FORMERLY THE Laccadives, the Lakshadweep Islands are an archipelago of 36 exquisite coral islands, with untouched beaches and verdant coconut groves, scattered off the Kerala coast in the Arabian Sea. With a total land area of only 32 sq km (12 sq miles), Lakshadweep (which means 100,000 islands) is the smallest Union Territory in India. The atolls enclose shallow lagoons harbouring India’s richest diversity of coral varieties, and a multitude of colourful reef fish. Only two islands, Bangaram and Kadmat, are open to foreign visitors, while Indian visitors have a choice of six; all offer superb snorkelling and scuba-diving.
Lakshadweep’s administrative headquarters, Kavaratti is the busiest island, and home to a large number of mainlanders, most of whom work for the government. It has beautiful white beaches and its crystalclear lagoon is popular with water sports enthusiasts. There are 52 mosques on the island that cater to the predominantly Muslim population. The Ujra Mosque has an ornate ceiling, carved from driftwood. The island also has a Marine Aquarium, which displays a variety of tropical fish and corals.
Lakshadweep’s only airport is on Agatti Island. It has a fine lagoon and offers easy access for day visits to the uninhabited islands of Bangaram, Tinnakara and Parali I and II. Although all visitors arriving by plane must go through Agatti, the island itself is not open to foreign visitors.
The uninhabited Bangaram Island is covered with dense groves of coconut palms and has lovely sandy beaches. The Bangaraifl Island Resort run by Casino Hotels of Kochi, has about 30 rooms as well as a restaurant and bar. Its lagoon, rich with corals and tropical fish, is excellent for scuba diving and snorkelling. Visitors can also choose from the variety of water sports kayaking and glass-bottomed boat rides, and the Lacadives Dive School, on the same premises, offers snorkelling and scuba diving and has qualified instructors.
The clear, shallow lagoon of Kalpen Island is the largest in Lakshadweep. With excellent reefs, Kalpeni is ideal for diving and snorkeling. Coral debris, deposited by a storm in 1847, has formed raised banks on the eastern and southern shores. Kalpeni’s inhabitants were among the earliest islander to send girls to school, paving the way for other islanders who had traditionally kept their girls and women confined to the home.
Lakshadweep’s southernmost island, Minicoy has a unique culture influenced by the neighbouring Maldives. Bahl , spoken here, is a dialect of the Maldivian Dhivebi, which is related to the Indo-Persian languages with a script written from right to left. Minicoy is often referred to as “Women’s Island”, as its ten villages are matrilineal. It is also rich in the performing arts; the traditional Lava dance is performed on festive occasions. Tuna fishing has become an important activity, with the establishment of a tuna canning factory. Minicoy has a grand lagoon, and is the only island in the archipelago with a stretch of mangroves along its shores. A large lighthouse, built by the British in 1885, commands an impressive view of the sea.
A CRUISE ALONG THE BACKWATERS is one of the most enchanting experiences that Kerala offers. Exploring this labyrinthine network of waterways, which weave through villages set amidst lush vegetation, offers glimpses of Kerala’s unique rural lifestyle, where land and water are inseparable. The most popular backwaters tour is from Kola (Quiton), situated between Ashtamudi Lake and the Arabian Sea, to Alappuzha (Alleppey) on the edge of Vembanaci Lake. The choice of transport ranges from local ferries and speedboats to kettuvallams.