This is the fourth article (S No: VI-360.04) of the series “Visit India 360”. It’s an endeavor initiated by N4M, through a series of articles highlighting the various facets of ‘Indian Tourism’, and in the process synch with the ongoing efforts to make India the preferred destination of World Tourism.
India is a large country. In fact, it is the 7th largest country in the world. Nature has been very benevolent in bestowing its bounty to the country. It is crowned by soaring snow-capped mountains, the mainland has flat and fertile Indus-Ganga plains which, watered by mighty snow-fed rivers, are its food basket, and the rest of it is made up of different landforms, be they haunting deserts, rocky plateaus, swampy and grassy marshes, verdant forests and grasslands, picturesque deltas and wide palm-fringed lagoons. But not many people associate India with islands as they tend to forget that Indian peninsula has Arabian Sea to its west, Bay of Bengal to its east while the Indian Ocean laps at its feet. This has provided the country with a plethora of stunning and mesmerizing islands in its oeuvre!!!
Including the groups of islands like Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar, India has around 1350 islands comprising of archipelagos, marine islands, riverine islands, islets, atolls etc. Moving right from Gujarat in the west, down south to Kerala and Tamil Nadu and then moving up to West Bengal in the east, the country’s coastline is ringed by small and large, charming and full of natural wonders, islands.
Nature has been really magnanimous with these Indian islands and has provided them with unparalleled beauty, pristine and unspoilt beaches, clear blue-green waters, teeming diverse biodiversity and lush verdant greenery, all of which provide the visitors with once-in-a-lifetime experience. Besides their dazzling beauty, the islands attract people for other reasons as well. Some visit them as pilgrims while others come for water sports, to savour delectable flavourful local cuisine, immerse themselves in the local culture and history, and still others come to witness the celestial magnificence of beautiful and enchanting sunrise, sunset and moonrise. So, without further ado, here’s the description of these magical islands to indulge your senses!!!
The Island of Diu off Gujarat
The small Diu Island is located off Gujarat’s Kathiawad coast and a tidal creek separates it from the mainland. It’s a part of the newly formed union territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu. The place has an interesting history, going right back to 322 B.C. when it was a Mauryan outpost. Later,it was an important trading post on the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean routes; and changed hands between different dynasties and sovereigns. Around 1535, it became a Portuguese enclave and was liberated by Indian forces on 19th December 1961.
The town is serene, tranquil and peaceful and has a low skyline and hence, a favourite of poets, writers and other assorted artists. Its Portuguese past can be witnessed in its architecture, cuisine and culture. It serves as a perfect getaway due to its colonial architecture, tranquil beaches, crystal clear turquoise water, different water sports and friendly people.
The beaches in Diu are Ghogla, Nagoa, Jalandhar and Gomatimata. All these beaches are clean, serene and free of hustle and bustle of other commercialized beaches. Swaying palm trees, white sand and clean, blue water make them a perennial favourite with the tourists. These beaches offer water sports like parasailing, windsurfing, water zorbing ball, scuba diving, banana boating, paramotor flying, hot air ballooning, water skiing etc. to the enthusiasts.
The Gangeshwar Mahadev Temple in Fudam village, just outside of the town, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The legend has it that the five different sized shivalingams, which are washed naturally by sea water, were established by the five Pandavas.
The magnificent St. Paul’s Church, built in 1610 by the Portuguese at the mouth of the Cambay Gulf, is named for St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and considered one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in India. Its interior has elaborate and intricately carved woodwork and shell work.
The Diu Fort, built in 1535, with double moat, thick walls and practical design rather than grand, also doubled as a castle which was used as a strategic military fortification by the Portuguese. The lighthouse located within the fort is the town’s highest point and tourists climb it up to shoot stunning pictures of the Arabian Sea. The Panikota Fort, built on an islet in the Simbor Bay by Malik Ayaz, is called Fortim-Do-Mar also. The fort also houses a chapel and is now unoccupied and in ruins. It served as India’s own Alcatraz when the surrendered Portuguese troops were kept here after 1961.
