beach

Kapu – a delightful beach in South India

Travel and Places

About 15 kms south of Udupi (on the way to Mangalore) lies a delightful strip of sand and surf called Kapu.

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I had come to Udupi to meet my nephew, who studies at the Manipal Institute of Technology. One morning during my two-day stay there, I found myself free. My nephew would be in class till the afternoon, after which he would meet me. On a sudden whim, I decided to visit one of the beaches dotting the beautiful coastline of Dakshin Kannada (meaning, South Karnataka). After some serious thought (because there is an overdose of options), I plumped for Kapu beach (some locals call it Kaap). Kapu was most convenient for a half-day trip, because it is situated just 15 kms from the town of Udupi where I was shacked up. Buses were frequent. I could visit the beach and be back in time to meet my nephew.

After a breakfast of medu vada and dosa, accompanied by coconut chutney and sambar, I boarded an ‘express’ bus to Mangalore. Unlike regular buses, express buses take the highway to Mangalore and do not get into country roads. They are therefore much faster than their ordinary cousins. About 25 minutes later, I was deposited at the Kapu junction on the same highway. The ticket cost me all of Rs. 18. On the way, I was treated to delightful vistas of coconut palms and arecanut trees, old-style houses with brown tiled roofs, ponds and lagoons and small shops lining the highway. The landscape here is very similar to that of Kerala, since Dakshin Kannada lies just north of Kerala along the same coastline. Even the cuisine (especially the seafood dishes) are prepared and eaten the same way as in Kerala.

Disembarking from the bus at Kapu junction, I took an auto to Kapu beach. The ride cost me Rs. 30/- . Autos have fixed fares from the junction to different places in the area. Bargaining is not of much use, since the auto drivers operate as a union. Passing through shaded country roads with houses on either side (and even the odd motor garage), I reached the beach in 5 minutes.

 

Standing at the entrance to the beach, I took in the entire stretch in one glance. Close by to my right at one end of the beach stood the lighthouse, a somewhat grim and lonely apparition rising into the sky. To my left, the sandy strip curved a long way until it ran into a clump of boulders that marked the other end of the beach. A concrete pathway had been built along the inner edge of the beach and stone benches had been built along this. Through the intense haze of the summer morning, I could see that the beach was deserted. There must have been just a dozen people scattered along its entire length. Some of them were lounging on the benches in the shade of coconut trees (understandable, given the heat), but surprisingly, some other were frolicking in the rushing waters. But then, I remembered that while even during the height of summer, the sea water is cool.

After standing in the water myself for a few minutes, I started walking towards the lighthouse. At some distance into the sea, I could see a lone fishing boat bobbing in the waves. This fisherman must have come late to the fishing party, I speculate idly. Or maybe, he just had a refreshing beer and gone off to sleep. The instant this thought flashed through my mind, I yearned for a bottle of cold beer myself. My thirst for beer was so bad in that instant, that the hair on my arms bristled and I could clearly feel the parched bottom of my throat.

 

 

I had to climb up three flights of stairs to reach the base of the lighthouse (because it was perched on top of a boulder). I saw to my disappointment that it was closed. I could not spot the caretaker either. It wondered if it is an abandoned lighthouse. Or maybe it would open only at night, when ships and boats had to be guided. Climbing to the top of lighthouses and gazing out in all directions is something I love doing. I have done it in several places, like Chennai, Kannur and Daman.

 

Not finding anybody to ask, I plonked myself down in the shade of the tall structure. This vantage point gave me a different perspective of the whole area. To my right, I saw another beach stretching out into the distance. A few fishing boats were parked on the sand and a few mesh nets spread out next to them. The fishermen will claim them again before dawn the next day, when they put out to sea in search of fish. On another side, a shallow stretch of backwater flowed past to form a lagoon. Far away into the sea, I could make out a few dots. I assumed them to be cruise or cargo ships. The breeze was mild. It was all very peaceful and life seemed very good from my perch. It seemed better still, when, a moment later, I remembered that I was lazing on a beach on a weekday.

