The backwaters of Kerala, particularly the ones near Kochi, offer unmatchable experiences of boat rides, village visits to spice plantations, first-hand experiences of coir-making, a leisure ride across the expansive Vembanad lake and the unmissable lunching experience at village homes across the crisscrossing backwater channels.
Best place to experience the charm of Kerala backwaters
The month of October always brings back fond memories of my trip to the backwaters of Cochin or Kochi in Kerala. It has been seven long years since we undertook our family trip to Kochi and that wonderful vacation remains as the most cherished sojourn to date. I love Kochin (Cochin) and is one place apart from Dalhousie, in India, where I would love to settle down and lead the rest of my life.
Tailor made-tours, homestays, heritage resorts and the internet have boosted tourism in recent times, but a decade back, not many reliable options were available to gain information about Indian states barring the Lonely Planet Guides and a handful of efficient tourism boards like Kerala Tourism. And, one of the Cochin sightseeing maps suggested that we undertake the backwaters village tour.
A traveller or a tourist who visits Kerala should very well term his or her trip incomplete, without a boat ride in the serene backwaters of the longest lake in India- the Vembanad lake or Vembanad Kayal in Malayalam. Touted as the best place for Kerala backwater tour, the Vembanad lake and its canals offer unparalleled vistas of backwater village life!
You may also want to check my write-up on watching a Kathakali performance, one of the must-do things when in Cochin.
Visit Kerala backwaters through half-a-day backwater tour
We had arranged for a half-a-day boat trip through our hotel travel desk that was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guide in those days. But, my apologies, I do not remember the tour operator’s name.
Most of the backwater rides start from Alappuzha or Alleppey, which is a town to the south of Cochin. I remember we had not opted to drive down to Alleppey due to time restraint. Instead, we had chosen a boat ride from a place which was just 45 mins of drive from our hotel in Ernakulam. This was one of those conducted tours from Cochin. We wanted to ride in the traditional Kerala country boat called ‘Kettuvallam’.
Come with me virtually on this backwater tour that we undertook, soaking in the brilliance of the serene and divine ‘God’s own country’. I am just reminiscing some peaceful time we spent on the boat doing nothing but connecting with elements of nature and appreciating village backwaters’ life for close to five hours. All this without littering the lifeline of Kerala- the waterways!
What is Kettuvallam?
Kettuvallam is a traditional houseboat that has been in usage across the backwaters of Kerala for centuries. Kettu means ‘to tie’ and ‘vallam’ stands for a boat in Malayalam (the state language of Kerala). Do not mistake this word with ‘vellam’ that stands for water in Malayalam. Also, these kettuvallams differ from the snake boats called chundan vallam used in the famed boat race or Vallam Kali.
In earlier times, these Kettuvallams had a small kitchenette and storage room, to facilitate the boatsmen and traders as they rode from one place to another carrying their goods ( especially rice and cargo) to sell. Over the years, they have morphed into palatial houseboats to serve the purpose of tourism.
Constructed using the principles of traditional boat-making techniques, a Kettuvallam is made of wild jack ( similar to jackfruit) wood called Anjili in Malayalam. Basically, the structure of a Kettuvallam is made of a wild-jack wood hull held together by tying the wooden planks with the help of coir knots. No nails are used in the making of a traditional Kettuvallam. The thatched roof is put together over the hull by using organic and eco-friendly materials like coconut fibre, coir ropes and bamboo poles and mats.
Kickstarting the backwaters village tour
The blue sky was bejewelled with shiny white clouds while the chocolate brown earth was accentuated by the emerald lush greenery as we started the boat ride across the expansive backwater of Cochin. The teal coloured water shimmered and dazzled, as a gentle breeze cruised past its surface with a periodic frequency under the soft sunlight. Ah! a perfect kickstart to a laid-back ride…
Slowly and effectively, the boat was navigated with precision through the various narrow canals of the backwaters of Cochin by the skilled boatsmen. The traditional ‘Kettuvallam’ houseboats were beyond our budget and the many Shikara sorts of boats were found to be crowded and lacked the required peace to enjoy this natural beauty. Thus, for us, this country boat worked like charm. Also, the country boats of Kerala are hand manoeuvred and do not pollute the water, and being responsible is a sort of an ode to a place..isn’t it?
Village backwaters – the riverine life
The backwaters of Kerala have been used for ages now, by the local people for fishing, transportation and agriculture. A backwater tour ride like this gives a glimpse into the riverine culture. The visuals of the daily routine of villagers who have their homes along the sides of the water bodies give an inside peek of the village backwaters.
