No holiday to Kerala would be complete without a journey across the backwaters. A uniquely discerning feature of Kerala, the backwaters have captured the imaginations of tourists from across the globe with its remarkable scenic beauty and inimitable personality.
While theories abound as to the origin of these distinctive waterways, popular legend will have us believe that the affronted rage of the warrior sage Parashurama provoked him into throwing his mighty battle-axe into the sea. The land which arose, was the land he claimed as Kerala and hence the abundance of inland rivers. History attributes the formation of the backwaters to the great flood of 1866 AD which silted up old harbors and led to the formation of lagoons. The lagoons became essential links between the land and the sea, and the waterways that evolved gradually took on the role of highways. Over the years, an entire ethos has blossomed along these waterways.
Life along the backwaters
Although Kerala has an elegant coastline that stretches over 900 kms, the backwaters of Kerala comprise over 1900 kms of gently undulating rivers. These emerald waters have become a way of life for the people living along its edge. Life on the backwaters is a lesson in natural living. The pulsing synergy between man and nature begins from birth. Even before infants are taught to walk, they learn how to swim. It is in these waters that children splash through their ablutions, women wash clothes, men fish for their livelihoods and the aged find everlasting rest.
As is true with every sustainable system, here too, there exists an unwritten handbook of conduct. Effluent into the backwaters is monitored, the use of plastics is banned, and residents get right of way. So, if your speedboat is traveling too fast, the women along the water’s edge will not hesitate to remind you to slow down. If your boat is responsible for causing a local canoe to capsize, you can be sure of being expected to reimburse the boatman’s expenses in full.
Ashtamudi Kayal is considered to be the gateway to backwaters in Kerala. The lake is in Kollam district. The word meaning of Ashtamudi is “eight coned “, ashta meaning ‘eight’ and mudi meaning ‘cone’. The importance of Ashtamudi kayal dates back during the times of the Romans and Phoenicians. It was considered as one of the important port among the five ports used for Chinese trades during the 14th century. One of the main activities of this lake is tourism. Boat cruises are a visual treat and gives tourists a glimpse of Kerala’s coconut and palm trees.
Sights and Sounds along the backwaters
Popularly known as the rice bowl of Kerala, here’s one of the few places in the world where paddy cultivation is done almost 1.5 to 2 metres below sea level.
A picturesque little island on the backwaters; legend has it that a young Brahmin took a dip in a lake to perform his evening ablutions and the water parted to make way for the land to rise from below. Pathiramanal, literally translates to mean ‘Sands of Midnight’. Hundreds of migratory birds from different parts of the world have made their homes on this island. Here’s a natural paradise you can only access by boat.
Here’s where you’ll find the Thaneermukkom Salt Water Barrier, also known as Thanneermukkom Bund, this is the largest mud regulator in India. Erected on the Vembanad Lake to prevent tidal action and intrusion of salt water, this is the single most significant construction on the backwaters of Kerala as the water, this side of the bund is entirely fresh with not a hint of salt from the sea.
Life along the water’s edge is indeed a colorful panorama of festivity, merry-making, religious festivals and much, much more. So if you want to watch a snake boat race, you’ve come to the right place. The “Chundan valloms” or snake boats as they are commonly called become the main protagonists in the annual event of Boat races. Held at various locations across the rivers, The rhythmic drumming, piercing whistling, splash of oars in unison and the echoing strains of the boat song all make the boat races a momentous occasion of celebration and an affirmation of the ceaseless throb and thrum of life along the backwaters.
As with all other aspects of their life, the local cuisine is spiced with the aroma and flavors of the backwaters. Succulent yam parboiled to perfection; bony fish marinated in red hot spices, and cooked in banana leaves; a fermented brew tapped straight from the coconut trees; the backwaters invite you to sample the delights of its culinary excellence.
Traveling along the backwaters
The backwaters are best experienced while slowly punting down the labyrinth of canals in the traditional thatch-roofed houseboat, known as ‘kettuvallam’. These huge yet graceful boats are the quintessential rice barges of yesteryears, which have been converted into luxurious floating homes, complete with bedrooms, modern toilets, well stocked kitchens and outboard engines. Built entirely without the use of nails, these boats are made of planks of Jackwood which are securely tied together with sturdy coir ropes. The entire structure is them coated with a black resin made from boiled cashew kernels.
Wooden canoes in varying shapes and sizes make up the rest of the gallery of backwater transportation. Most of these are handed down from one generation to another and are etched with stories and tales of yore. From little boys on their way to school, to vendors selling their wares, to old ladies weaving their way to the marketplace, you can find everyone expertly rowing their canoes to their respective destinations.
The mysterious allure of the backwaters of Kerala beckons. Travelers, tourists and locals alike have been captivated by the charm of these serene waters. Time stands still and waters shimmer in the glint of the sunlight. The silence is broken by the splash of the boatman’s oars and the haunting cry of a lonely koel. Nature’s serenade. And as nightfall descends, the croaking frogs take up the chorus of the evensong. This is what it feels like to be enclosed in the embrace of nature.