The helicopter skimmed across the lagoon, the turquoise waters only partially hiding the formations of coral rock. In seconds, the island of Agatti with its ribboDiving in Lakshadweep Islandsn-like runway was a speck behind us. Below, the colors were changing rapidly, for beyond the coral reef the pale blue had changed to a deep blue where the currents of the sea threw up white capped waves. Then suddenly, the sea below seems to start frothing and I draw the pilot's attention to it, who pushes back his headset and yells, "Tuna!"
The Lakshadweep islands are the only real coral islands in the country. They almost seem to float out of nowhere some 400 kilometers from the coast of Kerala and of the 36 islands, only ten are inhabited. Most of them are long and irregular with a lagoon enclosed by a coral reef usually on the western side. Believed to have been formed as a result of coral activity, each lagoon abounds with some spectacular growth of corals, which in turn supports a diverse array of marine life. The tiny, narrow islands with their coconut palms, white coral beaches and lovely, shallow and clear waters, combine to make it a tropical dream, which few parts of the world can match.
The island of Bangaram lies below us and we sweep around it, peering through the canopy o coconut trees at the tiny cottages and the colourful boats lines up next to the lagoon. The engine seems to quieten down a bit and the helicopter touches down smoothly, its rotors whirling up gusts of coral sand which forces the spectators to turn their backs. We jump out, dragging our bags from the hold and then the helicopter is climbing again, angling across the lagoon and racing off to Agatti. It takes a couple of minutes to walk across the width of the island, and after being welcomed with large coconuts we are shown our rooms.
The lagoon feels like a huge, endless swimming pool and we try to get a feel of the snorkels and the flippers, which often turn one upside down in the water. An hour later, we are racing across the lagoon in a flat-bottomed boat powered by powerful outboard motors heading for the reef. Jose Dominic, the quiet and soft-spoken man behind Bangaram has talked endlessly of snorkeling ever since we left Cochin together, but nothing had prepared us for the sudden explosion of colour as we lowered ourselves into the water near an old shipwreck off Bangaram.
In seconds, one has become a snorkeling addict. Fish of various hues and sizes seem to accept us as part of their world. Soon everyone is surfacing and sending everyone to the spot they've just emerged from. Huge corals breathe, while thousands of brilliantly colored fish swim in all directions. At the edge of the wreck, a shadow startles me and I turn to face a read snapper, longer than my arm as it glides past. A smaller, almost transparent fish nibbles at my legs, and as I get more used to the mask and the snorkel, I begin to dive a little bit. The first piece of basic equipment is the facemask, which acts as the magic window through which one can see the secrets of the underwater world. By forming an airtight seal around the eyes and the nose, it creates an air space between the eyes and the water, eliminating the blurred vision, enabling us to see as clearly as on land. On the other hand, water magnifies things and they appear four times larger and one-fourth closer to you than they actually are. And to cap it all, one need only be a casual swimmer to get going, the flippers giving one the power to move in the water with great ease.
Back on the island, Mr. Walto and his staff took over. Dinner usually boasted a menu drawing heavily on the waters outside the lagoons with the famous Lakshadweep tuna, squid and other seafoods fining their way to the table. Coconut cultivation and fishing being the chief occupation of the people, both these items dominate the cuisine and in Bangaram, the mix of local and continental dishes caters to a wide variety of tastes. Like the cuisine, the resort too blends with the local styles. The emphasis on preserving the fragile ecology of the coral islands is almost a mania for the local administration for the way in which it carries the local people with it in its decisions.
In keeping with the planned and phased development of the islands, the island of Bangaram was chosen as the venue for the resort. Until then uninhabited, mainly because of the lack of drinking water, stringent guidelines were set and hoteliers were asked to submit proposals. Dominic's Cochin based Casino Hotel was eventually invited to Bangaram and the resort got underway. Besides offering exquisite beaches and lagoons, Dominic's emphasis is on the water sports. While snorkeling is confined to the shallower areas within the reef, his aim is to get to the corals outside the reef where deep sea diving will help people explore the cliffs on which the islands are perched. Far more specialized equipment and trained instructors are being brought in and that will open up a new exciting avenue altogether.
Deep-sea fishing, using local modified boats, is another spot lined up for the near future. The yellow finned tuna runs upto a hundred-odd pounds, and the tropical waters also abound with the greatest sporting fish of the sea- the marlin. Standing on the reef on a subsequent day, we watched a fishing boat chase a school of tuna, and later from their hold they held up a reasonable sized black marlin. Our guide had grinned when we asked him how they landed that big a fish and simply said 'hand line'. I don't think Hemmingway would have gone to Cuba had he know that!
The next day Dominic took us fishing. To start with, we used bits of squid to catch manyan, a small yellow fish with blue stripes not bigger than the size of one's hand. With a reasonable haul, we then set off to look for a couple of octopuses, which was easier said than done. Using snorkels, our local guides dived into the water, carrying a couple of iron rods. For the next half an hour or so they thrashed around and occasionally surfaced with an octopus wrapped around their iron rods. It was a painful and tedious business, for the octopus would dart into a hole and no amount of tugging could get it to release its tenacious hold. Eventually, with three small octopuses in the boat, we set off for the reed where the tide was beginning to come in.
On the outer side of the reef the sea looked frightening - grey blue with angry waves which were in sharp contrast to the tranquil waters in the lagoon even though we were so far out that one could only see the island way of in the distance. After dropping anchor, bits of the octopus and the manyan were threaded onto the hook, and then, legs straddling the boat, our guides would rotate the bait over their heads like the rotors of a helicopter, pick up sufficient momentum and then let the lines ink out.
