18 March 2011

Konkan: Gold Coast

A quiet haven on the Maharashtra coast.

The first time I went to Tarkarli, it was June. The auto we hired from Kudal station took us through miles of shrubland, the red earth soaked from the last downpour, gleaming wetly in the sun as it waited for the next one. I spent three days there, on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra: quiet days, mostly waiting for the rain to start again. The downpours were unlike anything I had seen before, great sheets of water that seemed to merge sky with sea. But what I remembered most vividly from that time was the red soil all along the road, magically transformed into near-white sand along the water’s edge.

This time, it is December. The earth is still red, but there is no rain. The sun is mild, the sky a cloudless blue. The auto ride from Kudal is still rather lovely, but nothing feels as elemental. I am ready to be underwhelmed.

Then the road begins to wind its way slowly out of the plateau, past mango trees covered with new yellow-green leaves, down to the coast. Now there are coconut palms. And banana trees. The houses of Tarkarli began to appear. Many of the houses are still tiled in the traditional way, but their old-style red roofs sit atop the most funkily painted walls. It isn’t quite rainbow town (I never see a true blue, or a proper green) but there are oranges and yellows and reds and pinks and purples, in the most remarkable combinations. Banana-yellow walls with a fuchsia door, a red house with a purple well, a white temple with orange eaves and green trellises. Why don’t I remember these colours from the last time around? Had the monsoon lashed the colours into submission before I got there? Or was I so preoccupied with red earth and pouring rain that I never noticed all the brilliant ways in which people had added to that palette?

I’m still contemplating my oddly selective memory when we reach Devbagh, the next village along the coast after Tarkarli. Devbagh is where we’re staying this time round. The road has somehow managed to run alongside the coast while keeping the beach firmly out of sight, so that when we draw up in front of Siddhivinayak Beach Resort, the sea is like a surprise present. The Khobrekars live in the old house, closer to the road, and they’ve built a series of rooms for guests closer to the beach. In the large open area are several palm trees and a big thatched umbrella.

I’m just slightly anxious because our mobile phones have refused to work on the way here and the last time I called was three weeks ago. But everyone seems to know who we are. Yes, yes, our train reached on time. Yes, we’re from Delhi. Yes, we’d like our rooms. While our rooms are readied, we settle down in the shade of the thatched umbrella-roof. The benches are rough-hewn slabs of cool black granite, balanced on stumps of local reddish stone. The tables are covered with red plastic tablecloths. It is New Year’s Eve, and the Maharashtrian family there looks curiously at us. But there is white sand between my toes. There is a cat. There is cold Kingfisher. And there, with not even a palm tree standing between me and it, is the sea.

It is no time to be underwhelmed.

Fishermen buying ice to store their evening catch

For lunch, we eat the first of the vast meals that are to characterise this holiday. Each thali consists of rice and fish and chapattis and a vegetable — and sol kadi, a digestive drink that’s served in small steel katoris but should ideally be drunk by the gallon. There are four of us, so we’ve asked for two bangda (mackerel) thalis and two surmai (seer fish) thalis. Surmai is not available, so they suggest something called sawandara instead. It’s the local fish, we’re told, the fish that’s caught in Devbagh village. What we’re not told is that it is the tastiest fish in the world.

Suffice it to say, we eat a lot. We take naps. Then we do nothing at all, unless you count watching the sun go down. The evening brings a few more revellers, mostly families. We watch the men drink lots of beer while the women don’t. There are a few young men, too—a college gang on holiday. The resort guys decide they must please the crowds and put on ‘Sheila ki Jawani’. Thankfully, they soon run out of Hindi film songs, and start to play raunchy Marathi lavani hits: the only one I recognise is ‘Apsara Aali Re’ from the film Natrang. The songs are filmi, but the mood is real. The boys have brought fireworks. We sip our wine and watch the display. It’s a happy new year.

