The coral islands: Lakshadweep

The coral islands: Lakshadweep
An aerial view of Bangaram island, Photo Credit: Jitender Gupta
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Escape to the distant reefs and explore the pristine islands of Lakshadweep

Vaishna Roy
August 19 , 2014
22 Min Read

Two large almond eyes lined with yellow kohl stare at me. At any rate, I think they stare at me. For all I know, those aren’t its eyes at all. I am not an expert on crabs or any kind of marine life and there are two other eye-like protrusions on stalks that also seem to be looking at me keenly. We are having a face-off, this large crab and I, on the white sands of Kadmat.

I walk on a little and stumble upon a whole colony of small brownish crabs that scuttle away so swiftly I could have dreamt them up. Then a tiny salmon pink shell walks by, home to a bright orange mollusc. Nearby, a small congregation of shells saunters sideways into the sea. The shoreline is a rough, moving edge of coral and shells. The beach here on Kadmat is like a microcosm of the seabed, ridged, alive, with an untamed quality to it. Even the sand is different — with a texture like rice grains — not the fine powdery sand of the other islands.

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Frankly, it’s been love at first sight. When I first saw this long narrow island floating like a frond of seaweed, a darker green on green waters, I knew I was hooked. How many times is this allowed really? On this trip to Lakshadweep, I did the fall-in-love-at-first-sight thing four times over. First on the flight, as Agatti emerged from the surf more luscious than any Aphrodite. Next, the Kavaratti beach at dusk as the jetty lights came on. Then, Kadmat, and finally Bangaram floating up to meet us as the chopper circled overhead.

Lakshadweep is that kind of place, makes you reel a bit, like you’ve drunk iced gin too fast on a hot summer day. And like a good lover, Lakshadweep is just out of easy reach, still mysterious, difficult, still a little wild. And like a passionate affair, there’s no end to the drama. Each time you have to go to another island you set off sedately in a boat, then suddenly in mid-sea you are met dramatically by a white motor launch with an all-orange crew — straight out of a smuggler movie from the 1970s. You move en masse to that and then it’s a stomach-heaving sail across choppy waves with an attentive steward waving food in your face that you cannot possibly consume.

The drama of course started even earlier on this trip. The zillion phone calls to get a permit at three days’ notice, the pleas to the tourism department to allow us to hop between islands, the heartbreaking realisation that there was no way we could include the furthest island of Minicoy into the schedule, and then finally as we approach Agatti, the triumphant peering from the cockpit window as if I were Cortez upon a peak in Darien.

But, honestly, when it comes to histrionics, these islands could get an Oscar. Agatti is shaped, aptly, like an elongated exclamation mark, even to the dot under the mark. The plane swoops down to an airstrip that’s simply the long, narrow tip of the mark and you touch down, with two startlingly different shades of sea on either side.

This is something I just can’t get over — how many colours the sea has here. When I first land, on my right it’s a deep midnight blue and on the left it’s a bright sticky green. Later, as we sail over to Kavaratti, the green is deeper and clearer and it feels like we are cutting across molten glass. And from the beaches you can see strips of colour laid out like paint samples, starting from the palest yellow to a lemony green to a moss green, then a dark, almost black-green, and then as far as the eye can see that maddening shiny turquoise, a shade you would not dare wear, a shade that would look hopelessly unreal on a painting, a colour that looks as if it would stick to your skin like cheap Holi gulal.

At the Kavaratti dock, we are met by the affable Mr Hussain, the deputy managing director of Sports, the tourism department of the islands. With infinite patience, he ensures that we see as much of Lakshadweep as is possible in four-and-a-half days, which is not close to enough but which makes even the solid Jitender enquire about packages and suchlike.

Everyone I meet goes on about my enviable job — island-hopping for a living. Do they have any idea what a sad assignment this really is? Imagine going to a half-lost archipelago that defies time and insisting on ‘doing’ it in four-and-a-half days. The first day I rush about, haggling for fast boats and connections, trying to maximise my trip. The next day I sip tender coconut water and pack my watch away. When you find out that there are all of two or three speedboats to service the islands, that the same two-hour journey takes 15 hours by fishing boat, that larger islands get the speed boat once a day but smaller and further ones get it about once a week, that often the seas might be so rough you could be marooned on an island for days on end... well, you realise the idiocy of hurrying.

