Lalita, Pappi, Babia and the Turtles

Each of them belongs to three different species of animals, yet there is one thing that binds Lalita, Pappi and Babia. That, plainly, is water — its different manifestations giving them a life. Also, all of them are spotted in the same north Kerala belt, and coming in the context of tourist attractions.

Lalita is a camel that is seen by the sea, giving rides to visitors at the beach. Pappi heads a band of monkeys in a lush-green grove where tourists offer them food while exploring the small island surrounded by backwaters. Babia enjoys a demigod status as the lone crocodile in a lake pond that surrounds the sanctorum of a famous temple. They are a trio of sorts — and a less-trumpeted feature on the tourist map of Kasaragod district.

As for Lalita, she is not alone. Two other camels usually give her company along the sands of Pallikara Beach, where their master who brought them from a village upcountry is raising the animals for livelihood.

Lalita, a familiar figure on the sands of Pallikara beach
Lalita, a familiar figure on the sands of Pallikara beach

Sajan, who belongs to Madhya Pradesh, has been offering camel ride along the sandy stretch that gives a long-shot view of the famous Bekal Fort.

“I’ve been here since 2006 — after travelling across places such as Pune, Hubli, Bangalore, Mysore, Hyderabad and a couple of cities in Tamil Nadu. This is a much comfortable place,” says the villager from Barwani district, patting Lalita, standing tall, next to equally graceful Badal and Kajal. “Come December, and we are here till end-summer.”

Together, they all — including Sajan’s assistants Jagtab and Manish — would take a break to their native land during monsoons every year. “Rainy season is not ideal for our business,” the head shrugs. “Also we need to meet our family occasionally, right?”

Back in his native hamlet in Senwa, they have another set of camels. Among them is one name Keral. Why? “It was born in this state — in 2012,” smiles Sajan, who comes from a cattle-rearing family. “We thought we should keep that in memory.”

Sajan, who is “at least 60 years old”, says he would need no less than Rs 700 a day to raise his three camels in Pallikara. But then, the crowd at the beach takes care of it — along with some balance money — at the end of the day, he adds.

Less than 30 km south of Pallikara is a tiny island. Idayilakad, spotted amid the sprawling Kavvayi backwaters, is inhabited by not just people belonging to 350-odd families, but a famous group of simians.

Pappi, cheiftan of the Monkey Island
Pappi, cheiftan of the Monkey Island

Pappi the chieftan has one of its ears cut in a fight a few years ago. “That would give us the impression that it has a fierce temperament. But actually he is very docile,” says Sajith K N, administration assistant with the Bekal Resorts Development Corporation (BRTC) which functions under Kerala Tourism.

The group of apes has such big reputation that the whole piece of 312-acre land is also called Monkey Island. As a two-decade-old bridge has facilitated road transport to Idayilakad, tourists visit the place in greater numbers than they did in the past.

Local entrepreneurs K Dasan and A Akbar Ali, who have together set up a conference centre, say the island occasionally holds a ‘Jala Gaanamela’. The music evening would have the artistes performing on a stage raised from a shallow part of the backwater facing the audience seated in the island.

Up 25 km from Pallikara is Kumbala, known more famously for being the ancestral village of Anil Kumble who went on to be a cricketing legend from neighbouring Karnataka’s capital Bangalore. Just 6 km off the north Kerala town is Ananthapura.

The countryside has a pocket which is expansive, rocky and strikingly dry most time of year. Then, there is a green pond which encircles a vintage shrine. Ananthapura is Kerala’s only lake temple.

Ananthapura is Kerala's only lake temple
Ananthapura is Kerala’s only lake temple

In the water body that seemingly represents the concept of Lord Vishnu amid the ethereal Palazhi Ocean lives a crocodile. Its name: Babia.

Priest Sankaranarayan Bhatt, who speaks Malayalam with a Kannada accent, says Babia had a partner who the British are said to have killed during the Raj era. “Babia virtually guards the temple,” he says about the large aquatic reptile that occasionally rises from the lake and crawls up to reach a nearby pond called Vana Shastara.

Isn’t there a danger of it attacking pilgrims? Not at all, avers Bhatt. “Babia is pure vegetarian,” he announces. “In fact there is even a 40-rupee offering of cooked rice for the crocodile to eat.”

Babia the vegetarian crocodile
Babia the vegetarian crocodile

The Vana Shastara pond is rectangular and some 200 metres away from the temple. A devotee, who has come to also attend a post-death ritual, says Babia is there in the smaller water body.

BRTC’s Sajith calls out ‘Babia…. Babia….” There is no movement for a while. Then, the plea is heard, an open-mouthed crocodile surfaces — only to sink again in a jiffy.

A helping hand to the Olive Ridleys

Plunging down the water inside glass cases are turtles near Vadakara of Kozhikode district — also in upstate Kerala. The modest shed has no iconic animal, even as the shed displays the skeletal remains of a whale that had grounded on the shore, dead, some 15 years ago.

Vadakara sand banks beach
Vadakara sand banks beach

The Turtle Conservation Society near Iringal was formed in 1992 as a private body with seven members. A quarter century ago, they had hoarded a basketful of turtle eggs to customarily eat, but one fine morning they found baby turtles having come out in hordes and typically scurrying to the sea.

“That sight changed the worldview of the men folk here,” recalls Lalitha V M, a guide with the society which functions under the Kerala Forest Department since 1998.

The society is now into spreading mass awareness about the need to conserve this endangered species: Olive Ridley turtle. There is decent influx of visitors to watch them being hatched and grown before being let off to the adjacent sea.

“Sometimes as many as 20 buses from schools far and near arrive at the society a day,” reveals Lalitha. “The children are keen to learn about the importance of nature.”

(The writer is a freelance journalist and media consultant based in Delhi.)

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