 

 

 

I did want to get into the water and splash around a bit, but the sun was too harsh for that. Instead, I had a super-refreshing tender coconut and caught a bus back to Udupi.

 

 

I am going to return to the Udupi belt during the monsoon this year, when this whole belt will be lush and wet. I just can’t for that.

The vitals

  • The fastest and cheapest way to reach Kapu is to take an Express bus from the private bus stand, which is locally known as service bus stand also. The bus ride to Kapu junction on the highway takes about 20 minutes and costs Rs. From the highway, take an auto to the beach. This ride cost me Rs. 30/- one way in March 2018.
  • The waves in the beach are wild; so, tread carefully in the waters. I did not see a lifeguard around.
  • This is a relatively unspoilt beach. . The local village council & citizens take pains to keep the beach clean. Let us help them keep it that way. Look for trash bins to dump your trash in. Alternatively, put your trash in your bag and bring it back to your hotel to dump.
  • There are no resorts or hotels close to the beach. Thank God for that.
  • For accommodation, Udupi is the nearest town. It will make sense for you to stay there, also because Udupi has other attractions, and is a bus & rail hub.
  • Summer (I am talking temperature in the high thirties & extreme humidity) is from March to early June here, after which the monsoon sets in. The monsoon is a magical time to visit this place in. Failing that, you could go anytime between November and February.
  • If you keep about a week, you can cover a few lovely places in the Dakshin Kannada belt.
  • Most people here have a traditional mindset and lifestyle; so, covering up adequately and not being boisterously Bohemian would be a very good idea.
  • Sample the seafood and vegetarian food, both of which are yummy in these parts. In fact, a number of people have migrated from Udupi to various parts of India and set up vegetarian restaurants. These restaurants are famously called Udupi restaurants, especially in Chennai, Pune and Mumbai.

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Marine history: Chennai to Kannur

Travel and Places

Learning about seafaring traditions, playing on the beach, and visiting a fort built by the Portuguese.

This story first appeared in Mint on July 27, 2017 under the section ‘Weekend Vacations’.

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Fisherfolk unloading the catch of the day, Thottada beach. Photographs: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Fisherfolk unloading the catch of the day at Thottada beach.

The lady bore a striking resemblance to my grandmother. Her gaze was benign, and she seemed to be smiling. I almost smiled back, and then, remembering who she really was, I chuckled. For behind the gentle gaze was the hardy queen of the Arakkal dynasty. She came from a long line of rulers of the erstwhile Cannanore (now Kannur) principality. Rani Mariyumma Beebi Ali Adi Rajah, known as “Arakkal Beebi”, had inspired respect and admiration for the way she administered her principality in the year leading up to independence. And here she was, gazing at me from her photograph on the wall.

I was winding up a fascinating morning at the Arakkal Museum in Kannur in north Kerala. The Durbar Hall of the Arakkal rulers has been converted into a well-kept archive of their legacy. The two-storey building showcases solid teakwood furniture, weaponry, sepia-tinted photographs, evocative illustrations of ships, battle scenes, scenes from everyday life, and beautifully engraved ceramic-ware. Yellowed copies of letters that the royals had exchanged with the British threw up a surprise; the Laccadive Islands (part of the Lakshadweep Islands) had once been under Arakkal rule—the islands had been sold to the British.

My search for an offbeat place to spend the weekend had led me to Kannur, a little town north of Kozhikode. The overnight train from Chennai had entered Kerala early that morning, giving me a chance to see the glistening backwaters, hamlets and emerald fields at first light.

Leaving the museum, I headed back to the Blue Mermaid Homestay, where I was staying, for a traditional Kerala meal. Come evening, I headed to the unspoilt Thottada beach, which is just next to the home-stay. Jogging barefoot on the sand, playing beach volleyball with a bunch of local boys and watching a glorious sunset stilled all thoughts, making for a contemplative end to the day.

