The name Manapad stimulates merely a fleeting interest that subsequently turns into faint registration of the tiny fishing hamlet off Kanyakumari. I had asked more than a handful of strangers since I got into the bus in Kanyakumari (that ordeal of finding a bus to take me to Manapad makes a different story altogether) and most drew blank—the bus conductor, the matter-of-fact local passengers and even shopkeeper who sold me dosas during the journey’s breakfast break looked at me amusingly before helpfully rattling off names of other churches in the vicinity because he has only ever heard of pilgrims visiting Manapad. So if I am visiting Manapad, I might as well visit the other churches—his perfect logic.
During my research of Manapad, before making it the last leg of my coastal Tamil Nadu trip, I came across numerous legends laced in facts on the tiny village—that the Catholic Church there was built in the 1500s, that Francis Xavier—the missionary whose embalmed body is now in Goa’s Basilica of Bom Jesus—performed miracles here, that the cave in the beach near the church has a well, the water of which is considered to have healing powers attracting hordes. In recent times, I also read about a Chennai-based couple who made Manapad their base in their effort to convert it into a surfing destination.
Meanwhile, the piercing August sun notwithstanding, my bus spewed me out before disappearing down the undulating road. I had boarded the bus at eight in the morning from Kanyakumari hoping to get to Manapad before it gets too sunny. That purpose defeated, I needed to figure out a place to stay because my requests to the only tourist accommodation in the village (run by the aforementioned couple) went unanswered because presumably, I was late and also a single traveller.
All Manapad hosts, other than the Catholic Church, is a cluster of houses just wedged between the main road and seafront. To get to the seafront, however, I will need to take another bus that will drop me on the beach or wait for a shared auto/jeep. I attempted conversing with the local folks at the tiny bus stand to figure out if there is a chance to stay over. Nobody answered in the affirmative but for the elderly woman whom I met in the bus asked me to walk up to the church and seek accommodation. “The church has options. If there are free rooms, you will get it,” she told me.
By the time I disembarked from the bus and the assault of briny sea breeze began, I had forgotten about the harsh sun. I did traipse up the long walk to the church, located in proximity with the beach but decided against renting a room out. Rather, I sat at the porch-like structure facing the sea along with a bunch of college-goers bunking classes by hanging out in their secret hideaway. I felt like an intruder barging into their privacy, having discovered their little secret and walking in on them. Soon enough, they left and I was left all by myself with an unoccupied beach.
The view from where I sat was of the beach, beyond the plunging dunes extending till my eyes could travel. There are knolls of bushes being whipped up by the sea breeze - only greenery in the otherwise blue-grey landscape. On the other side though, fishing boats were moored amid tiny islets of ocean. Locals drudge along the beach to carry drinking water from a well dug up on the beach. I take it all in and slip into a glorious siesta despite having had an abysmal breakfast.
Lunch was an issue I realised. The village has absolutely no tourist facilities and though the church houses a tiny shop that sells objects to cater to pilgrims, it stocks nothing edible. The eatery, I was told, is back in the village. Fortified by the gusty breeze, I walk back to the bus stand by the beach, take the bus and go back to the main road. And then I discover food nirvana. A tiny restaurant - not so much a restaurant as much a utilitarian shack constructed with thatched coconut palm leaves, it is run by a family whose patriarch served me the most amazing fish meal I have ever eaten.
It was the most basic of meals—a mound of rice with fish curry and fried fish, both that day’s catch, served in the most unassuming of places. I devoured the first serving and delightfully sought out for the second. The fried fish was unlimited too. The meal was immediately supplanted by yet another siesta.
Owing to Manapad’s location—it is among many of the ragged edges, narrow curvature, of the southern coastline of the Coromandel Coast—it is one of the few places where you can enjoy the effusive dramatic display of the sun during dawn and dusk. I did not linger and stay the night in wait for the sunrise, but I had already visualised how it would be—the brick-red roofs of the whitewashed houses render a character to the village and when they are awash with the orange glow of the morning sun, they would look like a curious menagerie straight out of the imagination of a novelist.