Hand line fishing is something else. There is no rod to break the fish's run, no reel or drag to control the pull but one's bare hands which can grip the nylon lines tentatively at best for a running fish of a few pounds can singe the hands badly. As it were, we ran into fair number of snappers, and towards the end were catching fish well over ten pounds with relative ease, while our guides seemed to be after even bigger fish. After dark, fishing in the lagoons seemed to improve, and the darkness added to the excitement for one had no idea what was at he other end of the line until it was actually hauled into the boat. Then, with our speedboats throwing up a luminous green in their wake, we would open our throttles and race back to Bangaram.
The ease with which one can slip into any activity is a major plus point in Bangaram. To explore the corals, a non-swimmer can set off in glass bottom boat or just zip around the lagoon, in the speedboats. To get away from it all one can spend their time wind surfing, or kayaking or just getting lost on the island whose total circumference is four kilometers.
Even though Lakshadweep comprises a group of islands, they are often miles apart and a journey from one to another by boat or ship could take anything between three to twenty hours. The availability of a helicopter service simplifies things tremendously, and also sometimes gives a distorted picture to the visitor who can fail to appreciate the isolation in which the people have lived over the ages. Little is known of the early history of the archipelago, but it appears that before the 7th century, the population was entirely Hindu. They were converted to Islam by Hazrat Ubaidullah who set off from Mecca after Prophet Mohammed appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to sail for distant lands to propagate Islam. After being shipwrecked he drifted to the island of Amini where, after initial opposition, he was able to carry out his mission. To date, the folk ballads sing of the arrival of Hazrat Ubaidullah in Lakshadweep and of the plunder of the islands by the Portuguese and other events.
The people even today remain unaffected by the changes taking place in the rest of the world. Mr. Habibullah, the Administrator of the islands tells the story of a tea-stall owner who was approached by the Administration to expand his business. On behalf of the government they offered to set up a larger business for hi, the proceeds of which would go entirely to the tea-stall owner. The man was adamant, refusing to expand his business, regardless of any additional profit. There is also virtually no crime in the islands, the most obvious testimony to which is the profusion of gold worn by the women and it is not an uncommon sight to have little children race past sporting chunky bits of gold jewellery.
Other than Bangaram, another four islands are open to Indian tourists. The most developed of these is the Administrative capital, Kavaratti that is very densely populated. The island boasts of 52 mosques spread out among the coconut groves and the most beautiful of these is perhaps the Ujra mosque whose ornate ceiling is said to have been carved from a single piece of driftwood. Kavaratti also has an aquarium with several colourful species of fish and the corals, which give us a background to what the lagoons to what the lagoons are all about.
There are tourist huts at Kadmat Island, which has a large lagoon of even depth. Kalpeni has three uninhabited satellite islands, all surrounded by a lagoon of spectacular beauty. This lagoon is particularly rich in coral life and naturally lends itself to snorkeling. Minicoy, the largest and southern most island has the largest lagoon and is also known as a 'women's island', the society being completely matriarchal. Minicoy also has a culture very different from the other islands, as it was located on the major sea routes where contact with the outside world was greater. Even today, its men are mostly sailor working on merchant vessels.
Though the main islands are heavily populated, the isolation on the smaller uninhabited Islands has to be experienced. Off Bangaram, are two satellite islands, Pirali One and Pirali Two. It takes the twin-engined speedboat half an hour to skip across the lagoon, zig-zagging to avoid the corals, which look like mushrooming giants underwater. A local fishing boat has just left, leaving strips of tuna to dry on the beaches. Hermit crabs scuttle off at our approach and the area is littered with large blue shells of lobsters. The reef runs right upto Pirali One where hundreds of crabs cling to the coral as the angry sea tries to pluck them off. The lagoon is sandy and shallow and like Robinson Crusoe we too would like to run on the beach but the bits of dry coral cut into the feet and make walking difficult. Just the, under the coconut trees, we come across an edict that proclaims to any intruders from the sea that this is the Indian Territory.
Time rolls on. The tranquility and the beauty of the islands leave their permanent impression and to go back to the coral beaches becomes a dream. Days, months after I sit in a darkened auditorium and listen to the leader of the Trishna Expedition as he describes their travels around the world in a sailing boat. Pictures flash on the screen and we drift with the speaker…through Africa, Europe and the Windies. Visions of grass skirted dancers and the Australian Barrier Reef. Then, from somewhere in the dark, the inevitable question… which was the most beautiful place? To each, its own, says the speaker, but if he had to choose, he would settle for those tiny islands in the sun…the Lakshadweep Islands.
Entry permit All visitors to the Islands of Bangaram Resort will need a permit. These are issued at Cochin. It would therefore be necessary to send three passport size photographs with full passport details to the management of Bangaram Resort to obtain the permit in advance in the case of foreign nationals. In the case of Indians only name and address required. Permits are ordinarily issued with a validity of 15 days. If required this may be extended from the resort itself. While advance arrangement for the permit would be desirable, this permit can also be arranged on arrival at Cochin.
Prohibition Prohibition is in force in all the islands except Bangaram. A well stocked bar is available on the resort. Tourists are prohibited from carrying alcoholic beverages even while transiting through Agatti.
Medical facilities A Health Centre with qualified medical personnel is available at Agatti.