Kerala Backwaters - Gently Down the Stream

The quaint little balcony was large enough to accommodate two cane chairs, a table and little else. To reach it we had to climb over the ledge of our bedroom window and since the projection had no protective railing we had to be careful not to trip or fall over into the water below. Yes, the compact little perch had been grafted onto the side of our houseboat which drifted down the Backwaters of Kerala, the vibrant, living, 1500 km network of canals, estuaries and lakes that serve as the highways, by-ways and lifeline of the people who live along its banks.

We got to be very attached to our precarious positioned balcony. Here we sat, sipping a on a cold tall beer (the camera within easy reach), sailing the Kerala Backwaters and watching the lazy rural world of Kerala, India, slip by. Women washing utensils, men paddling by in carved out canoes laden with a rich harvest of bananas and coconuts, the sapphire flash of a kingfisher, buffalos being ferried across the waters, rows of large spider-like Chinese fishing nets straining the waters, the faithful in their brightest Sunday best streaming out of a chapel along the banks, children with fishing rods waving gleefully out to us, the silhouette of a toddy tapper scaling up a palm tree...

Kerala's Backwaters are in a constant flux and like voyeurs we found ourselves peering in at the drama of everyday life in India, simple, uncomplicated and fascinating as it unraveled around us against the backdrop of lush vegetation, a virtual riot of green.

The sight of police petrol boats and white ambulance crafts cruising by and the thatched hut that houses the State Bank of India wedged between a school and a church along the banks of the waterway reminded us that the here and now meshed comfortably with unchanging tradition along Kerala's Backwaters.

We were distracted from our musings when the houseboat attendant knocked on the door and informed us that breakfast would be served in l0 minutes. So we climbed back into our bedroom to freshen up in the attached bathroom with running water and a flushing toilet. We then strolled down to the lounge at the front of boat and feasted leisurely on a freshly prepared meal of local Kerala dishes.

We were sampling more than just the flavours of the local food; we were one of the privileged few who got an opportunity to explore the Backwaters of Kerala in a romantic little houseboat. What made the boat unique was that it was virtually a hotel unit grafted onto the structure of traditional rice boats or cargo boats known as a kettuvalloms in Malayalam, the local language of Kerala.

'These boats are what their name suggest,' the young lad from Kerala who was our onboard guide informed us. Kettu is to tie and vallom means boat. The kettuvallom is a boat made of wooden planks stitched or tied together by rope.

At Alumkadavu village, a traditional boat building center, we stopped briefly to explore the dry docks where these boats were repaired. Here we watched a toothless old man with thick horn-rimmed glasses skillfully stitch fresh planks into the hull of a boat. He was one of the few craftsmen who still survived; a relic of a tradition, which once seemed doomed to be sucked into the whirlpool of antiquity. The revival of interest in the kettuvallom and the Kerala Backwaters as tourist attractions, however, revived and sustained this dying art of boat building.

Fittingly enough our discovery of the Backwaters started in one of these cruise boats, which we boarded, on the outskirts of Quilon, a bustling little town on the banks of the Backwaters in south Kerala.

The weather beaten 'captain' of our 'ship' welcomed us on board with a toothy grin. He understood the whims and vagaries of the Backwaters of Kerala like the proverbial back of his hand. He decided when to punt, sail or use the outboard engine. Our voyage with him was a journey into history. Before the coming of road and rail transport the Backwaters were the main arteries of Kerala on the southeast coast of India. The Kerala Backwaters provided a waterway that even the maharajas of ancient times used, their royal entourage of accompanying boats following in tow.

It was a time when cargo kettuvallom vessels laden with ivory, gold and silver, silk, rubber and spices sailed through the Kerala Backwaters for the port city of Cochin, from where they were shipped to the rest of the know world. In fact, it was Europe's search for an alternative sea route to this land of plenty that led to the discovery of the New World. 'They were looking for Cochin and they stumbled upon America,' a former mayor of Cochin informed us.

The west still seeks out the treasures of Kerala: the tranquility and peace of its Backwaters. In fact, the segment of the Kerala Backwaters between Alleppey and Kumarakom in central Kerala is most popular with tourists. The other popular and shorter option is to cruise around the bustling backwater settlements of Alleppey and Kottayam near Kumarakom. Today kettuvallom houseboats have added a new dimension to Kerala's Backawaters.

'We are the Venice of the East.' It is a refrain we heard repeatedly on our cruise into the heart of Kerala. However, we discovered that it was somewhat off the mark, for the Backwaters of Kerala are of much greater dimensions and the setting more rural than urban. The similarity, however, is that both romance the tourists.

Fact File

An overnight houseboat cruise, including all meals, is part of the Enchanting Kerala holiday package offered by Traveljini.com, India's leading travel online portal. The exotic six nights, seven days package of the southern state of India covers Cochin, the hill station of Munnar carpeted with tea plantations, the wildlife sanctuary of Periyar and Kumarakom.

Roozbegh Gazdar Content Writer http://www.traveljini.com [email protected]

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