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This article was first published 7 years ago  » Getahead » What's so magical about this tiny island in Kerala?

What's so magical about this tiny island in Kerala?

By T P Sreenivasan
November 30, 2016 11:19 IST
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To be at Kakkathuruthu when the sun sets, according to National Geographic, is a surreal experience.
Ambassador T P Sreenivasan tells us how the tiny island gradually charmed him.

IMAGE: It wouldn't be exaggerating to say that Kakkathuruthu (Island of Crows, in Malayalam) is a jewel in Kerala's crown.
All photographs: Kind courtesy Kayal Island Retreat

'Sunset in Kerala is greeted by a series of rituals.

'Here on Kakkathuruthu, a tiny island in Kerala's tangled backwaters, children leap into shallow pools.

'Women in saris head home in skiffs.

'Fishermen light lamps and cast nets into the lagoon.

'Bats swoop across the horizon snapping up moths.

'Shadows lengthen, the sky shifts from pale blue to sapphire and the emerald tinged 'Island of Crows' -- the Malayalam name for this sandy spot along the Malabar coast -- embraces night.'

'If dawn is awakening and daytime illumination, then twilight is transcendence, a final burst of vitality before darkness falls.'

This inscription on a magnificent photograph of the island of Kakkathuruthu in the National Geographic magazine catapulted the tiny island to international fame.

The suggestion by National Geographic was that one should be in Hawaii at 5 am, Paris at 6 am, San Francisco at 7 am, Abu Dhabi at 8 am, Melbourne at 9 am, Tanzania at 10 am, Argentina at 11 am, Namibia at 12 noon, Charleston, South Carolina, at 1 pm, Portland at 2 pm, New Zealand at 3 pm, Croatia at 4 pm, Tokyo at 5 pm, Kakkathuruth, Kerala, at 6 pm, Cuba at 7 pm, New York at 8 pm, China at 9 pm, Budapest at 10 pm, Monaco at 11 pm, Norway at 12 midnight, 3500 feet on a plane at 1 am, Atacama Desert at 2 am, Tel Aviv at 3 am and end up at Northern Ireland at 4 am.

Such a trip is humanly impossible with existing technology, but a day may come when someone will be able to accomplish it.

IMAGE: The resort is nestled in abundance of nature.

I was amazed, however, to find that I had already visited 20 out of the 24 must see places listed by National Geographic in its feature, 'Around the World in 24 Hours' and to add one more to my list, I simply had to drive for six hours from Thiruvananthapuram, have a delicious lunch with (former RA&W chief) Hormis Tharakan and his wife Molly, ride a country boat for 20 minutes and land on Kakkathuruthu in time for the celebrated sunset at 6 pm.

As a bonus, Maneesha Panicker, who owns the Kayal resort, and her mother Shantha Panicker served us tea and a delectable ada or rice cake cooked in plantain leaf.

The remaining three destinations -- Atacama Desert, Northern Ireland and Tel Aviv -- will have to wait.

Gone are the days when diplomatic travels took me to exotic places around the world frequently!

IMAGE: There are only two cottages in the resort.

When I heard that the once spy chief of India, Hormis Tharakan, was beckoned by the spices and his rich inheritance to settle in Olavipe village near Thykkattusseri, 30 km away from Kochi, on a lake and began farming, I had vowed to visit him.

I particularly wanted to see how someone who lived in world capitals and the Indian capital since he joined the Indian Police Service would adjust himself to rural life.

Tharakan appeared to have taken to his rural life like fish to water, when photographs appeared of his rich harvest of paddy that he held aloft in knee deep muddy water.

Hormis Tharakan is an unusual police officer, who is suave, somewhat shy and very well-mannered.

My earliest recollection of him is how, as the serving police chief of Kerala, he got up from his exalted seat at a public function in Thiruvananthapuram and brought a chair for Lekha, my wife, as we walked in.

I was struck that he did not look for a constable to find a chair, as any other police chief would have done in such circumstances. Subsequently, we served together on the National Security Advisory Board, where I learnt about his erudition and intellectual acumen.

The only sign of his last appointment as India's Chief Spy was that he would freeze when any sensitive security related issue was raised.

IMAGE: Canadian television host David Rocco found paradise on this island.

