#TWCTravel: The Wishing Chair Flies To Lakshadweep
Perhaps because she grew up in coastal cities all over the country, where beaches were always within reach, and evenings meant an ocean breeze in her hair, this writer has always needed a regular dose of Vitamin Sea to keep her spirit from waning.
And so earlier this year, she allowed herself to be whisked away by The Wishing Chair, to The Lakshadweep Islands with sands and surf so pristine, it may as well have been paradise.
Located just off Kerala’s stretching coastline in the west, The Lakshadweep islands lie north of the Maldives.
At the southernmost atoll of the archipelago, lies Minicoy, roughly translating to mean “The King of Islands” – aptly named after it’s placid, shimmering lagoons, white, virgin beaches, wealth of coral and big game that you’re likely to spot here – mantas, rays, sea turtles, eels, sharks, wild dolphins... Who’s lusting already?
There is also Agatti, which houses an airstrip; Amini – densely populated with locals, fishermen and islanders, pristine Bangaram (among the largest of these islands, populated more by turtles than it is by people) and Thinakkara beside it; plus Kadmat, Kavaratti, Kiltan, Kalpeni, Andrott, Bitra, Chetlat and Cheriyam.
Only ten of these islands are however, occupied by islanders, and even Indian nationals need special permits in order to visit most of them. The reasons cited include conservation, the preservation of indigenous cultures and the fact that these islands are now, a strategic outpost for The Indian Navy.
You can get to Lakshadweep either by sea or air. Either way, you need your permits and papers in order before you can even board your vessel. There used to be private operators in Lakshadweep, however as of now, all tourism within the islands is controlled and operated by The Government of India.<
Loose translation – everything from your cruise ship, to the boat transfers between islands, to the meals that are inclusive in the tour packages should you choose to go this route, to the hotels and/or guesthouses, as well as the non air-conditioned tents which are the only living facilities available on some islands, are all organised and run by the government.
The government has beach resorts in Kavaratti, Kalpeni, Minicoy, Kadmat and Bangaram meaning these are the only islands you can visit, after making a reservation through SPORTS (Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports), who upon receipt of full payment towards your stay as well as the details of your air/ship tickets will issue you a special permit.
The permit forbids the carrying, consumption or purchase of alcohol while you are on the islands as well as collecting coral of any kind – and you will see heaps of these lying around, washed up on shore by the sea – not just underwater.
For those who choose to fly, Air India is the only airline that flies in and out of Agatti, everyday except on Sundays. Ships to Minicoy ply from Kochi harbour and back every seven days or so.
Seeing how there are no speedboats that ply between Minicoy and the other islands, one other way to visit here, while also getting a taste for the other isles is to stay on board the ship "MV Tipu Sultan" which tours Kalpeni and Kavaratti, in addition to Minicoy.
You can write to SPORTS at email@example.com, or visit their official website for all enquiries and information, as well as templates of forms that you will need to download, fill and submit.
1. Because of it’ proximity to The Maldives, die-hard island hoppers can tick two locations off their bucket-list by simply clubbing both sets of isles over a long sun-soaked week.
That said, the reef life in both, are almost exactly mirrored – divers know and often make it a point, to come just to witness migrations of all kinds of fauna in the Arabian Sea, as they make their way from colder to warmer waters between the two atolls twice a year.
Meanwhile, a staycation in Lakshadweep is way cheaper than one in The Maldives, which means you more or less get the same beachy perks without putting too much of a dent in your pocket. Ka ching!
2. The best time to visit is between Mid October and Mid May. By the second week of May, the monsoon is usually already in full swing in Minicoy and then heads northerly towards the other islands, so that even speedboats stop plying in these waters.
3. The locals speak a language called Jisri, which has no written alphabet. It is a curious mix of Tamil and Malayalam and passed on orally from generation to generation.
If you speak Malayalam though, you’re golden on any of these islands, since this is the language that is taught in schools.
For those of you who don’t, take a couple South Indian friends along. Like this writer, they too will find themselves rollicking along just fine, with Jisri, and hey, you get to gatecrash the impromptu party. Win win!
4. The beaches you’ll find on these islands only appear to be made of fine white grainy sand. They are in fact made up of finely ground coral dust. True story.
Over millions of years, the coral reefs that make up the atoll find themselves eroded by the tides, by rough seas, by the furies of monsoon, until finally, the waves deposit them slowly but surely on the banks of lagoons to form beaches and long shorelines. Divers like this writer, have discovered that the seabeds are made up of the same gorgeous and grainy, golden dust.
If you look at satellite images of the Lakshadweep Islands, you will find that they shape-shift, altering themselves subtly every couple years. That too, has to do with the ocean moving sand beds around the lagoons – beach today, gone tomorrow!
Food & Drink
As far as food choices go, you are bound to be more or less disappointed with the fare served in your hotel for two major reasons.
