Varkala is situated about 50 km from Thiruvananthapuram and 35 km from Kollam. It was known as the Southern Varanasi or Thenkasi owing to the presence of ancient Janardhana Swami temple here. The place was also called Udaya Marthandapuram, commemorating the contributions of Udaya Marathanda Varma, a Travancore King, to the development of Varkala. The king in 1762 built rows of houses in the obscure sea side village of Varkala in order to make the local Brahmins settle here.
There are several stories and legends related to the birth of this place. One such story is related to the construction of the Janardhana Swami temple. Lord Brahma instructed one of the Pandyan Kings to build a temple in order to redeem his souls from the sins he has committed. In his dreams the king received a prophecy which suggested Varkala as the location to build the temple.
The name of the place is attributed to another legend of Sage Narada. According to this legend, Sage Narada was visited by the nine prajapathis who told him that they had sinned. He threw his valkalam (garment made of tree bark) to earth. Narada told the prajapathis to go there and pray for their redemption. Since then the scenic village were the valkalam fell was called by the name Varkala (derived from valkalam).
Varkala was known to ancient foreign traders, says many historical documents. The place had been referred to as `Balita’ in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, the ancient Greek manuscript describing navigation and trading opportunities.