The unique Hoka palm trees, which are found only in Diu, were brought by the Portuguese from Africa. The red coloured Hoka seed was used by the Egyptians during funerals while the local use them to make tadi, an intoxicating drink. The longest beach festival in Asia, Festa De Diu, is held in Diu from December till February.
The Elephanta Island in Maharashtra
Elephanta Island, also called Gharapuri or City of Caves, is located about 10 km from Mumbai and is reachable by a ferry from the Gateway of India. Portuguese navigators of the 16th century gave its present name on seeing a large basalt stone elephant at the entrance. As is the wont of all colonialists, they tried carrying it away but could not do so as their chains gave way. The statue is now housed at Jijamata Udyan in Mumbai. The place ceased to be a place of worship when the island was gifted to the Portuguese by the sovereign of Ahmedabad. The caves and the structures therein were damaged by the Portuguese troops. The government of India restored the temples in 1970s and after the preservation work was over and done with, the complex was thrown open to tourists and it quickly became one of the most popular tourist sites in the country.
The island is covered with lush green forests while the Elephanta caves is a complex of rock cut structures. The caves have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO and feature two sets of cave temples- five Hindu and two Buddhist caves. The Great Cave or the main temple stretches for 90 feet and is designed like a mandala. It is adorned with pillars, columns and crossbeams which are carved into rocks. The stone sculptures depict images from the Hindu Shaiva cult. The most celebrated sculpture is the 20 feet high Trimurti of Lord Shiva as the creator, preserver and destroyer. Other sculptures depict Shiva as Ardhnarishwar, the representation of Shiva and his consort Parvati sharing a common body; Gangadhar, the representation of mighty river Ganga descending to the earth through the hair of Shiva; Yogishwara and Nataraj. On the western end of the cave is housed a shivalingam but the tourists are not allowed to offer any milk or water to it. Originally, all these caves and the reliefs within were painted by the artists.
The Divar Island or Small Island in Goa
The Divar Island or Small Island is a riverine island and a quaint little village in river Mandovi, around 10 km from Panjim.It is reached by ferries which carry vehicles as well. As the island is off the beaten track and not many people visit it and prefer to party away on the mainland, its serenity and peaceful silence are its USP. As the hamlethas ruins of temples, beautiful old churches, vast lush green and open spaces, ancient Portuguese villas, closed and locked gates and clean, narrow roads with nobody in sight, it seems as if time itself has come to a standstill. This calmness and tranquility of the place makes it a perfect place for the tourists to visit.
People of Konkani descent were the original inhabitants of the island and Old Goa who fled a disastrous plague epidemic and the religious persecution by the Portuguese invaders as this island was one of the first places to be captured by them. This greatly reduced the local population. That is why there is a large number of temple ruins. The island earlier had the temples of Dwarkeshwar, Ganesh, Saptakoteshwar and Mahamaya but as Goa was Christianized by the Portuguese, they were shifted to other locations.
People throng the island during the festivals of Bonderam and Potekar. While the former is similar to carnival and is celebrated on the 4th Saturday of August, the latter is similar to Halloween and is celebrated for 3 days before the beginning of Lent/Ash Wednesday.
Places worth visiting at Divar are Shree Ganesh Sateri Temple, Our Lady of Compassion Church, St. Mathias Church, Portuguese landmarks and the oldEuropean Houses.
Chorao Island in Goa
Chorao or Chudamani in Sanskrit which translates to precious stone, is another riverine island in the river Mandovi. Of 17 islands of Goa, it is the largest and is only 5 km from Panjim. It is also reached by ferries.
