10.93°N, 72.28°E Lakshadweep Archipelago, India
Don’t come here…. What tourist bureau would have this slogan? The beauty of this place is stunning and ye, the Indian government fails to provide the usual tourist information about flights (one per day from Agatti an island 2.6 square kilometers which barely allows for a runaway), boats or helicopter transport to set down on a beach, or how to obtain a landing permit should a poor fellow arrive in a rowboat.
Comprised of thirty-six coral islands, Lakshadweep Archipelago belongs to the Union of India. Ten islands are inhabited and five are for tourists. Interestingly, some of the five for tourists are also labeled uninhabited. Perhaps something got lost in translation, although it wouldn’t be surprising to learn tourists and those who work in ‘resorts’ are not considered inhabitants. This is a place of two parallel universes.
The colors stun with their vibrancy and their tonality, especially the water. Waves break on the reef to identify the shallow lagoon, but the dramatic change from deep blue to light aqua announces the lagoon’s pristine waters. Island maps show a perimeter of land and one for the lagoon as though everything to the reef is also part of the territory of each island.
Officials in khaki uniforms sit on the beach under an umbrella waiting for travelers to report to their customs ‘office.’ They scramble through lists of names, filed earlier as pre-arrival permits are necessary and dutifully check each stranger off the list. No telling what happens to one whose name is not there—back into the sea with them or perhaps they sleep on the sand at the officials’ feet waiting for approval.
The islands are equipped with little bungalows, some closed and some not. The Indian military/government has acquired a few resorts and forced the closure of others. The website for the resort on Agatti reads “Due to a Litigation with Lakshadweep Administration the Agatti Island Beach Resort is not presently functional.” If there is a resort ‘presently functional’ the accommodations appear to be below basic, essentially open air, no glass windows, and thatched roofs except for the tourist cottages at Kavaratti. In other words, just what a simple paradise should be.
Kavaratti has one road, easy to navigate on foot. Anyone who looks and dresses like a foreigner is stopped from leaving what local uniformed officals refer to as the “Western-side of the island.” The average temperature range is 81°F to 100°F with 71% humidity and the few guests are dressed in shorts, sleeveless tops and beach gear. To leave on the ‘Road from Paradise Hut to Fisheries Jetty’ women must be covered and men must wear pants to enter the Muslim area of the island.
Mohammed gave us a lift in his mini-mini van to go shopping for some fresh food. The first shop refused service to us. The only other shop offered to sell some fruits and vegetables. The contrast between the resort world and the rest of the island where the only building that looked like it wouldn’t blow away in the next storm was the Mosque marks a different world from the huts of scuba gear and kayaks for rent. The call to prayer sounds from the massive speakers on the minaret announcing even to swim-suit clad non-believers that this territory belongs to Muslims.
“Are there other religions on Kavaratti?”
“No, no others. Only Muslim.”
The 2011 census indicates that Lakshadweep is 96.2% Muslim, highest of any state in India. Most Indians are Hindu with Muslims representing a growing 14% of the population.
Nature’s beauty ignores local officals, religious and not.Life most everywhere life goes on without official approval. The people inspired by their surroundings add color to their boats, their homes, the doors and window frames and their food, revealing an exuberance that thrives behind a black burka or a dull khaki uniform.