontispiece. It’s a peaceful place, well worth a stop.
From Kavaratti I made a dash to Kalpeni, a short strip of land with three tiny satellite isles. Kalpeni, like Amini and Androth islands, is believed to have been inhabited as far back as the 7th century AD. Though history is thin on Lakshadweep, it is believed that Kalpeni is one of the islands (besides Amini and Androth) on which Buddhism was first introduced. In the 13th century Arabs apparently colonised Kalpeni, converted its populace to Islam and renamed the island Koefeni. Administrative neglect is writ large on the island and the people are restive. “We were the lords of the islands,” said one local, “now we are paupers,” referring to a time when its people exercised considerable political and economic influence over the other islands.
The journey to Minicoy (Maliku) was relatively long. A day-and-a-half on the MV Tipu Sultan was more than my seasick stomach could handle. But I waited patiently for this southernmost point of Indian territory to emerge from the sea.
Beautiful, crescent-shaped Maliku is the second-largest island after Androth. Bisected by two roads (Mae Magu meaning main road and Lenu Magu meaning inner road), the island is defined by a rocky ridge to its north, and a beautiful sandy beach surrounded by a natural mangrove to its south. While the resort and the famed 19th-century British-built lighthouse are grouped in its southern sphere, its quaint villages sit at its centre, near the jetty.
The island closest to the Maldives, Maliku is distinct from the rest of Malayali-influenced Lakshadweep. Its people live to a different tune. They speak a different language (Mahl), write in religious sonnets (Thana script), look and dress like the Maldivians (in toga-like gowns)—but they chew betel like Malayalis. The British named the island Minicoy. The island’s people hate the name though some insist it means ‘majestic’. But Maliku would like to be called simply Maliku, ‘the good harbour’, and not “mini and coy—just because our people are short and shy?” as one islander said.
Maliku is composed of nine villages known as athiri or ava that follow the monogamous matriarchal system of social organisation while practising Islam. A walk through the villages with well-appointed pucca houses covered with Mangalore tiles is rewarding, particularly nearer the shore where one can view daily life in progress and admire the colourfully painted houses. Many Maliku sailors work on international sea trade routes or the merchant navy—the islanders are well-off and it’s not uncommon to see young men zipping around on their motorcycles in Hard Rock Café T-shirts.
A typical Maliku house consists of two rooms and a separate building for a kitchen (boduarifi). Each of the villages is headed by a mopan who is chosen for his administrative abilities. It is possible, with the help of Lakshadweep Tourism officials, to visit the house of a mopan and interact with Maliku men and women. Each of the villages has a separate mosque identified with a specific community or family.
As I walked the villages and swam in the waters of Lakshadweep, I thought of Christopher Paolini’s words: “The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, it hates, it weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it in words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.”
Getting in: Indians can travel to Agatti, Bangaram, Kadmat, Kavaratti, Kalpeni and Minicoy islands (foreigners can travel only to the first three). All visitors must have an entry permit to travel to the Lakshadweep Islands. Permits are organised by the resort you plan to stay in or by the Lakshadweep Tourism (SPORTS) office in Kochi. There is no charge for the permit.
By air: Indian Airlines flies from Kochi International Airport to Lakshadweep’s Agatti Airport five days a week, from Monday to Friday. Indian Airlines also links Agatti to Goa’s Dabolim Airport, but these flights were temporarily suspended at the time of writing. Private chartered flights are also available. Bangalore-based Taneja Aerospace (080-5550609-10) runs five-seater chartered flights to Agatti from Kochi, for guests staying at Agatti Island Beach Resort and Bangaram Island Resort. Passengers must have their Lakshadweep visiting permits on them to board the flight. During season (December to March), the Bangaram Island Resort offers its own charter flight from Kochi to Agatti. Guests are taken by boat to Bangaram. Boat transfers aren’t possible during the off-season (May 15-September 15); guests will travel from Agatti to Bangaram by helicopter instead.
By ship: The Shipping Corporation of India’s MV Tipu Sultan, MV Bharat Seema, MV Minicoy and MV Amindivi link Kochi to Agatti (18-22hr). All ships depart from Kochi at 11.30am and arrive in Agatti at 10am. On arrival, MV Tipu Sultan drops anchor and a smaller launch takes you to Agatti. This is also included in the fare. Ship services are suspended during the monsoon period (May 15-September 15). Contact the Lakshadweep Tourism (SPORTS) office in Kochi (0484-2668387, 2666789) for details of services and bookings.
Where to stay: Travellers flying into Lakshadweep have basically two choices: the CGH group’s luxurious Bangaram Island Resort (0484-2668221 (www.cghearth.com) or the Agatti Island Beach Resort (04894-242436, www.agattiislandresorts.com). Those taking the Lakshadweep Tourism ship packages, have the following options:
—Coral Reef Package: A 5-day cruise to Kavaratti, Kalpeni and Minicoy on MV Tipu Sultan. Days are spent on the island; Nights are spent on board.
—Swaying Palm Package: A 6-day tour to Minicoy. Accommodation at the Minicoy Resort.
—Taratashi Package: A 4-day package to Kavaratti. Swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, lagoon cruises in glass-bottomed boat and other water sports are on offer. Stay is at the tourist huts.
—Marine Wealth Awareness Programme: A 6-day package to Kadmat, includes four days on the island, swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving and other water sports.
Tourist offices & agents:
—Kochi: SPORTS Lakshadweep Tourism, Willingdon Island, Indira Gandhi Road (0484-2668387, 2666789, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.lakshadweeptourism.com). Also, Kochi International Airport, Nedumbassery (2610162)
—Kavaratti: Lakshadweep Tourism Huts (04869-263001-02)
—Delhi: Liaison Officer, Union Territory of Lakshadweep, (011-2338680). Ashok Travels & Tours (23418168/ 7035/8039, email@example.com)
—Kolkata: Ashok Travels & Tours (033-22885254, 22880901, firstname.lastname@example.org)
—Pune: Simas (020-24493463, www.simastravels.com).
When to go: October, November and December are the best months to visit Lakshadweep. January and February are also good, though slightly warmer.