We left Kovalam on 9th January, making the short journey down to Kanyakumari on an early morning train. After a while the countryside changed from the typical Keralan scene of endless coconuts and became more open. The Western Ghats receded, managing to cough up a few final scenic, isolated, lumpy mountains before disappearing completely to leave a windswept plain and a palpable Land’s End feel by the time we pulled into India’s southernmost town. Even if you couldn’t see the sea, you would know that Kanyakumari is a seaside town – from the sandy grass railway embankments and luggage-laden families to the candy floss sellers and stalls selling tasteless souvenirs made from sea shells, the place resembles an Indian version of Skegness.
Unlike Skegness however, it also has an important Hindu temple that draws millions of pilgrims every year to worship there, watch the sun rise over the sea, and take a dip where the Bay of Bengal meets the Arabian Gulf. It also has a couple of small islands just offshore, one with a temple and the other with a monumental sculpture of the Tamil philosopher poet, Thiruvelluvar – both edifices were fetchingly lit in the evening and we had a good view from the restaurant on the top floor of the Seashore Hotel, which we had quickly established was the only really decent place to eat in the immediate area (even though its Kingfishers were an excruciating Rs220 each thanks to Tamil Nadu’s high alcohol taxes). Luckily it was almost opposite the Gopinivas, where we were staying. Passenger boats make the short crossing to the islands but on our first afternoon there the sea was very rough (you know it must be bad when all the passengers on an Indian boat are wearing life jackets) and the boats could not land and the second island.
Evidently we were not the only people to chicken out of making the trip that afternoon, as the next day the queue for the ferry snaked right up through the market area and along the main drag to the beach to the coach park. Those at the end could expect a wait of several hours, so we didn’t join them. Instead we wandered down through the brightly painted houses below the Seashore Hotel – with steep narrow streets and constant wind, it reminded me of Tarifa at the southernmost point of Spain.
Down at the very tip of India the tiny, rocky beaches were crowded with people taking their dip. On one beach it was mostly barefoot men clad in black lunghis and shirts. We had seen groups of these guys all along the coast since we left Goa, travelling by train or in what we called pilgrimage wagons, small trucks, minibuses or 4x4s garlanded with marigolds, topped with an icon, and blaring devotional music. Their principal destination is Sabarimala in Kerala, but obviously they take the opportunity to visit other sacred sites in the region. Occasionally a group will include a small girl or an old woman, but women of childbearing age are not allowed at Sabarimala so for most it’s a lads only trip. A gang of 20 or 30 men dressed in black can look a bit intimidating, but there is no drinking and although sometimes boisterous, we never saw conflict. But I could image that changing if anyone showed disrespect towards their religion.
Taking a dip might have had a religious significance, but for the younger ones it appeared also an opportunity to pelt each other with wet sand. On the other beach the groups of mostly middle aged and older visitors had segregated the cove into male and female bathing areas, the sari-clad women combining their dip with the opportunity to do a little laundry.
I liked Kanyakumari – it gave us the chance to see an Indian seaside town that was virtually free of the influence of foreign tourists.