If you’ve always wondered about island life, ask someone who mans a lighthouse on a remote island and gets to visit the mainland only once a month for supplies. For romanticists, an island quest means marine adventure. For Govind, the caretaker at Oyster Rock Lighthouse on Devgad, it is a lonely vigil shared by another attendant. Their sole responsibility is the daily maintenance of the lighthouse, so that it can efficiently help vessels navigate the high seas at night.
We were visiting a group of five islands within a radius of 5–10 miles from the mainland—the only such cluster along the 5,700km Indian coastline—consisting of Kurumgad, Devgad (Oyster Rock), Madhyalingad (Sanyasi island), Puttadweepa and Anjediva. They shelter the coast from winds and storms, making Karwar an all-season harbour. Arabian seafarers called Karwar’s port Baithkol (Bait-e-kol, Arabic for ‘Bay of Safety’). It is claimed to be one of the world’s three natural ports and the safest too. In 150CE, Ptolemy accurately mapped the position of Anjediva. Great powers vied to control this strategic nook—from Arab sailors, the sultans of Bijapur, the Vijayanagar empire, the Sonda dynasty, the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, to the Portuguese and the British.
The island that was once Devaragudda or ‘god’s hillock’ became Devgad over time. Then the British named it Oyster Rock after finding its rocky fringes full of oysters. Today, a cannon and the 1864 British stonemasonry lighthouse remains. It looms 66-ft high and its beam can be seen from 37km away.
Govind took great care of the polished antique lights, gleaming copper oilcans and spectacular mirrored discs. He led us up the smooth teak steps out onto the slim balcony and said, “It’s peaceful here.” Among the waves were just a few boats silhouetted against the horizon as fishing eagles pirouetted over their eyries.
Around sunset we left. We had to return to our base, Kurumgad (‘tortoise-shaped’ island). Afloat like a carapace, its form is discernible from afar as you arrive by boat from mainland Karwar. Adjacent, lies the small Madhyalingad, locally known as Sanyasi island. Folklore recounts how the island was named after a sage who sought refuge here, and local fishermen swear that his presence is still perceptible.
We were happy to gaze at it from the comfort of Cintacor Island Resort on Kurumgad. In 1498, the India-bound Portuguese discovered the natural harbour formed by the islands off Karwar and called it Cintacora. Whether the name is derived from cinta or sash, after the wide shoreline or a mispronunciation of Chitakula, the old name for Karwar, remains unclear. What is known is that Anjediva was the first place the Portuguese conquered, and the last place they left. As the last ships sailed out in 1961, Kurumgad island ended up with the Coelho family. The Little Earth Group took over and transformed it into a plush resort a year ago.
Our sea-facing cottage (a S cabin) had large balconies overlooking the seascape. The marine-inspired décor ran through the other rooms in the category as well.
Jolly Roger’s Club, the lounge bar, overlooked the sea access from Karwar. Occupying the highest spot on the island was the Captain Nemo’s Deck restaurant, filled with portraits of diving legend Jean Jacques Cousteau.
Next morning we watched glistening pods of dolphins leap and cavort in the sea. The water was a fascinating shade of grey-green with flashes of rainbows in its mysterious depths. Naturalist Roshna accompanied us on a circumnavigation of the island. We took the West Mile Way, walking through dense foliage. Here a grove called Victor Woods was dedicated to the original owner Victor Coelho.
Sanyasi island looked forlorn to our west. A signboard indicated a mysterious deep fissure at the base of Kurumgad. Folklore attributes it to Lord Narasimha who apparently swam into the island creating the long creek, before he emerged near a cave at the top. Geologists theorize that an earthquake formed the fissure over 300 million years ago.
Continuing along the West Mile Way where it joined the Temple Trail, we sprinted up the rock steps to the Narasimha temple. Every year in January thousands of devotees come for a pilgrimage on Paush Purnima. The shrine had a painting of Narasimha slaying the demon Hiranyakashipu. Interestingly, both Kuruma the tortoise and Narasimha, half-man, half-lion, are incarnations of Lord Vishnu. To complete the drama, a fishing eagle (hisvahana) swooped down dramatically.
The areas around the island are good places to spot shy otters or watch sea eagles and brahminy kites soar in the skies. We saw paradise flycatchers, orioles and sunbirds flitting about the bushes. The island is also home to several species of butterflies, including the crimson rose, blue tiger and southern birdwing, the largest in India. Down the slope along East Mile Way, we stopped at a small rocky pool, home to terrapins.
Like Kurumgad, Anjediv island too is historically significant. Theories abound whether Anjediva was so named because it was the anj dweep (‘fifth island’) or in honour of the island deity Aryadurga Devi, whose idol was shifted to safer shores at Ankola after the Portuguese settled here. It remained unoccupied till 1661 when the British were forced to seek shelter there, awaiting the handover of Bombay as dowry after the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza. The island has the 18th-century Our Lady of Brotas Church named after the brotas or perennial sweet-water spring on the island. Handed over to the Indian Navy, Anjediv is no longer open to the public.
After a relaxing massage at Kurumasana the spa on Kurumgad, we strolled to the Cozy Canopy, formed naturally by ancient roots and branches. With the sun going down over the Arabian Sea we headed back to On the Rocks the beach bar. It was 6pm and the beam from Devgad lighthouse began to wink in the distance. Govind was diligently on duty at Oyster Rock while we guiltily sipped martinis, slinking into our shells at Kurumgad as the silvery moon took over the sea. After weeks of hectic travel, we were happy to drop anchor at 14.7 N, 74.1 E.
- Kurumgad is 7km into the Arabian Sea off the coast of Karwar. Fly to Goa airport and drive 2hrs to Karwar. Cross the Kali river bridge and then take the privately arranged boat from Kodibagh for the 30-minute ride to Kurumgad.
CINTACOR ISLAND RESORT
- It is located in Kurumgad, Karwar (‘O Cabin’ at INR 11,500, ‘H Cabin’ at INR 12,500 and ‘S Cabin’ at INR 15,000, excluding taxes; +91-9487533640, cintacorislandresort.com). Weekend tariff is INR 3,000 extra.
WHAT TO EAT
- The restaurant Captain Nemo’s Deck serves fresh seafood besides Konkan, Continental and Indian cuisine. On mainland Karwar, try Hotel Amrut (Main Road, near Syndicate Bank; +91- 9845201215) and Swetha Lunch Home (Ananda Arcade, Green Street; +91-9986675726).
WHAT TO SEE & DO
- Nature Trails on Kurumgad, Sunrise Cruise (6.30am), Sunset Cruise (5.30pm), Dolphin Cruise (9am–6pm), Lighthouse Tour (3pm), Devgad River Cruise (9am–6pm).
- Massages at Kurumasana Spa (11am–9pm).