The Island has a number of mangroves, consisting of beautiful forests growing in water. This has given rise to the amazing flora and faunateeming in the place. The place is the natural habitat of bird species such as egrets, pintails, kingfishers, coots etc. Besides, the forests are also inhabited by over 400 species of local and migratory birds. As the area is a natural swamp, crocodiles and other variety of wildlife can be sighted here. In 1988, the state forest department created a nature reserve on 178 acres of forest land and named it Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, after the famous Indian ornithologist. This is the largest bird sanctuary in Goa. Tourists come to the island to ogle and be surprised at the amazing wildlife of this sanctuary.
As this island was occupied by the Portuguese early on, it has a large number of churches some of which are St. Jerome Chapel, Our Lady of Grace Church, Chapel of Sacra Familia, Capela de Nossa Senhora da Saúde and St Bartholomew’s Church.
Netrani Island of Karnataka
Netrani Island lies off the Konkan coast of Karnataka. This heart shaped island is also called Pigeon Island because of a large number of pigeons which dwell here. To reach the island, one has to take a ferry from the town of Murudeshwar, a temple town 19 km away. With waters of the Arabian Sea all around, jagged cliffs and rocks besides breathtaking views, the island is a tourist delight. In its waters, tourists can see whale sharks, stingrays, butterfly fish, dolphins, parrot fish, eels, trigger fish, turtles etc. They can also indulge in water sports like boating, snorkeling, scuba diving etc.
Earlier, the island had a naval training facility because of its reputation as one of the best diving spots in India. This hidden gem hasn’t been as popular because of the publicity that Lakshadweep and Andamans have got.People in their thousands visit Bajrangbali Temple, where Lord Hanuman is believed to have arrived and built a clay statue of Lord Rama, every year. The island also houses the ruins of a temple, a church and a mosque. December and January are the best months for a visit to this beautiful place.
St. Mary’s Island in Karnataka
St. Mary’s Island, also called Coconut Island, is a cluster of four small islands in Arabian Sea off the coast of Karnataka. These four islands are Coconut Island, North Island, South island and Daria Bahadurgadh Island. The only way to reach these islands is by a ferry from Malpe beach which is about 3 km away.
These islands are famous for their unique lava columns and hexagonal shaped basaltic rock formations which were formed by the sub-volcanic activity when Madagascar broke away from Indian subcontinent. In 2016, The Geological Survey of India declared these lava columns to be one of 34 National Geological Monuments in India, all important sites for protection, maintenance and promotion of geotourism.
It is believed that Vasco da Gama, before reaching Calicut, landed at these islands, fixed a cross and named one of the islands as O Padrao de Santa Maria, hence the name of the islands. As the island has a large number of coconut trees whose canopy reflect the azure blue colour of the surrounding waters, people call it Coconut Island. Daria Bahadurgadh Island has a fort, built by Basavappa Naik, a local chieftain.It also has some old temples. Various seashells of different shapes and sizes litter the western side of the islands. As the beach lacks sand and is rocky, one can’t swim here but the beautiful natural hexagonal rock formations and mesmerizing scenery more than makes up for the disappointment.
The islands have no human habitation but it has fauna in plenty and gulls, crows, brahminy kites, grey egrets, great white egrets, green bee-eaters and dolphin can be seen here. The shore has park benches and covered pavilions.Earlier, tourists had to carry their own eatables and water but only recently, the state government has spared no effort in increasing the tourist friendly quotient of the islands and set up stalls from where food and other refreshments can be bought. Public toilets have also been installed.
Munroe Island in Kerala
Munroe Island is a group of 8 inland islands located in Kollam in Kerala. It lies at the confluence of river Kallada and Ashtamudi Lake. The island is named after Col. John Munro, the former resident or administrative head of Travancore state. People use road, railways and inland waterways to reach it.
In the cacophony of lagoons, backwaters, lush greenery and what not, people fail to notice this beautiful nugget which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful islands in the whole country. These islands are connected by a fascinating and intricate network of lagoons or canals which were formed as a result of land reclamation in the delta and overlapping of different water bodies. The place is very calm and quiet as it is not crowded. It is very famous for canal cruises on kettuvallam or houseboats. People usually visit the place between the months of October and May.
