The Backwaters is a coastal area of about 75 kms that stretches from Kollam in the south to Kochi in the north. The areas bordering the Vembanad Lake south of Kochi is where the Kumarakom Backwaters lie quietly. This part of the backwaters is commonly called the Kuttanad region. As I understand, this unique region of India, and probably the world, is due to the fact that it lies below sea level. As such sea water from the Arabian Sea flows into it. Rivers of the land lose themselves into the backwaters. People inhabit little islets and narrow spits of land surrounded by vast and seemingly endless stretches of water. The waves of the sea are present but quite subdued in the backwaters. Where water and land meet, picturesque churches and rural villages dot the scenes. At places, the quintessential Chinese fishing nets of Kochi are seen poised in midair for another dip and for another catch. In the background are coconut palms adding canopies of greenery. The backwaters is a beautiful landscape that supports not just local populations but lots of unique flora and fauna.
I discovered all this and more after a whole day on the backwaters. More precisely, I have travelled on the calm waters for four hours and forty five minutes. Anything longer would have been boring but I have enjoyed most of it. While wealthy Indians and foreign tourists lounged in floating verandahs, I have done the whole thing with just twenty four rupees. It is amazing how much you can see with so little. But now I have to describe in detail every step and paddle of the experience.
Kottayam was only a night stop for me. I have read that there is a boat in the morning that leaves Kottayam to Alleppey. This would be good way to start my experience of the backwaters. Unlike special houseboats or canoes that are usually hired by tourists, this is a boat used by locals to get across the backwaters. I think it’s not only suitable for my budget but also the best way to imbibe the way of life around here. At 7 am I am at the ferry departure point. There is nothing fanciful here. The waterway is a narrow canal. As canals come, it is quite basic. There is no tow path. There are no locks along its length. It is simply an inlet of the wider backwaters giving access to the people of Kottayam.
‘There is no boat,’ tells me a guy. I see him repairing his three-wheeled auto-rickshaw.
‘What do you mean? I thought there is a boat leaving at half-seven for Alleppey,’ I ask half disappointed.
‘The boat left at 6 am.’
‘When is the next boat?’
‘There is one at 11.30 am.’
What am I to do for four and half hours? The fault is really mine. I had read that the first boat from Alleppey to Kottayam is at 7.30 am. I had assumed it would be the same in the returning route. I return to Kottayam town and board a bus to Kumarakom. Near Kumarakom there is a bird sanctuary. I am not sure how to get to it. I’ll have to check it out when I get there.
At Kumarakom, I get off the bus and within a few paces I spot a canal. There are no boats and there is no one waiting for one. Just then it starts to rain. Within minutes it’s a torrential downpour. I sit under a shelter and watch the ripples on the waterway. A little bridge spans the canal. Occassionally a vehicle goes across the bridge. If I had read that one can relax on the backwaters, I have found a whole new meaning to it. I haven’t even stepped on a boat but I can already sense that this is rural Kerala. Life here is laidback and unhurried.
At half eight, the rain abates to a drizzle. A local fisherman paddles along in his wooden canoe. The day may be dull and the sky overcast but the surrounding greenery and monsoon moods more than make up for it. Five minutes later a woman appears and joins me. Apparently there is a boat. She thinks it’s at half eight but she’s not sure. Five more minutes, two guys join us. I am really beginning to think that they may be a boat. Finally a boat does pull up at ten minutes past nine. The stern is tied to two dead tree trunks. It then manoeuvred to make a 180 degree turn. It is now ready for boarding for the return journey. Where is it going? Apparently some place named Muhamma which isn’t even listed on my map.
The journey on the canal is very short. Soon we are on the wide waters. The motorboat is noisy but the noise of the engine is strangely comforting. It is comforting to know that this is India, the engine is working and we are not going to drown. It is also comforting to know that the boat is not crowded.
I see some fishermen busy this morning. In the shallow waters near the edges of the lake, they usually punt with long poles. In the deeper waters they take to rowing. In one case, a small sail was attached to the fishing boat. These fishermen work alone. Their small boats are tied to poles fixed to the ground. They throw their little nets attached to hoops on wooden poles. If they use canoes, these are not for deeper waters. Canoes are the best means to negotiate small canals and go under short footbridges.
I pass many leisure houseboats built in the Keralan style. These boats are made of bamboo splits, coconut thatch and coir ropes. In general, there is a verandah at the bow. At the stern, attendants cook meals. In between are rooms fitted with modern furniture and amenities. Some are air-conditioned. Large boats have two decks. There are even corridors at the sides and windows beautifully framed with canework. This sort of a boat is called kettu vellam.
At Muhamma, I stand undecided. This journey has taken me 45 minutes. Should I return to Kottayam via Kumarakom to catch the 11.30 am boat to Alleppey? Or should I take a shorter route to Alleppey? I decide on the latter and start walking towards the main road. I pass a church. I notice that it has a dwajastambha in the likes of Indian temples. The difference is that the shining pole is topped with a cross. This is yet another application of local traditional to imported beliefs.
