Houseboating on the backwaters of Kerala, India

Stuart Forster reports on the experience of houseboating on the backwaters of Kerala, India.

Stress is a distant memory as we glide, in defiance of the passage of time, in a houseboat on Kerala’s placid backwaters. For centuries people survived on board these vessels without watches, mobile phones and laptops, so for the three day duration of this trip I’ve packed mine away and pledged to undertake a digital detox by not even glancing at an electronic device.

This allows me to focus on the verdant scenery as we sail slowly southward between Kochi and Alappuzha. By road, 53 kilometres and just over an hour’s travelling time separate the two South Indian cities. Trucks now zip along carrying the locally produced goods – including rubber, rice and spices – that were once transported in these boats; vessels known as kettuvallam in Malayalam, the local language.

A history of the boats

Kettu means ‘to tie’ and vallam means ‘boat’ in our language,” explains Abhey, the easy going skipper of my boat. “Look around but you won’t find a single nail onboard,” he jokes. “These boats were made using coir rope to bind planks of jack wood. Cashews were boiled down into a black resin to treat and preserve the wood of the hull, that’s why it looks like mahogany. Some of the boats you’ll see today were afloat in my grandfather’s day.”

Over on the bank, just meters away, a man shimmies up one of the palm trees jutting out over the water’s edge. Using a sickle he harvests a bunch of pale green coconuts. On seeing me he smiles. I shout to him, asking if he has any for sale; he answers to the affirmative. Abhey steers us alongside a nearby jetty and we do business. The harvester slices into the top of a coconut and I savour the cool, mildly salty juice within. Refreshments rarely come any fresher.

We’re travelling without a motor. A crew member is propelling us with a long bamboo pole, known as a kuzhukol, just as people would have done in bygone days when these boats carried up to 30 tonnes of freight towards the region’s ports. Carrying tourists is a relatively recent development but I can see why they’ve become popular. The tranquillity allows us the listen to palm leaves rustling in the breeze and the song, screeching and warbling of every bird.

Birdlife on the backwaters

“If you enjoy bird spotting we can sail by Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary,” suggests Abhey, seeing me transfixed by the sight of a brightly coloured kingfisher perched on a waterside branch. “Early morning is the best time; that’s when the birds are most active. If you want, you can take a walk there. The sanctuary covers 14 acres, but I prefer the view from my deck. Sitting here I’ve seen teal, Siberian cranes, sea eagles and egrets. Birds fly all the way from Europe and Russia to nest at Kumarakom…just as the tourists do these days,” he adds with a toothy grin, referencing the popularity of the district’s Ayurvedic resorts, which are known for their range of massage treatments.

“We can also stop at Pathiramanal Island. That’s also good for birdwatching, with almost 100 species, depending on when you visit,” says my captain with knowledgeable enthusiasm. He tells me how the island is uninhabited these days, though fishermen lived there until the 1970s.

A motorised houseboat approaches from the opposite direction. Its high wooden prow is reminiscent of the shape of a Viking longboat and the open, straw-coloured hatches of the boat’s domed living area remind me of the gun portals on an ancient warship. The people aboard, though, are friendly, waving cheerily from seating in the open-sided, shaded area behind their captain’s wheel. While Abhey appears to be comfortable in the sun, their skipper holds a black umbrella to provide himself with respite.

Onboard decor and comfort

I’m impressed by the on board comfort level. The thatched bamboo matting of the vallavara, the dome over the bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen, is by no means indicative of simplicity within. The rooms are air-conditioned and the furnishings polished dark wood, while coir matting hints at the region’s eco-friendly heritage. Artwork depicting a colourfully made up kathakali performer stands above the wash basin, reminding me of the traditional dance-drama performance I viewed in Kochi the night before setting sail.

We navigate along a narrow channel, passing local people in front of their houses and kids playing. One lad sees an opportunity to impress us and somersaults into the water, grinning as he resurfaces. A couple of his friends leap through the air – like practitioners of kalaripayattu, the region’s ancient martial art – before splashing down and laughing.

Dinner of locally caught fish

The aroma of spices and fish cooking on shore mingles with the scent of food being prepared by our cook, Pradeep, making me peckish. He was angling earlier from the side of the boat and I’m intrigued as to whether he hooked the fish himself. Maybe our dinner was caught in one of the Chinese fishing nets that we’ve seen. The vast cantilever structures made of bamboo are operated by teams of men on the shoreline, having been introduced to Kerala by Chinese explorers in the early 15th century.

As the sky turns golden Abhey brings our boat to rest for the night and Pradeep calls us to dinner, serving delicious fish and crab dishes with white rice and flaky parottas. I’m enjoying the Keralan pace of life and feel like I have all the time in the world to enjoy the meal.

Further information

See the Kerala Tourism and Incredible India websites for more information about travel and tourism in Kerala and South India.

Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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Sunset over palm trees in Kumarakom, Kerala, India.
Sunset over palm trees in Kumarakom, Kerala, India.

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