I love the jetties, with their lazy Marquezian air. People hang about, watching the boats come in, quite the most important event of the day, and cargo and fishing craft are moored with an air of permanency —  you can see washing hanging on the deck and fans whirring in the cabins with their occupants sitting outside chewing tobacco. There is a white, bleached, sunshiny look to everything, with the sharp smell of salt and fish coming in on the slow breeze. They even speak their Malayalam in a low, murmury drawl, a contrast to the quick, edgy speech of us mainlanders. And the night falls gently, slipping like sand through your fingers, and deepening the silence.

That first night at Kavaratti is magical. This is the most unfashionable of the islands, the administrative capital with just one batch of government huts on the beach, but there’s a peace and charm, a reality to the place that the plushest resorts can’t reproduce. Outside my hut three large fishing boats are moored for repairs, and the sea is a hop away. On the right, villagers and staff sit around talking softly on the sand, while about 200m to my left is the dock, and just short of it, they have hauled in a large catch of tuna that’s being cleaned and cut up to be made into mas, the famous dried tuna of Lakshadweep. I join the knot of people who stand around watching, haggling, or buying the odd fish for dinner. The light from the craft and the jetty spikes the midnight blue of the sea into shimmering eddies that belong in a Monet.

The next evening, sitting on the wooden steps of Kadmat’s crooked jetty, I watch a cloudy sunset, with the waves slapping gently against the pillars and the ridged floor of the sea clearly visible under the glassy water. Earlier, I walked right around the southern tip, still quite taken with this whole business of being surrounded by the sea on this tiny island all of 8km long and 550m wide at its widest point. I have anointed it my favourite island, and not just because the charming dive instructor Seemant takes me for a breathtaking jetski ride on the waves. This is also where hydrophobic me goes snorkelling with the fabulously patient Ali and falls deeply in love with the deep. It is completely, blindingly different down there, a hushed world of intense colours and complex beauty.

Which brings us to why this article has so little about diving, although that’s how Lakshadweep first got on the tourism map? Obviously, no editor in his senses would send me to do a diving story, but having snorkelled triumphantly let me affirm that more of the deep is obviously a better, better thing. At any rate, both Seemant and Sumer on Bangaram look at me as some sort of freak and a challenge, and have promised they will have me diving in no time at all. Me, I am not so sure, not when mere sight of mask and cylinder gives me an asthma attack. But it’s nice to sit there, watching these half-aquatic creatures set off in dive boats to nearby ship wrecks or coral reefs, and hallucinate about being down there someday.

Meanwhile, the jetty is mine and the shallows and the infinite colours of the water. I have learnt that the sea goes green over the coral patches and white over the sandy bits. I have watched a huge green turtle, which came ashore to lay her eggs at night, shuffle back and catch the first wave out to sea. I have found a perfectly formed sea cucumber tinted in delicate mauve. I have seen sea anemone swaying like grass underfoot and unending fields of coral.

Of the 36 islands that comprise Lakshadweep, only 11 are inhabited, and most of the rest are just sand bars, atolls or submerged reefs. The coral was born millennia ago, when life forms first swarmed on the peaks of underwater volcanoes, and slowly grew into small and large islands. In fact, most of the islands are still growing, except the mature islands of Andrott and Amini with no lagoons. So when I revisit Kadmat in ten years, it will be larger and with a narrower lagoon.

But if you went sailing down a vast uncharted ocean and suddenly saw many small land masses dotting the vast expanse, what impulse would make you want to move house across the waves and settle down there? What faith in the sea, what trust in your boats?