Tourists who come here want to enjoy the serenity and the calmness of the place. They enjoy taking long walks in the lush countryside and along the banks of the narrow canals. They also prefer homestays with local resident families and enjoy delicious local homemade cuisine. The Kallada Boat Race, held during Onam, the famous harvest festival of Kerala, is a major attraction of the island.
Once the tourists had their fill of the all-pervading calm, they have the option of visiting Mahatma Gandhi Beach and Park, Varkala Beach, Ashtamudi Lake, Palaruvi and Chavara Falls, Jatayu Rock, Thenmala and Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary.
Pamban Island in Tamil Nadu
Pamban Island or Rameshwaram is on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu. This needle shaped island stretches across Palk Strait, the water body that separates India and Sri Lanka, which is only 30 km from Dhanushkodi Point, the southern tip of the island. The Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park and Ram Setu (Adam’s Bridge) separate the two.
The island has a rich historical significance as two crucial sites of Ramayana are located here. From the summit of Mount Gandhmadana, a high hillock, Lord Rama observed Sri Lanka and got the idea of building a bridge, Ram Setu, to rescue his beloved wife Sita. The bridge was built by his army of monkeys. A temple dedicated to Lord Rama commemorates the site and this has turned Rameshwaram into one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for the Hindus.
The unique sea bridge, which has become an icon of Pamban Island connects it to the mainland. This historical and engineering marvel was built in 1914 to develop trade with Sri Lanka. Travelling on this bridge provides lovely views of the Bay of Bengal.
Dhanushkodi, a flourishing township before it was washed away by a cyclone in December 1964, was a prominent pilgrimage centre. The storm blew temples, houses, churches, Dharmshalas etc. away. The ruins of buildings and railway line have been left as they were which has turned this ghost town into a popular site for the tourists to visit. The undersea Ram Setu can be seen from here.
Rameshwaram is also the home town of former president of India, missile man Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. His house has been turned into a memorial and was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 27 July 1017.
Tourists also visit Ramanathaswamy Temple, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, and Panchmukhi Hanuman Temple. The idol of Lord Hanuman has four more faces that of Narasimha, Garuda, Haygriva and Adivaraha. These represent five indriyas or senses; and also signify the five elements of earth, water, air, wind and fire.
The Sagar Island in West Bengal
150 km south of Kolkata is Sagar Island or Sagardwip, located in the Ganga Delta, at the mouth of Hooghly river.It can be reached byroad, railways, air ferry. Though the island is a part of the Sundarbans, it does not have any of its legendary characteristics such as tiger habitation, profusion of sundari trees or mangrove forests, and small river tributaries.
The island is a prominent Hindu pilgrimage centre and thus considered to be sacred. According to a popular Bengali saying, “Sab tirtha bar bar; Gangasagar Ek bar“. Every year on 14th January, on the occasion of Makar Sankranti, a three-day bathing festival and fair called Ganga Sagar Mela is held at the southern tip of the island where the holy Ganga enters the Bay of Bengal. This fair is held close to Kapil Muni Temple. According to the ancient legend, 60,000 sons of King Sagar were brought back to life by Ganga after they had been turned to ashes by the wrath of Kapil Muni. Hundreds and thousands of pilgrims from all over India take part in the pilgrimage every year and pray at the temple. It is believed that those who bathe in the river during the fair will soon get married. After the Kumbh Mela, Ganga Sagar Mela is supposed to be the largest congregation of mankind in the world.
The silver sands on the beach remain unexploited and unexplored and coupled with clear blue sky and calm sea, offer the visitors the calmness which cannot be experienced in a modern city. The huge Bharat Sevashram Sangh Temple is located here and attracts a large number of devotees every year. The light house of the Kolkata Port Trust on the southwestern shore of the island, provides spectacular view of the panoramic beach. One can also enjoy the delightful and dazzling spectacle of the sunrise and sunset every morning and evening.
