No trip to Kerala is complete without a visit to its unique backwaters and it is quite fitting that the state’s vibrant self supporting ecosystem should be showcased first in this series. An intricate labyrinth of brackish lagoons, inlets, 5 large lakes, 38 rivers and interconnected canals, Kerala backwaters are simply mind blowing. The system is formed by Arabian Sea waves and shore currents and spreads over half the state of Kerala. Important National Waterways ply in this region and the landscape is puddled with palm tree-fringed rice paddies, spice trading towns and villages. Many unique species of crabs, frogs, mudskippers, birds such as terns, kingfishers, darters and cormorants otters and turtles inhabit the backwaters and palm, pandanus and other leafy plants create cool green channels to the unique watery landscape.
Technically speaking, Kerala backwaters can be divided into many regions among which the Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam district, Vembanad in Allepey, Kottayam and Ernakulam area, and Kannur-Valiyaparambu Backwaters are most popular. Many islands dot the backwater and the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is also located here. The most popular way of enjoying the emerald green backwaters of Kerala is on a kettuvallams or a traditional Kerala house boat. Traditionally used as grain barges, kettuvallams are postcard subjects of Incredible India and Kerala tourism advertisement campaigns and the local government has classified them into platinum, gold and silver categories. In olden days the kettuvallams used to transport rice grown in the paddy fields along the backwaters and the unique design of their thatched roof covers had protected the grains from natural elements. Today, they provide excellent overnight cruises for tourists and complete with staff, sleeping, dining quarters and western style bathrooms, the kettuvallams are equivalent of floating hotels/guesthouses.
Although, it is a great way of enjoying the region’s bucolic way of life, there is more to the backwaters than cruising on a barge. The possibility of exploring the green channels on a local boat, kayak or a motorboat is also there and I had found canoeing along the sleepy tree shaded tunnels to be immensely satisfying. Once away from the populated tourist circuits, the backwaters fan out in thousands of labyrinths and I had slowly canoed down those less trodden lanes to take in Kerala’s idyllic rural beauty. Life along the backwaters is highly interesting and the amount and styles of boats plying those channels is of staggering proportion. From bowl shaped coracles, wooden motor boats, small paddle boats and palm trunk dugout canoes, life on Kerala’s backwaters move on these contraptions and fishing is the primary occupation of most. In fact, fishermen/women and fish sellers are the most common sights along the residential areas of the backwaters and in some places, reverberating calls of the hawkers had disturbed noisy birds out of thick groves of palm trees. Palm trees are also quintessential backwater sights and from being tapped for toddy, used as thatched roofs, to small crossover bridges, these swaying trees of life are mainstays of Keralite rural life.
My forays into Kerala’s backwaters had included Allepey, Kuttanad, Ashtamudi and small inlets at Kasargod. While, one trip had been on a family houseboat of a friend, the others had been on my trusty canoe and I had spent more than a week exploring the leafy green tunnels. Those had been very tranquil days, when I had paddled out before daybreak with toddy tappers clinging onto skinny trunks, had breakfasts at small family run eateries on the bank in the middle of somewhere and slowly traversed the watery lanes with kingfishers, dropping coconuts and frangipani blossoms. Lunches had also been at one of the mom and pop food joints, where fiery curries had made my eyes water and golden pre sunset lights had ushered me back to my homestay by the water. Nights at the traditional homestay had been tranquil too, with nothing much to do after dinner and I had been lulled to sleep with sounds of rippling water, frogs and owls.
Kerala backwaters had indeed been a place like no other on earth and its fantastic mix of rustic beauty along with the verdant greenery had been soul soothing. If I were to head back to Kerala again, the backwaters is one place where I would return happily.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE