Lakshadweep: Islands of Adventure
"Ah! What pleasant visions haunt me
Late one February afternoon, the M.V. Tipu Sultan steadily put out to sea from the Cochin Harbour. The land gradually receded before our eyes even as the small fishing boats raced back with their day's catch, the gulls soaring and darting noisily above them, laying claim to their share of the fishermen's labour. The Chinese fishing nets, those marvels of fishing in coastal waters, hoved along and passed us. An occasional dolphin gambolled out of the sea, shimmering in the sun. The land soon became a distant horizon that would finally disappear behind the curving earth. Then there was only the ship and the sea.
The island of Minicoy was sighted after about twenty hours of sailing. When the ship dropped anchor the land was still far off, with the silhouette of it's lighthouse standing sentinel-like over its mysterious domain, barely visible in the haze. The small, motorised boats with helmsmen expertly manoeuvring among the coral reefs, came up one after the other to the disembarkation doors of the hold. Locals and visitors piled into these ferries and were quickly whisked off to their homes or to strange, enchanting lands.
As the boats pushed on this way and that, safely avoiding the reefs, the island became clearer and clearer. The blue-back waters of the deep sea had melted into sky blue which soon blended into aquamarine and finally the pure green of the lagoon. Beyond, the near-white coral sands beckoned us to cross them and reach the verdant, swaying palms of the coral island. The water was at least twenty feet deep, but so clear that we could actually tell the forms of the corals and anemones swaying as they fed on the sea bed. Scooping out some water in one's hand revealed it to be as clear and transparent as any self-respecting water should be. Then whence the colour?
To quote Rachel Carson, "The sea is blue because the sunlight is reflected back to our eyes from the water molecules or from very minute particles suspended in the sea. In the journey of the light rays into deep water all the red rays and most of the yellow rays of the spectrum have been absorbed, so when the light returns to our eyes, it is chiefly the cool blue rays that we see." However, in coral lagoons, the rays of the sun penetrate right to the sea bed, thanks to the clear waters. So the light yellow of the sands is also reflected back and as they mix with the blue, there before you are the turquoise waters!
FROM THE COCONUT back into the tiller to rumble through the winding ways lined with palms, pines, breadfruit and casuarina to jolt to a halt at the lighthouse. The Minicoy lighthouse is the tallest in the islands, standing at 48.13 metres. high. View the palms from above and feel superior. These tops are like a carpet before you, only occasionally broken by a clearing for a house, or by the single street which runs the length of the island. Big boards outside have already precluded you from taking pictures. When present-day satellites can photograph the number plate on an automobile, the "Photography Strictly Prohibited" notice seems anachronistic. So we descended, enthralled with the sight, but unhappy that we could not share it with friends back home.
After the lighthouse, the tiller drove us rough-shod to the beach. Only babies could swim here: the water is uniformly knee-deep. A walk along the shore revealed colonies of hermit crabs adapting themselves to shells of their choice depending on their sizes. The hermit is a unique crab it has no shell of its own, so it uses the discarded ones of various snails to protect its body, while its legs hang out from the opening as it drags itself and its protection over the sands. Moving much more speedily over the sands is the ghost crab. This is a more characteristic crab, whose colour blends finely with its environment. If threatened, it disappears swiftly into its hole in the sand.
Wading near the reef, a sharp call from the shore of "Shark! Shark!" brought everyone out. A baby shark had been caught and was being held up by the guide for exhibition. Sharks don't usually enter the waters of the lagoons as they are too shallow for them. But apparently sharks also make mistakes.
An exhibit in Minicoy is a typical bridal house. Each room is decorated traditionally and awaits the newly-married couple. The matriarchal system prevails here (as also in the other islands), with the man going to live in the woman's house, bringing a dowry with him!
The jobs here range from the traditional tuna fishing and coconut cropping to employment in government offices. The islanders are on the Scheduled Tribe list and hence get a lot of preferential treatment for education and government jobs on the mainland, to where many have now moved. However, a mainlander is restricted from settling in these islands, except of course, if there is a marital bond. Foreign tourists are restricted entry except on specific inhabited islands like Bangaram. The culture, traditions and most important, the islands themselves are so fragile that no amount of restrictions for preserving them could be enough. No one is allowed anywhere here without an authorised guide. The older islanders do not take too happily to visitors, although tourism does help the economy. I experienced this personally when I ambled along alone with my camera on a village street in Kavaratti. I reached a mosque and as I was photographing it, an old man accompanied by some children instructed me to go back to the tourist hut and followed me until I reached there.