First, the produce is never really fresh, the way you’re likely to find on the Indian subcontinent because it makes it’s way to these islands by ship from Cochin. This also makes meat, and the most ordinary kinds of fruits and vegetables much more expensive to procure.
Second, every government-run guesthouse kitchen tones down the spices in the cooking, simplifying drastically, to suit what they assume are the palates of the many foreigners who flock these shores.
The exceptions to these rules are seafood and fish, specifically tuna, which Lakshadweep exports in large quantities, and tender coconut water which will be among the sweetest you've ever tasted.
You are more likely to find much more exciting flavours – spicy, pungent, even aromatic – in local kitchens, that is if like this writer, you manage to talk your way into one!
There is a biryani for instance – made with crisp fish, or fried chicken (and-oh-so-rarely, mutton), with a spicy masala coated rice that closely resembles the flavours of Malabar and Calicut. Also fried crab and fish that has been marinated in whole spices and roughly ground pepper.
On the sweeter side, you will find steamed dumplings (like modaks or the South Indian kozhakattai) filled with a mixture of jaggery, palm sugar, dates and ground coconut; paper thin pancakes served with sweet coconut milk, bananas and honey, and last (a DIY for your kitchen perhaps?), fresh mangoes blitzed with the first milk of coconut to make one mean, unlikely smoothie!
Liquor is prohibited on the islands, and the respectful, responsible thing to do, is not carry any on you while travelling here.
Instead, make your way towards one of several coconut farms – there are auto-rickshaws available for hire, as are bicycles, which make the whole experience way more fun and local. Here, you can see mira i.e. the nectar from coconut frond flowers being tapped, and with a decent enough sales pitch, persuade the farmers, to even sell you a bottle or two.
Islanders generally leave mira to ferment undisturbed for about forty days. The resulting liquid is locally called sirka, and used as a condiment in their cooking. Sirka is acidic, virtually indestructible, and is found year round in every kitchen on these islands, replacing the pulp of tamarind so commonly found in several South Indian curries. Sirka is also used to marinate fish, seafood and meat in.
This writer recommends you taste both farm fresh mira as well as the pure toddy that follows shortly.
Mira has the fragrance of tender coconut water as well as a similar sweetness, but it also has a slight sourness and milky quality to it. Procure it between 4:30 and 5 pm when the tappers have just begun their descent from the trees, and it is at it’s sweetest best. Then leave it undisturbed for two days. Pour over ice cubes and marvel at the tremendousness of the transformation.
Toddy, you will find, retains a coconuty hint of its origins but is essentially sour, acidic and pungent, with a potency comparable to wine.
Waterbabies everywhere, don’t just dip your toes in the shallows, but take the plunge instead! Dive sure and dive deep!
Kitting up in scuba-gear is easily one of the most exciting and rewarding things you can do in these waters. PADI institutes and instructors are everywhere to help newbies learn skills, get certified or even just get the hang of things long enough, to have themselves an underwater adventure.
Enthusiasts and regulars, there are multiple spots and experiences that await – push your limits by diving caves and abysses, let yourself be carried away (in this case, quite literally), on a drift dive, or by attempting an if-slightly-scarier, thoroughly exciting, night dive.
Dive sites include but are not limited to, Manta Point, Turtle Bay, Secret Garden, The Wall and The Cave – and all of these are just the tip of the iceberg. This writer was lucky enough to dive them all, and can vouch that each experience is unforgettable.
For the slightly more water-wary there’s also kayaking, canoeing, snorkeling, paddle-boarding and wind-surfing – almost all of which you can choose to do either by yourself, with friends, or with professionals who will kit you out in safety gear.
With a little bit of luck, the right GoPro, and just by getting in the water early enough, you’ll find that you can spot green and hawksbill turtles in the lagoons, particularly those that surround Bangaram, Thinnakara, even Agatti, like this curious baby green critter who swam write up into this writer's lens (and face)! All you need are fins and a mask. Freedivers, ahoy!
Boat enthusiasts, you can yacht, go game-fishing, or even water ski with the help of an instructor and a nifty little motorboat.
And for those who don’t want to even get their toes wet, curl them into fine coral dust instead, while you take long barefoot walks on the beach and watch the sun go down. Sip sweet tender coconut water first thing in the day as you lie on a hammock reading.
.Hire bicycles by the day and ride around the island – most have lighthouses, a jetty, several coconut farms and jagged coastlines that you can explore at leisure.
Join in, on a game of beach football. Request a bonfire or a barbeque – the hotel staff are usually friendly enough to call it an even trade if you volunteer some of your cooking skills.
But most importantly perhaps, let yourself unwind, let yourself just be for a while. Let the sun and the sand and the swaying fronds of the trees work their quiet magic on you.(© Nisha Ravi. All photographs are the property of the author, and may not be reused without permission.)