I was rudely woken up at two o’clock in the morning to find out that air conditioner of the ship had stopped working. AC did not restart at all. It was getting hot and uncomfortable in the room. Even the tiredness of Kalpeni’s long snorkeling trip did not help me to get back to sleep. There was no way I could open the window as it was blocked by life-saving raft. The fan in our room was so tiny and inefficient. So I spent rest of the early morning hours tossing and turning in my bunker bed till rays of the morning sun started peeping through the window.
I grabbed a cup of tea from the cafeteria and rushed to the deck. I could see many people who had a very bad night’s sleep wandering on the deck like zombies. Early morning sun was still below the horizon covered by clouds. I could see a faint glow of light from the lighthouse of Minicoy. Our ship was anchored quite far away from the island.
After breakfast we all disembarked and were taken In smaller boats to the island. White sand beaches were visible from a distance. The lighthouse made a perfect setting too! It was a long journey of over 40minutes to reach the island. The boat jetty(pier) was a long and beautiful one leading us into the island. At the other end stood a majestic fish canning factory for canning tuna fish. Outside the fish canning factory stood our transport which was a mini tempo rickshaw.
We were soon taken to to Minicoy SPORTS resort. As always there we were welcomed on the island with tender coconuts.
We then left to see the nearby lighthouse. This a historic lighthouse, very well constructed by British long back in 1885. It has withstood time and weather till today. Even though you would need to climb about 200 spiral stairs to reach the top, we were glad we did it. Those were the best views of Minicoy island. The island had already amazed us, but the all round view of the white sand beaches along with the carpet of coconut trees are too good a sight to be put in words.
Minicoy island assumed a great importance by virtue of its strategic location after opening Suez canal 1869 which shortened the sea distance between Europe and Far East by 4000 miles. The British government in consultation with Lord Rippon, the then Governor General took a decision in 1882 to construct a Light House in this Island. As this Island was full of coconut trees it was envisaged to construct 49metre high Light house tower to provide around visibility.
The tower was constructed in brick masonry and the black bricks used was as hard stone , which was specially brought from “Birmingham of England and special adhesive compound from Holland”. The construction of Light house was completed in March 1884 and lighting equipment consisted of a kerosene wick lamp enclosed by a lantern was installed in December 1884 by a skilled mechanic from London The light house was formally commissioned on 2nd February 1885. In 1928 the wick lamp was replaced by Petroleum Vapor burner increasing luminous intensity considerably.
British Government did not transfer the administration of Light house till April 1956. The De-jure transfer of administration to the Government of India has to wait further till 19th September 1963.
After the Light house was taken over by Government of India plans were drawn to improve equipment. Department of Light houses and Light Ships under the Ministry of shipping and Transport modernized the Light house Equipment by Installing 85 mm vapor burner with revolving lens apparatus of first order large (920 mm focal length ) was installed in 1968. The light had an Effective beam intensity of 1.2 Million candelas with a range of 26 Nautical miles. A powerful medium frequency marine Radio beacon with effective range of 400 Km was also installed in 1982 to provide increased navigational Guidance. A Radar transponder RACON was also commissioned in 1985 as an additional guidance to the Mariner.
As the technology developed the old Petroleum vapor burner was replaced by Metal Halide Electric Lamp controlled by electronic circuit. The Light house range was then leaped to 50 miles from 26 miles of kerosene lamp. The new generation of Maritime system of Satellite communication Differential Global Positioning System(Latest in India) installed in 1998. The Light house renders a vital navigation guidance to ships in international lanes from Aden to Colombo, Suez to Singapore and Far East.
Enough on lighthouse history let us get down to Minicoy island. Back from the Lighthouse we were thirsty again, but the much needed tender coconut was now on sale. Tour planning had totally missed this thirst factor. If we had not given that welcome drink earlier but provided it at a later time it would have been nicer.
We spent the next few hours on the beach sea bathing and swimming in the ocean. Snorkeling was not much fun as there were no large corals but a quiet salty pool with sand made of powdered coral. We swam and kayaked till afternoon. Few of our friends were able to spot few sea turtles deep in that salt pool. The scene was beautiful but the sun was harsh. We missed the cloud which helped us at Kalpeni. Soon we were tired and sunburnt and came back to freshen up and have lunch.
Lunch was served in the resort and was followed by so called folk dance which was customized for us. It consisted of some filmy dances and other similar tunes. This was a pretty unimpressive staple they were trying to show us as their folk dances. We later found out that their original folk dances which consist of Lava, Thaara, Dandi, Fuli and Bandiya nowhere resembled these. We also found out about language and culture of Minicoy Island.
