On Ma –Baba’s annual visit this year, we thought we would go to the very tip of India, the southern most point where the three seas meet. Thereafter we planned to throw in a bit of Kerala too with the sleepy town of Kollam (formerly known as Quilon) and the vibrant Cochin (the better part of it now called Ernakulam). We set off the Kanyakumari express which leaves Bangalore at 9: 40 pm to reach Kanyakumari at 6pm the next evening. This train, though headed for Tamil Nadu, (where Kanyakumari is located) travels for most of the morning through the lush green land of Kerala. Acres of coconut trees and banana groves on both sides presented a breath taking sight. We learnt of a new tourist destination, Varkala beach, a group of foreign tourists were headed there. The train also stopped at Ernakulum station.
We reached Kanyakumari at the stipulated time. Our bookings were made at the ‘Tri Sea ‘ hotel named after the confluence of the three seas ( Arabian sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian ocean) at the farthest point of Kanyakumari. There was a bit of confusion when our autorickshaw driver sped off with one of our bags by mistake. Another auto driver who had arrived with other tourists knew him and called him on the mobile phone (jai ho cell revolution!!) and before we could panic further, our bag was brought back. Our rooms faced the sea and thus we had a good view of the Vivekanand Rock which would be our destination on the next day and the gigantic statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar built on an adjacent rock.Ma and Baba called it a day, while we went to explore the sea side. We had missed the sun set by minutes, anyhow we had the whole of next day to experience this quaint town of Kanyakumari! The children went quite berserk at the sight of the sea waves and I had a tough time stopping them from running right into the ocean!! It had grown quite dark by then, however we splashed about for some time before having dinner and finally turning in.
The next morning we were all up by 5am and we reached the seaside, sun rise point well in advance. The most amazing thing was that half the world had already arrived at the scene. Thousands of people we milling about, waiting to witness the phenomenon. There were many waiting to to take a dip in the confluence of the seas at the auspicious moment of the sun rise. It was cloudy and therefore it was not a picture book sun rise, however the changing colour of the skies presented a spectacular picture. Ma and Baba watched from the balcony of the hotel itself.
After the sun rise show was over we returned to the hotel and quickly got ready and set off for the sea side once again to visit the famous Vivekanand Rock. The young Vivekananda had wandered to this southern most point of the country in search of enlightenment. Gazing at this rock from the shore, he was intrigued by it and yearning for the seclusion it afforded, the young man swam across to it and meditated long on its rocky surface. In the 1970s the then President of India, V V Giri, inaugurated the memorial ‘temple’ that has been built on the rock now. Personally I would have prefferd it if they had left the rock well alone, but I am sure very few among the ‘authorities’ the view. As if this were not enough, a rock beside Vivekanand’s has been usurped by the supporters of Tamil patriotism, who, no doubt resented the predominance of a Bengali (Vivekanand) in these parts. As a result a monstrous statue of the ancient Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar has been erected on a rock right next to Vivekanand’s. Thiruvalluver looms out of the ocean like an ominous genie and dwarfs the Vivekanand rock. The Tamillians have, at least symbolically, established their superiority but unfortunately they have further destroyed the pristine beauty of the place that had so inspired Vivekanand. The place still remains a favourite of the Bengalis scores of them thronged the place. Even though we visited the place on a weekday, there were very large crowds around. Bengalis and Keralites comprised the greatest number among the tourists. It took us half an hour in the long winding queue, to get to the ticket counter . There were two ferry launches taking passengers to and from the rocks. We had to wait for another 15 to 20minutes after buying the tickets. In the waiting room after the ticket counter, there were long cement benches for the passengers. On the walls of this waiting room was scribbled names and phone numbers of our literate and yet uneducated public and most of those who had so desecrated the walls belonged to the north of the country- Pune, Punjab, Delhi- very rarely were they people from the south. There was a proposition saying- 'good looking boys available' (or something to that effect) followed by their names and phone numbers! There was also an admonition written in bright blue across a wall which said “please do not write on the walls”! Finally it was our turn to ride the ferry boat. It is a short ride of about 7-8 minutes. The rock affords a beautiful view of the seas and the pretty town of Kanyakumari. There are two ‘temples’ on the rock, one dedicated to the deity ‘Kumari’ which has her footprint in it, opposite to it is the Vivekanand shrine. Below the shrine is a meditation room. We could see the different colours of the three seas that merged into one, near the rock. The sea breeze was soothing and cool, although the day was very hot. We spent a happy half and hour on the rock. We walked through the meditation room where people were chanting the ‘om’ sound, we also visited the souvenir shops lined along the back of the memorial shrine and bought many interesting knick knacks from there.