After spending a night on the ship, we were ready for the next island in the morning. The sun rose from the Arabian Sea, pushing its way inexorably through a cloud whose attempts to obstruct it with its ephemeral existence were doomed. The sun was well up when we approached Kalpeni. Once more the boatman wove through the markers which indicate the reefs. Atop each marker, statue-like was a solitary grey heron, one of the few birds seen around the islands. It is ironic that these volcanic islands which owe their lush vegetation to the fertility provided once by the droppings of sea birds, should now be so bereft of bird life. Apparently, man and bird could not co-exist here.
Kalpeni has three inhabited satellite islands surrounded by a wondrous lagoon. Visitors are hosted at the Koomel Bay which overlooks two of these islands. The third is at the northern end. A morning walk along the strand line here revealed a clutch of cuttlefish eggs, green and sparkling in the sunshine, resembling a bunch of grapes. Wading through the lagoon waters one found the sea bed littered with sea cucumbers of various shapes and colours, but mainly black; sponges, bristle worms, brittle stars and even a long-spined black sea urchin were encountered. The most fascinating was our first close look at the stag horn corals living wild in the sea. In about waist-deep water, one could go down with swimming glasses or snorkels and gaze in wonder at this primitive creature, so very plant-like, with angel and parrot fish darting and frolicking among its "branches."
BACK ON THE beach the hot noonday sun reflected brilliantly from the near white calcareous sands. Eyes smarted and skins peeled with the heat. It was almost as if the islands were telling the visitors to go away. This is no place for you soft-skinned people. The natives, however, had planned entertainment and we were treated to an exuberant folk dance. Cymbals clashed and drums beat as they leaped and gyrated both to their traditional songs and to Hindi film songs which worm their insidious influence into the remotest corners of the sub-continent.
The Kalpeni lighthouse, 37 metres tall, provides a view of the entire island. The northern view is particularly electrifying. On the east are the blue waters of the deep sea. On the west, the reef-protected green waters of the lagoon lap on to the white sands. At the northern tip, the blue and the green conjoin and mingle. Between all these waters is the stretch of palm trees, a lush dark green. All this under the canopy of the bluest of skies. We glared again at the board proclaiming, "Photography Strictly Prohibited."
The next morning a dull cloud in the east told us that once again we wouldn't see the sun rising from the sea. However, the cloud turned out to be Rabindranath Tagore's, standing "humbly in a corner of the sky. The morning crowned it with splendour." On this last day, the Tipu Sultan took us to Kavaratti. Actually, it was the nearby island of Amini that the legendary Tipu Sultan had taken over on a request from the islanders in 1783.
KAVARATTI IS the largest island and the administrative seat of Lakshadweep. With Kavaratti came its glass bottomed boats. Everyone sat around in the boat, voyeurs of the deep sea. The turquoise waters revealed their secrets. Huge brain corals, star corals, staghorn corals; unbelievably sized sea cucumbers, sea anemones, star fish; shoals of sturgeon, angel and butterfly fish went past as the boat floated gently on the calmest of waters. One could not but envy, the occupation of the deep sea diver. What a world he must live in. Perhaps the envy, the strong desire to be down there, goes back to the period of our ancestors who took the first uncertain steps out of the sea.
For greater contemplation of sea life, there is a small aquarium in Kavaratti. Of particular note was the conglomeration of the white sea anemone on a giant clam with its commensal, the clown fish ever near. A Moray eel in a corner of it's tank also drew attention.
The Lakshadweep islands represent nature at its pristine best. The chief animals, the corals, belong to a period soon after the beginning of life in the seas. Many of the islands are not even inhabited by man and they remain practically untouched by his industrial advancement. Those who dwell there still retain their tribal customs and cultures. But the mainland always beckons to them. The younger folk get scholarships to the universities of Cochin, Calicut and elsewhere and it is very likely that they will leave behind their heaven and seek opportunities in the wider world. To us mainlanders, the islands are an enchanting, once in a lifetime, experience. For the naturalist three days are but a fleeting moment. But perhaps the younger islanders think, in the words of Sir Richard Burton, "Little islands are all large prisons: One cannot look at the sea without wishing for the wings of a swallow."
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.