Kerala is a state in the southwestern part of India. According to a legend, it was Parashurama, the sixth main incarnation of Vishnu, who was responsible for the creation of this country. Varuna, the god of the oceans, blessed this bearded warrior with an axe, he led him to the heights of the Western Ghats and challenged him to throw his axe far into the water. The sea between the mountain range and the place where the axe landed turned into solid land, which today is called Kerala or God’s Own Country. When you look at its map, you will see that the green colour prevails. Kerala is not only beautifully green but also blessed with over 40 rivers that flow here like blue threads woven into a green fabric. No other Indian state is as rich in water as Kerala.
Backwaters is a unique labyrinth of lagoons, lakes, interconnected channels and bays, fed by up to 38 rivers. In 1974, the Salt Water Barrier was built to regulate salinity in this area. The extensive network consists of 900 km of waterways, some bordering the coast, others reaching deep into the inland. Venice of the East! Cruising the Backwaters was one of the greatest experiences for me as well.
We also sailed on one of the traditional houseboats (kettuvallam). They were originally used to transport rice harvested in nearby paddy fields – it is one of the few places in the world where rice is grown 1-3 meters below sea level. Rice is harvested from irrigated fields 2-3 times a year. The boats also transported spices, coconuts and other products. Merchants lived in these boats and moved here and there along the rivers and canals.
In modern times, ships began to be replaced by faster trucks. To save the ships, in the 1990s, Babu Varghese, one of the first pioneers of ecotourism in India, came up with the idea of repurposing them into attractive vessels for tourists.
Babu Varghese would be pleased to see the success of his idea, but he would also be surprised that almost a thousand houseboats cruise the waterways in the Backwaters today. They are still made by hand from the hardwood of the jackfruit, the planks are tied together with thick coir rope and coated with fish oil and black pitch made by boiling cashew nut shells. The bottoms of all the ships are black, their curved prows reminded me of Venetian gondolas.
Every ship is different. Some look like floating cottages, others like huge woven baskets. Some have mosquito nets, some are air-conditioned.
Our houseboat had three comfortable cabins, providing privacy and relaxation. In the front part was a spacious “living room”. Of course, it was nice to go outside, let the breeze play with my hair and observe the purple water hyacinths or the birds racing to catch fish. But then it was good to return to the air-conditioned room and watch the action on the surface and on the shores through the large windows. However, unlike in Italian Venice, here, you are not looking at the facades of palaces, but at lush greenery, houses and their inhabitants. The water labyrinth is lined with green garlands of coconut palms, mango and banana trees.
The hustle and bustle of the traffic on Indian roads is gone. All life here takes place near the water, on the water and in the water. Local residents use water for transport, bathing, cooking and washing dishes. They live from what the environment gives them – from building boats, fishing and various crafts, such as making ropes from palm fibres or making mats, carpets, bowls and other useful items from palm leaves. They also make an alcoholic beverage called toddy from the sap of coconut trees. Coconut milk and oil are the basis of their cuisine. Along the way to the place where we boarded, we saw not only paddy fields but also duck farms and sales places where dozens of ducks were crowded in cages and eggs were dangling in nets hung over the counter. And ducks are also deployed on rice fields as natural pest control agents.
Our houseboat floated slowly and different stories unfolded in front of us like in a cinema, the endings of which we often could not observe. Between palm trees and blossoming bushes, we could see small and large houses. In front of every house, there was a dock or at least a pole for tying up a boat. And hung colourful laundry. Girls and women, sometimes standing up to their knees in water, were washing, and a splashing sound carried over the water surface as they hit the wet laundry against the stone. A small boat delivered schoolchildren to their homes. The other children were swimming in the water and happily waving at us. A group of Muslim youth was enjoying ice cream. A woman was reaching for a ripe mango with a long stick. I don’t know if she managed to shake off a piece, but I was more interested in why another woman on the shore had raised a stick in her hand, standing over a man who was waist-deep in water. She glowered like some Kerala masks.
What I liked most were the women dressed in brightly coloured dresses, so perfectly recognizable in the rich greenery even from a great distance. It’s a pity that we couldn’t take at least a short break. I would have liked to take a walk along those banks or sit down on the wall to talk with those women…
We also passed several churches. Men were painting the facade of one church. Even the saint on the roof had probably already had faded colours on his clothing, so he too was getting a new coat of paint.
From the loudspeaker of the Hindu temple, prayers and hymns were carried over the water to the next bend. Sometimes I had to convince myself that I wasn’t just dreaming. In these calm waters, one shakes off all accumulated stress…
While we were trying to capture at least a piece of the atmosphere that was happening on the shores with our lenses, the cook prepared lunch for us. The pearlspot (Etroplus suratensis) is a beautiful striped fish that was declared one of the state symbols of Kerala in 2010. They call it karimeen. The irony is that I only encountered this fish-symbol on a plate. 🙂
It was interesting for me that our Indian colleagues did not eat this fish and quite seriously warned us about the dangerous bones. Well, they didn’t know that we eat carp every year for Christmas and sometimes also trout or other freshwater fish which have many more bones. If I had known with what interest they would watch my skill in deboning that fish, I would have made more of an effort. But I still achieved admirable success. 🙂 And the fish was truly delicious! We ended the lunch with a traditional dessert of payasam made of small noodles with raisins and cashew nuts.
The cruise between Alappuzha (Alleppey) and Kollam (Quilon) takes 8 hours. We chose only a 4-hour cruise. For romantic couples, a cruise combined with sunset and an overnight stay in a houseboat with only one cabin is recommended.
When choosing a houseboat, it is good to find out if it has an environmental protection certificate because the Backwaters are a very sensitive ecosystem. It is also better to look at the houseboat first and then make a decision. Some hotels have their own houseboats or a contract with a certain tourist agency.
We used the offer of Spice Routes Experience
More about Kerala: Kerala Tourism
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri