Despite having roughly 7500km of coastline, I never much associated India with the beach. Perhaps this is simply a consequence of the sheer richness of India’s landscape, cultural and architectural heritage, which, with the exception of the much vaunted Kerala backwaters, dominates the images of India seen in tourist advertisements. When it comes to considering what is distinctly representative of India, it is sights such as the Taj Mahal, the forts of Rajasthan, the ghats of Varanasi, the desert, jungle and mountains that get more of a look in. Even after my first trip to India, during which I stayed entirely inland across the north and in the foothills of the Himalayas, I didn’t give much consideration to the coast and beaches of India at all.
It was, therefore, a real eye-opener to begin my second visit on the west coast of the south, at Varkala, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Apart from the prevalence of various ritual practises – offerings made to the sea and small shrines or idols present in some places on the sand – Indians seem to enjoy the beach in much the same way as most people – only, they tend to do so in considerably more clothing. This was not universally the case, however, and the men more often than not cover little more than their privates. It’s worth mentioning that across India I was often surprised by the apparent acceptance of nudity. In various places I saw women bathing in their undergarments alongside men, not so much at the beach, but certainly in the Ganges. Without any sophisticated knowledge of the context, I had rather assumed attitudes might be more conservative, and it is still possible that these were exceptions, or perhaps what is acceptable is very much differentiated by social status.
This photo was taken on Palolem beach in Goa. We had never really intended to go to Goa, fearing it would be an over-touristed disappointment, yet we came across enough strong assertions of the beauty of the place and the fascinating legacy of Portuguese colonialism to decide it was worth a look. I like this photo not merely because of the dynamic and graceful posture of the cricketer, but also for what it represents – a culture so recognisably similar to that of my own country, where we too play cricket on the beach. It serves as a healthy reminder that we should focus more on what we have in common with other people, rather than our differences.