In the ninth century, legend says the Raja of Chirakkal from Cannanore, Kerala sent out a party to sea. The ship was caught in a storm and wrecked on the present island of Bangaram. When the storm abated and the crew sailed back, it reported its findings to the Raja, who promptly promised that those of his subjects who settled there could own the lands. Under those terms, the islands were first colonised, and then converted to Islam by a shipwrecked Arab saint named Ubaidullah.

Today, the islands are a hundred per cent Muslim, and only the non-islanders who come here on work belong to other faiths. It seems an easygoing society, with the women riding cycles and scooters, with just their hair covered but no full burkhas. The islands have also inherited a largely matrilineal tradition from their distant tribal past, but the Islamic tradition is clearly underlined. All children attend madrassas in the morning before they go on to school and many mosques do not allow women entry.

In today’s world of instant access, it is strange to see how cut off these islands really seem. Yes, there is the Internet but the connections are few and slow. Yes, ships bring in newspapers but days late. Television only emphasises the distance. A lot of this is deliberate — interaction with the mainland has been kept minimal to protect the ecosystem, infrastructure and culture of this place but now tourism is being slowly encouraged to bring in money.It’s scary, though, when phrases like the ‘Maldives of India’ are thrown about carelessly. It is depressing to think of all of Lakshadweep being converted into a Bangaram. Of course, the resort there is splendid, but how boring if on my next trip I will move from one carefully sanitised luxury resort to another, one Riviera-like stretch of sunning bodies to another. I would rather a tilting wooden jetty and boats outside my cottage and kids playing cricket on a sandbar.

And think of the precise numbers I now hear. Kavaratti, for instance, has a population of 15,000, about 25 autos, four buses and a dozen cars. All the islands have one main street and almost all the housing is thatched. There is no cinema and certainly no snooker parlour. I like this sense of containment. I selfishly don’t want it to suddenly mushroom into a flashy seaside resort town. The administrator of the islands, a mainlander named B.V. Selvaraj, is a dynamic man who seems confident of being able to balance tourism with environment protection. It’s promising that what seems to interest him most is our story of the green turtle.

It is dawn on the day before we will leave the islands, and we head out in a Pablo boat to Pitti Island, a bird sanctuary about two hours from Kavaratti across a vast stretch of endless ocean. The water today is a deep navy blue scalloped with white and Pitti is not really an island at all. At first sight, it is just a long stretch of surf, and when we come closer I see a white mound of sand with hundreds of birds flying overhead and the smell of guana is strong in the air. We want to land but the sea has suddenly become so choppy the sailors refuse to try it. We circle around the island twice, looking for a break but finally have to turn back. I would have loved to go ashore but somehow it is fitting that there are still some places out there that are out of reach.

The information

Given Lakshadweep’s delicate ecosystem, access to tourists is pretty restricted. This is not only because resources like water and power are scarce on the isles but because the lagoons cannot be polluted by too many powered craft.

Apart from pollution, there is also the issue of protecting the islanders’ way of life, so no non-islander is allowed to buy or even lease any land here. Thus, although Kingfisher flight captains take pleasure in announcing that the little island on the left belongs to their chairman, the fact is that he can only run a resort there.

Of the 36 islands in the archipelago, only six (Agatti, Kavaratti, Kalpeni, Kadmat, Minicoy, and Bangaram) are open to domestic tourists and only two (Agatti and Bangaram) to foreigners. All visitors, whether Indian or foreign, need a permit. And you don’t get one unless you have confirmed accommodation, which you get only as part of either the tourism or diving packages, or if you can manage a private invitation from an islander. The packages are usually confined to one island, and although technically you can go around all the other isles, in reality it is tricky because you might not always get a vessel and you are looking at a minimum two-hour sail on fairly rough seas.

Typically, you would fly out to Agatti and your resort will organise a boat transfer to the island, or you could sail out from Kochi itself, the cheaper option. There are also cruise options (suspended for ship repairs) where you get aboard at Kochi and float between the islands, going ashore during the day and getting back on board each night.

