Two to four hundred kilometres west of Kochi, Kerala, lies Lakshadweep - the only coral islands in India.
Lakshadweep is a tiny archipelago comprising 36 islands. It became the country's tiniest Union Territory in 1956 and was named Lakshadweep in 1974. Until then the islands were known as Laccadives, Aminidivi and Minicoy islands.
Of the 36 islands, only ten are inhabited. They are Amini, Andrott, Agati, Bitra, Chetlat, Kadmat, Kalpeni, Kavaratti, Kiltan and Minicoy.
The first settlers were from Kerala. Legend has it that when Kerala's last ruler, Cheraman Perumal, left for Mecca after having adopted the Islamic faith, the Raja of Cannanore sent his soldiers after him to persuade him to return. However, their ship struck a rock and they were forced to turn back.
On their return journey, they saw several idyllic islands which they described to the Raja. The Raja made an announcement that anyone who wished to settle down on the islands would have the right of ownership of the land they cultivated.
Amini was the first island to be inhabited. It is about 3 kilometres long and slightly over 1.6 kilometres wide.
Amini's craftsmen make walking-sticks out of tortoise and coconut shells. Stone engravers here have earned a reputation for carving beautiful motifs on hard coral and stones.
Lakshadweep's hottest island is Agatti, the westernmost island of the group. It was put on the air map in April 1988 when a Vayudoot service from the mainland was inaugurated.
The people of Andrott, an island southeast of Amini were the first to embrace Islam. Today 94% of Lakshadweep's population of about 51,680 is Muslim.
How did Islam come to Lakshadweep? It is believed that an Arab saint, Hazrat Ubaidulla, had a dream in which he was instructed by Prophet Mohammed to spread the message of Islam to distant lands.
Accordingly he set sail, but his ship capsized in a storm. He is believed to have drifted to the shores of Amini on a plank of wood.
Ubaidullah had no success in converting the locals at first so he sailed to the neighbouring islands and succeeded in spreading Islam in Andrott, Kavaratti and Kalpeni. He died in Andrott. His tomb has been enshrined in the Jumaah Mosque. Andrott is the largest island in Lakshadweep. The entire island is covered with coconut trees that yield the finest copra in the archipelago.
Kavaratti, the capital of Lakshadweep, lies between Amini and Andrott. It is 6 kilometres in length and about a kilometre wide. It IS the most developed island and has the highest percentage of non-islanders as residents. All the government offices and houses of government officials are located here.
Kavaratti's craftsmen are extremely skilful. Their skill can be seen in the Ujra Mosque, the most outstanding of the 52 mosques of this Union Territory. It was built in 1670. The ceiling of the mosque is made of driftwood and ornately carved and painted in complementary shades of green and red. There is a well here whose water is believed to possess curative properties.
South of Kavaratti is Kalpeni, called 'Kolfaini' by Arab writers. It was on the direct route of ships sailing for Arabia. Kalpeni is enclosed by an immense lagoon. It has three islets - Cheryam, Tialakkam and Pitti.
Pitti, also called 'Pakshi Pitti' or the island of birds, is the most interesting of these islets. It is a tiny reef, and reaching it is quite an adventure as one has to swim the last 50 m to the island. Not a blade of grass grows here. Its sole inhabitants are hundreds of thousands of seabirds, mainly terns. Their cacophony can be heard as one approaches the shores.
Two species of terns, the 'sooty' and the 'noddy' terns have made Pitti their breeding ground. The nests which they make on sand, shingle or rock, are pretty and colourful as the birds line them with broken pieces of multicoloured seashells. The eggs resemble chicken eggs but have black or brown blotches on them. They are a great favourite with the people of Amini and Andrott, who used to visit the island regularly to collect them till the government declared Pitti a bird sanctuary.
The terns are useful to fishermen. They use them as guides to locate huge shoals of tuna. Since both terns and tuna hunt small fish, fishermen know that wherever these birds are, the tuna are bound to be present too.
The southernmost island in Lakshadweep is Minicoy. Its emerald lagoon is large and deep enough for small ships to enter. The great thirteenth-century traveller, Marco Polo, called Minicoy the Female Island because most of its men were sailors and away at sea. Things haven't changed much since then. The men are either engaged in fishing or work on ships and women do most of the work on the island - right from office work to manual labour.
Dress and language set the people of Minicoy apart from the other islanders.
The men here dress in jeans and T-shirts and the women wear long, brick-red robes which are intricately embroidered around the neck. They cover their heads with a piece of black or white cloth. Even little girls who have hardly begun to walk, wear scarves.
On the other islands, the men wear lungis and the women wear tight-fitting embroidered blouses and a lower garment called kachi which is held in place with a waistbelt.
The people of Minicoy speak Mahl. On the other islands, Malayalam is the main language.
It is believed that the people here unlike those of the other islands, are descendants of settlers from the Gujarat area. Most of them are called 'Takrus' which could be a corruption of 'Thakur'. As in Gujarat, every house here has a cot-like swing.
Their traditional dance called 'Dandi'is similar to the'Dandiya Raas' of Gujarat.
Minicoy, in common with the rest of Lakshadweep, has a matrilineal society which gives the women of this Union Territory a higher social status than that enjoyed by women in most other parts of India.