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Kerala, India: Sailing down the backwaters

By Andrew Marshall 29 October 2020

The cacophony of sounds along the Pompa River includes the familiar ‘slap-slop’ of clothes washing being done. Swathed in brightly coloured saris hitched clear of the knee-deep water, village women are busy with their washing. Nearby, the men are loading sacks of rice on to the many ‘Kettuvallams’old workboats that ply the backwaters of Kerala in Southern India. The Kettuvallams are constructed with dark lustrous jack wood, with planks stitched and caulked with coir—the fibrous husk of coconuts, and have been in service on these intricate waterways of canals, rivers and lakes for nearly a century. Andrew Marshall takes a Kettuvallam houseboat trip and watches rural life unfold along the Kerala backwaters of Southern India.

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Two men skillfully propel a Kettuvallam downstream with long bamboo poles with their lithe bodies and muscles that ripple beneath their leathery sun-tanned skin. One man on the bow and another on the stern, they plunge their poles into the riverbed in perfect synchrony as they propel the heavily laden boat smoothly through the water.

Today, many Kettuvallams have been converted into traditional-style thatched houseboats complete with bedrooms, bathrooms, and dining areas. The boats typically include the services of a captain and chef and one can take journeys ranging from a few hours to several days, between the backwater cities of Kollam, Alappuzha, and Kochi. My partner and I travelled down the coast from Goa to take a fantastic two-day houseboat journey to explore these backwaters—a relaxing and rewarding way to experience rural life of Southern India.

India's southern-most state, Kerala, lies sandwiched between the Western Ghats Mountains and the Arabian Sea. It lies on the misty slopes of the Western Ghats, where Kerala's 44 rivers begin their passage into the sea—41 of them to the Arabian Sea, creating the backwaters. The silt and mineral compounds transported by the various rivers have formed one of the richest agricultural regions in India.

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Many of these maze-like waterways form canals so narrow that coconut palms leaning precariously out over the water on either side form tunnels of tropical green. Occasionally, the horizon opens out onto vast seas of green and gold paddy fields— the rice bowl of Kerala.

As we glide along aboard our former Kettuvallam, Parithoni, we are treated to the colourful spectacle of village life along the backwaters. Our 17-metre boat has been fitted out with traditional methods and materials, with no comforts overlooked. On the foredeck, feather-soft cushions invite us to relax as we watch the world drift by, while in the bedrooms fitted with their ensuites, huge window shutters open upwards to reveal the water lapping within an arm's reach of the bed. The dining-living area opens on both sides to magnificent views, without a doubt the best dining views in all of India. From the kitchen comes an intoxicating stream of aromas, from exotic dishes prepared for us by our chef.

There are four crew members on board, providing us with insights into Keralan life. There's Thomas, our ever-vigilant captain, who has been working boats on the backwaters for some 35 years with many tales to tell. Shaji, who works the outboard motor, who is looking forward to his arranged wedding next April. Anjo, our chef whose gastronomic resumé includes cooking feasts for hundreds of people at weddings.

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Observed from the deck, Keralan life is like a theatre production and we have the best seats in the house, watching other Kettuvallams passing by, and the bustling activities on both sides of the riverbanks. Boatmen play out the on-going chores of daily life—paddy workers, housewives, and fishermen—and the mise en scene is constantly changing.

At 6.00am, in a nearby Hindu temple, holy men begin to recite the sacred texts over loudspeakers. Their hypnotic chants drift across the river, muted by the swirls of morning mist. As we open our eyes, sunlight already sparkles on the water outside, reflecting dancing beams of light onto our bedroom walls. It's time for us to rise and see what glorious feast Anjo has prepared for breakfast.

By mid-morning, we have the backwaters performance in full-colour production—a perpetual flow of river life as boats slide past alongside, loaded with rice, wood, hay, and household products. Along the river banks, villagers walk in single-file in a steady stream, making their way home from morning mass in the old Catholic churches or the Hindu temples.

After a delicious lunch, as we drifted further downstream, and went ashore to explore the rice paddy fields. It's harvest time, and many villagers are toiling in the fields. Thigh deep in the mud, they slash rhythmically with their scythes at the long stems burgeoning with golden grain. It’s great to feel grounded after being on the boat, although we struggle a little with our balance along the narrow, raised pathways that crisscross the fields. The paddy workers were surprised and curious to see two foreigners out here in the fields and harvesting is halted for a good half hour when they come over to meet us.

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Some of them, like Sangi, speak English. “Come, come, we will take a break. Take some tea with us,” says Sangi. We soon find ourselves under the shade of palms where the workers have their food and drinks stored. They put a kettle on the kerosene stove soon and we enjoy tea in small porcelain cups. We politely nibble on samosa-like pastries from our hosts, mindful that they need the sustenance more than we do with so much toil still ahead. 

At 6.00pm sharp, Sargi lights the oil lantern. Already the sun has set below the paddies and it’s a great time to be on the foredeck, reclining on the soft throne of cushions behind Thomas at the wheel.

At Nedumudy, a group of villagers await the last ferry, perched on their day's grain sacks of rice from the fields. In the small homes along the banks, the women will be lighting coconut oil lamps (nilavilakku lamps) to their Hindu deities. Daylight departs swiftly in these tropical latitudes. Once the sun sets, painting a soft sky of rose pink and gold, the shadows deepen, and like a stage curtain, darkness descends.

Thomas throws the anchor over the bow and as the motor dies, the insect and animal noises of the backwaters envelop us. We gaze out across the water feeling happy with our choice to spend some time on a Kettuvallam. “Dinner is ready,” Anjo announces and we adjourn to the dining room to indulge in more culinary pleasures. It's the end of another perfect day in southern India on the backwaters of Kerala.

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Andrew Marshall

Travel writer

Born in England in 1961, Andy has been a professional freelance travel writer and photographer since 1990, and has travelled to over 60 countries including Sri Lanka, Panama, Morocco and the Solomon Islands to cover a diverse range of travel, food, drinks and golf features for various publications worldwide including Golf Australia, Geographic Magazine and Blue Wings. “From playing golf in Iceland and visiting rum shops in Barbados, to truffle hunting in Italy and sampling the best diners in New York, Andy has scoured the globe looking for interesting story angles. Andy lives in a 17th century cottage on the outskirts of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, England.