Despite being an avid traveler myself, I often find myself discouraging 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 is one of those 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 cultural and religious history, which, unfortunately, is slowly dying today.
It was 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 religious rituals and 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. The Papnasham beach, which today is more popular as Varkala beach, was once known for its sacred water was not just meant to clean the body but mind and soul too.
“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 Varkala, who claimed to have seen this town transforming from nothing to a hippy-oasis.
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, Varkala, back in the days, was just 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 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, Varkala beach’s 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 that local people were once familiar with.
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