* * *

The next day we take a bus to Malvan, the nearest town (and the place which gives its name to the gorgeous food we’ve been eating). From Malvan jetty, we catch a boat to Sindhudurg — literally, the Sea Fort. It’s a massive stone fortress on an island called Kurte. There are crowds of tourists, including hordes of schoolchildren who spontaneously seem to break into chants of "Shivaji maharaj ki jai". I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, since this is Maharashtra and the fort was built by Shivaji.

Our boat contains a group centred around a curly-haired man in sunglasses and white kurta-pajama, who I decide is a local politician. We are ferried through somewhat choppy sea, only to be told to get off far from an entrance. We descend into knee-high water and clamber stoically across a tricky stretch of rocks, gazing up at the impregnable stone walls above us, feeling like medieval invaders (or Crystal Maze participants, depending on your authenticity quotient). Stragglers (i.e. those who display reluctance to leap into seaweedy water) are exhorted to be more manly by Sunglasses. Thankfully, no battles ensue.

The inside of the fort is remarkably bare. There are trees, some houses, a temple to Shivaji. There seems to be nothing to do except climb up to the highest point like dutiful tourists. The view is spectacular. The land spread out below: dull brown, barren and bone-dry and, all around it, as far as the eye can see, an expanse of blues. And as I look out at the massive stone walls that we were so recently on the outside of, I suddenly recognise the space for what it is: territory. I’m reluctant to go but Sunglasses will be in a hurry. Sure enough, there he is, watching the children yell "Jai Maharashtra" as he waits to hustle us back to shore.

It is almost lunchtime. We head straight to Chaitanya, a restaurant I remember fondly. It’s packed. I’m just thinking about how much more Malvan locals are eating out these days when I realise it’s New Year’s Day. We eat a thali each, as we should, and add two new items to our Malvani repertoire—mutton and ‘mori mutton’, which turns out to be shark meat. (I prefer the mutton.) We wander around the town, admiring wooden houses and roadside churches, and window grills with Queen Elizabeth’s head in the pattern. We drink kokam soda. Then we catch an auto back to Devbagh.

The next morning we have arranged to go see the dolphins. Even though we’ve been shown pictures of a wounded dolphin that washed up on Devbagh beach just days ago, I am not hopeful.

The last time I was here, the sea was too choppy to go out to the spot where dolphins apparently gather, where the Karli river meets the sea. Since then I have been to the Sundarbans, clutching my copy of Amitav Ghosh’s Hungry Tide and (bookish tourist that I am) hoping to see dolphins almost more than tigers. But to no avail. Still, we wake at six and scramble out to discover that the boatman has forgotten about the plan. He has to be woken, as do the others apparently coming with us. We crossly refuse placatory offers of tea. When we set out, it is nearly seven.

But no grumpiness can hold out against a dawn sky and a grey sea slowly turning translucent blue. When we reach the river’s mouth, there are already two boats biding their time. We wait and watch. Then there’s a flutter of activity—someone has spotted something. It’s like the classic moment when the guide whips out his walkie-talkie and all the jeeps congregate next to the nala near which someone has just reported the sharp barking call of the chital.

Except we’re at sea and there’s nothing to mark the terrain. But there is also nothing to distract us. So that when the first gleaming silver snout appears, there’s a collective gasp. Then there’s another snout, then a fin, then a tail. There seems to be a pair of them, diving in and out in a kind of playful dance for several minutes before they vanish below the waves. For a minute there is silence. Then someone spies another, in the opposite direction. The boats jump to attention, revving up their motors to move as close as possible. There are more dolphins now and we watch in delight as they somersault. But they know we’re there and gradually they move away from us, swimming further out to sea.

* * *

We return to Devbagh via what is known as Tsunami Island, a sandbank created during the tsunami in 2004. Boats are parked there, and we wander around barefoot in knee-deep water, happy to discover a stall selling tea and—to our joy—fluffy homemade dosas and the wonderful Maharashtrian sweet called modak: plump parcels of rice flour filled with coconut and jaggery. It’s a thoroughly charming breakfast in a thoroughly charming place, but once we’ve boated and walked our way back to Siddhivinayak, we’re not unwilling to eat another one kept ready for us. It’s poha, light and lemony, with a sprinkling of grated coconut and the super-fine bhujiya that I am told goes by the super-fine name of nylon sev.

