Finding Serenity on the Still Waters of Kasaragod

  • Picking coconuts on Valiyaparamba Island.

    Picking coconuts on Valiyaparamba Island.

  • A thali lunch at the Oyster Opera features local fish, mussels, and squid fried in spices.

    A thali lunch at the Oyster Opera features local fish, mussels, and squid fried in spices.

  • The beachside infinity pool at Neeleshwar Hermitage.

    The beachside infinity pool at Neeleshwar Hermitage.

  • Coconut palms frame empty stretches of beach along Kasaragod's coast.

    Coconut palms frame empty stretches of beach along Kasaragod's coast.

  • A fragrant chicken dish from the kitchen at Neeleshwar Hermitage.

    A fragrant chicken dish from the kitchen at Neeleshwar Hermitage.

  • Commuting, Kasaragod-style.

    Commuting, Kasaragod-style.

  • A Theyyam performer in profile.

    A Theyyam performer in profile.

  • A kettuvallum houseboat.

    A kettuvallum houseboat.

  • A scenic stretch of the Valiyaparamba backwaters.

    A scenic stretch of the Valiyaparamba backwaters.

  • A mussel farmer on Thekkekadu Island.

    A mussel farmer on Thekkekadu Island.

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We set off by bike to explore the full 24-kilometer length of Valiyaparamba Island. It’s ferociously hot for cycling, but the distant vistas of the Western Ghats mountain range in Kerala’s Wayanad district help take our minds off the temperature. Bumping across rocky roads, I pass the occasional low-slung house or a wooden-shuttered shop selling basic supplies, but there are no bars or restaurants. A couple of homestays offer the only amenities for tourists.

After an hour’s pedaling, we stop at Sandwich Beach, a long honey-colored stretch of sand. Its shores are filled with teenagers chatting in huddles and families are out paddling in the Arabian Sea, but the beach’s designation as the central meeting point for islanders has also left it littered with plastic bottles, broken flip-flops, and the like. Soon, we take off again and move inland, where we meet three coconut pickers marching down a narrow path. We stand and watch in awe as they clamber up palm trunks with disks of coir rope as grips for their hands and feet before using cleavers to chop off the fruits, which fall to the ground with a thud. One of the pickers breaks a coconut open for me, and I quench my thirst with its sweet water, the cool liquid running down my chin. “This is the perfect place for people who like peace, away from everything,” Syed says. Looking around me at the lush beauty of this faraway island, I couldn’t agree more.

The next morning, ascending a snaking road by car, I look down across the landscape. It stays riotously green year-round thanks to the drenching rainstorms and summer monsoons, and the roads that wind through are the shade of saffron. But as colorful as the landscape is, so too is the culture. Presently, I’m being driven to a temple to watch a Theyyam ceremony by Jagannath Chirakkara, an expert on the ancient ritual practiced widely in Kerala. “We believe in reincarnation of the soul and in the existence of the spirit after death,” he explains as we drive. “We are bound to attend these rituals to secure lasting peace and prosperity for our family.”

Not knowing what I’m in for, we arrive at a small village temple. The air is thick with incense. A drumbeat pulsates and the Theyyam—the ritual leader meant to represent God—chants with a sonorous lilt, his feet dancing to the rhythm. He’s vibrantly costumed in a headdress embellished with silver disks and red petals; his face and body are painted in yellow turmeric dye; and his eyes, highlighted in black, are sad and hypnotizing. “Theyyam is a corrupted form of the word dhaivam, meaning god,” Jagannath whispers. Worshippers stand impassively before moving forward to receive a blessing, the performance building with intensity all the while. The Theyyam’s trance-like state is captivating, and as he dances the crowd disperses to make space. Though I hardly understand what’s happening, I’m left profoundly affected by the whole experience.

Back at the Oyster Opera, the mood lightens, and I’m treated to a thali lunch, which I eat local-style with my hands. This typical South Indian dish of curries and chutneys served on a banana leaf here comes with a twist of fried mussels and squid added to the mix. Fresh and delicious, it’s the perfect farewell meal before I hop into a car for an hour’s drive up the coast to reach my next destination.

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