Lakshadweep, the 'hundred thousand islands' with as many charms

India's tiniest union territory has plenty to offer responsible travellers

Visitors to Lakshadweep can go sailing or scuba diving surrounded by palm trees, beaches and lagoons. Unsplash / Anuj Chauhans
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I recline on a sun lounger, a book propped up on my middle as I open my eyes to gaze at the shimmering sea. Is it aqua or jade? Cerulean or teal? Cornflower or shamrock? Turquoise or emerald? I can’t made up my mind about the exact hues of the waters kissing the coastline, but I’m sure I haven’t seen such crystal-clear ocean in a long, long time.

I'm in Lakshadweep, India’s tiniest union territory, which is spread over barely 32 square kilometres off the coast of Kochi, Kerala's capital. These small islands are big on beauty, with lush green coconut palms, sun-kissed beaches and magnificent lagoons, all fringed by the gorgeous blue sea.

The name of the archipelago translates to “hundred thousand islands” from Malayalam, the local language, and Sanskrit. There are actually only 36 isles, of which barely 10 are inhabited, including Agatti, Bangaram, Kadmath, Kavaratti (the capital), Kalpeni and Minicoy.

A surge in tourism

The archipelago is spread out over 400,000 square kilometres of waters that are rich in marine life. But, despite its natural beauty and proximity to mainland India, Lakshadweep has largely remained off bucket lists, on account of poor connectivity and cumbersome entry procedures.

The islands are also losing their coral reefs and facing the impact of climate change on “multiple levels”, according to a UN Development Programme report, which has led environmental experts to warn against mass tourism.

However, after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted images on social media of himself on the islands earlier this month, there has been a flurry of interest.

“I am still in awe of the stunning beauty of its islands and the incredible warmth of its people,” Modi wrote. “For those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them, Lakshadweep has to be on your list.”

This prompted some social media users to suggest it was a more attractive destination than the Maldives, an island nation whose economy hinges on tourism and is visited by many Indians. This led to a diplomatic row, with three Maldivian ministers making “derogatory” remarks about Modi. Indian celebrities, politicians and businesses have since come out in support of promoting local beach destinations.

The Maldives’s loss may be Lakshadweep’s gain. Raj Rishi Singh, chief marketing and business officer of online travel company MakeMyTrip, said the islands have seen a “remarkable” 3,400 per cent increase in on-platform searches since Modi's visit.

Travel firm Ixigo also posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that there had been a 2,900 per cent spike in searches.

What is there to do in Lakshadweep?

The islands can only be reached via Kochi, the financial capital of Kerala, by ships and flights. Entry permits are mandatory for all travellers and can be obtained through the government’s ePermit portal.

Advance bookings are needed as only a certain number of tourists are allowed on the islands at any given time.

While the logistics take more effort than for other destinations, the bureaucracy will be forgotten once you’re on the islands, touching down at Agatti airport or pulling up on a cruise ship at Kavaratti, Kalpeni and Minicoy.

HR consultant Deepika Singh, who lives in Mumbai, says of her recent visit to Lakshadweep: “There’s so much to do and so little time.”

Agatti, the only island with an airport, is spread across 3.3 square kilometres and is home to a beautiful lagoon. The island has a languorous pace and there are options galore for exploring the aquatic diversity, which includes rainbow-coloured fish, corals and turtles. Visitors can try sailing, fishing, water skiing or kayaking.

Not too far from Agatti is Andrott, the largest island of the archipelago and the closest to the Indian mainland. Explore the lighthouse, and don’t miss the Buddhist ruins and the tomb of Saint Ubaidullah.

Crescent-shaped Minicoy, the second largest island, is closest to Nine Degree Channel, the busiest shipping port in the Arabian Sea. The silver-sand beaches and clear waters make this the best place to scuba dive and explore coral reefs.

Kavaratti, the most developed island, offers pristine white beaches and sleepy lagoons. As many as 52 mosques are spread out over the land, an area of barely four square kilometres. Ujra mosque is renowned, as the water from a nearby well is said to have curative powers.

“The Dolphin Dive Centre is perfect for when you want a day out with dolphins, while the Kavaratti Aquarium, with its fascinating collection of corals and tropical fish specimens, is ideal for keeping kids engaged,” says Singh.

The beaches of Bangaram, a tiny teardrop-shaped island, offer soft white sands. At night, phosphorescent plankton often wash ashore, giving the beach an enchanting, bluish glow.

Almost all inhabited islands offer water sports, but the eight-kilometre-long Kadmat Island is the place to go for windsurfing, snorkelling and water skiing, thanks to the Water Sports Institute. The scuba diving centre draws in plenty of travellers, with kayaks, sailing boats, pedal boats, skiing boats and glass-bottomed boats also available to hire.

A local lets me in on a sight no one should miss: The Pitti Bird Sanctuary, located on an uninhabited coral islet and a nesting place for pelagic birds, such as the sooty tern, greater-crested tern and the brown noddy. A day trip – via ferry, speedboat or catamaran – can be taken from Agatti.

From Arabia to the Malabar Coast

During my visit, I learn that islanders mainly rely on the area's agricultural mainstay – coconut palms – to earn a livelihood. Many also cultivate bananas, vegetables, edible root crops and millet. Fishing augments the region’s economy, with many fishermen continuing ancient customs of skilled navigation and sailing in the distinctive odam, a traditional sewn boat.

While more than 95 per cent of Lakshadweep is populated by Muslims, islanders share strong cultural, ethnic, linguistic and cultural links with Malayalis, Kannadigas, Tamils and Arabs.

In Sources Towards a History of the Laccadive Islands, scholar Andrew DW Forbes writes that the first settlers on Lakshadweep were “Malabari sailors, quite possibly castaways”. He believes islanders converted to Islam over an extended period of time as the islands were on the trade route between Arabia and the Malabar Coast.

Today, people in this tropical paradise, which has a population of more than 65,000, are warm and friendly. A walk around the village often results in impromptu chats with locals, who make recommendations on what you should see and what you shouldn’t miss.

'Imperative' to travel responsibly

While the locals warmly welcome tourists, experts worry the islands may not be able to handle the anthropogenic pressures of mass tourism.

Despite this, the recent Maldives-Lakshadweep controversy has led to a spike in investment in the islands. New infrastructure development projects, including an airport upgrade, new resorts and improved utility services, have been announced. Tata Group's Indian Hotels Company plans to launch two Taj-branded resorts in the next two years.

Local administration is also actively promoting cruise tourism. Waterways Leisure Tourism, which operates Cordelia Cruises to Lakshadweep, has reported a 2,500 per cent surge in booking enquiries in the last few days alone.

“It is imperative to monitor reef health, ensure effective fishery management and follow responsible tourism practices,” says marine biologist Prachi Hatkar, who advises people to dive responsibly, avoid physical contact with reef organisms and not anchor boats on the reef.

The UNDP report, The Great Coral Grief of Lakshadweep Islands, says reefs are slowly bleaching.

“This makes it vital that the government and people both ensure responsible tourism practices and continuously monitor the fragile ecosystem of this gorgeous archipelago,” says Hatkar.

As I step into the waves of a serene beach after a delicious seafood meal, I contemplate Lakshadweep's many charms. I'm overjoyed to be here, but I realise not all island escapes are the same – and we must preserve this one no matter what.

Updated: January 22, 2024, 8:16 AM