Kerala: Backwaters And A Kettuvallom Ride

A holiday in Kerala is incomplete without a trip to its lovely backwaters. By Deeya Nayar-Nambiar

We were in a celebratory mood. A wedding in the family had taken us to Kerala and it was natural that we would also take time off for soaking in at least a slice of God’s own country. A quick Internet search helped us zero in on Ashtamudi, the second largest backwater lake in Kerala. Who would want to miss the backwaters, a combination of canals, estuaries, deltas of rivers and lakes that flow into the Arabian Sea?

Ashtamudi, as its name suggests, means eight branches in Malayalam. Designated a wetland in the international records, the lake with its unique biodiversity is said to have an area of 37 square kilometres. This interesting backwater lake, indeed a tourist delight, is in the Kollam district of Kerala. Kollam, better known for its internationally acclaimed saint Mata Amritanandamayi, is one of the ancient port towns identified by Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta during their travels in India. Known more as the hub of the cashew industry, Quilon, as it was known as earlier, is a great pilgrimage centre.

We began our day by visiting places of tourist interest near Kollam. You can make time for a five kilometres drive from Kollam to Thangassery, a seaside village, a charmer in its own term. The sight seeing trip includes the famous lighthouse, the ruins of an old Portuguese fort and an 18th century church that reinstates the influence of western culture in the life style of people. Similarly, a visit to Alumkadauv near Kollam gives an interesting ‘preview’ of the construction of modified ketuvallom (house boats), once used to transport goods. Keeping with the trends and demands of tourists, the district has several water theme parks and ayurvedic massage parlours. But there’s nothing like Thirumullavaram Beach and the Ashtamudi lake. Though it was easy to travel by speed boat, we chose to drive down to get the feel of the place. The scenic journey takes you through a simple village with grazing cows, little urchins playing around, and women drawing water from the well. After ages we got a chance to see a real village!

The city still has some of the very traditional houses, the joint households known as tarawads, with low sloping roofs, woodwork and brick walls, made to match the climatic conditions of Kerala. In fact with the growing interest in tourism, some of these tarawads, are being refurbished to accommodate tourists, especially foreigners who want to stay in an authentic Kerala homestead. The trip is incomplete without a boating trip round the lake, especially on a kettuvallom, a houseboat that’s been a part of Kerala’s culture. The modified houseboats are renewed to meet the comfort needs of tourists. In fact these goods carriers were transformed and given eco-friendly designs with the accommodation facilities by an entrepreneur to promote tourism. Made of wooden body, bamboo and coir roof, the kettuvallom is powered by a motor but for lighting still retains the lantern of yore. A sample of tradition in modernity!

The houseboat we hired for the day reminded me of a one-bed room flat in Mumbai: a small kitchen, a bedroom with attached toilet, a spacious living-cum-dining room, followed by a stairs that lead to a balcony on the deck. Though it was warm, the breeze kept the temperature comfortable. The backwaters known for its calm splashed in a friendly manner, making the boat glide and sway a little.

The land along the lake side was nicely bordered by the wet sand and coconut palms, making it appear rich and prosperous from a distance. As the boat glided past, we could see the church through the coconut grove and a little further the chimney of the brick kiln. At the lake we spotted some folks dredging shellfish by hand. We were told that the shell minus the organism is later burnt in coal to produce lime. The villages surrounding the lake bustled with businesses. The coconut husks were immersed in the lake and kept netted some for many months to be softened and processed into coir. It was just like an industry visit, as we could see women busy working, removing fibre from the softened husks to be woven into coir.

As we sailed, we observed the prominently built Chinese fishing nets or cheena vala. In this unique fishing technique, installed on land, at least 10m with an outstretched net suspended over the lake or sea, is operated by a team of at least six fishermen. The installation has large stones suspended from the rope to maintain the balance, which is used to pull the net immersed in the lake or sea. It is made in such a way that the weight of the fisherman walking on the main beam is sufficient to descend the net. Their magnificent size, shape and elaborate but slow rhythm of operation naturally attracts spectators. This is indeed a marvellous sight that represents Kerala’s trade connection with China and its glorious past.

The lake has several natural islands. Some are inhabited and the locals use valloms (country boats) as their personal transport. The main source of income is duck-rearing. Some other islands appeared abandoned with a few unhealthy coconut palms battling it out with what looked like mangroves. A journey without getting to enjoy the food is meaningless and Kerala’s cuisine tickles the palate, even if it is just a morsel. We finished our sumptuous breakfast of appam and egg curry, a hot favourite that was served in the houseboat. In the restaurants at the lakeside, one can explore a vast selection from Kerala’s besides the ubiquitous kababs and Chinese delicacies.

April is off-season in tourism lingo, but for us it was the best time. For a change the heat and humidity of Kerala seemed a blessing in disguise. With royalty we got treated, and the grandeur of family get together is being cherished as an Ashtamudi ketuvallom family.

By Deeya Nayar-Nambiar; Copyright ©2006, Published in BTW, Chitralekha Publication 17 July 2006

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