Sunrise at the End of the World

A new day begins on the coast of southern India

By / May 2012

I rose before dawn and dressed in the dark. I grabbed my camera and barreled out the door of my hotel room in Nagercoil, the last major city in southern India. I had to get a move on if I was going to catch the sunrise over Kanyakumari, a tiny village at the utter end of the Indian peninsula.

Every morning during festival season, thousands upon thousands of Indians make a pilgrimage to its rocky shoreline to celebrate the rising of the sun over their beloved land. I had been told by friends that the ritual was a surreal experience. I had to see it for myself.

I hopped in my car and careened through the empty streets of Nagercoil, where a few locals were up and about, preparing to start the day. The road led out of town into dripping jungle, over winding rivers, and past expansive rubber plantations. With each passing mile, the hard black sky softened to lighter shades of gray.

I reached the edge of Kanyakumari a half hour later. The small fishing town was already choked with colorfully dressed devotees. They moved as a mob toward the roiling sea. I wound through the crowds to the end of the road, the last road in all of India, then abandoned my car to join the migration.

We made our way to the rocky outcropping below town. This is the place where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, creating a swirling cauldron of violent water. The people spilled over the sea wall and down onto the rocks. The waves crashed and broke and sprayed a mist of salty foam.

Many of the enraptured onlookers had been traveling for days, arriving from as far away as Rajahstan, Mumbai, and Calcutta. For some, the ritual marks a divine visitation by the gods, a promise that the heavens will continue to shine light upon India. For others, this sunrise gives face to a more general feeling of hope about the future of this ancient and mythical yet rapidly changing country.

The faces around me were fixed on the horizon, staring out past the small rocky island where a statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvallavar stands guard over his homeland. The anticipation and excitement grew as the darkness faded. The near-nervous tension in the air thickened.

As streaks of orange and red began to flash across the sky, bathing the crowd in the mystical hues of dawn, horns rang out. Cheers rumbled through the masses like a tide. Children splashed in the surf. Many pilgrims lit small fires of oil and wax and incense, over which they chanted and prayed and sent smoky offerings into the sky. Then a sudden hush descended on the pilgrims.

With mouths open and eyes wide, they pointed fingers eastward towards the first razor edges of light rising over the angry waters. When the sun burst out of the Indian Ocean, pouring brightness over the waiting crowds, the celebration recommenced. There was chanting and hollering. The kids danced for joy in the sea.

For the first time all morning, I no longer heard the sound of waves. The sun steadily slid up the sky. A new day began.

 

Chris Watts’s previous story for EthnoTraveler was about riding a rickshaw through central Chennai.

 

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