India
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Varkala: The Dying ‘Benares’ Of South

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.

pandit

sadhu

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.

shopkeeper

building shop

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.

varkala hotel

handicraft

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.

pooja

varkala beach

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.

[Also Read — Rishikesh: From Being A Land Of Yogis To A Hub Of Tourism]

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Filed under: India

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Shortly after my first real nine-to-five job, I left that lifestyle behind, and with it, everything that didn't fit in my backpack. I've learned that this world is too big (and too interesting!) to stay in one place. I believe that with a little courage and inspiration, everyone has the power to follow their dreams. Just as I've followed mine!

11 Comments

  1. Alok Singh says

    This place has been there in my list from quite some time. Just like others, didn’t know about religious, cultural side of it and I was not able to relate Varkala as “benaras of south” when i read the title. This is new and surprising as nobody around, even people i know from Kerala didn’t tell me about this. Thanks for the info.
    This place is going up in the list :).

    • Yea, it’s a little sad. But then again, tourism is helping local families get jobs and other opportunities, which is good (in its own way), right?

  2. Red says

    Dev , it is a beautiful temple and a beautiful beach. Sadhus and Tourist both get to enjoy this . So I really don’t think it is “Dying”.

  3. Red says

    Dev , it is a beautiful temple and a beautiful beach. Sadhus and Tourist both get to enjoy. And being a local I am exposed to great variety of food. So I really don’t think it is “Dying”.

    • I often write this but here’s the thing ‘every coin has two sides’. It’s clear tourism brings lot of opportunities for the local people, so it’s very unlikely they’d say it’s bad – particularly if they’re into the business. And the article never stated that Varkala is dying, (it said) its cultural side is. Varkala used to be a sweet abode of Indian ‘Saadus’, who are now constantly moving to other places to find some peace of mind, because in Varkala, as we know it today, tourists rule the day. And you’re right, it has a beautiful beach, and great food and perhaps both are going to be better and better, with time, if you know what I mean.

  4. Kritika says

    Have visited Varkala so many times but never tried to look into its cultural side. A well documented article. Good job

    • Thanks Kritika. By the way next time you go there have some food in ‘94 Sunset’ restaurant as well, it’s right next to the central Varkala beach. They guy who runs it (and whom I spoke about in the story) is a great man.

  5. Very informative post. I had no idea about this aspect of Varkala. Thank you. I guess travellers can see what tourists cant see. And thats what diffrentiates them. 🙂

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