Lakshadweep oceans of fantasy
It is winter and time to head south, to take respite from the chill of North India. While the Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean have become a routine hotspot option, the Lakshadweep archipelago offers a spectacular tropical coral paradise in India, with its baffling mysteries and exquisite underwater surprises. If you love beaches, sun and sand and some adventure, pack your gear and set course for Lakshadweep.
Lakshadweep is an archipelago of twelve atolls, three reefs and five submerged banks, with a total of about thirty-nine islands and islets. It is a major sea reference point for navigators as it acts as a kind of compass for the Arabian-African-Asian trade route on the Arabian sea. The islands have long been known to sailors, as indicated by an anonymous reference to the region in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, as early as the first century AD. Lakshadweep in Malayalam and Sanskrit means ‘a hundred thousand Islands’, but in reality it is a group of 36 islands of varied sizes and shapes. The total area covered by the islands is about 32 Sq Km and it has about 4200 Sq Km stretch of enchanting lagoons all around, rich with marine life and corals of myriad species, shapes and colours, creating an unforgettable experience for visitors. These islands are known for their sun-kissed, snow white beaches, lush green coconut groves and abundant marine flora and fauna. It is India’s only tropical coral island and the tiniest of all the Union Territories. Its unique beauty and features makes it an ideal location for eco-tourism and adventure water sports.
Lakshadweep is as stunning as it is difficult to get to. Only 10 of the islands are inhabited, mostly by Sunni Muslim fishermen, and foreigners are only allowed to stay on a handful of these. With fishing and coir production the main sources of income, local life on the islands remains highly traditional and a caste system divides the islanders between Koya (land owners), Malmi (sailors) and Melachery (farmers). Lakshadweep can only be visited on organised package trips – which often includes diving permits and meals and tours on cruise ships. Peak season is October-May.
The history of these islands says that the last Chera King of Kerala, Cheraman Perumal, was responsible for its first settlement, initially with Hindus and Buddhists. Later, in 7 AD, Islam reached the Islands through St Ubaidhulla. In 1987, Tippu Sultan took over the administration of the Islands and subsequently, the East India company, under British rule. The archipelago, earlier known as ‘Laccadive, Aminidivi and Minicoy’ group of Islands, was formed as a union Territory in 1956 and later rechristened as Lakshadweep in 1973.
The main inhabited Islands of Lakshadweep include Amini, Androth, Bitra, Chetalt, Agatti, Bagaram, Kadamat, Kalpeni, Kavaratti and Minicoy. Ships sail to most of these islands from the mainland, and Agatti has flights from Kochi, Kozhikode and Bangalore All islands are connected by ferry. When you line up to board the SS Kavaratti at Willingdon Island you will have a Titanic kind of moment; not the moment when the ship sinks but when the moment adventure begins – when anything is possible. The ship is immense, the excitement is palpable and there are dreams of dancing, romance and maybe a devilish Leonardo Di Caprio on the deck below you. Reality then, is a bit of a downer. The government run multi-island cruise features monk-like cells, mess food straight from the barracks and travellers who are retired folks and government employees on LTA – 90% of whom have no interest in seeing any colorful anemones. Or any marine life for that matter. As starts of journeys go, this is a bad one. It’s only when you wake up the next morning and find yourself gently bobbing on a psychedelic blue sea that you forgive the noisy retiree’s their game of antakshari and remember why you came here in the first place.
Kavaratti is the administrative capital of Lakshadweep. The island is endowed with absolute beauty and serenity, with its sandy beaches, shallow lagoons, spectacular coral reefs, teeming marine life and the lush green coconut groves. The island has an enchanting aquarium, planetarium and a museum. The place is ideal for snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking, yachting, canoeing and other adventure sports. Kavaratti also houses an important pilgrim centre for Muslims. The busy beach at Kavaratti is a small one but it boasts of a world-class dive center. Of the many great dive sites here, the one you should refuse to leave without seeing is the Wall of Wonder – an immense wall of soft corals crawling with giant sea turtles, that goes deep into a bottomless sea.
Agatti Island is the gateway to Lakshadweep. This island has a hotter climate compared to the others. The aerial view over the island offers an amazing feast for the eyes with multi-layered, multi-coloured shallow lagoons with coral reflections encircling the island. There are fully furnished resorts and cottages on offer for tourists. The atoll also offers some of the finest swimming beaches in the world along with other adventure sports including diving, snorkelling, and sea skiing, besides fishing.