But it’s not just double breakfast day. It’s double marine-life expedition day, too. After a quick swim, we head to Malvan again—to snorkel. Two of our party are not-quite-swimmers—they can stay afloat but don’t know if they like the idea of going underwater. It’s only after our exceptional instructor explains that snorkelling doesn’t involve going underwater at all that they look a little more convinced. By this time we’re behind Sindhudurg—that rocky stretch of sea from yesterday turns out to be a coral bed too—and once we see the people already snorkelling, with float tubes around their waists and only their faces in the water, there’s no more tentativeness.

The coral reef is magical. None of us have ever seen one before and the multi-hued world that suddenly opens up before our eyes is indescribable. Jewel-like fish dart about in the shadows, their swiftness in stark contrast to the slow-motion quality of everything else underwater: the tendrils of various plants, the vast cabbage-like corals and us, slowly circling the area, our flippered feet trying their best to follow instructions not to splash.

A couple floats in the waters near the Sindhudurg fort

The afternoon meal feels much-deserved and we eat pretty much every kind of seafood on the menu. Then we wander through the backstreets, looking for a way back to the jetty that goes along the sea. There isn’t one, but we do find a rock garden, and a sunset point, and a cricket club on the beach. Eventually we reach the jetty and find the municipal fish market. We get back to Siddhivinayak, where we seem to be the only people for dinner. We eat and talk of various things. But, from time to time, one of us looks up and catches a dreamy look in the other’s eye and we both know it’s the coral we’re thinking of. Nearly two months later, the sea still haunts my dreams.

The nearest railway station to Tarkarli is Kudal, approximately 45km away. The most convenient train from Mumbai is the overnight Konkan Kanya Express (`910 on 2A). Autos are easily available from Kudal to Tarkarli (`400). From Delhi, the Trivandrum Raj-dhani (`2,495) takes 24 hours to Sawantwadi Road, a station 54km from Tarkarli. If you choose to fly, the nearest airport is Dabolim in Goa, from where Tarkarli is 100km (a two-and-a-half hour drive). There are flights to Dabolim from all major Indian cities (from `3,000 one way ex-Delhi; `1,800 ex-Mumbai; `2,300 ex- Bengaluru; `4,000 ex-Kolkata). Maharashtra State Transport buses (msrtc.gov.in) ply from Mumbai (`375) and Pune (`415) to Malvan.

The local bus from Devbagh to Malvan (`9) is fairly regular during the daytime. Autos from Malvan to Tarkarli or Devbagh will charge `125–150. The ferry from Malvan to Sindhudurg costs `33.

The MTDC Resort, Tarkarli (from `1,800; 02365-252390, maharash tratourism.gov.in) cannot be beaten for location. Each ‘Konkani hut’ (all non-AC) has an almost unobstructed view of the beach. There are dozens of homestays and ‘resorts’ in Tarkarli. Most involve a few extra rooms added on to an existing house, with food supplied by the family kitchen. Rooms are basic and usually non-AC. Try the well-regarded Ghar Mithbavkaranche (from `1,400; 02365-252941, gharmith bavkaranche.co.nr). In the adjacent village of Devbagh too, more and more families have opened up their homes to tourists. Among the more organised are Swami Samarth (`800; 9404170104, swamisamarthbeachresort.com). We stayed at the well-managed Siddhivinayak Beach Resort (`700 non-AC and `1,200 AC; 02365-248407, 9404448687), run by the marvellously hospitable Khobrekar brothers. Rooms are basic, but clean (some have AC). Whatever else you do, do not leave without having eaten ghavan (a soft pancake made from ground soaked unfermented rice, close to Karnataka’s neer dosa) here.

