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A DAY ON KERALA’S ENCHANTED WATERWAYS

A small house boat - Kollam

It is claimed that Kerala is the third most popular destination in the world. It has something special to woo every visitor, — from lush green forests, beautiful blue hills, superb wildlife sanctuaries to clean, golden beaches and palm fringed backwaters. My prime focus is on the placid beauty of Kerala’s southern Backwaters, which are unique and exclusive to this state. It is a luxuriantly verdant, somnolent and wet landscape which, mercifully has not yet been assailed by the style gurus, and transformed into a model of 21st century chic.

The Backwaters are instrumental in shaping the life style of its inhabitants and in addition, provide an extraordinary means of transportation. Kerala’s ancient, unusual geographical legacy has remained largely unchanged over the slow passage of many centuries. It is a labyrinth of shimmering waterways consisting of countless dreamy lagoons, gently curving waterways, wet and vividly green paddy fields, swaying palm trees, and a singularly gentle, happy people. I happily surrender to the siren song of this unique corner of India. I am equally delighted to find a conspicuous absence of the hassle and aggression that invariably confronts most tourists, in Northern India. The coastal Kerala I know is friendly, laid-back and fun, and its people have learned to harmonise with nature, and live off its generous bounty.

My cruise from Kollam to Alappuzha is a singularly exhilarating eight hours journey through places exploding in a thousand shades of green. It is my first, fascinating encounter with a verdant Venice, where nature, instead of man, has created the glory.

I hire a small houseboat, which has a single bedroom with an attached toilet and shower, an open upper deck for lounging, and a kitchenette. For company, I have two oarsmen and a cook, who minister silently and unobtrusively to my needs. On enquiry, I learn that most Kettuvalloms or houseboats, are built in the nearby boat-building town of Alumkadavu. Originally, these were used as cargo carriers, but have since been ingeniously adapted to fashion some of the most luxuriously furnished means of transport. A few of these giant crafts are 80 feet in length. Constructed with great skill and care, these houseboats consist of two bedrooms with attached bathrooms, an open lounge, a kitchenette and a crew comprising oarsmen, a cook and if required, a guide. The cuisine available on board is enriched with exotic tropical vegetables, fruits, cereals, seafood and herbs. The meals are garnished with the distinctive aroma of pepper, cardamom, chillies and cloves, — spices that lured explorers like Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama from across the seas. It is a holistic, natural fare and follows the tenets of Ayurveda, but is tailored to suit individual preferences.

Our little boat whispers through calm waters, along shallow lakes with shorelines thickly wooded with coconut palms. These are frequently dotted with cantilevered, Chinese fishing nets. I am informed that this system of fishing was imported into Kerala from China during the 13th century, while Kublai Khan’s marauding Mongols were ravaging much of Asia.

I sit on a deckchair, a straw hat shielding my eyes from the sun. The soft, soothing murmur of calm waters and swaying palms gradually unwinds my tightly coiled nerves, and I willingly surrender to the magic of the waterways. With the silent grace of a swan, our craft moves smoothly along narrow, sun-dappled canals. Through half closed eyes, I see coir, copra and cashews being loaded into boats. I watch peddlers in small canoes moving from canal to lake, to lagoon, to canal, vending their wares from house to house. I lazily observe and marvel at the picture perfect, simple and smooth lives of these happy people who fish, and play and plant and harvest and sing, in a seamless, unending cycle of simple needs and simple solutions.

A small group of children swim near the shore. They wave out to me and I wave back. I note that one of them is scarcely three years old. At my look of enquiry, one of the oarsmen laughs and remarks that here, life revolves around the water, and children learn to swim before they walk. Often they learn to manage a small boat before learning to cope with a bicycle. I laugh in response, and throw a handful of cellophane wrapt sweets, onto the shore. The children whoop in delight and scramble ashore after the goodies. I chuckle and reach for the glass of chilled beer thoughtfully placed at my elbow, by the smiling boat attendant. I convey my thanks with an appreciative smile.

While my eyes take in the rustic life passing by, my palate is pampered with backwater delicacies, by the houseboat chef. The lunch consists of kappa, meen curry and rice. The hot red fish curry with steamed tapioca is not only mouth watering, but makes my eyes water, as well. However, that does not stop me from taking a second helping. Cool, tender coconut water and a scoop of its soft white flesh, go a long way in soothing my outraged tongue. The meal is rounded off with a generous helping of payasum, a sweet, rich milk delicacy prepared with vermicelli, dried fruits in a rice paste. It is Kerala’s favourite dessert, and is prepared in scores of flavours and garnished with raisins and fried nuts. A brief half hour siesta on the deck, and I feel revitalized, with all the batteries of my body and mind fully recharged.

I find it incredible when, in quick succession, I pass a church half hidden in a thick grove of coconut palms and, barely a minute later, a temple nestling close to a mosque. I have known for a long time, but never really appreciated the fact that Kerala is a crossroads of various faiths. It is a place where Christians, Moslems and Jews planted their first markers in India. Later, I shall see a plethora of beautiful churches, mosques and temples, and in Kochi, an incredibly beautiful 16th century synagogue. It is a remarkable lesson in happy co-existence.

Evening draws near and the western sky puts on a magnificent display of colour and light as the thin, scattered clouds, are tinctured with numerous shades of gold, crimson, coral, mauve and deep blue. As the sun sets in a blaze of colour, I realise that the magic of the backwaters reaches the pinnacle of its glory, in the shimmering hours before dusk.

From somewhere not too faraway, the wind carries the rich strains of a boatman’s song. My heart joins in his song and, nursing a glass of single malt in hand, my thoughts drift in a euphoric half trance of serenity. The world prepares for the night hours as the sky reluctantly relinquishes its rich palette of colours, while the dark velvet of the night tiptoes across the firmament.

My mind is lost in wonder at the incredible numbers of stars swarming across the night sky, and my heart is overwhelmed by the lyrical sounds of the night. Stillness blends with stillness, and the darkness whispers to itself. I feel overwhelmed by a sense of intense serendipity within and around me, as I continue my enchanted voyage.

Life can be so simple. And beautiful.

© DON ALNEY

Website  www.donalney.com

Facts File

GETTING THERE:

By Air: Airports at Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode link Kerala nationally and internationally.

By Rail: Connections are available from all important cities in India.

By Road: Services from all tourist centres in India. The Kerala Road Transport Corporation and private bus services provide transportation to just about anywhere in Kerala.

BOAT TRIPS

The normal State ferry leaves Kollam for Alappuzha daily. The State Water Transport Service Ferry also departs from Kollam at the same time.

For those who desire more space on board, the Alappuzha Tourism Development Co-operative Society operates boats that leave on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The backwater trip starts in the morning. It takes a little over eight hours. Shorter trips are also organised from Kochi.

SHOPPER’S PARADISE

Kerala’s unique shopping offers include the renowned Aranmula mirrors. These are fashioned out of metal and produced at Arunmula, a small town near Alappuzha. The mirrors are made with a special alloy of copper, brass, lead and bronze. Once upon a time, these were an essential part of royal households. However, today these ornamental mirrors are rare, and only two artisans and their families still make these priceless objects de art.

Other souvenirs include carved wooden figurines, bell-metal products, handicrafts, coir-products, and antique arts including paintings, brassware and wood works.

While shopping, do not forget to nibble at the piping hot banana chips sold straight from the frying pan, and available at most roadside kiosks.