Monday, March 19, 2012

Destination Kanyakumari!

We have seen our country being likened to a beautiful mother-figure in paintings, calendars, posters and even in our textbooks; with the majestic Himalayas as her crown and the ocean washing her feet. If one looks at these 'feet' on a map, one sees the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula. That is exactly where Kanyakumari is situated. Growing up in central India, both, the 'crown' as well as the 'feet' seemed to be faraway places, which only a few had the good fortune to visit. If one was fascinated by the snow-clad mountains, one was equally taken in by the never-ending expanse of the ocean. Several decades later, the world seems to have shrunk. I have travelled quite a bit, both, within the country and outside. Recently when an opportunity to go to Kanyakumari came up, I was happy to grab it.

Located at a distance of 630 kilometres from Chennai, Kanyakumari is 14 hours by train from the Tamil Nadu capital. We set off from the Egmore station. The red and white exterior of this beautiful building is very impressive. The interior is grand too, with huge domes and wide corridors. Built in the Gothic style, this station is one of the two major terminals in the city, the other being Chennai Central. We leave Chennai in the early evening and reach Kanyakumari the next morning.

The pretty little station is very welcoming. It reminds us of the unhurried life in smaller towns. It is quite a contrast from the hustle and bustle of Chennai. Kanyakumari is a small town indeed, but it is one of the major tourist attractions in South India. The nearest airport is about 90 kilometres away in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. So, if one is not short on time, taking a train is the best option to reach Kanyakumari.  Other than its unique geographic location, what draws visitors to it in hordes is the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. 

Built mainly using donations from the common man (people could contribute as little as Re. 1) from all over India, this monument was completed in 1970 under the leadership of Eknath Ranade, an ex-general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is built on one of the two rocks that are just 500 metres off the mainland. Swami Vivekananda, the great spiritual leader and reformer swam to this rock in 1892 and spent a few days there in deep meditation. He attained enlightenment there and later worked relentlessly for the betterment of India. This monument was built to commemorate that important event in his life. The rock was regarded as being sacred because it was thought to have been touched by the feet of the Goddess Devi Kumari. In fact, a structure resembling a human foot is the centre of attraction and worship in the Shripada Mandapam. A statue of Vivekananda in black stone stands tall in the other pavilion on the rock, the Vivekananda Mandapam. The waters surrounding the rock are special as three oceans--the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea merge at this point.

After freshening up and having breakfast at our hotel, we reach the place from where one takes a ferry to go to the rock, some time before noon. Our hotel has a check-in time of 10.00 hours, so people like us arriving early in the morning have to wait for some time before they can enter their rooms.

We are certainly not prepared for the long serpentine queues that extend several hundred metres--if not a kilometre--into the narrow bazaar street outside the entry point to the ferry. We realise that we have made the mistake of coming on a Sunday, the busiest day of the week. According to the tourist brochures, February is 'off season', but looking at the crowds that are swelling with every passing minute, it is hard to believe so. We briefly consider trying at some other time, but visiting the Memorial is our first priority. Besides, we are to leave Kanyakumari the next day. So, we decide to join the queue and wait our turn.

It is midday and the sun is very strong. After about 90 long minutes, we find ourselves at the window where one buys the ticket (Rs. 20 per person, to and fro) to the ferry. Going up to the platform and actually boarding the boat takes another 30 minutes. Once the boat gets going, we are at the rock in no time. There again, we have to buy some sort of a ticket (Rs. 10 per person). Rs. 20 and 10 are not big sums of money, but if they had made us pay these amounts at only one place instead of two, it would have saved some time. Remember, there are queues at each transaction?

Both the pavilions, the Shripada Mandapam as well as the Vivekananda Mandapam are solid stone structures, simple, yet elegant. The statue of Vivekananda is imposing, but I feel that some of its appeal is lost in the dull and dark interiors of the hall. Outside, it is a gorgeous day. The breeze is just wonderful. The heat and the humidity that sapped our energy while we were waiting in the queue, seem to have been overpowered by the strong currents blowing across the rock from all sides. The water around the rock is glistening in lovely shades of green, blue and grey in the bright afternoon. We sit on the steps, feeling the wind on our faces and getting refreshed with it.

There are some bookshops on the way out. They are filled with books, posters, calendars, pictures and other souvenirs, all of them of course with images of or quotations from Swami Vivekananda. People wanting to leave the rock have to stand in lines too. We notice that there are only two vessels ferrying visitors between the rock and the mainland. On a busy day like Sunday, they surely need more boats to deal with the crowds! The rock is not open for visitors in the evening. They make sure that everyone returns to the mainland before it gets dark.

The second rock houses a tall black stone sculpture of the Tamil poet and saint, Thiruvalluvar. But access to that rock is not allowed. This is a comparatively recent structure that was opened in January 2000. The squat and spread out Vivekananda Memorial on one rock, and the vertical dark figure of the saint-poet on the neighbouring rock dominate the skyline of Kanyakumari, visible from all the open areas near the shore.

Back on the mainland, there are usual shops selling knick-knacks, pearl necklaces and earrings, decorative items made with sea shells, and other small items that tourists usually buy. And restaurants catering to the large number of visitors from all over the country and abroad. Even though Kanyakumari happens to be in Tamil Nadu, cuisine from other parts of India is easily available in these little eateries. Many hawkers and shopkeepers speak a smattering of different languages to attract customers.

A short distance away from these eateries on the main road, what catches our attention is a small structure with pyramid-shaped projections in the roof. We enter it and are very happy that we did. Inside, are beautifully displayed terracotta panels depicting some incidents in the life of Swami Vivekananda, each complete with a brief account of that particular event in Hindi, English and Tamil. It is well-maintained, well-lit and packed with amazing information. It is a permanent exhibition, called the Wandering Monk. It is run by the Vivekananda Kendra, a spiritually oriented service mission. Just a couple of kilometres away is Vivekanandapuram, the headquarters of the Kendra. It is spread on a sprawling 100-acre campus. Other than spiritual and educational activities, it offers accommodation to visitors that flock to this town from all over the world.

Photos by Prateek
The unique location of Kanyakumari offers stunning views of the sunrise and the sunset. We are lucky to have a balcony facing the east in our room at the hotel, but not lucky enough to see the sun rise, as it is hazy at the horizon on that particular day. So, we 'see' the sun after it has come up quite a bit. For the sunset, we join hundreds of people who have gathered in a park to witness the red ball disappear into the ocean. There again, we have to be satisfied with looking at the sun that disappears behind the clouds when it is a little above the horizon. But it does throw up streaks of myriad shades of red, orange and pink in the evening sky that is a delight to watch. I guess one needs to stay here longer to catch a perfect sunrise and sunset.

Next morning, we visit the ancient temple of Devi Kanya Kumari (also known as Kumari Amman, Kanya Devi and Devi Kumari), after which the town takes its name. Looking at the small entrance, I could not have guessed its size. It is quite large. The interior is dark and deep. The image of the Goddess is beautiful, her face lit up with the oil lamps around her. As is the custom in many temples in South India, men are asked to take their shirts off before entering the temple.After some shopping and a nice lunch in a Rajasthani restaurant, we board the train back to Chennai.


  1. We visited kanya kumari 2weeks ago,from was a 3or4 hour drive in the car. Your description of the trip was extremely interesting.i would like to add that there is a way to bypass the long line to the memorial.there is a Rs130 per person fee to do so..we managed to get in quickly by paying a little more since we did not have much time.

  2. Thanks for sharing this info about bypassing the queue. I am not sure this arrangement existed when we visited. It will be helpful to people who are short on time.