If you like seafood, Malvan is heaven—on a budget. Malvani cuisine centres around rice and fish, but chapattis are served with every thali, and in a restaurant, you can usually take your pick of prawn, crab, shark, chicken or mutton. Bangda (mackerel), surmai (kingfish) and pomfret (the most expensive) are all of high quality, and local varieties like sawandara are well worth trying too. The famous Malvani fish curry looks more fiery than it actually is, because the masala—a combination of whole dry red chillies, coriander, peppercorns, fennel, cumin, asafoetida, cloves, cinnamon and star anise—is tempered with the sweetness of coconut and the sourness of kokam. The best part of the thali, though, is sol kadi, which combines coconut milk with kokam to magical effect. Do not be put off by the pinkness of it; that’s the natural colour of kokam. The most well-known eatery in Malvan is the conveniently located Chaitanya (Dr Ballav Marg, Bharad Naka; 11am–10.30pm; 02365-242172), a five-minute walk from the bus stand. The bangda thali (`75), bangda fry (`25) and the mutton thali (`120) here are particularly good. Atithi Bamboo (Maghi Ganesh Chowk, Rosary Church Shejari; noon–3pm and 8–11pm; 9423304327) is further away, but worth the trek. The charming Yeshashri Coldrinks (a few minutes down the road from Chaitanya; 02365-252637) is a great place to shelter from the afternoon sun and offers a variety of lassis, flavoured sodas, amrakhand, shrikhand and homemade ice cream in such innovative flavours as ale-limbu-mirchi (ginger-lemon-chilli). I recommend the mango lassi: a rich, divine mixture of tartness and sweetness (and this is in winter, when it’s made not with fresh mangoes but with the mango extract popularly available in these alphonso-growing regions).

The beaches of Tarkarli and Devbagh are stunningly beautiful. You may want to do nothing but swim, sunbathe and walk along the seashore. But if you’re interested, there is no dearth of activities—although these are largely weather-dependent. A boat-ride (`800 per boat) can be arranged from Devbagh to view dolphins, which tend to congregate at the point where the Karli river meets the sea. The seventeenth-century Sindhudurg fort, built by Shivaji on an island just off the coast of Malvan, is worth visiting. Ferries from Malvan Jetty depart every half an hour (`37 per person). (Not all boats can take you all the way up to the entrance, so if you’re reluctant to clamber across the final rocky stretch before the fort, inquire before getting on.) Snorkelling services are advertised in various places in Malvan—just make sure to insist on a trained instructor. `400 per person will include the cost of the boat-ride from Malvan Jetty, the snorkelling equipment and the services of the instructor. During the monsoon months—May to September—the sea is too rough to go swimming or for boats to go out to Sindhudurg fort. On a previous visit, we found a boatman who took us to Bhogwe (`800 for an hour there, more if you stay longer), which turned out to be a rather lovely neighbouring village, with mango and jackfruit trees and a small, gorgeous stretch of beach. The town of Malvan is worth exploring. The further away you go from the jetty and the bus stand, the quieter it gets. There is a rather charming Sunset Point and Rock Garden, both looking out over the sea. The Municipal Fish Market is most active in the mornings and evenings, when the fresh catch comes in. There are plenty of shops selling jewellery (real and imitation—my friend acquired a fetching nose ring). You can also shop for cashew nuts, kokam juice, Malvani masalas, papads, and sweet and sour concoctions made from mango, jackfruit, tamarind and other local fruit.

Published in Outlook Traveller magazine, March 2011. (Photos courtesy Outlook Traveller)


dhruba said...

great piece! such an amazing plc n specially the food seems very interesting.

vagabond.. said...

We have a travel website which is a Maharashtra travel Guide in which we have a page for Tarkarli with lot of information regarding the place including Tarkarli Hotels.

We also have a page for blogs on Tarkarli. Do let us know if you would like to feature your blog in the Tarkarli Blogs page. Please write to puneritraveller at gmail dot com