More beautiful than the canals in Thailand, less crowded than those in Venice, the backwaters of Kerala are a natural phenomenon that offers an enchanting experience of fun and relaxation, and a chance to see authentic Malyali life.
By Inder Raj Ahluwalia
Nature has been kind here. This is a world apart. A world of coconut trees, marshy groves, shallow lakes, deep canals, tiny shivering rivulets, and long boats. The backwater canal region is different from anything else in the Indian sub-continent. The picture that confronts the visitor is one of punted cargo boats carrying coconuts, gleaming shell, rice and pepper, and palms flanking the canals.
The region stretches for hundreds of square kilometres with a network of canals and estuaries. The canals are beautiful, their network is a marvel of nature, and the backwaters they’ve created is a different world altogether from the nearby coastline. Here, unlike places with hustle and bustle, time seems to stand still.
Amidst the general quiet, there is life. The canals are teeming with fish that can be seen jumping out of the water in a silvery arc. You steam slowly past boats laden with their assorted cargo. Intermittently, ducks surround the boats looking for food. One of the most enduring sights of the cruises is fishing nets thrust out from the banks, dipping into the water.
You can sail the backwaters in rented houseboats that are poled by local oarsmen and are simply furnished with a living room, a bedroom and bath, together with a raised central platform that creates a private sit-out for passengers.
You can also indulge in water sports like wind sailing and water-skating and sample some fresh ‘toddy’, local wine and an assortment of delicious Malyali dishes.
So just chill out, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Popular Backwater Circuits
Up in the north of Kerala, lie the cool, beautiful backwaters of Calicut (Kozhikode). North east of the city, Elathur offers an ideal jump-off base into the Canoly Canal, which links itself to the Kallai river. Further south lies Kadalundi with its bird sanctuary.
Cochin is amongst the world’s finest natural harbours. You cruise around man-made islands, and can watch the Arab dhows in the foreground, and tree-shaded buildings of spice traders and merchants, behind.
Giant Chinese fishing nets that billow from massive teak and bamboo poles, dot the entrance to the harbour. Cochin is the oldest European settlement in India, and its environment contains impressions of Chinese, Arab, Jewish, British, French, and Portuguese presence.
On the shores of Vembanad lake, 14 km from Kottayam, lies Kumarakom. A boat ride into the countryside offers a close look into the engaging rustic life, with skiff-fishermen launching their cockleshell boats, ducks waddling down to the water, women neck-deep in water searching for fish with their feet, and white lotuses in bloom in the water.
The Alleppey-Kuttanad circuit is another favourite. The sweeping network of canals honey-combing Alleppey has earned it the sobriquet ‘Venice of the East’. Small, low-slung country boats are the taxis of this water land, and the sight of them carrying a motley assemblage of cycles, fisher-women, school children, toddy-tappers, and domestic animals, never fails to excite first-time visitors.
The ride to Kuttanad through shimmering water and green paddy fields is recommended. Alleppey becomes the centre of attraction in August-September each year when it hosts the celebrated Snake Boat races – a water regatta unique to Kerala.
The charming old port city of Quilon (Kollam), on the banks of the picturesque Ashtamudi lake is another inviting gateway to the backwaters. Traces of trade with China are still seen in the form of Chinese fishing nets, Chinese water pots, blue and white porcelain, and sampan-type boats.
The regular ferry to Alleppey, a ride of over 8 hours, provides a superb backwater experience. There are also shorter cruise options in the comfort of houseboats, with idyllic villages like Alumkadavu as a launch base.
Close to Quilon lies quiet little Alumkadavu. This is the place for rides in huge barges that traditionally carried cargo across kingdoms. You pass little villages as you journey down river on these long barges.
Within hailing distance of Trivandrum is the Veli-Akkulam lagoon with a delightful waterfront park. Separated from the sea by a narrow sandbar, the lagoon offers rides in motor-driven safari launches, power boats, pedal boats and row boats.
The Great Boat Races- Once a year the backwaters come ‘alive’ with the grandest local spectacle on the waters. These are the Great Boat Races, which trace their roots to ancient naval warfare.
The biggest attractions are the Snake Boats (Chundans), 50-metre long wooden craft with stand-up sterns resembling the hood of a cobra, powered by over a hundred oarsmen. Other boats are Vepu (food boats), Odi (small raiding craft), Churulan, and Iruttukuthy.
In a display of strength and rhythm, and cheered on by thousands of spectators, the races set the otherwise serene backwaters abuzz with activity.