Swinging on a hammock between two coconut trees along the hyacinth-filled edge of a lake in Kerala, India, my travel companion, Robert Agnew, voiced both of our thoughts: “I could really learn the true lifestyle of relaxed living on these kettuvallams (house boats),” as a similar boat passed right through the setting sun.
The courtyard of the Kumarakom Lake Resort was shimmering in the early morning sunlight, which filtered through the tall coconut palms. The manicured garden, with a quaint river intersecting the cottages and lake, was like a picture postcard scene. Orchid petals glowed, while the morning birds played a symphony to awaken the leaves from their night’s sleep. Leaning onto the rosewood carved pillars, our guide Sabu enquired, “Shall we proceed?”
A few kilometers away from the comforts of the lake resort, Meenachil River flows east to west joining Vembanad Lake, the longest lake in India. I settled inside the half foot-wide wooden plate of Sabu’s canoe, which we would take for an excursion off the houseboat. As Sabu dug deep with his pole vault-like bamboo stick to push the canoe against the flow of river, I got busy sighting my colorful winged friends: Brahminy kite, jacana, kingfisher, cormorants, and crimson-throated barbets. My Nikon camera roved the distances, capturing the serenity of the quaint waters. It was a wonderful experience to see birds up close without disturbing the environment. At one point, I was about three feet away from a white-throated kingfisher, so close that I couldn’t focus my camera. In about three hours, I had seen over 25 species of birds.
Exploring the backwaters of Kerala in a kettuvallam is one of life’s most exquisite experiences. Sandwiched between the sea and the hills, hundreds of canals, lagoons, lakes, estuaries, and deltas of 46 rivers make up the backwater network that stretches 180 kilometers from north to south and includes 900 kilometers of navigable waterways. Hundreds of villages run along the banks between paddy fields and canals; all travel is by water transport. People paddle their family canoes to intersections with bigger canals, which have regular passenger services.
Hopping onto one of the kettuvallams, I was transported into a different world. From the palm tree rich banks of Kumarakom, we headed to the tranquil and serene surroundings of Alappuzha, the houseboat capital. The overhead sun didn’t bother us much, though our captain, Anthony, steered the wheel with one hand and held a big red umbrella with the other. As I sat drinking yet another tender coconut drink, Anthony noted, “Kettuvallams can be as long as 30 meters, with three bedrooms and a top-story viewing deck.” Ours was one bedroom with a big verandah.
Another remarkable highlight of traveling in Kerala is the opportunity to savor an assortment of traditional breakfast foods. Steaming idiappam, idli, avial and medu vada … with the list of delicacies is longer than the meandering river. We stopped at Ettukettu, a regal restaurant featuring reconstructed rosewood and teak high beams, which speak volumes about the luxury and legacy of the erstwhile rich Namboodris.
The panoramic vistas kept changing regularly. Often it was a green world: shady green palms arching over the canals, emerald green rice fields beyond, and a rich velvety green of mossy banks. A footpath ran the length of the canal in front of the houses, each with stone steps leading into the water where women wash and do laundry. The men I observed stood with their newspapers under their arms, folding their white mundus to knee length. Children as always, waved exuberantly at the passing boats.
The houseboat then eased from a small canal into a large lake, and we saw the wide open blue skies, the silver blue of shining water, and the shadowy blue of distant hills. In the midst of all this, I was again served a sumptuous meal: a feast of pumpkin curry, daal, long beans cooked in coconut cream, okra and onion, and a beautifully dressed salad. Dessert was a traditional vermicelli paysam mixed with cashew nuts and grapes. With the soft breeze, great food, and a comfortable mattress under the shadow of a bamboo roof, there was no way I could escape a comfortable siesta.
As day transformed into evening, the setting sun at the far end of the lake drew a colorful canvas. For the photographer in me, it was just sheer delight to click away those majestic moments. As though in a film, another kettuvallam passed through the setting sun, making it one of the endearing shots of the trip.
Though one can stay comfortably on a houseboat overnight, I opted to spend the night at the Kumarakom Resort. Over dinner, we witnessed a colorful and captivating kathakali performance. To the rhythmic beats of the drums, the kathakali dancers enacted a chapter from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharat, with exceptional control of their eyes and facial expressions.
The next morning, I woke to the symphony of birds and decided to stroll along the banks of the Vembanad. A strong cup of morning chai pepped me for a cycle ride through the neighboring village. At first glimpse, I was overwhelmed by the simplicity and beauty of the people and their lifestyle: spick and span roads, neatly swept courtyards, immaculately dressed children on their way to school, busy women, and men lazing around, showing off their tanned muscular bodies. Everything seemed different from the life that I have been used to. The vegetation and greenery was astounding, and it truly seemed to me that Kerala is God’s Own Country.
Afterward, it was time to rejuvenate with Kerala’s famous ayurvedic massage. I recalled a line I had read earlier, “Ayurveda works from the outside in. Yoga works from the inside out. Both in harmony work toward the wholeness of being.” The exotic herbs and oils from organic and natural sources were definitely blissful and helped nourish and revitalize the entire body.
A visit to Kumarakom provides a window onto the traditional lifestyle of the people of Kerala. You can delight in the picturesque landscape, green paddy fields, swaying coconut palms, waterways, and rich cultural heritage of the state. Added incentives include handicrafts and the sumptuous local food.
D.K. Bhaskar is an engineer, writer, and documentary photojournalist. His award-winning work has been published around the world, and he is presently working on a project capturing the lost cultures of Southeast Asia.