Many of the houses, had a small boat/kayak anchored in front of their homes, used to commute from one place to another. The villagers went about their daily chores of fishing, farming, coir making, spice cultivation, and shell mining. In a way, these villages have benefitted by tourism and the backwater tourism industry has made them self-sustainable.
You may also want to read about the Chantaboon Waterfront Community of Chanthaburi in Thailand, that is very similar to the backwaters life of Kerala.
Shell Mining in the backwaters of Kerala
If there was a man busy with unloading the cement sacks, then there was another woman busy in knee-deep water of the canal, going about her search for clams in the backwaters of Kerala. Yes, clamshell mining is one of the means of livelihood of the people in and Vembanad lake.
I also learned that clamshells are used as a raw material in cement manufacturing units, as an add-on in fertilizers and pesticides and in some cases as medicines, as well.
Coir making in the Vembanad backwaters
A visit to one of the villages on an island nearby the Vembanad lake also gave us a closer glimpse into the making of coir. Kerala and coconuts are made for each other. A Coconut tree literally strips itself to provide a livelihood to its seekers and thus is called the ‘Kalpavruksha’.No part of the tree ever goes waste. And, coir making out of the coconut fibres just proves this fact. Coir is thus known as the golden fibre of Kerala.
Do have a glimpse of the efforts in one of the steps that go into the making of coir rope, in the video clip
Spicy stuff from the backwaters of Kerala
Many of the villagers living along the banks of the backwaters in Kerala, also grow spices that are organic and fresh. After all, it is for the trade of these spices that the Portuguese and the other invaders came to India. Nutmegs, Pepper, Bay leaves and other spices were being grown in these villages along the canals gives a glimpse into the occupation of these villagers.
Flora and Fauna of the backwaters of Kerala
The canals crisscrossing the vast expanse of the backwaters in Kerala ran into innumerable numbers, and some of them looked pretty eerie to me. May be due to the lush greenery, the dense canopy over them and the lack of sunlight seeping into the canals. However, the darkness of the lush greenery was sometimes interspersed by the colourful blooms and not so colourful signboards!
The widespread silence was often interrupted by the voices of the Neer kaaka (Cormorants) that cooled itself in the backwaters.
Satisfying the hunger pangs on a backwater tour
Soon, it was lunchtime and the boat was nearing an island in the Vembanad Kayal. We were to have a traditional Kerala vegetarian lunch in one of the village homes on this strip of land surrounded by canals on all sides. The spread was simple yet flavoursome and satisfying.
A typical vegetarian lunch would consist of the Kerala par-boiled steamed rice, Aviyal, Kalan, Poppadom and a banana, apart from a spoonful of banana chips. The food was delicious, however, I found that the quantity served could have been better!
Vembanad Kayal backwaters
Post-lunch, the boat entered an area with a vast expanse of blue! For a moment, I wondered if we had entered the sea, but soon, the realization set in that we were actually afloat on the Vembanad lake.
The wide blue water body was lined with inclined coconut trees that tapered on either side and looked as if this was the route to paradise. The sumptuous lunch, the cool breeze, the warmth of the sun and the picturesque sapphire lake put us into a deep slumber for the rest of the trip.
All through the trip, the sun was playing peekaboo behind the clouds. If at one point, the sky looked bereft of the clouds, then just as we entered another canal, it looked joyful with grey clouds that were impregnated with rain. The photos of this trip looked vibrant with different shades and shadows as we sailed across the lake of Vembanad or the Vembanad Kayal as known in Kerala!
It looked as if the whole world was busy with chores except the mortals on this boat…Bliss! Not surprising that Kerala was ranked as one of the “50 destinations of a lifetime” by National Geographic Traveler
Responsible travel and backwater tourism
On our return to the dock, we saw some tourists throwing thrash into these canals of the Vembanad lake. Empty water bottles, packets of chips and other wastes lay strewn amidst the flora and fauna. These acts of foolishness are the reason why tourists lose respect in the eyes of the locals. Vembanad lake pollution has been destroying the backwaters of Kerala for years now. We as tourists and travellers need to be more responsible and make sure we educate others too on the importance of responsible tourism. And this indeed is the need of the hour.
That one waste bottle floating in the picturesque canal still haunts me and is part of my memory of that otherwise memorable backwater trip, at the end of which, we were reluctant to disembark from the boat …
Have you been on a tour to the backwaters of Kerala? Did you opt for the houseboat or the country boat? Do share your thoughts with me……
All the photos in this post have been captured by me on my very first digital Camera – SONY DSC in the year 2010. Except three where the source has been mentioned as Pixabay.
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