Visitors to Kerala who are searching for a tropical paradise will find it in LAKSHADWEEP ( "one hundred thousand islands" ) which lie between 200km and 400km off Kerala in the deep blue of the Arabian Sea. The smallest of India's Union Territories, Lakshadweep's 27 tiny, coconut palm-covered coral islands make for the archetypal tropical hideaway, each edged with pristine white sands and surrounded by calm lagoons where the average water temperature stays around 26°C throughout the year. The crystal clear waters is ideal for snorkelling and scuba diving offer an exclusive Maldives style beach experience unique in India.
Beyond the lagoons lie the coral reefs, home to sea turtles, dolphins, eagle rays, lionfish, parrot fish, octopus and predators like barracudas and sharks. Mostly devoid of animal or bird life, only ten of the 27 islands are inhabited by humans, with a total population of just over 50,000, most of whom are Malayalam-speaking Sunni Muslims who are believed to be descended from seventh-century Keralite Hindus who then converted to Islam.
The main sources of income are fishing and coconuts. Fruit, vegetables and pulses are cultivated in small quantities but staples such as rice and many other commodities have to be imported. The Portuguese, who discovered the value of coir rope, spun from coconut husk, controlled Lakshadweep during the sixteenth century; when they imposed an import tax on rice, locals retaliated by poisoning some of the forty-strong Portuguese garrison – and terrible reprisals followed. As Muslims, the islanders enjoyed friendly relations with Tipu Sultan of Mysore, which naturally aroused the ire of the British, who moved in at the end of the eighteenth century and remained until Independence.
The government is making a major effort to control the ecological impact of tourism in Lakshadweep. At present, accommodation is available for Indian non-residents on only two of the islands – Bangaram and Kadmat. Indian tourists are also allowed to visit the neighbouring islands of Kavarattu and Minicoy (both of which are closed to foreigners).
All visits to the island of Kadmat must be arranged in Kochi ( Cochin) through the Society for Promotion of Recreational Tourism and Sports (SPORTS) on IG Road, Willingdon Island (tel 0484/266 8387, fax 266 8155). SPORTS offers a six–day package cruise to Kadmat ($450 per person for non-a/c, $500 for a/c) on one of two ships, the Tipu Sultan or the Bharat Seema; you'll spend two days at sea and four lying on the beach. All food is included, and necessary permits are taken care of.
The uninhabited, teardrop-shaped 128-acre island of Bangaram welcomes a limited number of foreign tourists at any one time. Bangaram Island Resort (Rs3000 and upwards), also bookable in Kochi, accommodates up to thirty couples in thatched cottage rooms, each with a veranda. There are cane tables and chairs outside the restaurant on the beach, and an occasional hammock strung between the palms. There is no a-c, TV, radio, telephone, newspapers or shops, let alone discos or loud music. Island facilities include scuba diving (from $45 per dive), glass-bottomed boat trips to neighbouring uninhabited islands, and some deep-sea fishing (Oct to mid-May; $50–75). Some small boats are available free, and it's possible to take a day-trip to Kadmat.
Getting to the islands
The only way for foreigners to reach Bangaram are via the flights on small aircraft that are run by Indian Airlines and Kingfisher Airline out of Kochi (Two daily flights, except Sun) or Goa (Mon, Wed & Fri) and bookable through Karmakerala Office at Cochint, which takes an hour and a half.
Flights arrive in Lakshadweep at the island of Agatti, 8km southwest from where the boat journey to Bangaram takes 2 hours, carefully navigating its way through the shallows to avoid corals. During the monsoon (May 16–Sept 15), helicopters are used to protect the fragile coral reefs that lie just under the surface.
All your arrangements, including flights, accommodation and the necessary entry permits, are handled by the Karmakerala Team in Cochin.
It is possible to visit Lakshadweep Islands throughout the year. The hottest time is April and May, when the temperature can reach 33°C; the monsoon (May–Sept) attracts approximately half the total rainfall seen in Kerala, however in the form of passing showers rather than a typical monsoon deluge, although seas are usually rough and dangerous to swim in.