When news broke about Kakkathuruthu's sudden rise as a desirable international destination, he revealed to us that he lived close to it and that his brother, Michael Tharakan, whom I knew when he was the vice-chancellor of Kannur University, actually lived on Kakkathuruthu itself on the property he had inherited.

I also heard that his ancestral home is now the Olavipe Homestay, created by his brother, the late Jacob Tharakan, who put the village on the world tourism map. This information increased my appetite and I made a plan to visit the area.

As luck would have it, I was invited to receive receive a 'Lifetime Achievement Honour' from the South Indian Management Association in Cherthalla, which included a night on a houseboat at the lovely Vasundhara Savera Premiere resort. The other honourees were 'Agniputri' Tessy Thomas and Paris Laxmi, the French dancer.

It was a sure recipe for a delightful trip in every way.

IMAGE: The tiniest of elements in the resort -- teapots, flower vases and furniture -- are sourced from antique shops.

We started our journey from Olavipe to Kakkathuruthu, after a sumptuous lunch, on a wooden boat with a tiny engine, trusting the ability of the frail boatman to take us across the Kaithapuzha lake to the Kayal resort, which attracted the National Geographic team to pay a visit on their own and felt enchanted enough to include the island in the 24 most attractive tourist destinations on the globe.

There was nothing spectacular about the island or the resort consisting of four cottages. It looked like any other green island, which can be seen in different parts of Kerala. We saw just two Indian guests watching the lake and we were received by Maneesha's mother, the widow of a Youth Congress leader, K Vasudeva Panicker, who was well on his way to political stardom, but passed away at the age of 44.

She told us that Maneesha was on her way to the island. In the meantime, she told us how her daughter had found the island and built the resort, which happily became world famous recently.

We were also introduced to the chef, a village woman, who explained the way she developed the local cuisine to make it palatable to an international audience.

Maneesha arrived soon enough to join us and contrary to my expectation, she tuned out to be an affable and modest young lady, who managed the whole show from her office in Kochi.

She had returned from the US with a master's in engineering and she happened to spot the island, when she was looking for an office space outside the city. She quickly realised the potential of the island and began a resort and fame came to her when she won the award for the best lakeside lodge in the world and was featured in David Rocco's celebrity cookery show.

As a boutique island retreat, Kayal started receiving guests continuously through her international contacts. The international acclaim it received was beyond Maneesha's wildest expectations.

Maneesha said that last December, National Geographic Editor George Stone and his team stayed at the resort for four days.

The National Geographic team was awestruck by the 'charm of the small island, the lush coconut groves', and the magazine photographers captured the time of dusk on the island in all its beauty and grandeur.

"The best thing that the NatGeo team liked about the island was the sunset, which they watched from a traditional rowboat on the calm waters," Maneesha added.

IMAGE: Try resisting a sumptuous fare of local Kerala cuisine.

"When we established Kayal, our idea was to have a small space here with minimal impact on nature and to involve local people in the functioning of our resort," Maneesha said.

Setting an example for responsible and sustainable tourism initiatives in the state, she has ensured a good local participation in all activities, besides organising folk arts performances and entertainment programmes with local flavour.

Maneesha and her mother walked with us after the sunset to the home of Professor Michael Tharakan, the historian, and his wife, a former teacher.

He appeared irked by the sudden publicity that his island had acquired, which meant that scores of journalists landed up to seek interviews from him about the island and its history. He had planned to spend his days quietly to delve deep into medieval history!

IMAGE: A view of the sunset, at 6 pm, is certainly not to be missed. A boat ride is mandatory, says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan

By the time we finished our conversation and walked to the boat, the island was in total darkness except for a tiny torch to guide us along the narrow track.

As I left them and sailed away to the mainland, I could see why the trained eyes of the National Geographic team picked this pearl as one of the 24 tourist wonders of the globe.

Having now seen 21 of the 24, I felt elated that I was paid to see these beauty spots during my foreign service career, while anyone else would have to spend their lives' earnings to see even a few of them.

Like Kathakali, Kalaripayattu and coconut oil, Kakkathuruthu was also discovered by us only after it was appreciated abroad.

Kerala tourism is understandably basking in the glory of the hard work of a young woman entrepreneur. It will do well to provide some basic amenities to nearly a thousand residents of the island without spoiling its simple splendour and pristine surroundings.

With a little imagination and investment, Kerala could easily develop many more island resorts like Kakkathuruthu.

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T P Sreenivasan