The Youthful Goddess
Kanyakumari is not a sharp cape or promontory; India faces up to the southern ocean along a 1-2 kilometer wide edge. The plunge into the Ocean is abrupt almost all along this southern rim (the rim appears to be just fractionally tilted to the East-West direction and the eastern end of it, where the Kanyakumari temple stands may just about be the southernmost point on the peninsula - the Vivekananda and Tiruvallvar rocks, a short distance offshore from the temple are more to the east than south).
The southern edge of the Indian landmass reveals a core of dark granite with an overlay of laterite. And the land gains in elevation rapidly with distance from the Ocean. There are some beaches all around, but none is wide.
Within a couple of kilometers of the two ends of the southern edge - the eastern tip marked by the temple and the western tip merely known as 'sunset point' - two very big churches soar over the fishing villages on the eastern and western shores; Kanyakumari district has a large Christian population and the fisherfolk are overwhelmingly - almost entirely - Christian (names such as Nicholas, Stanislaus, Alfonso, rare among Mallus are common here(*)).
We reached the sunset point well before sunset; but this is Monsoon season, and a thick glob of clouds hung over the Arabian sea turning sunset into a smear of colors (the sunrise the next day would be but slightly different).
Here is what I had heard about Vivekananda's association with the place. The late 19th century Master reached the cape while wandering the length and breadth of India. "He had no money to pay for the ferry, so he swam the waters of the straits and sat in meditation for 2 full days on a rock which now bears his name..."
Morning. We wait with a big crowd, for the ferry to the Vivekananda Rock. Just beside the jetty is a fair-sized fishing harbor. Trawlers are pulling in; just as they reached a few tens of feet off-shore, men jump off and begin relaying the catch shore-wards. They bring in hundreds of a large kind of fish - about a meter long. The men are all very dark and bristle with sharply defined muscles. Almost all boats have staunchly Christian names - 'St. Roch', 'St. Jude', St. Christopher', 'Arokiamatha', 'Power of Jesus',...
A large-ish launch finally approaches. It is incongruously named 'Bhagirathi'. As the crew secure her to the jetty with thick ropes, I notice, these guys are just as well-built as the fish-relayers but look conspicuously Hindu - ash-marks on their foreheads and all(**).
On the Vivekananda rock, the memorial to the Saint (built in the 1960's) feels much bigger than it looks in pictures. There is also a shrine where Goddess Kanyakumari's footprint is worshipped - it is said she stood here in severe penance, balancing herself on one leg, waiting eternally - and hopelessly - for her beloved Lord Shiva to arrive and claim her hand in marriage (Shiva is said to have played truant, even getting involved in a rather beastly affair at Gokarna on the west coast of India; or he was prevented from keeping the date by some other scheming divinities - they needed Shiva's leadership in some critical demon-slaying mission and so prevented him from settled down in blissful matrimony).
On a nearby rock, stands a colossal statue of Tamil poet-saint Tiruvalluvar, facing the peninsula, towering much higher than anything on Vivekananda rock.
(*) The present representative in Parliament from the area is one Mr. Bellarmin. He shares his (very rare) name with a 16th Century Italan Cardinal (later canonized) who was seriously involved in the Inquisitorial proceedings against Giordano Bruno and Galileo (Bellarmino was the saint's surname actually). An old friend of mine Herm Anand (named after a Saint named Hermann), who hails from Kanya Kumari, also comes to mind.
(**) I had heard earlier of the Hindu-Christian divide of Kanyakumari - including urban legends which alleged the local Christians were agitating for a christening of the district as 'Kanni Mary' ('Virgin Mary'). The Rock was an object of serious contention. When the move to build the grand Vivekananda memorial gained momentum, it acquired a strong and exclusive Hindu flavor (fired by a perspective that saw Vivekananda purely as a figure of Hindu Revival) and the local Christians came up with a counter-claim that St. Francis Xavier had also meditated on the rock and so it could not be an exclusively Hindu holy place. Then some documents apparently surfaced establishing the rock to be property of the temple and so, the Hindu nationalists could go ahead and build the memorial; even then, some bad blood persisted and the local fishermen were initially not enthusiastic about ferrying fervent pilgirms to the island...
The existence of the 'footprint shrine' does enhance the claim the temple had on the rock. Since the Vivekananda story mentions a ferry, the island probably was already a site of pilgrimage - not clear whether the holiness associated with the place was purely for its being the site of the Goddess's penance or also for its St. Xavier connection. And yes, Vivekananda's swimming the very choppy straits to the rock was a remarkable feat, something even an okay swimmer like self (I can swim country-style(***) for a mile or so in swimming pool conditions) cannot dream of ever managing.
I have another guess: the Tiruvalluvar colossus which overpowers the Vivekananda complex was a deliberate, state-sponsored balancing act; Tiruvalluvar's impeccable Tamil and equally impeccable Secular credentials could sort of temper Vivekananda's alleged North-Indian saffron presence.
And during our return from the cape, we saw a surprisingly large crowd at a Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally in Nagercoil, vigorously shouting slogans and waving saffron and swastika flags.
(***) - the 'country-stroke' is often called 'dog-stroke' by experts. But I would describe it "...the Mind is without fear and head held high!"