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According to one legend, the sage Parasurama threw his axe into the sea after being blessed by the Goddess of the Earth. When his axe landed, the waters retreated and the land thus exposed became Kerala. The ‘axe throw’ location was Kanyakumari (formerly Cape Comorin) at the southern tip of India. Now in Tamil Nadu, this small town is now both a tourist destination and a pilgrimage site.
Kanyakumari likes to sell itself as being “the meeting place of 3 oceans” (The Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea & the Bay of Bengal), where the sun rises over one sea (the Bay of Bengal) and sets over another (the Arabian Sea). There is also a Gandhi Memorial – where Gandhi’s ashes were stored prior to being immersed in the sea, a Goddess temple and a rock temple to a “world-famous” monk.
So does Kanyakumari live up to expectations?
I visited in November 2013 – I visited the Sri Vivekananda Memorial and the Gandhi Memorial. This alone took me over 3 hrs. I wasn’t able to visit the temple (I have done on a prior visit) due it’s afternoon closing.
Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi in January 1948. After his cremation, his ashes were shared amongst a number of urns (the exact number is unclear) and sent to a number of locations across India. Kanyakumari was one of those locations, and the Gandhi Memorial (right on the water’s edge) marks the spot where the ashes rested.
You will doubtless be greeted here by the caretaker, who claims that he has been looking after the memorial for over 25 years “with no salary”. He will show you around, or you can take a look yourself. There isn’t much to see: a few faded photographs of Gandhi shaking hands with international dignitaries, and the stand where the urn stood prior to the ashes being scattered. Above the stand, there is a hole in the roof which allows sunlight onto the stand only on Gandhi’s birthday (October 2nd). (I haven’t been there on October 2nd, so I can’t confirm this).
The Memorial doesn’t go out of its way to say that this was only one of a number of places where Gandhi’s ashes were scattered. The exact number of urns is unclear, but one was scattered as recently as 2008. So, presumably, there are other locations in India which hold the same status as this one?
Sri Vivekananda, or “The Wandering Monk” as he is also known, was born in Calcutta in 1863 as Narenda Nath Datta. In his early 20s, he became a monk and, after his guru died, began to travel around India. His only possessions were a water pot, a walking stick and 2 books.
Narenda’s wanderings took him to the Himalayas, to Goa and, in December 1892, to Kanyakumari. There, he meditated on the “last bit of Indian rock” and had a vision that he called “the vision of One India”.
In 1893, after discussions with scholars, Narenda was given the name Vivekananda and sent to Chicago to represent India and Hinduism a the Parliament of the World’s Religions. There then followed several years of world lecture tours, before his health declined and he died in India in 1902.
The memorial at Kanyakumari was begun in 1962, on the centenary of Sri Vivekananda’s birth. There are two Mandapams here – one contains a small chamber where people make offerings to the Goddess; the second contains a meditation chamber.
Whilst this is interesting in its own right, it doesn’t make up for the fact that (a) there is very little information about Sri Vivekananda on the island and (b) the vast majority of foreign visitors will never have heard of him. There is a small museum in the town (which I have visited before, and I don’t remember being particularly enlightened), but if people are going to spend hours getting out here then I think the least the authorities could do is make sure that they’re reasonably informed!
(The second island houses a statue of Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil poet. You can climb someway up the statue, but that’s about it).
There is also a Sri Vivekanda Museum. I visited on a prior trip – I don’t recall being particularly enlightened.
There are many basic food and drink options in Kanyakumari. I had a very pleasant Vegetable Thali lunch for Rs70, but that’s about as sophisticated as it gets.
All in all, Kanyakumari is a pleasant day trip, but not worth upsetting yourself about if you have to miss it!
Good to Know
Getting There: Accessible via bus & train from many south Indian locations (e.g. Thiruvananthapuram, Madurai). Also on day trips from Thiruvananthapuram or Kovalam.
Opening Times: The temple is closed from 12.30pm-4pm daily, both Memorials are open 8am-5pm at least. NB: If you’re on a day trip from Kerala and want to visit the temple, you will probably have to explain this to your driver so you can be here at the correct time.
Time Needed: The Vivekananda Memorial is only 400m offshore, but reckon on 2-2.5 hours to queue up, buy a boat ticket, get on the boat, get to the island, join another queue, leave your shoes, go round, queue to get back on the boat (don’t forget your shoes) and get back to the mainland. If you want to visit the Thiruvalluvar statue too, add in another 30mins or so. For such a short distance, it’s a remarkable amount of time.
For the Temple and the Gandhi Memorial, it’s however much time you want to spend there.
Costs: Reckon on Rs300 in donations and entry fees for all three. Cameras are forbidden in the temple, but there are usually some sadhus outside who are willing to pose for photographs.