Lakshadweep - a set of pearls in the Arabian Sea
Maldives is a name which is known to most of our countrymen for various reasons. A sister SAARC County, employer of many Bangladeshi expatriate workers, a mighty SAARC Soccer power despite being tiny and above all a tourist heaven are some of the criteria by which we know this paradise on earth.
But few of us have much idea about Lakshadweep islands though they are just similar string of islands in the same waters of Arabian Sea lying in proximity with each other and may be termed as the same group of islands though belonging to different political entities.
Well Maldives is an independent nation having its capital in Male whereas Lakshadweep islands is an Indian Union Territory administered by a Governor appointed by Indian Central Government in Delhi and does not belong to any State.
Most of the 65000 population speak Malayalam the nearest Indian State being Kerala and Kochi (former Cochin) being Lakshadweep main contact point with the mainland. 10 of their 36 islands are inhabited because of paucity of sweet water in the other 26. Some of the islanders specially in Minicoy speak Maldivian language Mahl or Dhivehi.
Kerala people call their state God's own country because of its natural beauty and abundance of natural wealth (both minerals and agricultural products). Even people from that blessed state have a longing for visiting Lakshadweep from time to time to spend holidays in this piece of heaven in tranquil surroundings.
People from other parts of India and for that matter other countries of the world have started zooming in to this yet unexplored holiday destination. Restrictions do apply and you have to obtain a special permit apart from Indian visa to land in the only airstrip in Lakshadweep.
It is in Agatti Island and the exciting landing will give you a feeling your aircraft might end up in the blue waters of Arabian Sea because the waters are 50 meters from the run way on both the sides. We have organized our February trip to these exquisite islands through SPORTS (Society for Promotion of Recreation, Tourism and Sports) an organization run by Lakshadweep Administration.
They issue the permit and takes charge of you and organize all your movement, food, lodging and recreation from the moment of your landing up to your departure. There is only one Air India flight everyday to and from Agatti to the mainland India.
It orginates in Bangalore and flies to and from Agatti via Kochi. Alternatively you can take an all inclusive cruise for different duration to different Lakshadweep islands from Kochi that too under SPORTS. Me and Anjana actually were booked for the cruise but unfortunately our designated ship was docked for repair and we were offered the flight alternative.
While we boarded our flight from Kochi, I found our carrier to be a turbo prop ATR, a small aircraft. My God, thought I, what if any technical trouble crops up during our 1 hour 15 mins flight in this small toy? 10 Kms after we take off from Kochi airport we enter Arabian Sea and its blue waters all the way up to Agatti.
Nowhere to make an emergency landing in case its necessary. We have crossed Atlantic / Pacific/ Indian Oceans many times in the past. In all those cases the birds were big guys like Airbus 330, Boeing 747, etc. So tremors in the heart were never so much.
But I had to remain brave in front of Anjana least she gets nervous. So muttering Ya Nafsi to myself we boarded and waited for the eventuality which turned out to be a pleasant and smooth flight. We had beautiful view of the blue waters, toy like ships, white crown of breaking waves and small islands of different conceivable shapes.
Such views were possible due to the low flying altitude of our ATR in comparison to the big birds. So you see, you have opportunities to make out of every distress.
Only you have to know the art of conversion. We were so engrossed in the beauty that I forgot of my anticipations and a smoothest possible landing earned a big round of applause from the Lakshadweep passengers coming home and joined by us and a few other foreign tourists.
While we set our feet on the runway, a smart youngman approached us "Welcome to Lakshadweep Mr. & Mrs Dutta. Please follow me". We walked a short distance with him to the Arrival hall and he look our passports for registration to the assigned desk. I asked whether he needed the landing permit.
With a smile he said he had one from his office. Now I know they can easily spot the tourists they have to guide by seeing pictures on the permit beforehand. Formalities done, he whisked us off to a pickup van that we boarded for a short sightseeing of Agatti Island. His men have already collected our luggage.
The pleasant sightseeing drive was over in 20/25 minutes. We were mesmerized with the picturesque views of the blue and emerald waters peeping out from every corner between greenery of mostly coconut groves, thatched huts of fishermen and small brick houses of comparatively well to do inhabitants.
Finally we reached the small jetty to board our boat to Kavaratti Island, a 2 hour journey through the Arabian Sea in the speedboat, the distance being over 40 km. It's a little bit tricky to board the 200 seat air conditioned boats by small dinghy type boats from the jetty. But SPORT people were everywhere to lend us a hand and local people are also very welcoming, friendly and of helping attitude.
A Lakshadweep lady cop Mehrunnisa took Anjana by hand and led her from the jetty to the swaying dinghy and put her to a seat comfortably. The enjoyable journey of 2 hours ended in no time with us photo shooting, viewing beautiful scenery, interacting with Lakshadweepians. 93% of Lakshadweep population is Sunni Muslims.
Islam was preached by Sufi Ubaidullah in the 7th century AD. His grave is still a pilgrim center in Androth Island. The Society is Matriarchal and we found most ladies wearing burquah or hijab but very freely talking to even us foreigners. We found them to be very moderate Muslims, practicing their religion with dignity.
We arrived at the Kavaratti jetty at 1 PM and were greeted by Mr. Shalikh, our guide. SPORTS tourist complex was quite close and in 10 minutes we were in the comfort of our ariconditined suite in our resort.
It was on the beach and our room was at a distance of about 50/60 meters from Arabian Sea waters at high tide. All our meals were served just on the beach. Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Tea/ Coffee/ snacks were all included in the trip cost. You don't have to think about anything but enjoying your trip.
Rest all was planned by Mr. Shalikh. He of course discussed with us from time to time and made adjustments here and there. Food included locally caught fishes (fried, curry, roasted), tuna most notable amongst them.
Vegetables and chicken were of course there. We enjoyed Kavaratti (the Capital of Lakshadweep) for 2 days and had beautiful sunrise and sunset, coral and fish viewing from glass bottom boat, tour through the Kavaratti island (seeing life style of locals, visiting Government House, climbing up the light house and having a view of the island which was almost wholly covered with coconut groves, save few houses and government structures.
A very special privilege for me was to visit the water plant of the island which accounted for the potable water of its inhabitants by converting saline sea water into sweet water by using the energy of difference in water temperature from the upper and lower levels of the sea water.
It has turned out to be economic and effective. Me and Anjana enjoyed sitting on the beach especially after dusk and sipped our coffee or soup listening to the sound of water and savoring the sound and beauty of darkness.
Occasional flicker of light from a distant fishing boat would remind us of the struggle that mankind has to go through to maintain livelihood. In the daytime the silver color of fine sand in the beaches (unlike yellowish or blackish in our country) is a treat to your eyes.
It will not be out of place to mention here that 88%of the islanders have basic education and 65000 of them have the right to send one of them to Indian parliament Lokshabha as MP. Their main earning is from fishing and copra production. The population is extremely decent. Over the years they have had Muslim, Hindu, Portuguese, Arakanese and British rulers for the strategic importance of the islands.
Before I conclude, I must mention the Azara masque in Kavaratti which is extremely beautiful for its intricate wood carvings made by timber and artisans brought from Karnataka some 400 years ago. Its shape resemble more a Pagoda than a traditional mosque.
Locals strongly believe that the water from a well in the mosque compound has healing qualities. Like all good things come to a quick end, our enjoyable trip came to an end when Shalikh saw us off on the speedboat bound for Agatti for our return flight early in the 3rd morning.
The writer is an engineer, engaged in ready-made garments business, and is an avid traveller