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Gently Down the Stream

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Life along the backwaters unravels as though there was nothing unusual about the setting. Children with satchels strapped to their backs skip nimbly over log bridges on their way to school. Men paddle by in carved out canoes laden with rich harvests of bananas, coconuts and farm produce. Large spider-like Chinese fishing nets strain the water for its riches… The sight of schools and churches, a hospital with a water ambulance parked at its jetty, police petrol boats and thatched-hut provision shops along the banks testified to the ingenuity of the backwater community. ‘We are the Venice of the East.’ You will hear the phrase often enough in Kochi, Alleppey, Quilon, Kottayam, Kumarakom and all along the 1,500 km network of canals, estuaries and lakes that comprise the backwaters. And one of the best ways to explore this vast waterway is in a luxury houseboat grafted onto a traditional cargo boats know locally as kettuvalloms. These boats are what their name suggest: kettu in Malayalam means to tie and vallom means boat. The kettuvallom is a boat made of wooden planks stitched or tied together by rope.

Before the coming of road and rail transport, these waterways were the main arteries of the region. It was a time when kettuvalloms, laden with ivory, gold and silver, silk, rubber and spices sailed for the port city of Kochi from where they were shipped to the rest of the known 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 stumbled on the Americas.

Even today, the backwaters attract explorers from around the world, though those who come here now are not seeking new lands but a holiday experience that is unique. For Kerala’s Backwaters are in a constant flux where one can catch a glimpse of the drama of everyday life in India: simple, uncomplicated and fascinating as it unraveled against the backdrop of lush vegetation, a virtual riot of green.

Women washing utensils, the sapphire flash of a kingfisher, buffalos being ferried across the waters, the faithful in their brightest Sunday best streaming out of a chapel along the banks, the silhouette of a toddy tapper scaling up a palm tree, fishermen repairing their nets, thatched cargo boats with sails unfurled and laden with the wind… It is a timeless world of unhurried activity.

Fact File The backwaters of Kerala stretch from Kochi all the way down to Quilon. There are smaller backwaters at Kovalam/Trivandrum in the south and Calicut in the north.

Some of the more popular backwater cruises start at Alleppey and go to Quilon in the south and Kumarakom and Kottayam on the far bank of Vembanad Lake. Indeed, from Kottayam one can proceed by road to Periyar game reserve. Since house boats cannot enter many of the narrow waterways within Alleppey and Kottayam, one must hire smaller motorboats by the hour to explore these settlements.

Most houseboats have two bedrooms (some have five bedrooms and a few are even air-conditioned) with attached baths and flush toilets. They also have a small kitchen at the back of the boat where fresh meals are prepared by the houseboat attendant. Houseboats can be rented by the day or for half day and full day cruises.


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