Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Unforgettable Varkala

View of the beach from the cliff; and view of the cliff from the beach at Varkala
It had been not very long since I had read Ken Follett’s novel ‘Eye of the Needle’ that I happened to visit the sleepy town of Varkala in Kerala. The story of this novel revolves around the activities of a Nazi spy during World War II, involved in espionage within Britain. A major part of the story happens on a rocky island near Scottish shore. Imagine a huge mass of rock standing vigilant in vast expanse of sea; and saline waves roaring against its bottom! This image had been imprinted somewhere deep in my mind by the time I finished reading the novel. And I had no idea that the image was about to be realized soon at Varkala.

Varkala- a tiny town at the southern end of Kerala
! At first glance, it appears to be a sleepy hamlet in one remote corner of a vast country, and moving with a speed of its own. A quiet railway station with almost non-existent hustle & bustle and surrounded by lush green trees; a good number of taxis and auto rickshaws outside the station to take you to the beach; no bus stand, and people boarding a bus from the road itself; and ordinary eating outlets along the road, many of those running in kiosks.
The beach shimmers in golden glow at dusk. It is an inviting view nonetheless
There are many souvenir shops lining the road on hilltop where they sell local stuff
This image of Varkala does not change much as you go down the winding road towards the beach. The road runs for almost five kms. till it hits the cliff. And the moment you fill your eyes with the scene below you from the top of the hill, you see a different world altogether. That scene is still unforgettable to me. By the time I reached there, the Sun had started its final descent in the Occident, and the white sandy beach below me was shining in the evening light. The whole setting of the rocky island and the sea in Ken Follett’s novel was suddenly alive before me. The only difference was, whereas there was only one house on that island and it had only a couple of souls living there, here, in Varkala, were many resorts, restaurants and souvenir shops lining the single road on the hilltop and there was a huge crowd enjoying on the beach below.

A better and cheaper option
Varkala is far better option as compared to Goa and Mumbai. It is cheaper too
If you have had enough of the dirty and littered beaches of popular Indian tourist destinations like Goa, Mumbai or Chennai, then welcome to Varkala! The sand here is almost white in colour and shore edge is velvety. And as the sunrays deflected by the clean glassy beach soothe your retina, it feels like a paradise glowing in the golden light. Varkala beach is a strong contender to beaches of Phuket and Penang in beauty. That is why perhaps, you will find so many foreign tourists here- much more than what you will expect at more popular beach of Kovalam in Thiruvananthapuram situated only 50 kilometers away.

The seaside resort town of Varkala is settled on a hillock. This hillock is part of a low mountain range called Western Ghats that runs along the western sea coast of India. As compared to other places, these Ghats almost kiss the seashore in Varkala. The hillock in Varkala has two cliffs namely the North Cliff and the South Cliff. And at the bottom of these sharply sloped cliffs lies the gleaming sandy beach.

One feels at home
There are flea markets too in the small alleys that run off the main road on the cliff
If it is mentally refreshing to spend some time on the beach and get into a playful mood in the Arabian Sea, it is equally relaxing to have an overnight stay in one of the numerous home-stays there. Though there are many five-star resort hotels in Varkala, one can easily find budget accommodation, thus making it an ideal destination for backpackers too. Although, the actual identity of Varkala lies in its home-stays, which offer true backpacking experience. The most of foreign tourists prefer to get mixed up in the local life rather than locking themselves up in a hotel room. Living like a guest with local families, knowing about the culture of Kerala, and savouring pure and delicious home-made local food… home-stay experience is really different and enriching.

My destination too was one of those home-stays. After being tired from travelling almost for the whole day, I stepped into the courtyard surrounded by coconut trees… and what! All my tiredness vanished then and there into thin air. On one side a swing; and on the other some young guests sitting on a mat and laughing heartily! A well for fetching drinking water from; and a candle light dinner with Keralite dishes while sitting on a cot! It felt as if all the guests staying there were known to each other since long and a part of an extended family.

Taste and Health come together here
Many small restaurants are there on the cliff. Though there are bigger ones too
Having local food at a home-stay has a charm of its own, though one has an option of having meal at one of the restaurants on the cliff. If one is in town, then there also are numerous food outlets serving all kind of food. The restaurants at the cliff can offer you mesmerizing ambience- music playing amidst dim lights, a roaring sea just beneath you, and fresh seafood... What else one wants! Bet it, you won’t forget this dinner. And if you wish, you can buy raw seafood here and get it cooked to your own taste and choice. Varkala is indeed a paradise for food lovers. Health conscious people also have something to rejoice in Varkala. They can have Ayurvedic massage and spa at very reasonable rates and there are several such centers where you can say goodbye to your physical and mental fatigue.

Janardhana Temple and Sivagiri Monastery
The Janardhana Temple is 2000 years yold and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu
If Varkala is one of the best destinations for those who love comfort and sophistication at an affordable price, it is no less important from religious point of view. Here you can visit Janardhana Temple that is 2000 years old. It is not very far from Papanasham beach which literally means ‘destroyer of all sins’. This place is religiously so important for local people that they call it ‘Kashi of the South’. In addition, Sivagiri Math in Varkala is also a centre of religious activities. This was founded by great saint and philanthropist Narayana Guru. A festival is celebrated at Sivagiri from December 30th to January 1st every year.

Some tips before you go there
  • Situated about 50 kms from Thiruvananthapuram and 25 kms from Kollam, Varkala is easily approachable by bus and train. Train travel is far more convenient. The name of the railway station is Varkala Sivagiri.
  • Not every train originating or passing through Kollam or Thiruvananthapuram stops at Varkala Sivagiri station. Check out before you board a train.
  • Varkala beach and the cliff above have many eating and drinking outlets where one can have a memorable dinner while enjoying cool and misty sea breeze.
  • I had booked my home-stay on internet and it was a bit costly as compared to others. But there are many home-stays to choose from and not each of them is offered on internet. One can get a cheaper option even after getting to Varkala.
  • Before you choose a home-stay, do inquire about the facilities they provide there. Don’t forget to ask whether breakfast is included in your room tariff or not. Sometimes it is there but they will offer it only if you ask about it.
  • If you intend to spend much time in Varkala, rooms are available on rental basis.
Text and Photos by Ajay Garg

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3 comments:

Hotel accommodation is one thing that you do not want to go wrong when taking a last minute vacation. Finding the right accommodation can really enhance your trip. Most popular tourist destinations have a wide variety of hotel options, from basic lodging facilities to ultra-deluxe resorts. All that needs to be done is to choose your destination and then do some research to find out the hotels that suit your budget.

You have given a very exhaustive account of the place. It is nice to know that there are cliffs close to the beach. That makes the beaches of Phuket so interesting. Looks like this place is not as popular as other beaches and hence one should pay a visit. May be while visiting nearby wildlife sanctuaries.

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