With its sparkling beaches, soaring laterite cliffs bordered by coconut palms and views that extend over the Arabian Sea, the coastal town of Varkala in Kerala is a wonderful place for a relaxed beach holiday. By Susheela Nair
Varkala’s star attractions are its long sandy beaches, dramatic sunsets, towering red laterite cliffs, soothing mineral springs, and the picturesque backwaters. The spiritually inclined can visit the ancient temples while heritage buffs can explore the fort, Lighthouse and its environs. Varkala’s main claim to fame are the 2000-year old shrine of Lord Vishnu, the Janardhana Swamy temple, and the Sivagiri Mutt – the final resting place of Sree Narayana Guru, a great social reformer of Kerala. Its beaches, temples, forts, history, myths and mythology continue to draw beachcombers, pilgrims and heritage lovers who find this place a peaceful alternative to the beach town of Kovalam.
Where: Located 46 km north of Thiruvananthapuram
How to get there:
Nearest airport: Thiruvananthapuram (52km). From there take a cab to Varkala.
Nearest railhead: Varkala Railway Station is connected to all major rail lines.
Road: It is 11 km off NH 47. It takes one hour by road from Thiruvananthapuram.
Weather: The weather is humid with temperatures ranging from 30 to 35 degrees. Avoid the monsoon when the sea can get turbulent.
Best time to visit: October to February end
It’s a golden sand beach lying in a cove between the North Cliff and the South Cliff. Stand on the wide plateau atop the laterite cliffs beside the Papanasam Beach and bask in the glorious sunset. Locals visit this sacred place to perform ritualistic rites for their departed souls. On Karkkidaka Vavu (the new moon in August), crowds congregate here to perform annual obsequies to their dead ancestors. Varkala is also known as Dakshina (southern) Kasi where people come to wash away their sins, as at Kashi (Benaras).
Stand on the bridge and soak in the view of the dramatic confluence of the Arabian Sea, the Kappil River and the backwaters near the Kappil Beach. A boat ride will take you past tiny, palm-covered islets within the estuary. The place is breathtaking, with the coastal road passing through this area for a long stretch – a golden sand beach on one side of the road, and on the other, the tranquil estuary and palm-fringed backwaters.
Janardhana Swamy Temple
This is the only temple where Lord Vishnu is worshipped in the form of Janardana. The more than 2000-year old temple features typical Kerala architecture, with a circular sanctum-sanctorum surmounted by a conical dome, layered in copper sheets and square mandapam with navagrahas (the nine astrological planets) carved on the wooden ceiling. Look out for an ancient bell presented by a Dutch captain of a ship.
Pay respect to the saint, social reformer, eminent leader and messiah of the backward classes at the sacred Samadhi or burial place of Sree Narayana Guru in the sacred grounds of the Sivagiri Mutt atop a hillock. Then take a stroll in the sprawling expanse of greenery, savour the silence and meditative calm of the place.
Take a country boat ride to the uninhabited isle of Ponnuthuruthu, surrounded by the Anjengo backwaters. Ensconced amidst thick coconut groves, this island shelters a century-old temple dedicated to Shiva and Parvathy. The queens of the Travancore Royal Family used to visit the temple and hide their precious jewellery on the island for safe keeping and hence the island came to be known as Ponnuthuruthu meaning ‘Golden Island’.
Visit the fort, a 130-feet tall lighthouse, the ruins of an ancient factory and a dilapidated masonry canal extending all the way north to Alappuzha and Kollam, in the fishing hamlet of Anjengo, a strip of land sandwiched between the sea and the backwaters.
Eat here: Try the sea-facing restaurants along the North Cliff. Savour the seafood delicacies like calamari fry, lobster curry and other fish preparations. The leaf- wrapped and grilled meen pollchathu is a must-try.
We recommend: Set out on a stroll on the footpath that runs along the length of the cliff, bordered by coconut palms, quaint shops, beach shacks, hotels and guest houses. Or watch the fishermen haul in their catch, attend Yoga classes, meditation sessions and try out the rejuvenating Ayurvedic massages.