Long renowned by Hindus as a place of pilgrimage, VARKALA, with its spectacular sands and red cliffs, is these days a considerably more appealing beach destination than Kovalam. Centred on a clifftop row of budget guesthouses and palm-thatch cafés, the tourist scene is still relatively low-key, although the recent arrival of charter groups and luxury hotels may well be the harbinger of full-scale development: building inland and at both ends of the beach is proceeding apace.
Known in Malayalam as Papa Nashini ("sin destroyer"), Varkala's beautiful white-sand Papanasam Beach has long been associated with ancestor worship. Devotees come here after praying at the Janardhana SwamyTemple, to bring the ashes of departed relatives for their "final rest". Non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the inner sanctum of the shrine.
Backed by sheer red laterite cliffs and drenched by rolling waves off the Arabian Sea, the coastline is imposingly scenic and the beach relatively relaxing – although its religious associations ensure that attitudes to public nudity (especially female) are markedly less liberal than other Indian coastal resorts. Western sun-worshippers are thus supposed to keep to the northern end of the beach (away from the main puja area reserved for the funerary rites) where they are serviced by a nonstop parade of local "hallo-pineapple-coconut?" vendors. Lifeguards ensure the safety of swimmers by enforcing the no-swim zones beyond the flags: that the undercurrent is often strong, claiming lives every year. Dolphins are often seen swimming quite close to the coast, and, if you're lucky, you may be able to swim with them by arranging a ride with a fishing boat. Sea otters can also occasionally be spotted playing on the cliffs by the sea.
Few of Varkala's Hindu pilgrims make it as far as the clifftoparea, the focus of a homespun but well-established tourist scene. Bamboo and palm-thatch cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops jostle for space close to the edge of the mighty escarpments, which plunge vertically to the beach below in a dramatic arc, most beautiful at sunset, when their laterite tint glows molten red. Several steep flights of steps cut into the rock provide fast routes from the sand.