Despite being an avid traveler myself, I often find myself writing a story, almost innocently, trying to discourage the idea of frenzied and mass tourism. I’ve seen local cultures turning into commodities when religious rituals and traditional ethnic tires reduce and sanitize, to conform to tourist expectations – as so was the case with Varkala, a coastal town in India’s southernmost state of Kerala.
Once a destination is sold as a tourism product, it starts losing its originality – which, with time, brings about nothing but yet another modern tourist destination, providing us with perfectly staged, not so authentic, experiences.
Varkala is a calm and quiet hamlet, having its presence on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram district. It has one of those ideal places, which has a perfect beach and a great crowd. The only thing, however, that differs Varkala among its other tropical Indian counterparts is its rich history.
It was only about less than 20 years ago when Varkala, which today, has become an ideal spot to amble, for tanned westerners – was always found swarm with sadhus, doing meditation and reciting their own favorite mantras.
The town has been a pilgrim’s paradise since the 12th century. Its two thousand year old Janardhana temple stands on the cliffs overlooking the beach, as if gripping the place in its purity, and making the town a perfect showplace, not for the body but for the mind, as well as the soul.
“But the reality is,” I remember Madhu describing it to me, calmly but with a lucid passion behind his words, “this place, it is not what it used to be, a couple of decades ago,” owner of a thirty year old ‘94 Sunset’ restaurant, in the main-town of Varakala, who claimed to have seen this town (almost) building from the scratch.
A half an hour conversation with him, and he shared how Varkala, which once was known as the ‘Benares of the South’ is now moving faster than ever to meet the demands of prejudiced tourists. Keeping up with the trend, he himself was found obliged to give his restaurant a new-age makeover.
Unlike today where you find yourself eating the best seafood, under the candle lights, and among a lively company of favoured Western souls, Varakala, back in the days, was very much just a home to ardent pilgrims. You would discover nothing but thousands of pilgrims, or dedicated sadhus doing their rituals; whereas today, if you explore the place – stretching its boundaries from the North cliff to the South – all you treasure is a bunch of fancy tourists dressed in backless tops and diaphanous scarves, showing off their day’s tan, diminishing the cultural significance of this place, with days on end.
Though that’s a different thing that a number of pilgrims still visit Varkala to perform ‘Shraddha’, a ritual from the Hindu religion, performed to free the souls of the lost loved ones from the cycle of rebirth and to give them eternal peace, as according to many people’s belief, its location is most suited for such a ritual.
The Papanasam beach (often known as Varkala beach, and now ill famous for being a perfect picnic spot) is renowned for the natural spring. A dip in the holy waters at this beach is still believed to purge the body of impurities and the soul of all sins; hence the name ‘Papanasam beach’. But I wonder how many people, including those of Indian origin, are privy to that detail.
Where tourism indeed has brought money and a whole lot of opportunities for the region, the triggered greed of a small minority, and the impetuous actions of the community at large has resulted into a slow death of the Varkala local people were familiar with.
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