We gave the Thiruvalluvar rock a miss because there were a lot of steps to climb and we were weary after the day in the scorching sun. We returned to the mainland and headed for the seaside shops to buy shells and dry fruits. There was some delightful stuff at these shops. Then we went to the rocky beach which we had visited last evening. The children immediately dived in! There was a sign board saying that it was a ‘deep and dangerous’ sea-they did not care whether the sea was deep or dangerous, they were ecstatic! The little one chanted ‘deep and dangerous sea’ every time the waves hit him, however the next moment he went further in! I spent half the fishing the kids out of the water. In the evening we witnessed a quiet and beautiful sun set at the ‘sun set point’. In sharp contrast to the sun rise, this was a perfect affair with the round orange sun dipping smoothly into the sea. Later in the evening we set off for Kollam ( the hotel arranged for the taxi which took Rs 2000 for the four hour drive). Kollam along with Alleppy a little further down are the centers from where the famous backwater trips are organized in Kerala. On our way we had our first taste of Kerala cuisine at a restaurant in Trivandrum where we stopped for dinner. It was appam and idiappam all the way- lip smacking! We reached Kollam at 10: 30 pm and there was nothing much to do than to go to sleep. We got up next morning to see a beautiful town, covered in coconut trees. From the balcony at one of the rooms we could catch a glimpse of the backwater trail, with a small houseboat parked in it. Out of the various trips in the backwaters and canals we chose the traditional boat ride which included a 2 hour tour of the canals through villages, with stoppages at a coir rope making unit, lakes where fish are cultivated and coconut oil making units. The boat ride was preceded by a 45 minute bus ride to Munroe Island from where we boarded the boat. Thereafter we quietly floated down the winding canals. There were several low bamboo and even concrete bridges over the canals under which we had to duck, apart from that exertion, the trip went off smoothly. It was fun to glide down the tree lined canal way looking out for birds and tadpoles in the water. The most familiar bird for us was the snake bird (apart from the crow!), kingfishers, eagles and egrets. After doing some leisurely wandering we were treated to some tea at a tea stall cum coir making unit. The lady who made tea for us also demonstrated later the art of making the coir ropes at a spinning wheel behind her shop. The ‘husk’ of the coconut is first immersed in water for a stipulated period of time and then dried and separated into a threadlike mass. Next, this mass is slowly and skilfully wound into the wheel to make the ropes. It was thrilling to watch the rope appear from a mass of thread as if by magic!
