Most people go to Varkala for beaches, yoga, ayurveda, and some good R&R. Varkala’s claim to fame are the cliffs which line the beach and being a beach person, I was eager to go there – and the R&R part too. And not too far are the backwaters which let you discover them via the indigenous Gondolas of Kerala.
Unfortunately for us, it was not yet the season – the sea was rough. The coast guard advised not to get too deep into the water and the waves were coming dangerously to the shore. So after a day of eating European food, getting tanned on the beach and staring at the waves, we decided to go sightseeing.
The promenade up the hill .. Coffee temple signboard on top
…. And down the cliff
From the list of places suggested to us – Golden Island sounded intriguing. It was an island around 10 km away from Varkala on the backwaters. The local name is Ponnamthuruthu – named so after rumors of the Travancore Royal family stashing their gold there. A Shiva-Parvati temple is present on the island, a major reason why people visit. So, on Day 2 after having a hearty breakfast, we hired a scooter and off we went in search of Ponnamthuruthu relying heavily on Google Maps.
It was one of the few times we learnt Google ain’t that good for “really local”locations. Following the maps to a T, we found ourselves in some unknown street with no boat or waterbody within our view. However, the best part of Kerala is the-always-willing-to-help locals. So while we were confused about where to go next, someone suggested of a place nearby which takes people across the banks via boats, which was a 2 min drive away. We found someone who could take us across to the island. It was 10.30 and I heard the temple shuts at 12.00 pm so I wanted to get there soon.
Thus, we found ourselves on the traditional wooden boat gently gliding across the backwaters taking in the Kerala landscape. Coconut and areca nut trees on the coastline gently swayed with the breeze. Small fish jumped across the water, and we found a dog swimming across the river.
I was strongly reminded of the Gondolas which glide across the canals in Venice. While my friends on exchange were taking their Gondola rides in Venice, I was having my very own Gondola ride, tucked away within the backwaters of Kerala.
The ride took around 45 minutes but completely worth it along with snippets of information from the oarsman. He talked about the month of October when the season really began, and the place would be flooded with tourists and eateries, including on the island itself. The island was called golden island as many locals believe the Royal Travancore famiy stashed up their gold in that island. Until recently the royal family owned the island, and now it has been sold to someone else. The Shiva Parvathi temple is open in the morning till 12. I glanced at my watch. It was already 11. He pointed to an egret eating fish and spoke of migratory birds which came to the backwaters during the winter months, and gave their names in Malayalam.
He also informed us the actual place where we had to board the boat from was near a bridge, which we had overlooked. Considering the actual boat would have been a motor boat which speeded across the backwaters, I was not too upset that we lost our way and ended up on this boat taking sights of the landscape. Lot of eagles flew around. There were other birds also along the banks. It was a perfect paradise for nature lovers.
We reached just in time on the island. The bell sounded-signifying closing time. The island itself was very small, with the temple at the centre. It was dedicated to Shiva Parvathy. It also had the deity of Vishnu. One thing which I found interesting was the temple had a small place dedicated to Yakshi. I had seen a lot of temples which had a small place for Yaksha, but this was probably the first temple I visited which had a dedicated space for Yakshis. Yakshis in local folklore are portrayed as demonesses who take the form of a pretty lady and seduce and kill men. Whereas Yakshas are revered but not feared, and are generally considered benevolent. I asked the priest about this curious trait. He informed me it is basically to ward off fear. For folks who have nightmares, praying to Yakshis help.
The priest does not live on the island either. They live across the backwaters where majority of the settlements were there. Outside the temple was a smaller area for worship of Nagaraja – the snake king.
The temple itself
And the sarpakkavu.. place of worship of snakes
The priest gave us the temple offering – Payasam, and after roaming around a little on the tiny island we decided to head back.
The ride back gave a more pronounced sighting of different bird species.
He also told us of an amazing place where we could get sea food. “It’s always the fresh catch”, he assured us. And considering the long boat ride, the restaurant Kayalaoram, was where we were headed to right after . I was thankful for the off season for it not being too crowded.
The food was a delicious spread for a sea food buff, albeit a little spicy (for me). Rice, Tapioca with prawn curry, karimeen fry, and kallumakaya (mussels ) fry on traditional banana leaf – all for 150 bucks. And sorry – no pics of the food – I was too busy wolfing it down. Maybe next time.