Varkala is a sleepy beach town, located about an hour from Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of India’s southern state Kerala. In the Malayalam language, spoken in this part of India, Kerala is ‘ker’ meaning ‘coconut’ and ‘ala’ meaning ‘land’. It’s where coconut trees hug the jagged cliffs and coastline while shops line a dirt road for scooters, driven by barefooted locals, can casually rumble along.
We tuck into a hearty breakfast at Café Del Mar to energise our big day of swimming and sight-seeing. For INR170 (just over US$3) I’m served all the basics – wholemeal toast, muesli with slivered almonds and sultanas atop a salad of pineapple, banana, papaya, freshly squeezed juice as thick as lassi, and a choice of tea or coffee. We get in early to grab a table overlooking the Arabian Sea and Papanasam Beach as a gentle breeze blows on by.
After breakfast, we decide to head out to the local Janardana Swami Temple. Along our path we stumble over a secluded part of the beach where locals have come to pray, make offerings to the waves and meditate while priests sit cross-legged under umbrellas. A stray dog decides to do the same, taking advantage of the cool shade under an umbrella while it lasts. In a coconut tree-lined street we find rickety stalls selling bunches of bananas. One such stall is a makeshift supermarket; wooden shelves under a thatched roof housing packets of biscuits and bottles of water amongst its supplies. In the distance we hear a distinct call of worship and song, reverberating from a crackly PA.
We reach a steep flight of stairs ascending to the temple after we’ve removed our shoes. We pay the INR50 each to have someone look after our shoes for us, and to enter the temple. Local women dressed in saris take one lethargic step at a time, hitching the length of material from around their ankles to make the climb a little easier. Some stop mid-way to take in air and wipe perspiration from their brows. It seems that the locals battle the strength of the humidity here too. Sweat is cascading down my back but the open-air temple above us offers leafy shade.
This 2,000-year old Hindu temple is dedicated to the deity Janardana Swami, a form of Lord Vishnu, and is situated near the beach because the seawaters are deemed to hold spiritual qualities. A morning visit proves to be a wise decision, as we sense the humidity and heat slowly climbing around us. Small bowls have been moulded into the temple’s walls to hold candles or camphor lamps. These walls are shiny from the constant burning of candle wax and greasy camphor oil. Local men remove their shirts and reveal their bodies draped in white cloth. They step into the inner sanctum of this temple to show their deep respects to the ashes of a deceased soul, returned here from a crematorium. This is an important ritual for Janardana Swami Temple, a place where death, as well as birth, is revered by Varkala’s Hindu community.
A nearby tree gives women the opportunity to pray for fertility if they are struggling to become pregnant. Women bring plastic dolls to tie to the tree before performing a small, murmured prayer. A lady dressed in a shawl is nearby to offer reassurance to the hopeful, delivered in a melody plucked from a one-string violin.
By late morning, the humidity is soaring so we wander to the beach. Back towards Café Del Mar, we descend a steep flight of stairs to make our way to jade-coloured waves. I’m reminded of my trips to the beach as a kid back home, moments when we raced to the sand to drop our belongings and dive into the water to cool down. It’s exactly what I do today. The waves are clear and cool, giving me respite from the sweltering heat and humidity. Two fishermen in a skinny canoe glide over the cascading waves. They manoeuvre the sea with admiral strength, paddling their canoe into the whitewash before their upper-bodies lunge into their oars. With pinpoint accuracy and timing, the canoe mounts the lip of next wave and flies through the air before being dropped down to the backwater.
The sandy beach then calls me in for rest and sunbathing. We hire an umbrella for half a day at INR120; essential shelter when we’re sunbathing so close to the equator. As we laze on the sand, a local woman scours the beach for peckish beachgoers. She sings loudly: ‘Pineapple, pineapple, papaya, coconut!’ We pay her INR60 as she fishes out a fresh pineapple from her sack. Within seconds, she slices away the prickly skin with a machete. She makes fine slices in the sweet flesh so all we need to do is peel it away with our fingers. By the time we gobble up our pineapple, it’s time for another dip in the ocean.