Every night for the past nearly three years, I've gone to sleep with the rumble of the Arabian Sea churning and breaking a short distance away. Goa aside, surf beaches aren't the image most people associate with India, but Papanasam Beach is at the centre of most things that happen in Varkala, from its centuries of importance to the Hindu faith to the attraction it holds for tourists. Papanasam is also Varkala's most accurate symbol. Its violence is concealed beneath rolling, mesmerizing waves, sweeping in over and over, ready to dump you into the sandy floor or carry you a mile out to sea without hesitation.
Varkala's like that. It's in a constant state of transition, with new tourists flocking in every year and fresh waves of Nepalis, Tibetans, Kashmiris, Tamilians to serve them beer and fish. The clash between traditional village mentality and looser modern mores is illustrated every time a mundu passes a bikini in the streets. Every year there are a couple more restaurants, a few more guest houses. Every year old family homes get torn down and new ones put up in their place.
Strangely, however, Varkala remains as stagnant as it is ever-changing. Visitors rarely look deeper than the surface. The locals have things set up so that they will retain as much power over the land and the economy as possible. They know that if they truly opened up the tourist economy to outsiders they'd be buried under the weight of quality competition, so they insure their assets with that status quo of constant change. Anyone who comes in and gets a little bit bigger than is deemed acceptable will be hit with chopped power cables, live snakes at the door and – if necessary – open threats of violence. Anyone's welcome, as long as they leave.
If that all sounds like a paradox, well, that's because Varkala is as conflicted a place as I've yet known. It's gorgeous and ugly; peaceful and unruly; welcoming and threatening; spiritual and debased.
Papanasam holds the key. It's an immensely holy beach for Hindus, visited by millions of pilgrims every year. Its name means 'destruction of sins'; its purpose is to wash away the sins of the living and the dead. Whoever has been good or bad, be they Dalit or Brahmin, all are equal in the waves at Papanasam under the watchful eyes of the gods.
Papanasam, therefore, wasn't brought to life by a sudden influx of tourists at the end of the 20th century. It was there long before there were people with money and people without, before visitors or locals. Its ebbing and flowing tide was witnessed only by faithful Hindus, who sanctified it with their prayers. Perhaps its religious significance was pre-ordained by the gods, or perhaps it was simply bundled with an ancient Hindu priest's assignment to build a temple near the sea in south Kerala.
Whatever the case, Papanasam has played its required role for each visitor for a very long time – first as the purger of misdeeds, both yours and your late uncle's, and then as a Westernised pit stop where visitors to India can sunbathe naked without too much fear. At a glance, this culture clash appears to have blossomed into an oddly comfortable alliance – just like Papanasam's deceptive waves look harmless. With such a gulf in values, however – thousands of years of tradition versus a few backpacker days in the sun – there's an uneasiness that's always ready to spill over into a flashpoint. There are a few 'incidents' every year.
And there's the beauty of it. Drink, smoke, fornicate, assault, whatever; a quick dip in Papanasam's waters will clear your rap sheet upstairs. The very thing that created the entire Varkala contradiction is also the force that keeps it in some sort of balance. (Just don't get carried out to sea by that vicious undertow.)
I do love Varkala. It's given me a home for three memorable, often difficult, always exciting years. I've made a few close friends (though like anything else here, they've come and gone). It's worked its way into my thoughts to the point that I will never be able to consign it to the past. But if there's one memory I'll look back on about Varkala, it'll be lying awake at night and listening to that Papanasam surf, unable to decide whether the rumble is soothing or unsettling.
Photo credit: Thejas Panarkandy