Kerala tourism is catching on everywhere, first is Ayurveda and the second is its natural beauty and rustic experiences. The rest of it simply follows while you are there taking in these experiences.
Photo from Flickr
Nature has always been attractive to any human being and humans, although a part of it, try to fight against its tide most of the same time! So when you place a city bloke who has seen only concrete pavements and lived in cemented jungles, on an island surrounded by natural beauty for just a few days, he would but naturally return feeling more energized and less stressed than before.
Well, Kerala does that to you. Whether you book yourself into a hotel or resort or decide to stay at some of the home-stays or just plan on huddling together at your friend’s place, there are some experiences you cannot but live through. A cruise on the backwaters is one of them.
How were the backwaters formed?
Like Venice which was created by the hand of nature and the intellect of man, Kerala too has a network of man-made and natural lakes and salty lagoons interconnected by canals and fed by 38 rivers to create a labyrinth of waterways that stretch along 900 kilometers passing through towns and cities which have over the years become the starting and ending point of backwater cruises. Many of the rivers flowing down the ranges of the Western Ghats have low barrier islands that have been formed by the shore currents and waves and the backwaters were created as a result of this. The backwaters showcase a unique ecosystem where freshwater meets seawater from the Arabian Sea. However in some places like Kumarakom, the freshwater has been separated from sea water by barrages to be used for irrigation purposes.
Regions for backwater cruises
Allepey, also called the Venice of the East, is the most visited town for those interested in taking a backwater cruise but as I mentioned, the network of interconnecting canals, rivers and inlets helps you board at various towns in the state. Places like Kumarakom, Kollam, Kuttanad, Kozhikode, Kottayam, etc. are other regions having the facility for backwater cruises as well. The Vembanad Lake which is one of the largest lakes here and the longest in India feeds the backwaters of Allepey, Kottayam and Ernakulam.
When we decided to take the backwater cruise, we were directed to Allepey but on reaching there and seeing the million odd boats on the waters with all expectant eyes on tourists like us, we got a bit intimidated and decided to move on to Kumarakom where the hotel arranged for a backwater cruise. It is therefore best to book in advance if you plan on Allepey as your destination for backwater cruises especially to have the authentic houseboat experience.
The houseboats are large boats measuring almost 100 feet in length and resemble a thatched roof hut set atop the boat. Traditionally these kettuvallams as they are locally called were used to transport rice grains harvested in the surrounding fields, over the backwaters. They were also used by the royalty in Kerala as a summer retreat. Today, there are almost 2000 houseboats floating on the backwaters of Kerala and they are either used by families or groups who hire them privately or as ferries to transport the locals across the waters. The more sophisticated ones have a living cum dining room, bedroom with audio-video equipment, western style toilets, and a sit out on the deck to enjoy a calm evening on the waters. Most of the bedrooms are air conditioned and there is a mobile kitchen with a chef and his assistant on board serving out some really authentic local delicacies of seafood.
The houseboats ply on the water through the day slowly in order to take in the sights and sounds around. As you cruise along, you would see tiny hamlets and houses of villagers living by the shores and little children waving out as they crossed over the tiny bridges built over the two sides of the narrow waterways. All of a sudden you would find yourself in the vastness of the lake before the boat takes another narrow path.
At sundown, the houseboats come to a standstill after which they anchor there the entire night on the water. The stillness of the night is calming and the only sight you would see are the neighboring boats with their lights throwing their reflections off the surface of the water. After enjoying a sumptuous meal, you could sit out on the deck and watch for movements on the water. Flying foxes whizzing past you are probably the only ones that may unnerve you and shake you out of your reverie but after a while even they fade away into the stillness of the night. You wake up the next morning after a restful night and set off towards land once again.
You may also choose to take the day trips of the backwaters that take you for about 2 hours through the narrow canals shaded by drooping trees and tall grass. These trips are best taken after lunch hour when the sun is not very harsh. You would notice kingfishers swooping down for their catch and we even managed to see about 15 locals all balancing on a narrow kayak sort of a boat. I wondered how they managed to attain the perfect center of gravity!
Kumarakom was a good choice for us to experience the backwaters. It is a cluster of tiny little islands and nature seemed so much in harmony with man and his actions. The resorts are breathtaking and the experiences they provide included crossing a tree trunk bridge, tasting the local toddy or kallu, eating fish curry and kappa (tapioca), fishing on the lake, watching a potter make his clay pots and so much more.
At the end of it, there was so much that we had done and experienced but more that we carried back with us as memories to be relived another day in future. The backwaters of Kerala would always call us back.