The Majuli Island of Assam
The Majuli Islandis a riverine island in Brahmaputra River in Assam. To it goes the distinction of being the first island in India to be declared a district, which was done in 2016. Besides being one of the largest freshwater islands in the world, it is also the largest island in India. Tourists need to hire a boat or a ferry from the city of Jorhat to reach the island. The coast of the island is covered with moss and ochre rather than sand which is quite unlike other islands of the world. One more point which makes it entirely different from other islands is that instead of seafood, visitors get to taste authentic north eastern cuisine. The island is famous for its stunning sunrise and breathtaking sunset.
Majuli Island is a hub of neo-Vaishnavite cult, begun by Shankardeva and his disciple Madhavadeva. Visitors to the place throng the 21 monasteries or satras established for the propagation of neo-Vaishnavism. Sattriya dance, one of the classical Indian dances, owes its origin to these satras only.
As the island is a wetland, it has a profusion of unique flora and fauna. Some of the birds which can be seen here are pelican, whistling teal, wild geese, Siberian crane, stork and wild ducks. As it is free of factories and industries, the place is literally free of pollution.
Many ethnic groups with their own culture and traditions live in Majuli. Most people here are very simple who lead a very content life, based on cultivation and agriculture. People celebrate Rasotsava, with great passion and enthusiasm where Lord Krishna’s life is presented through dance and acting. They also celebrate other festivals like Kali Puja, Bihu, Paal Naam and Ali Ai Ligang etc.
Umananda Island in Assam
Umananda Island is another riverine island located in Brahmaputra in Assam. To it goes the credit of being the smallest inhabited riverine island in the world. It is about 7 km away from Guwahati and people need to ride a ferry to reach it. When he came across the lush greenery of the island, a British officer was reminded of the splayed colourful feathers of a peacock and hence, he called it Peacock Island, a name which has stuck.
The name of the island, Umananda, has been taken from the legend that Lord Shiva used to live here with his wife Uma or Parvati which gave her much joy or ananda, hence the name.A large number of people mostly come to visit the Umananda Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The grandest festival celebrated here is Maha Shivratri while the holiest day for the temple is Monday whence the new moon is supposed to bless the pilgrims.
The island also sustains one of the most endangered species of primates, the golden langur, which is found only in some parts of western Assam and foothills of the Black Mountain in Bhutan. The island also has a large number of tamarind trees.
Sendra Island in Manipur
Sendra Island is a floating island, made of vegetation, soil and organic matter, located in Loktak Lake or the sea of islands. It is around 50 km from Imphal, the capital of Manipur. The lake has many such more clumps of matted weeds in different geometric shapes, some of which are used by local families to make huts on and live in them. The only way to go from one island to another is by boats.
Loktak Lake is the largest freshwater lake in India and coupled with Sendra Island, makes for a powerful magnet to attract tourists who come rushing to witness the spectacle of floating island. All the rivers and rivulets of Manipur originate from this lake only. Besides the Sendra and Phubala Islands, another floating island in the lake is the only floating national park in the world. It is Keibul Lamjao National Park, the last natural habitat of endangered brow-antlered deer or the sangai. Here, the visitors can also see primates, wild boar, European otter, Indian civet, rare birds and other types of deer. The place also has water sports and boating for the entertainment of the tourists.
On Sendra Island is located The Sendra Tourist Home which has an attached cafeteria which makes for a unique tourist spot, bang in the middle of the lake. From her, the entire lake makes for a brilliant sight. If one wishes to look at the lake and its unique geography from high up, he or she may climb up the nearby hillock of Bebet Ching. The clean and fresh water, the labyrinthine boat routes, the lush greenery and the crimson horizon takes one’s breath away.
India has a large number of gems which are though not anonymous, are also not as famous as they ought to be. These places are overflowing with natural beauty and have their own unique culture and history. Al that is needed for them to claim their rightful place on the tourist map of India is a judicious mix of smart marketing and advertisement blitzkrieg from the concerned authorities.