Varkala is a very popular tourist destination with western travellers. Similar to Goa in many respects, it is a large beach front collection of Happy Bars and cheap hostels. Our taxi from the bus station tried ever so hard to force us to chose the hotel he wanted us to go to, to the point of demanding more money and following us to a cafe. As unsettling as that was, I felt safe in the western environment and only kept him in view as he sat menacingly opposite us. After he got bored and left, we ventured out and found some rooms.
Cesca and I chose a nice beach-hut style hostel, which was very pleasant. Gwenny found a room further along the cliff edge.
Varkala beachfront is sat atop a quite high cliff overlooking the beach itself. A narrow, and in some places, dangerous path runs along this cliff with the hordes of tourist shops, cafes and hostels all along one side.
Some of the bars had three of four floors for drinking and every single one offered pizza. Gwenny had a flight back home in a few days and Cesca and I were flying to Kolkata the same day. This was to be our last time together, but we had a plan to make it special.
Holi is the famous Indian festival where the Hindu faithful throw powdered paint all over each other and especially tourists.
The main day, Holi, also known as Dhuli Vandana in Sanskrit,also Dhulheti, Dhulandi orDhulendi, is celebrated by people throwing coloured powder and coloured water at each other. Bonfires are lit the day before, also known as Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) or Chhoti Holi(little Holi). The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahlad accomplished when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of god Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion. Holika Dahan is referred to as Kama Dahanam in South India. WIKIPEDIA
Cesca couldn’t wait and we spent the first day buying Holi-clothing to be obliterated by the paint. I settled on a brilliant white T-shirt with a picture of Ghandi in the middle. I loved it the minute I saw it. I am a massive fan of Ghandi. Cesca picked a wonderful pair of pirate-style trousers, in which she looked awesome. Ready for the onslaught, we went looking for trouble.
We couldn’t find it anywhere.
No Holi paint throwing at all.
Eventually we wondered what the hell was wrong, when a local explained that Holi was a Northern Indian festival. Not celebrated in the south (which I now know to be untrue, but we were not in the right place for it – it’s back in Kochin!). To say Cesca was deflated is an understatement. Forlorn we went back to the hostel for a “lay down”. Gwenny took off to her place and we sat and cursed our luck. I decided to shower and then go get drunk. As I turned on the shower there was a knock at the door, which I heard Cesca answer and then she screamed. It was a scream of fun. I poked my head around the door into the room, dripping wet and was rewarded with a face full of red powder paint flung by Gwenny. She screamed at my paint-splattered nakedness and ran giggling out of the room. Cesca and I exchanged looks and got quickly dressed. We chased her down to the beach and a true Holi celebration kicked off with just the three of us. Paint was thrown all around for about 30 minutes.
Dancing in circles like little children. It was great fun.
I took a moment and popped back to the room, for I had a plan. Stripping off the Ghandi T-shirt, I packed it away in a plastic bag. I was going to frame it when I returned to the UK.
And I did. I carried it for months across India, China and Japan and now I see it every day and remember my own special Holi with my Cesca and our new friend.
That night we celebrated in true European style by eating pizza and getting drunk.
Unfortunately, this is the larger part of a visit to Varkala by most people. The strip of cafes and shops offers little more than simply indulging oneself and touts were offering drugs all along it. The next day, while we lay upon the beach I tried to think of something more involved to do. The beach was hot beyond belief, so much so that I managed to get burned while under cover due to the reflection being so strong. Cesca and Gwenny enjoyed themselves until a small group of Indian males had collected nearby.
It is a problem that I have touched on before, but the under sexed and over stimulated Indian men find European women amazingly attractive, exotic and sexy. The British reserve of not seeing semi nakedness and the Dutch ease with sexuality clashes horribly with the Indian social stricture. Consequently the younger men gang up and come for a good look at the white girls. This was one of the reasons Gwenny joined with a couple in the first place. She was travelling alone and being hit on all the time, by locals and westerners. She wanted to hang with us partly because I wasn’t interested in her. She was assuredly beautiful but it is obvious, when one is around Cesca and I, that we are very into each other and very married. We are a safe haven.
Eventually, Gwenny became self conscious about the 10 or so men standing not too close, but close enough to check her out and have a good look. We left the beach and agreed to meet up later.
That night Cesca had come up with an idea. The local temple was having a religious festival with fireworks. We dressed correctly and went for a walk through the night. A couple of blocks into the darkness behind the strip we found some country lanes that wound around to a temple complex with a large courtyard. It was chock full of people, milling around in the dim lights and all awaiting something that was happening in the middle of the complex, where a stone building was throwing out light. Amongst the revellers were many children and a couple of elephants that had been painted in bright yellows and reds. After about 30 minutes the festival started proper when a senior Brahman priest came out of the narrow temple door and spoke in a language I didn’t recognise. We sat to one side on a stone wall and watched from about 10 meters away. He raised his hands and the fireworks started.
Now in Britain, fireworks are safety controlled, especially at public events. People are kept right back and safe from any danger. Not so in India. The rockets, bangers and explosions were amazingly close and loud. Booms that I felt through my fingers that I had jammed in my ears. The crowd were illuminated in flashes as they watched the bright explosions. It was one hell of a show. After an age it finished and the people filed forwards and started passing by a smoking brazier waving the smoke over themselves like one would wash their face with water.
It was fantastic to have been a part of such an event and from the smiles, hand waves and the body language of the event, we were made to feel very welcome by the participants, although Cesca was warned not to photo the ceremony itself. Kindly and with a smile. These were happy people and I was really impressed.
A few days later we were at the airport with Gwenny. There were hugs and promises to meet up sometime and then she caught her plane back to Holland. I was sorry to see her go, I liked her a lot and she was a fun friend to have with us.
Cesca and I then caught our plane to Kolkata. It was an Indian Airways plane and I remember that it was small and that the food was excellent Indian fare.
I watched Kerala disappear away from under us as we flew north. This was the half way point in our Indian journey; we had made it all the way down one side of the country to the very tip. It had been a great adventure of discovery. I was starting to fall in love with India, a process that continues to this day, and I wondered if the north could be as great as this.
I need not have worried for we had plans to visit Varanasi, Bodhgaya, Jaipur, Jodhpur, have a tiger safari, see the legendary Taj Mahal, the deserts of Jaisalmer and the great northern city of Delhi. All that was to come, but first: we had been in the heaven that is Kerala, now we had to visit hell on earth…
We were to land in the black hole that is Kolkata.