Later in the evening we were taken around the island to see one of the villages and interact with the people of Minicoy. We were served evening tea by the local ladies. In that shed we saw colourful and elegant race boat known as Jahadhoni used for race, reception of dignitaries and for annual picnic to Viringili islet.
Here is brief what I found out about Minicoy. Minicoy or Maliku as they call their island, is the southern most island in Lakshadweep. Among the islands of the territory, it has perhaps the oldest recorded history. Marco Polo referred to it as the female island. Ibn Batuta, the African Globe trotter who visited Maldives in the fourteenth Century, mentions about this beautiful island Muluk, from where he married two women during his short stay for seventy days.
The island is crescent-shaped, and more than 10 Km in length from end to end. The lagoon is large and deep enough for small ships to enter. There is a small island at the northern tip of the main island, known as Viringili which was used by the people for isolating small –pox patients in olden days, and therefore is also known as Small Pox island. Within the lagoon, the reef dries at low tide at the north-western entrance, constituting an ideal place for marine collections.
The Minicoyans are children of the sea. In olden days their vessels went far into Arabia, the Maldives, Andaman, Bengal and Burma. More than half of the inhabitants of working age are employed as seamen in ocean going vessels all over the world. The islanders have their own Seamen’s Associations at Calcutta and Bombay, which provide employment opportunities for prospective young men. The profession of the seamen, which make the ordinary Minicoyan a globetrotter, and has also helped him to embellish his household with articles found the world over. He uses exquisitely painted china wares and his beds are spread with silks brought from abroad. The cloth for this turban and Haryal are still brought from Calcutta. So are the Libba cloth for women and the fine laces that decorate the clothing.
Among the many foreign influences which the islanders have adopted may be listed the duodecimal (also known as base-12 or dozenal) system of numerical notation. This is however almost extinct but with a few very old people, who still use it for counting coconuts.
Houses in Maliku are the property of the female line. Men, throughout their lives, have the right of a kot in their mother’s house. Members of the house are the siblings and the children of the sisters. All the members carry the same house name throughout their lives. Persons with the same house name are prohibited from marrying one another. At the outset, marriage is a visiting marriage. Ideally, husbands come after dinner and leave their wives’ house before breakfast. During the daytime, they come for tea in the afternoon. They take the rest of their meals in their mother’s house. As a couple grows older a husband spends more and more time in his wife’s house until finally the daily rhythm is reversed: he takes his meals in his wife’s house and visits his mother’s for tea in the afternoon. But, at least once a day he has to visit his house, even if his mother is no longer alive. Discontinuing visits to a house is a definite sign of being ruli (angry), that means breaking a relationship.
The main attraction of the island is its carefully arranged villages, known as Athiris. Each Athiri has its own internal organization headed by a Moopan, around which the life of the community rests. They have their own village house, their own streets, bathing tanks, places of worship and burial. The public clubs for men and women which were the centers of a day night life in olden days are extinct now, but the buildings are still maintained in tact. Another curious remnant of old life in the island is the sheds where profligate men and women were exposed to communal punishment.
The cultural traits of Minicoy differ from those of any other island in Lakshadweep. Manners, customs and food are similar to those of the neighboring Maldives a dialect of Dhivehi or Mahl, is the language spoken on the island. This language employs the Ta-na script, written from right to left. The 9500 inhabitants of Minicoy were Buddhist before, but now are mostly Sunni Muslims.
The houses, which stand in their own private enclosures, are arranged in streets. All the houses have a swing cot made of wood which is beautifully furnished and painted in different hues. In Minicoy there are 10 villages in the island. Each village is headed by a Bodukaka (big brother) and a Bodudatha (Big Sister) assisted by a 2nd Bodukaka and a 2nd Bodudatha. First Bodukaka looks after the internal matters of the village and 2nd Bodukaka the external affairs.
Each village has a village house where baemedu (assemblage of villagers) is held. The assemble of people from all the villages is known as havaru. As source of income a village has fishing boats, country crafts and coconut trees. Common feasts are conducted at the village house during the celebrations of Eid and other festive occasions.
Once back on the ship, the journey resumed, we realized that ships air conditioner was still not repaired. We wondered how to spend without air conditioner. Later during the dinner we met the chief engineer of the ship who promised that the AC will be repaired in an hour or so. We went to bed hoping the AC will be on soon. But our hope remained just a hope and the room remained just as hot and sultry till we reached Kavaratti Island next day.