Thottada beach.

Thottada beach.

On the next day’s schedule was a visit to Fort St Angelo, in the centre of town. It’s among the first forts built by the Portuguese in India, in the early 16th century. The stone and laterite fort has aged well. A thick layer of moss covering the walls and rampart was affirmation of a lavish monsoon. The barracks, magazine room, dungeons, bastions and chapel bear testimony to the fact that the Dutch and British had a hand in modifying the fort in later years.

My eyes were drawn to the mast of an old lighthouse that stands on one of the ramparts. The tourist policeman there offered an intriguing titbit: Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese viceroy to India, had kept his anointed successor, Afonso de Albuquerque, imprisoned in a dungeon in the fort, until he was ordered by his superiors to free him.

The mast of an old lighthouse on the rampart of Fort St Angelo.

The mast of an old lighthouse on the rampart of Fort St Angelo.

The western corner of the rampart offered a view of slim, colourful fishing boats with seagulls perched on the bows, at the edge of the waters. The sun glinted off the sea, casting a magical light. It was a scene straight out of a painting. This was Moplah Bay, a bustling port-of-call for Chinese, Arab and European traders in ancient times.

The next stop was MVK, the town’s go-to restaurant with an impressive list of local dishes, for delicious Thalassery biryani.

I spent the afternoon at the lighthouse museum. One of only four in India, the museum provides a rare insight into Kannur’s long seafaring traditions. It unveiled everything I ever wanted to know about lighthouses: from lamps, models of primitive lighthouses, navigational buoys and electromechanical parts to letters written by mariners. What’s more, there were no tourists—and I felt vindicated in my choice of an offbeat weekend break.

 

 

 

 

Going Dutch in Galle

Travel and Places

This story first appeared in Khaleej Times on November 17, 2017.

European influence, strong maritime connections and relaxed vibes make this Sri Lankan city a winner.