I reach Alleppey early enough to start planning for another boat ride. I can see that this is the heartland of the backwaters. Along the main canal are lots of boats moored along the sides. The water isn’t clean and the place stinks. This is hardly what one would imagine of a popular tourist destination. Yet, this is the kind of thing you expect in India. After so much travelling across India, surprises are few.
There are two large boats ready to depart. I enquire. One of them is leaving right now for Nedumudy. It’s a ride of 90 minutes. I hop on. Tickets are usually purchased on the boat. Again the boats are not overcrowded. So it’s safe to ride them. Usually five men are required to operate a boat which has a capacity of hundred. At the bow, within a separate cabin sits the man who does the steering. At around the center of the boat is the engine and it is operated by the engineer. He is also incharge of ringing the bell just before the boat is pulled off the jetty. There is a conductor whose job, other than collecting fares, is to maintain detailed records of ticket serial numbers at every stage of the trip. All three are dressed in navy blue uniforms. Two attendants dressed in khaki do the job of manoeuvring the boats in and out of the jetties. They also assist passengers to get on or off. The whole operation is structured and well-staffed. Each one’s job is coordinated with another’s. These boats form an important part of Kerala’s state transport.
The ride to Nedumudy turns out to be lot more intimate. Much of it is along narrow waterways lined with coconut palms, pretty churches and village settlements. A temple dedicated to Kannathu Devi passes by at Kainakary. Foreigners get off at some busy church. I see women washing clothes or men bathing by the margins. The boat does a zigzap trip along the backwaters, stopping once at the left bank and next at the right bank. These boats are used by locals to cross the waters even if it’s just a stone’s throw away.
At Nedumudy I look around for a place for lunch. There is nothing in this village. I buy a packet of tapioca chips. Kerala is famous for all sorts of chips – banana chips, jackfruit chips, tapioca chips, to name a few. I wait around for half an hour nibbling and cruching hard tapioca chips. In time, I get a boat bound for Chambakulam. This ride takes half an hour. At Chambakulam is a fantastic church. I guess it is more the setting of it rather than anything else that makes it interesting. The interiors are boring. I take a short walk along the backwaters. By now I am rather tired of riding the boats. The initial excitement and novelty is gone. Swaying leaves of banana trees catch the afternoon light. In a light breeze they make their translucent dances.
Boats are few but I am lucky. I get a boat going straight to Alleppey. School children board the boat on their way home. A mother rushes along with her baby to catch the boat. If she had missed, it would have been a long tiring wait. When I thought I had seen enough, I catch sight of the original kettu vellam. What is today the popular houseboat for tourists was once really a rice barge, a sheltered boat used to transport grain from place to place. Such a boat is made in the traditional way of just natural materials without using metal frames or glass windows. In fact, there are no windows or corridors. At the back is a sturdy flap that can be opened for access. Inside, I guess, it is just a single large space for storage.
One thing about the backwaters is that presence of the African moss. They seem to be taking over the waterways. They clog access to narrow canals. They have colonized large swaths of waters, in a way suffocating the fish living underneath. They are a true threat to the ecological balance of the region. With global warming and predicted rise in sea levels, it is quite possible that the backwaters may be lost forever in the coming decades.
The African moss has completely clogged many of the canals of Alleppey. One look at the state of these canals, it’s hard to believe why people call Alleppey ‘Venice of the East.’
‘They cleaned it some years ago but no one is maintaining the canals,’ comments a retired officer of the Indian Air Force living in Alleppey. ‘The moss has grown back again. Alleppey used to be beautiful once.’
I met Noel Chandy simply by chance. I asked him how to get to the beach and he volunteered to give me a ride since he lives near the beach.
‘I joined the Air Force at seventeen, served for sixteen years, then worked in the Middle East for another sixteen,’ he looks back on his life. ‘I have three daughters and six grandchildren. My life is over.’
I am dropped off at the beach, which happens to be a long way from where I am put up for the night. As he takes his leave, he adds, ‘You know Thomas Chandy at Hosmat Hospital in Bangalore? He is a famous ortho who consults for the Indian cricket team. He is my cousin.’
The beach at Alleppey has broad sands and stretches a long way. I quite like it. A derelict Victorian pier is the only reminder of a colonial past. It stands as a neglected eyesore to a landscape otherwise dominated by nature. The sunset this evening is not brilliant in oranges and yellows. It is the other end of the spectrum in all shades of blue. I like it for what it is. The waves are small and silent. The mood is magical and special. A little beyond are beaches used by local fishermen. Stray dogs are a problem at this time and I quickly leave the beach for the safety of the road.
Dinner at Indian Coffee House turns out to be a disappointment. Everything is stale and cold. Usually this establishment is renowned for its service and quality but I guess when the crowds come in things start to go wrong. After dinner I walk the long way back to my basic accommodation. Traffic in Alleppey is a mess. They haven’t heard of traffic lights yet. At intersections, it is free for all. Walking these roads at night is a problem. Crossing them is much worse. It takes me nearly an hour to get back to my room. Worse still, the dinner is making me feel rather unwell.