The islands
A bunch of islands on the Arabian Sea, 220-440km west of the Kerala coast. They are India’s smallest Union Territory and the country’s only coral reef islands. Only 11 islands are populated, the administrative headquarters is Kavaratti and the airstrip is on Agatti. Other populated islands include Chetlat, Bitra, Kiltan, Androth, and Amini. It is warm and balmy through the year, with a lovely sea breeze. Temperatures range from 28 to 32 degrees Celsius. The best time to visit is from October to February. From May to September, the monsoon sets in and the islands are mostly closed to tourism.

Getting there
By air: From Kochi to Agatti; 1.5hours. Indian and Kingfisher are the two airlines that operate on this sector (fares begin from approximately Rs 5,000 one-way). From Agatti, tourists are taken by boat to the island resort where they have bookings.

By sea: From Kochi to Agatti/Bangaram/ Minicoy; 18-20hours. Booked through Lakshadweep Tourism.

Tour packages
All tourism on the islands is handled by a government organisation called Sports (Society for Promotion of Recreation Tourism), which hosted our trip to the islands. Sports representatives patiently took us around, making sure we got a feel of the place. Shackled as they are by the unimaginativeness that bureaucracy brings with it, they still do the invaluable job of making the islands accessible to the average traveller.

The government resorts are at Kavaratti, Minicoy and Kadmat, while two private operators, Agatti Island Beach Resort (AIBR) and CGH Earth Hotels run the resorts on Agatti and Bangaram islands, respectively.

All resorts offer a variety of water sports like kayaking, snorkelling, glass-bottomed boat rides, speedboats, water skiing, etc. Liquor is not available on any island except Bangaram.

Where to stay
Sports:
While by no stretch luxurious, the Sports accommodation and food is simple, clean and adequate.

 Tariff
Swaying Palm: A 7-day package to Minicoy, with accommodation on shore. Rs 4,000 per night (AC double) + Rs 7,000 per head (deluxe class passage by ship from Kochi).

Marine Wealth: A 4 or 7-day package to Kadmat, with accommodation on shore. Rs 4,000 + Rs 7,000.

Taratashi: A 4-day stay at Kavaratti, with accommodation on shore. Rs 3,000 + Rs 7,000.

Coral Reef: A 5-day cruise to Kavaratti, Kalpeni and Minicoy, with accommodation on board ship. Rs 15,000 (deluxe class from Kochi). This option has been suspended because of ship repairs, but will resume shortly with a brand-new fleet.

Contact
Assistant GM, Sports, Indira Gandhi Road, Willingdon Island, Kochi 682003 (0484-2668387/ 6789,
laksports_2004@vsnl.net)

Bangaram Island Resort. This resort is possibly one of the world’s best getaway spots, and is a classic marooned-on-a-tropical-island dream come true. Its biggest plus is that it stays close to nature without losing out on comfort. The use of large and airy fishing huts means you don’t feel the absence of air-conditioning. It also eschews obvious evils like the television and phone, and manages an excellent variety in cuisine. In many ways, it has set the tone for the kind of low-profile, eco-friendly tourism that Lakshadweep needs, except that it is priced way above average. Rate Rs 14,500 per night (standard double, inclusive of food, transfer extra). Contact CGH Earth Hotels (0484-2668421, www.cghearth.com)

Agatti Island Beach Resort. This is a pleasant and well maintained resort on Agatti, just a stone’s throw away from the airport, thus making for a quicker and cheaper holiday. It has both AC and non-AC cottages. It is not top-end but very comfortable and with good service. Rate Rs 4,950 per night (standard AC double, inclusive of food). Contact 04894-242607/ 436; 0484-2362232, agattiisland@sancharnet.in)

 Activities
All resorts charge extra for activities.

Sports charges Rs 800 for parasailing, Rs 500 for water-skiing, Rs 100 for yachting, Rs 100 for snorkelling, Rs 600 for the use of a glass-bottomed boat, Rs 500 for a 15-min speedboat ride, Rs 100 for a 20-min banana boat ride and Rs 750 for day sea fishing. Kayaking is free.

