Famed for its diversity and beauty, Kerala is one of the most charming and captivating regions in India, and is often described as ‘God’s own country’. Although many tourists are drawn to the stunning beaches and languid palms of the Malabar Coast, a visit isn’t complete without first exploring the world famous backwaters – a labyrinth of shimmering waterways, lakes and lagoons fringed with dense tropical greenery, lush paddy fields, rustic villages, temples and coconut groves.
One of the most memorable holiday experiences that India can offer is to cruise these tranquil canals on a houseboat, traditionally called a ‘Kettuvallom’. Developed at a time when railways and roads were costly to build, these time-honoured country boats were originally used for transporting consignments of rice and spices from isolated villages to major trading centres such as Cochin. Constructed by skilled carpenters who made use of local materials such as oiled jack-wood and coconut fibre ropes (coir), a thatched canopy of palm leaves was erected over a hull constructed of heavy duty wooden planks before being sealed with a long lasting resin extracted from boiled cashew kernels.
Houseboats have become a popular alternative to Kerala’s hotel and resort options, and the boats used today for tourists are innovative adaptations of these traditional ‘rice barges’. Measuring up to 100 ft in length, a number of modifications have been made including increasing the height of the roof and installing a polished wooden floor along the length of the boat. Windows and other smaller openings have also been provided for light, and to allow those on board to enjoy the views as they drift by. The boats are fitted with modern amenities with most of the latest designs offering well furnished en-suite cabins together with comfortable living spaces, kitchen areas and, in some cases, a deck balcony which is cantilevered from the hull. The crew of a houseboat also act as your guides and comprise of a helmsman (captain), an oarsman and a chef who serves delicious authentic Keralan food – often supplemented by local fishermen offering their catch for sale.
Once onboard, relax in a steamer chair as you drift past shady green palms arching over riverbanks that bustle with activity as rice is planted in fields, clothes are laundered in the gently flowing water, fishermen cast their nets and long boats laden with recent harvests glide slowly across the water. Stray water hyacinths and lavenders float by, kingfishers dart past, storks perch on the ends of poles, Brahmini eagles soar overhead, and cormorants and ducks scatter at the approach of your boat. You may wish to leave the opulence of your houseboat to visit the many quaint churches, Hindu temples and idyllic villages dotted along the banks or,on longer cruises, include other backwater experiences like fishing, going for a canoe excursion along the green creeks and wetlands, learning the process of ‘coir’ manufacture or even sampling Kerala’s most famous drink at a wayside ‘Toddy’ shop.
As dusk falls, your evening meal announces itself in warm wafts from the gallery kitchen and as the sun sets over the surface of the water, peace prevails as even the sound of the breeze and the water lapping the sides of the hull conspire to create perfection.
The natural beauty, laid-back atmosphere and charm of the backwaters is the perfect introduction to Kerala and for anyone seeking a glimpse into the true heart of this southern state, a cruise aboard your own houseboat is a must !