ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go island hopping off the Karwar coast in Karnataka discovering lonely lighthouses and turtle-shaped islands
If you really want to know what island life is all about, ask someone who mans a lighthouse on a remote island and gets to visit the mainland only once a month for supplies. For romanticists like us, an island quest is all about marine adventure and lost treasures.
For Govind, the caretaker at Oyster Rock Lighthouse on Devgad, it is a lonely vigil shared by another attendant (currently on leave). Their sole responsibility is the daily maintenance of the lighthouse – from the upkeep of the solar powered system and digital control room to flicking the generator that flashes the light, pulsing from dusk to dawn to help vessels navigate the high seas every night.
We were on an island trail off the scenic coast of Karwar. Within a radius of 5-10 miles from the mainland, this was the only such cluster of islands along the 5700 km coastline of India. The five islands – Kurumgad, Devgad (Oyster Rock), Madhyalingad (Sanyasi Island), Puttadweepa and Anjediva – located on the approach to the harbour shelter the coast from winds, cyclones and storms, making Karwar an all-season harbour. Seafarers from Arabia called Karwar’s port Baithkol (Bait-e-kol, Arabic for ‘Bay of Safety’).
It is claimed to be one of three natural ports of the world and the safest. In 150 AD, Greek mathematician and geographer Ptolemy was astute enough to mark the position of Anjediva off Karwar on a cartograph. Great powers vied to control this strategic nook – from Arab sailors, the Sultans of Bijapur, the Vijayanagar Empire, the Sonda dynasty, the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, to the Portuguese and the British.
Like the weathered shoreline, the island that was once Devaragudda or ‘god’s hillock’ became Devgad over time. When the British discovered it, they found its rocky fringes full of oysters and named it Oyster Rock. After years of rich harvest, not much of the oysters remained but what survived are a cannon and the 1864 British lighthouse. Built by Chance Brothers from Birmingham, ironically the equipment was French, made in Paris by ‘Ingenieurs and Constructeurs Barbier, Bernad & Turenne’ in 1933. The stone masonry lighthouse loomed 66 ft high and its beam could be seen from 20 nautical miles or 37km away.
Govind took great care of the polished antique lights, gleaming copper oil cans and spectacular mirrored discs. Until recently, the lighthouse used to be manually operated. Govind led us up the smooth teakwood steps out onto the slim balcony and we understood when he said, “It’s peaceful here. There’s no din of the city to deal with.” All around us the waves swirled in an incessant dance with a few boats silhouetted against the horizon as fishing eagles pirouetted over their eyries.
The sun was about to set. We left Govind to his daily duties and hiked down to our boat. The crystal clear water around the island seemed ideal for snorkeling but we had to return to our base, Kurumgad, literally the ‘tortoise-shaped’ island. Afloat like a carapace, its form is discernible from afar as you arrive by boat from mainland Karwar.
Adjacent, lies the small Madhyalingad or Madyagad, locally known as Sanyasi Island. Folklore recounts how the island was named after a sage who sought refuge here. It is difficult to dock on this uninhabited island and local fishermen swear that the sage’s presence is perceptible.
We were happy to gaze at it from the comfort of Cintacor Island Resort on Kurumgad. In 1498, as Vasco da Gama led the first Portuguese ships down India’s west coast, they discovered the natural harbour formed by the islands off Karwar and called it Cintacora. Whether the name is derived from cinta or sash, after the wide shoreline or a mispronunciation of Chitakula, the old name for Karwar, remains unclear. What is known is that Anjediva Island was the first place the Portuguese conquered in India; it was also the last place they left after 450 odd years of colonial rule.
As Manuel Antonio Vassalo e Silva steered the last Portuguese ships out in 1961, Kurumgad Island ended up with the Coelho family. It served as a rustic island getaway called The Great Outdoors, until The Little Earth Group (of Destiny Farms, Sherlock and King’s Cliff fame in Ooty) took over and transformed it into a plush island getaway a year ago.
Our sea-facing cottage Seasponge, one of the five S type cabins, was the most lavish on the island with large balconies overlooking the seascape. The marine inspired décor ran through the other rooms Scallop, Seagull, Swordfish and Salmon. The vegetation outside which had been deliberately left untrimmed, presented a natural view rather than a manicured one. Bunched together in the shade of trees were the compact O cabins – Orca, Otter, Oyster and Osprey. A little further away, en route to the beach, were the medium-sized H Cabins – Herring, Hake, Halibut, Hoki, Hawk and Haddock.
Jolly Roger’s Club, the lounge bar, overlooked the sea access from Karwar. The Hub, marked by its co-ordinates ‘14o 84’ N, 74o 09’ E’ served as the reception area where the sprightly Seraphin from Sikkim would greet us with welcome drinks. Occupying the highest spot on the island was the restaurant Captain Nemo’s Deck. Canary yellow nautical meters, gauges and pipes radiated from the centre adding a contemporary flair.
On the walls were portraits of diving legend Jean Jacques Cousteau and references to Captain Nemo, Jules Verne’s character in ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ and ‘The Mysterious Island.’ Chefs Sundar and Senthil stirred up delicious grilled kingfish and butter garlic prawns. Food was a blend of Konkani dishes, ‘Journeys along the coast’ and recipes from the world over, ‘Across the Seven Seas.’