‘Parawa Street’ – proclaims the name board. It intrigues me, because I can’t understand what it means. All morning, I have seen boards that said ‘Church Street’, ‘Rampart Street’ and the like. Fed on this simple diet, my brain finds it difficult to process ‘Parawa’. A closer inspection of the board tells me that the term refers to fishermen and traders who immigrated from south India and settled in Galle centuries ago. During their time, the Dutch, the main colonisers of Galle, renamed this street ‘Parruastraat’.
Parawa Street is one of the several narrow streets that make up the old settlement inside Galle Fort. Clean and well-paved, the streets are lined on either side by elegant structures. Many of these are a century old, while others go back two centuries or more – when Galle was under Dutch occupation. Many houses have a small portico and a wicket gate, and are painted in brilliant hues of blue, red, orange or yellow. Potted plants hanging from their sloping tiled roofs enhance the mood of cheer.
It is past 9am on a weekday, but most of the shops and boutiques are still closed. I ask a passerby when they will open and receive a smile in return. “They will open, they will open,” she says and moves on.  Traffic is mild, mainly comprising pedestrians or those cycling. The town of Galle is not in a hurry at all. The general understanding seems to be that things here will happen in due course. It, therefore, seems fitting that Galle is our last port of call in a weeklong tour of Sri Lanka. While we entered the country in high excitement, we shall leave it in a state of quiet contentment.
From medieval times to the 19th century, Galle was an important port town near the southern end of the teardrop shaped island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Like in India, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonise Galle. When the Dutch overran the settlement in the 17th century, they strengthened and expanded the erstwhile mud fort and many of the buildings within its confines. Also, they erected several of the beautiful timber-stone-cement structures that are standing strong even today. The British came later and added a few lovely churches to the landscape.
The wife and I amble along the ramparts of the fort, stopping to take in the view now and then. We get panoramic views of the sea and at one point, of the grassy expanse of Galle International Cricket Stadium. Passing close to the historic Meeran Mosque, we stop to admire its pristine whiteness, arched windows and architectural symmetry. Inside, the beautiful floor tiles and the stained glass windows catch our eye. Close to the mosque lies a small Buddhist temple, also pristine white. After two hours of walking, we come a full circle to where we had started from: the fort gates. Feeling hungry, we hurry over to a small shack nearby that is serving hot food. We wolf down kothu rottis (a native dish made of wheat or wheat flour, stuffed with a spicy mash of vegetables, fish or chicken) for lunch.
Back at our home-stay, we lounge in the sea-facing balcony with our books. Since this is not the tourist season, the crowds are thin. Come afternoon, many of the smaller shops in the fort settlement close for a few hours, as their owners catch some shut-eye after lunch. When the sun’s rays start slanting, we head out again. Drumbeats and strains of the guitar lead us to a quadrangle near the courthouse, where a local band is performing on the sidelines of a literary festival. The songs are in English and Sinhalese, and are received with energetic applause. As darkness settles, we leave the music behind and seek out the sea again. The lighthouse, built in 1939, looms up in the darkness. Right next to it, lies the old magazine room of the Dutch Navy. Sitting on the ramparts with our legs swinging over the drop to the ocean, we look at the glowing moon and the white foam slamming into the rocks.
At dawn the next morning, I leave my sleeping wife and venture out with my camera, eager to frame the beautiful town in the soft sunlight. I walk over to the fishermen’s wharf and watch the day’s catch being unloaded. Several people are buying fish fresh off the boat. Every day, fishermen put out to sea hours before dawn and return with their first catch by 7am or so.
The winding alleys are quiet, with most people still abed. I am happily surprised to see that Galle has not let its built heritage go to seed, unlike many other places around the world. Supported by a grant from the Dutch government, most of the old buildings have been lovingly restored and repurposed into cafes, art galleries, boutiques and hotels. Today, these are symbols of the chic tourist destination that Galle has become and proof that conserving heritage can be truly profitable for all the stakeholders.
My wife joins me for breakfast at the home-café run by an old man of Moroccan descent. Galle’s Moroccan connection is a thread hidden deep inside the cultural fabric of this town. A small community of Tamil-speaking Muslims, seventh- generation descendents of traders from Morocco, resides inside the fort. Many of its members run small grocery stores or cafes from the courtyard of their homes.
Meal over, we take in the wonderful exhibits at the National Maritime Museum. A nod to the long seafaring traditions of Lanka, the museum houses maps and intriguing tales of shipwrecks alongside jade jars from China and several European memorabilia. Later that day, we take in the antique furniture, exquisite stained glass, tombstones and silence at the Gothic-style All Saints Church. As we walk back to our homestay, the eager shouts of boys playing cricket rend the air. Daytime cricket on the wide ramparts of the fort is a way of life here.
Decidedly, Galle is a great place to celebrate the slow life. The rhythms of this fort settlement are gentle. The cobbled-stone streets, old buildings, bookstores, cafes and the timeless nature of waves crashing into the rocks lull you into a state of peace. The frenetic sounds and movements of the big city stand out by their absence. Conversations are more like soothing murmurs. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to do anything.
Though I hold several striking memories from my time in Galle, the one that dominates my mind is that of the breakfast on the morning of our departure. Our hostess served us appams (sweet-salty rice pancakes with a thin crust and a fluffy middle), spicy chickpea curry, fragrant stew, toast, butter, marmalade, coffee and slices of juicy pineapple. Sitting in the balcony facing the ramparts of the fort, we gorge on the delicious homemade fare for what seems like hours. Yonder, the sea rustles like sandpaper and gulls swoop down.
This memory stands out because that breakfast is the best metaphor I can find for the town itself. Galle is like a wonderful repast: it offers a sumptuous spread, invites you to dawdle over it, stimulates your palate and ensures that the after-taste remains for a long time.