Kalpeni is heavenly, with its green ocean on one side and the blue ocean on the other. This island has the largest lagoon in the archipelago. The main attraction here is the huge storm coral debris deposited along the eastern and south-eastern shoreline. The vast shallow lagoon makes it an ideal place for swimming, reef walking, kayaking, sailing and other similar sports. The island also houses a hosiery factory and a lighthouse. A visit to the nearby coconut processing unit may also be interesting to some.
Minicoy or ‘Maliku’ as the inhabitants like to call it, is the southernmost and second largest Island in the region after Androth. Minicoy is almost incandescent in it’s beauty. Not far from Maldives, this island strip has a dreamlike quality, with water that looks like it’s been poured from liquid diamonds. This is also the place that will make your dreams of shipwreck dives and lost treasure come true. Minicoy is long and semicircular in shape and entirely covered with coconut trees. When viewed from the pinnacle, the shimmering islet within the islands appears like the beautiful eye of a girl. People over here speak mostly ‘Mahi’ or Malayalam. The way of life is akin to people of the Maldives. The atoll has very good diving sites with old shipwrecks and excellent marine life.
Kadmat is where your underwater adventures get an adrenalin boost. One of the few islands that allows foreigners, this is where the serious divers come from all over the world for famous sites like Sting Ray City & Shark Alley. The rather dull sounding Marine Wealth Awareness Package (Rs 10,000) makes for the ultimate diving holiday. But Lakshadweep is not your average beach holiday. There are no cocktails at sundown and massages at dawn. There is only the water and what lies beneath. Alchohol is permitted only on Bangaram island. Of all the islands, the tourist lodge at Kadmat comes closest to an actual beach resort though you may continue to miss your Pina Colada. But as you leave the archipelago and head to the mainland, you realize that spartan facilities and average food don’t matter anymore. Your mind is untethered from inconsequence and set afloat in the wonder and magic of the worlds below.
The main language in Lakshadweep is Malayalam with its own unique accent. The main folk art form is Kolkali and Parichakali. The economy of Lakshadweep is based on fishing and agriculture and rice is the staple food. Fish and coconut are abundant and are used in most dishes. In case you are a non-vegetarian, locally prepared Tuna pickle is a must try and carry-home item. Beach volley ball and football are the favourite sports of the islanders. The climate is warm and humid and the average temperatures vary between 27 C–32 degrees.
The vast expanse of thick coconut groves kissing the clouds present a marvellous background to this beautiful archipelago. The elaborate marine life is a kaleidoscopic abundance of fabulous coral reefs and colourful fishes. It has over 600 species of marine fishes, 78 species of corals, 82 species of seaweed, 52 species of crabs, and 101 species of birds. Moray eels, octopus, sea cucumbers and hermit crabs are a common sights, while a keen observer can find playful dolphins, turtles and stingrays occasionally. Pitti Island is an important breeding place for sea turtles and has been declared a bird sanctuary. Interestingly, there are no dogs or snakes on the islands and very few cows!
Six ships connect Kochi and Lakshadweep, the M.V Kavaratti, M.V Amindivi, M.V Minicoy, M.V Arabian Sea, M.V Lakshadweep Sea and M.V Bharath Seema. Entry to the islands are restricted even for domestic tourists, who need a permit to visit but ship tour packages through SPORTS (Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports in Lakshadweep) are exempted from entry restriction. Presently, Kalpeni Kavaratti and Minicoy are open only for domestic tourists, while Kadamat, Agatti and Bangaram are open for international tourists as well. Since such a small region cannot support industries, the government is actively promoting tourism as a means of income in Bangaram and Kadmat. Water sports such as scuba diving, wind surfing, snorkelling, surfing, kayaking, canoeing, water skiing, yachting and night-voyages into the sea are quite popular among tourists. Tourists flock to these islands except during the South-west monsoon months, when seas are extremely rough. Lakshadweep is a great holiday for kids – the lagoons are shallow and safe and snorkeling will keep them fully engaged.
Lacadives runs dive centres on Bangaram and Kadmat Islands. Costs can vary: a CMAS one-star course costs Rs 25000, while experienced divers pay from Rs 2500 per dive (including equipment hire), with discounts available for multiple dives. Opt for packages that come with island stay if you want more dives and less people. The clear blue sky and the deep blue ocean dotted with islands, paints a picture-postcard view of Lakshadweep
and the musical murmuring of the sea and wind and the caress of the azure waters against the sandy beaches offers a treasure trove of memories
to carry home.