Next morning, over breakfast from our perch above the infinity pool, we watched in delight, glistening pods of dolphins leap and cavort in the sea. The water was a fascinating shade of labradorite, grey-green with flashes of rainbows in its mysterious depths. Naturalist Roshna accompanied us on a circumnavigation of the island. We took the West Mile Way, walking through dense foliage.
Nearly 80% of the island was wooded and a grove called Victor Woods was dedicated to the original owner Victor Coelho. Roshna pointed out Macaranga peltata or the Pencil Tree; its wood is used in the pencil and plywood industry while its kenda leaves are used to wrap jaggery and sweetmeats.
Sanyasi Island looked forlorn and undisturbed to our west. A signboard indicated a mysterious deep fissure at the base of Kurumgad. Folklore attributes it to Lord Narasimha who apparently swam into the island creating the long creek, before he emerged near a cave at the top. Geologists theorize that the fissure was formed by an earthquake in the Carboniferous Period over 300 million years ago.
Continuing along the West Mile Way where it joined the Temple Trail, we sprinted up the rock steps to Narasimha Temple built on a flat patch atop the island. Every year in January thousands of devotees come for a pilgrimage on Pushya poornima. The island resort remains shut on those two days. The simple shrine had a painting of Narasimha slaying the demon Hiranyakashipu. Interestingly, both kuruma the tortoise and narasimha, half-man, half-lion are incarnations of Lord Vishnu. To complete the mythological drama, a fishing eagle swooped down dramatically – the eagle being the vahana (mount) of Lord Vishnu!
The mystery creek and rocky islets around the island are good places to spot shy otters or watch sea eagles and Brahminy kites soar in the skies. We saw paradise flycatchers, orioles and sunbirds flitting about the bushes. The island is also home to several species of butterflies, including the Crimson Rose, Blue Tiger and Southern Birdwing, the largest in India.
Down the slope along East Mile Way, we stopped at a small rocky pool, home to terrapins. A little detour to the rocky shore led to the Tidal Pool, a natural hollow by the edge of the sea, best enjoyed at low tide. The island was under the control of various kingdoms, but it was Basalinga Nayak of the Sonda dynasty who fortified Kurumgad for a battle against the British. The ruins of the bastion were barely discernible through the overgrowth.
Like Kurumgad, Anjediv Island too, is historically significant. Theories abound whether Anjediva was so named because it was the anj dweep ‘fifth island’ or in honour of the island deity Aryadurgadevi, whose idol was shifted to safer shores at Ankola after the Portuguese settled here. In 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque launched his conquest of Goa from this island.
It remained unoccupied till 1661 when the British were forced to seek shelter there, awaiting the handover of Bombay as dowry after the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza. The island has the 18th century Our Lady of Brotas Church named after the brotas or perennial sweet water spring on the island. Handed over to the Indian Navy for its Seabird project, Anjediv is no longer open to the public.
We retired to Kurumasana Spa on Kurumgad for a relaxing Stress Buster massage before strolling to the Cozy Canopy, formed naturally by ancient roots and branches, en route to the beach. A little ahead was a secret cove, perfect for swimming, sunbathing, kayaking and fishing. We took a spin around the island on jet skies, spraying through the surf. With the sun going down over the Arabian Sea we headed back to the beach bar On the Rocks. It was 6 pm and the beam from Devgad Lighthouse began to wink in the distance, every ten seconds. Govind was diligently on duty at Oyster Rock while we guiltily sipped martinis, slinking into our shells at Kurumgad as the silvery moon took over the sea. After weeks of hectic travel, we were happy to drop anchor at 14.7 N, 74.1 E.
Kurumgad is 7km into the Arabian Sea off the coast of Karwar off an estuary of the Kali river. Fly to Dabolim airport and drive 2 hrs to Karwar. Cross the Kali river bridge and take the privately arranged boat from Kodibagh for the 30-minute ride to Kurumgad.
Cintacor Island Resort
Tariff O Cabin Rs.11,500 + 28% tax, H Cabin Rs.12,500 + 28% tax, S Cabin Rs.15,000 + 28% tax (breakfast included), Rs.3000 hike in tariff on weekends (Fri-Sun)
What to Eat
The restaurant Captain Nemo’s Deck serves fresh seafood besides Konkan, Continental and Indian cuisine. On mainland Karwar, try Hotel Amrut (Main Road, near Syndicate Bank Ph 9845201215) and Swetha Lunch Home (Ananda Arcade, Green Street Ph 9986675726)
What to See & Do
Nature Trails on Kurumgad – East & West Mile Way, Temple Trail, Half Mile Trail
Sunrise cruise (6:30 am), Sunset cruise (5:30 pm), Dolphin cruise (9am-6pm)
Lighthouse Tour (3pm) with boat cruise & picnic at Oyster Rock Lighthouse, Devgad
River Cruise (9am-6pm) upstream along the river Kali
Water sports like jet skiing, kayaking, tubing and banana boat rides
Fishing, Snorkelling & Stargazing
Swedish & Thai massages, wraps and therapies at Kurumasana Spa (11am-9pm)
While on the boat, wear life jacket at all times. Do not lean over the side, stand suddenly or crowd to one side of the boat.
Watch your step on island hikes as the walkways run along the edge of the cliff with steep drops in some places.
Be cautious while swimming in the sea as there are rocky areas. Always check with the lifeguard and avoid the beach if the red flag is up.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of an Islands Special cover story in the December 2018 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.