During our meanderings we also saw great lakes/ ponds where fish, including the popular tiger prawn is ‘grown’. Large nets have been used to cover the ponds so that the birds do not make off with the fish. For the first time I saw nets being used to save and not to catch fish! Our final stop was at a coconut oil making unit where we also saw a cashew tree in fruit a pineapple shrub. Finally we were treated to sweet tender coconut water, fresh from the tree! We were on the boat with a group of foreigners (one of them had a Bengali grandfather…hail to the adventurous spirit of the Bengali!). During our ride we saw a foreigner couple on a boat by themselves and a Sikh gentleman with his family in another. At the tea shop we saw another group which also had mostly foreigners in it. Thus I concluded that this beautiful ride is more popular among the foreigners than us Indians, who would rather avoid the glaring rays of the sun! I rate this tour better than the launch ride of eight hours between Kollam and Alleppy (which we did 13 years ago) because it is far more adventurous and more fun. During the earlier trip we almost dozed off in the latter part of the journey! This trip did not have a single dull moment….I recommend this mesmerising trip for anyone who chooses to visit Kollam. After returning back to Kollam town, we had a quick lunch and rested for an hour before catching the bus for Ernakulum. These buses are quite frequent from the Kollam bus depot. After one and a half hours of the journey, we hopped off at Alleppy to try and catch the last backwater ride, but unfortunately missed it. We took an autorickshaw to Ernakulum from Alleppy, which is a journey of another one and a half hours. Now, this auto fellow decided that he should take us to the heart of Fort Kochi because I had said that we wanted to stay at a place from where the Chinese fishing nets were easily accessible. What we did not know was that whereas earlier the only way to get to the fort side was by ferry boats, now the powers that be have built bridges connecting the town with the Fort Kochi area and half the islands, making the ferry system nearly redundant. What a shame, the charm of the place has diminished considerably due to this. In any case, we managed to get a good hotel at Fort Kochi and after a hearty dinner with Kerala parotha and curry washed down with some lemon tea, we fell fast asleep looking forward to a bright day ahead.
The next day, after breakfast we first went to the Synagogue in the heart of Jew town at the Fort. This place also has the famous spice market of Cochin. Thirteen years ago we had breezed into the synagogue and taken a photo of the inner sanctum. Now it presented a forbidding picture- no bags allowed inside, photography prohibited, there was also an elaborate instruction regarding the proper dress that should be worn at the place of worship. People are instructed to wear no sleeveless tops or shorts- long pants and scarves were made available so that those who were ‘improperly’ dressed did not miss the chance to visit the place. We entered in batches, one group keeping guard over the bags by turns. When we visited the place so many years ago, there were hardly any visitors, however now there was a huge crowd gathered around the place. People from all over the world were here to see this little synagogue! The heightened security ( there were armed police lolling about the place), was perhaps due to the attack on Jews in Bombay on 26/11. After visiting the synagogue we wandered about in the long winding lanes in ‘Jew Town’ looking at various artefacts and spices which were on display. We ambled along to the ‘Dutch Palace’ which houses a museum which has many art works and costumes etc of the royal family of Travancore. Afterwards we took the ferry boat to Ernakulum town, planning to take another ferry to Bolghatty Island. They have built so many bridges across the sea that there is no need to take the ferry at all, the tickets are only Rs. 4 per head and the service is used by tourists in the main. Previously, the boats used to be full of office goers, in lungis and crisp shirts with the mandatory leather briefcases. At Ernakulum we learnt, to our dismay that the ferry to Bolghatty island has been scrapped because the island can now be reached by a 3 kilometer long bridge. The Bolghatty island has a palace which has been converted into a 5 star hotel, we had not planned to enter the hotel, we just wanted to enjoy the joy ride to the island and catch the next ferry back, but that was not to be…We had a hearty lunch in the town and took the ferry back to Fort Kochi and headed straight for the Chinese fishing nets. The sea shore where the nets are located is now filled with stalls selling trinkets and t-shirts and one can hardly see the shoreline. This area was once open and unpaved with only a few fish shops with boards saying ‘You Choose, We Cook’ where fish freshly caught at the nets was fried for eager visitors. Now there were no such shops in sight. We observed the complicated process of fishing with the help of the nets for some time. After wandering at the sea side stalls for a bit, we returned to the hotel for some rest.
In the evening we left the sleeping kids with Ma and Baba and went to explore the place around the hotel for the last time. We found the ‘you choose, we cook’ shops at a place very near our hotel, however they just sold the fish. The fish would have to be fried by various ‘seafood’ restaurants which have sprung up around the place. We had the fish fried and packed at one of these places and headed off to the station as we were taking the 9 o’clock train back to Bangalore. Finally we ate the fish with our dinner of doas in the train. A delicious ending to a delightful holiday!!