Papanasam Beach at Varkala, Kerala
Our vacation in Kerala is done and an excellent time it was. As you can see from these pix of Papanasam Beach, where we were, there were clear skies and ample beach with soft sand … just the thing for relaxation, by Salazar tastes. It was also a great time to see a slice of South India, in many ways the same but in other ways, quite different from the north, such as Pune in Maharashtra where we live.
For one thing, men everywhere much more are in traditional dress, specifically the lungi, or mundu, a long rectangle of cloth wrapped around the waist to make a skirt:
A pretty versatile garment, there’s several ways to go about in your lungi. You might let it drape down, which gives a cool, slightly formal look. Or, you might hold one corner, maybe as our airport-goer on the right is doing; this keeps the folds from binding your knees if you want to walk quickly – in fact many men sort of lightly flap their lungi with a kind of jaunty motion as they walk. Finally, you can grab both edges, fold them up, and knot them in front, as our beach-walker is doing – this is the way for walking fast or doing work.
I thought about trying the lungi myself. In the end, despite the clear comfort – it’s the tropics, after all – I decided against it. I think we westerners often look comical in Indian dress, and with the possibility of wardrobe malfunction from an improperly secured lungi, I decided to hold off, perhaps till another visit.
On to the beach itself. As I said in my previous post, Papanasam Beach is a holy place for Hindus. They go there to make a special puja, called karkidaka vavu. These prayers offer food for the dead, and also cleanse the sins from the living as well as the departed. A key part of the puja is to place an offering of food, spices and other items in a banana leaf, place it on your head, then go down into the sacred water, as this man is doing:
Once the water is reached, they will turn around and drop the offering behind. Then they will rinse themselves all over with the water.
It is late in the season and by talking to some locals we understood there were few people making offerings. In January there would be 100s of supplicants, and on a special day typically in August, 1000s of people will come to the beach. Still every morning there were 20-30 parties preparing for their prayers on the beach:
Which brings me to one of the most interesting aspects of the whole trip. Papanasam is indeed a holy place, but it is also a great beach, a place where tourists want to come and spend money. We saw many Indian couples on the beach like this:
So, there are two kinds of visitors: first the Indians coming to pray and/or relax, and then the foreigners, who come for many reasons, including praying, but also a great many non-prayerful things like drinking, shopping, swimming and sunning. On this beach everywhere you look you see this contradiction, like here:
Western women in bikinis, and Indian men in long-sleeve shirts and lungis and Indian women in saris or kameez. At Varkala both sides peacefully coexist, but the divide between the two worlds is as constantly glaring as the tropical sun itself.
As to the beach: Fantastic! Not at all crowded; it is the tail-end of the season after all. The sand was soft, and at both high and low tides there was ample gently sloping beach. The swells of the Arabian Sea really were modest, but as in the pic on the left, some of the breakers are head-high or more and if you’re standing right at the break-line, you can get knocked over and scraped along the sand:
The waves in fact support surfing; there’s a surf school and we saw some successful surfers:
The last thing I’ll say in this post is about the cliffs. The beach is about 1.5 km south to north, and to the east is all a high cliff of about 20 meters:
Atop these cliffs are guest houses, shops and restaurants. You can reach them from the beach via stairs – somewhat eroded and without rails for some places, the stairs are tricky to navigate in the dark.
Here I’ll end my first post about Varkala. Next time: Elephants, Waterways, Communists, some of the greatest seafood we have ever ate, and the Attack of the Keralan Beach Dog! Till then …