Agatti Island Beach Resort charges Rs 700 for 30min of water-skiing, Rs 400 for 20min on a water scooter, Rs 750 for a trip in a glass-bottomed boat, Rs 700 for a 30min speed boat ride, Rs 700 for a 5hr island picnic, Rs 600 for a 2hr night lagoon fishing trip, Rs 1,500 for a 4hr day sea fishing trip and Rs 200 for an air boat/air bed.

Bangaram Island Resort charges Rs 750 for snorkelling, Rs 600 for a 45min ride in a glass-bottomed boat, Rs 1,800 for a 5hr island picnic, Rs 1,500 for a 2hr night lagoon fishing trip, Rs 2,000 for a 3hr day sea fishing trip and Rs 600 for a sailboat/go kart. Bangaram also offers Ayurveda massages and yoga therapy.

All prices are for hour-long activities, except where mentioned otherwise.

Inter-island transport

The best way to move between islands are the speed launches, unless you have endless time or are desperate, when you could arguably travel by kondalams, the local fishing boats. The launches are run by the administration, and have fixed times, visiting the larger islands once a day and the smaller and more far-flung ones once a week or less. Rate: Rs 700 per head.

Resorts run private boats mostly for airport transfers and picnic visits to nearby islands. Rate from Kavaratti to Pitti Island is Rs 2,000
For medical and other emergencies, there is one helicopter but you require clearance from the administration to get a ride. Rate Rs 750 per head (Kavaratti-Agatti)

Dive packages
All three operators, Sports, AIBR and Bangaram Islad Resort, offer dive packages.

Sports offers diving at Kavaratti, handled by Dolphin Dive Centre’s Shaukat Ali, an islander who is quite a legend in diving circles and a great source of information about the islands. Rate Rs 15,000 for PADI open-water course. In addition, you get food and accommodation at the government tourist huts at a discounted rate of Rs 1,000 per head.

AIBR’s diving at Agatti is run by a German couple, Jens and Beatrice, who offer both PADI and CMAS certification courses. Rate approx Rs 25,000 for PADI open-water course. For more information, log on to www.divelineagatti.com.

CGH has a tie-up on Bangaram with Lacadives, the famous dive centre set up by ad man Prahlad Kakkar and responsible for opening up Lakshadweep to the world dive tourist. Lacadives also runs its own unit at Kadmat. It offers CMAS certification only. Rate approx Rs 18,000 for CMAS one-star course. For more information, log on to www.lacadives.com.

Note that these rates do not include transportation, food or accommodation, which are charged separately by the resort concerned.

Tips
These islands are very low on groundwater and electricity is generated by diesel shipped in from the mainland. So go easy on water and power consumption. If you cannot do without air-conditioning, geysers and TV, this is really not the place for you.

- There is no liquor available on any island except Bangaram.

- This place is for sea and solitude-lovers. You can walk, dive, swim or snorkel for hours but I heard tourists cribbing of boredom because there wasn’t anything to ‘do’. Check first if you can handle such a holiday.

- Nude swimming or sunbathing is not permitted and very skimpy clothes are frowned upon, although it’s easier on Bangaram, which is uninhabited except for the resort.

- If you don’t have a strong stomach, carry seasickness tablets — the sea can get rough on some days.

- Carry swimwear, waterproof sandals, sunglasses and hat, light cotton clothes, books and mosquito repellent cream. Travel light.

- Carry a headscarf if you plan to visit any of the mosques/madrassas on the islands.

- Carry enough supplies of cigarettes, sunscreen and medicines — shops here only stock basic stuff.

- Everything — except coconuts and fish — is shipped in from the mainland so don’t expect malls and don’t ask for Lays chips. (Bangaram has no shops except the resort boutique.)

- Be prepared to feel cut-off — English papers and magazines are not easily available.

- Internet connections are rare and signals poor; and only BSNL mobile phones work here.

 - Food is only what’s served at the resorts — simple Kerala-style cuisine. You could experiment with biriyani or parotta at the few local eateries.

 - This is one of the world’s last few untouched places — don’t litter, pick the coral, or use spears/harpoons for fishing.


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