Kerala’s network of picturesque backwaters offers a fascinating prism to experience the state’s natural beauty and culture.
The soft hum of the boat engine, shimmering waters, blue sky, views of vegetation and fields along the banks, and a gentle breeze magically cast a spell on passengers as they languidly sail down the famed backwaters of Kerala. Each arcing turn of a water channel, hemmed by palms and trees, offers yet another soothing view of water and verdure making the cruise seem like a mid-summer afternoon dream. And wisps of life, on and by the side of these scenic backwaters, add charming vignettes to the dreamy vistas.
A Living Legend
Perhaps the images are truly facets of a living legend: mythology states that eons ago the warrior sage Parasurama, revered as the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, threw his axe across the sea, causing it to retreat and leave behind a strip of land. And thus emerged a beautiful narrow, long, leaf-shaped land, reclaimed from the sea, that is we know as present day Kerala! And over time, the labyrinth of backwaters across its landscape became its heartbeat.
While other regions in the country have streets and roads that connect villages, towns and cities, these beautiful waterways spread a network of broad and narrow arteries that have long ferried people and goods, nourished life and culture. Fortyfour rivers flow through Kerala; linked by channels, these rivers feed the backwaters. And as these channels also connect scenic streams, vast lakes, placid lagoons and restive estuaries, they create a wonderful system of waterways.
A Lifeline of the People
So when it came to travel, the people simply turned to these backwaters, often almost at their doorsteps, to journey and transport goods. “The backwaters were and are a lifeline of the people. They stretch across about 900 kilometres and cover an estimated 25,000 hectares. The backwaters were once so connected that it was possible to travel the length of Kerala by boat”, says Motty Matthew, Owner, Kayaloram Heritage Lake Resort, credited with starting the first backwater resort in Kerala. Matthew recalls seeing sailboats ferrying people, rice, spices, coconuts and other local produce from inland villages to towns or ports. “In the 1950s, cargo barges called kettuvallams and passenger boats were fitted with engines. Then, as the road network picked up in the state and bridges were built, some of the cargo barges that were idle were converted into houseboats for tourists. Their popularity, in turn, led to the idea of starting resorts by the backwaters”. And in this way, the houseboats that once transported rice and spices now ply powered by motors; their oncesimple interiors are modified to incorporate rooms with attached bathrooms as well as a viewing deck; and their passengers are tourists from across the world eagerly soaking in every moment of the cruise.
A Fascinating Cruise
Setting off on a cruise on a houseboat, one is privy to the rhythm of life on the banks and on the waters. For along the banks are houses, Ayurveda centres, churches, temples, schools, resorts, paddy fields, coconut groves… that buzz with the easy pace of rural life. And on the waters are a variety of boats from rafts manoeuvred with a simple bamboo pole and small canoes rowed with oars to motor boats conveying local residents, tourist houseboats, and boats laden with local produce and goods. In this idyllic yet dynamic picture, one may spot a flock of cormorants settling on trees, a kingfisher flying by, lotus flowers and water lilies bobbing on the water, a clutch of Chinese fishing nets edging a bank, men nimbly climbing coconut trees, people working in the paddy fields, and children swimming near the banks. Winters are particularly rewarding for birdwatchers as a host of migratory birds, escaping the cold of northern regions, descend on the backwaters; the meeting of the seawater that flows inward with the river water fosters a unique eco-system that harbours a variety of natural life and attracts migratory birds.
A Flavour of the Land
For travellers who believe that travel means savouring local cuisine, the houseboats ensure a culinary flavour of the countryside. The welcome drink often is the perfect thirst quencher: tender coconut water with scoops of melt-in-the-mouth ‘cream’ of the coconut, and the meals typically present a choice of local specialities such as tapioca, fish curry, rice, lentils, vegetable stew, appams, chicken curry, seafood dishes, and warm sweet payasam, a rice and milk sweet dish. Mid-morning and late evening means it is time for tea and snacks like dal-vadas and banana chips. As the day fades, houseboats dock for the night, and one can relax to the murmurs of the waves, the beauty of a star-studded sky and a breeze rustling through the trees. Another option is staying the night at a resort by the backwaters and continuing the Kerala experience (of an Ayurveda treatment, watching a local performing art like Kathakali, Kalaripayattu, and/or Mohiniyattam, and having a hearty breakfast of local specialities the next morning) on land before stepping on the houseboat. And then once again, one blissfully submits to the lure of the cool breeze, the song of birds, the music of waves, the shaded tunnels of coconut fronds… and drifts into the embrace of the beatific backwaters.
Written By: Brinda Gill