Where the sea romances the cliffs
(This article was published in the May 16, 2009 issue of the weekly Sahara Time).


I stand at the top of the cliff, and then walk along the sidewalk on the cliffís edges, taking in the breathtaking beauty of the view. There is a special charm in the soothing sight of the blue Arabian Sea romancing the cliffs. It is this charm that has prompted me to make several visits to this intriguing place over the years. Varkala beach is a south Kerala location where steep red laterite cliffs meet the silvery sands of the beach. It is a unique geological feature in the generally flat Kerala coast. The Geological Survey of India considers the cliff formation as a geological monument. The mineral water springs that sprout from the sides of the cliffs here have medicinal properties. On the top of the cliffs, the lush green coconut palm leaves sway in the wind. It looks even more beautiful than the famous Kovalam beach of Kerala. In fact, words canít fully capture the natural glory of Varkala. The resort region is between the north and south cliffs. In the last few years, Varkala has emerged as a favourite destination for both Indian and foreign tourists.

Holy water that washes away sins

According to legends, some pilgrims approached the sage Narada and confessed their sins. Narada threw his Ďvalkalamí (cloth created from tree bark worn by ancient sages), which landed near the seashore. Thus the place got the name Varkala. Narada asked the devotees to pray at the beach where the valkalam fell. The holy waters here are believed to have the power to wash away all sins and the beach became known as ĎPapanasamí (destruction of sins). In the Malayalam month of Karkidakam, on the new moon day, Hindu pilgrims come to the sacred area of the beach to consign the mortal remains of their dead relatives in a ritual called Ďvavu bali.í The otherworldly ambience of this beach makes one imagine the satisfaction of the ancestral souls who have found salvation.

In the main season, from December to February, the beach extends up to the cliff face for almost five hundred metres. While walking along the beach I feel serene. This place is not yet spoiled by the overcrowding that disturbs Kovalam. Commercialisation hasnít yet overwhelmed it. I donít see too many shops or sellers of miscellaneous stuff chasing the visitors. Looking at the horizon at sunset, I feel like I am in a pleasant hypnotic trance. This is undoubtedly one of the best places in the whole of South India to watch the sunrise and sunset. During the off-season, the beach becomes more secluded and calm. The Papanasam beach exists between the north and south cliffs, while the less crowded Black Beach is to the north.

The Kasi of the South

Only a short distance from the cliffs stands the ancient Janardhana Swamy Temple, a two thousand years old Vaishnavite shrine. I sense the collective memories of millenniums as I look at the majestic temple and the huge banyan tree. Tidal waves had destroyed the original temple. The myths say that later a Pandyan King came here and did penance to propitiate God Brahma for redemption from sin. Brahma bestowed pardon and asked him to build a new temple there. In a dream, the King saw the spot where the original idol was submerged in the sea. With the help of fishermen, the lost idol was recovered and the King consecrated it in the temple. The devotees believe that Brahma himself completed the rituals. This temple, dedicated to Vishnu and Hanuman, has become famous as the Southern Kasi (Benares). Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the inner sanctum sanctorum, but they can enter the temple precincts.

The Samadhi of a spiritual revolutionary

About 3 km from the Janradhana Swamy Temple, is the Sivagiri Hill, where the Samadhi of the great spiritual and social reformer Sree Narayana Guru and the headquarters of the Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham Trust are situated. In a society plagued by the inhuman caste system that treated the lower castes as untouchables, the Guru as a prophet of the downtrodden, had propagated the still relevant message of oneness: ďOne Caste, One Religion, One God for Humanity.Ē

Climbing the steps that lead to Sree Narayana Guruís Samadhi atop the Sivagiri hill, I have a feeling of peace. The very thought that this is the resting place of the patron saint of Kerala, who brought spirituality down to earth for making a difference in the lives of millions of disadvantaged people through social transformation, will inspire you to uphold the values of fellowship, tolerance and equality in a world that is marred by sectarian hatred. On the hill-top, near the Samadhi Temple, you can view almost the whole of Varkala and its refreshing greenery. During the Sivagiri pilgrimage days from 30th December to January 1st, thousands of devotees converge at the Samadhi. Interfaith meetings and discourses are conducted during the pilgrimage. Narayana Gurukula established by Sree Narayana Guruís disciple Nataraja Guru and the East West University of Brahmavidya founded by Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati, Nataraja Guruís disciple, are also located at Varkala.

Varkala tunnel

Varkala tunnel is a must-see monument for all visitors. The construction of the 722 metres long tunnel was started by the Divan Sir T. Mahadeva Rao of Travancore in 1867. It was completed during the tenure of another Divan Sheshaya Sasthri. The tunnel in its active days was mainly used for ferrying goods. It was part of the Thiruvanthapuram-Shoranur Canal popularly called the TS Canal, a major old waterway before Indiaís independence. The government has decided to renovate this canal for traffic.

Havens of healing

Apart from the medicinal mineral water springs, Varkala boasts of many traditional Kerala ayurvedic centres and the Government Nature Cure hospital offering holistic healing therapies. One must make sure that the ayurvedic centre is certified by the government before seeking massage treatment because the disease of unqualified people masquerading as ayurvedic healers, a notorious phenomenon mostly found near Kovalam, is now beginning to creep into Varkala too.

The Government Nature Cure Hospital literally sits on the lap of nature at the top of a cliff near the Papanasam beach. There is a helipad near the hospital beyond which the cliff slopes down to the sea revealing magnificent scenery. This nature cure centre has successfully treated a variety of serious diseases including cases of cancer written off by allopathic medicine. Visitors can get information about nature cure methods from the medical officer.

As the car leaves Varkala heading towards my home city Kollam, I feel a tinge of sadness. It is one of those rare places, which you donít want to leave. Believe me, once you visit Varkala, you canít help coming back again and again!

Fact File

Varkala is 51 km north of Keralaís capital city Thiruvananthapuram and 37 m south of Kollam, another major city. It is well-connected by railways and roads. The nearest airport is at Thiruvananthapuram. The Varkala town is 5 km inland and is centred around the railway station. The quiet Varkala hamlet lies near the sea and the cliffs. Very good accommodation facilities are available in and around the Varkala town.



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