NEED TO KNOW
Galle lies 77 miles south of Colombo, from where you can take a bus, taxi or a train named Queen of the Sea. The route hugs the coast and runs past several beautiful villages. Accommodation options are aplenty, from posh hotels to tiny guest houses, and straddle a wide price range. Since Galle Fort is perfect for walking, take along a pair of comfortable shoes, sunglasses and a bottle of water.
wknd@khaleejtimes.com

The Lighthouse Effect

Travel and Places

I have a thing for the past. And the ‘paster’, the better. Events, buildings, houses, towns, things, people, stories….anything. In my travels, I often visit places that have a strong hangover of the past. In a country like India especially, it is easy to find such places because they are practically everywhere. There, I find myself spending hours browsing antiquities, looking up old bookstores, gazing at old mansions and forts…even seeking out old people with faces crinkled like walnuts to chat with.

Why is this so? For one, because there is simply so much beauty, grandeur and harmony in things from the past. Most things from the olden days have an exquisite design aesthetic, a robustness and a caliber of craftsmanship that is difficult to find these days. But also, the past reminds us of our roots, our beginnings and the paths we have trodden to come this far. The living remnants and accounts of the past tell us of another way of life, another worldview altogether. They tell us about how we had thought, spoken, acted at one point of time. And if you aggregate these remnants and accounts, you get a cumulative view of the history of mankind. After all, all that we have today has been built on the past (often, on the debris of the past).

But, of all things that embody another time, the one that moves me the most is the lighthouse (again, the older, the better). No curio, no fort, no ancient temple or mosque comes even close to it. From the minute I clap my eyes on a lighthouse, I itch to explore it – even touch and feel it. Even if I spot one from afar (say, from a bus or train), my gaze remains locked on it till it fades out of view.

 

 

The lighthouse instantly calls to mind the several generations of seafarers, for whom the sea was the only way to travel to far-flung places. These were the bravest travelers of all time, foraying into uncharted waters and finding unmapped lands. Braving extreme weather conditions, illness and frequent paucity of resources, they managed to go where nobody else had gone before them.

For them, lighthouses were crucial navigational guides, like lamp posts in the sea. And often, the presence of a lighthouse made the difference between life and death to them. In that sense, they were one of the earliest friends of travelers.

 

 

All these thoughts rush through my mind whenever I see a lighthouse. I have seen several of them over the years – in Daman, Kannur, Vypeen, Vizhinjam, Chennai, Galle (Sri Lanka) and other places. And the effect they have on me hasn’t changed over the years – if anything, it has only intensified.

As soon as I arrive at a seaside town, I enquire about lighthouses. And, if I find that there is one in those parts, I invariably end up visiting it. I enjoy rooting about their base, looking for identification marks (like inscriptions and metal plates) that can help me anchor them in a specific time period. I then sit down on a rampart or rocky coastline next to it for a while, gazing into the sea. If I find the caretaker of the lighthouse, I spend a few minutes with him in delightful conversation.

 

 

 

But what exactly I see in a lighthouse also depends upon my mood-of-the-moment. When I am in a deeply reflective mood, I think of what would have happened, had there never been lighthouses in history. That would surely have set back our progress and our understanding of the world by a few centuries.  When I feel buoyant, I see it as a beacon of hope and safety – a pathfinder and a sanctuary. When I am feeling a little low, I can’t help thinking of it as an extremely desolate place, eyes eternally cast over an equally desolate sea that is vast and unchanging over millions of years. At those moments, I am invariably reminded of a short story called ‘The Foghorn’, that I read in school. ‘The great deep cry of our foghorn shuddering through the rags of mist…’ and the answering call of the creature of the sea, deep-throated in its loneliness are forever etched in my memory.

No matter what my mood, lighthouses have left an indelible impression on me. In my book of travels, they occupy a very special place.

What effect does a lighthouse have on you?