Varkala is a magic spot. The small holiday beach town is perched vicariously on the edge of an eroding cliff, overlooking the Arabian sea. You can get to Varkala by car from Fort Cochin, a long and very slow trip which winds through an ocean of traffic, pedestrians and cows, or you could fly into Thiruvananthapuram, then take a car north. The state of Kerala is known by the locals ‘Gods Own Country and I am inclined to agree. It is tropical and lush, productive and the locals are very welcoming.
There is not a great deal to do in Varkala and there lies its appeal. Pastimes include sitting under a shady verandah, replenishing your cup from a large pot of ginger and honey tea in the early hours of the day or drinking a chilled Kingfisher beer at sometime later. These two sipping pastimes converge in restaurants that lack liquor licences: you may be served beer in a large teapot.
The locals love to chat, which makes walking far more interesting and certainly adds a few hours to the journey. There are yoga classes, Ayurvedic treatments and cooking schools to attend. If you stay for a long time, you might be inclined to write that great novel or learn the art of total relaxation. Internet services are fast and free, the food is very good and the accommodation is cheap.
The travel brochures in Kerala refer to their State as “God’s own Country” and I have to agree. Bordered on one side by the Malabar Coast, there are many spots along that stretch of sea to while away the hours, Varkala being the most famous. The breeze blows gently from the Arabian sea, the people are friendly, it is the home of Ayurvedic medicine, the food is sensational and the fertile jungle, reaching up into the tea gardens at Munnar, provide the world with the spices we love- cardamom, vanilla, black pepper, along with other goods such as coffee, tea, cashews, rubber and coconut. Like most folk who visit that State in India, we arranged to spend two days travelling on a rice barge through the backwaters, a ‘network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets, a labyrinthine system formed by more than 900 km of waterways.’ Kettuvallums, old restored rice barges, are houseboats which travel very slowly around the tranquil backwaters near Alleppey (Alappuzha), passing colourful villages, fertile agricultural scenery and larger lakes. It is easy enough to organise your trip once you are in Alappuzha. There are many agencies around the town or be guided by the recommendation of your guest house owner.
Our houseboat tour for two included all meals, a comfortable bedroom with en suite, two living areas, one with a dining table, the other, a deck with two comfortable cane chairs to watch the world go by. You may need to do some serious exercise after the trip as the meals are generous. We enjoyed a mostly vegetarian diet with the occasional fish when available. The meals included rice, chappatis or puri, four curries and raita, and fried river fish. The cook, a young man trained to work in hotel restaurants, would negotiate a fish purchase along the way by popping into backwater village markets for fresh supplies. On one occasion, he came back with some huge fresh water marron, which he cleaned and then rubbed with a wet masala mix to marinate for some hours before frying. I loved watching him prepare our meals.
Lemon rice appears on the menu often in Kerala. It makes a perfect side dish to fried fish or an egg curry. It is also a very soothing dish: there are never any leftovers.
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons blanched cashews, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons channa dal
3 cups (330g ) cooked rice
1 teaspoon minced ginger
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped coriander leaves
2 teaspoons or more of lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon asafoetida
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat, then add the mustard and cumin seeds. When they start to splutter, add the cashews and channa dal, and stir over heat to roast. When the nuts begin to colour, add the hot rice, ginger, turmeric, salt and freshly chopped coriander. Stir thoroughly to combine.
Sprinkle with the lemon juice and asafoetida to serve.
Notes. The success of this dish relies very much on all the little crunchy bits which are roasted at the beginning. If you don’t have channa dal, use masoor or mung dal instead. Broken raw cashews are often found in Middle Eastern stores. Use long grain or medium grain rice, not basmati.
Recipe adapted from Tasting India, Christine Manfield, 2011
At Varkala in Kerala, India, the waves roll in from the Arabian Sea, bringing sweet, fresh air from distant lands. No land lies between this beach and the east coast of Africa.
Indian families come to Varkala’s Papanasam beach on the weekends and tentatively tip toe into the water’s edge: youths play ball games on the sand, as they do all over the world.
We retreat to the shade of a nearby restaurant and consider the menu. Perhaps a Kingfisher beer or a large pot of tea, or, depending on their licence, a beer served in a large teapot!
On a nominated day in the month of Karkidakam (mid July to August), thousands of people gather at the beach to make ritual offerings to the departed. These offerings are placed on banana leaves and carried out to sea by the waves. It is believed that the souls of dead ancestors attain ‘moksha’ or eternal release when ‘Vavu Bali’ offerings are made.
A psychedelic Ganesha enjoys a day at the beach, pumping out Indian sound waves at a deafening volume, and providing that festive Indian touch.
Beautiful girls enjoy the waves, but rarely enter the sea.
Wavesis the topic set by Ailsa this week at Where’s My Backpack. Ailsa goes for a traditional New Year’s Day swim in the ice-cold waters of the Irish Sea. I’m staying on the edge, here with these Indian girls, and may take up wearing a silk sari too.
Two words are synonymous in my mind: colourful and India. At times the colours are shocking and overwhelming. These Ganesha were taken down to Varkala Beach, Kerala, India for part of Onam festival. If you think these colours are loud, imagine the volume of the speakers!