If there is one place in the south of India that came close to the word ‘heaven’, it has to be the backwaters of Kerala
For all the charms of a land that has been blessed with some gorgeous topography, a riveting culture and a distinctive cuisine, Kerala cannot be written off the bucket list of any traveller. As magnetic as the allure of the Himalayas are or as enigmatic as the hills of Northeast India, Kerala is a different ball game altogether and you have to see it to believe it.
Located at the southern tip of India, Kerala seems like a narrow strip of land hugging the coastline and sandwiched between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. However, despite appearing flimsy, it is packed with the best of nature with forests, rivers, tea plantations and long stretches of beaches. Yet, it is the intricate and expansive network of backwaters that hold an unusual attraction since traversing them provides an unusual perspective and makes for a remarkable experience.
At its simplest, the backwaters are nothing but brackish lagoons and large water bodies running parallel to the Arabian sea formed by the combination of waves and fresh water bodies. It is a large network with nearly a dozen rivers and three dozen streams and rivulets and five large lakes as well as canals. What makes them unique is the constant mingling of sea water and fresh water, which gives rise to a unique ecosystem that sustains an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, as well as human habitations and lifestyle.
Venice of the East
The best way to experience and enjoy the backwaters is cruising through them. Across the backwaters, it is common to find many types of Kettuvallam (houseboats), which are perfect for leisurely gliding across them. Of all the options, Alleppey is probably the best place for an experience such as this. It possibly has the densest network and is nicknamed the Venice of the East. Ensconced inside a luxurious vessel, it is both relaxing and illuminating to cruise through the narrow canals with the banks on either side providing a moving montage of images.
As you gently glide along the water, there’s thick greenery and forests that are dark and mysterious. These are offset by villages and hamlets that dot the banks where it is common to see children playing in the water and people going about their daily routine. It is also not surprising to encounter various forms of brisk trade and commerce: boats filled with vegetables, fish and seafood and even coconuts ply up and down and call at individual houses and clusters to make sales. You also get to sample some of the state’s best known dishes such as appam, stew, aviyal, fish fry and such others cooked fresh with ingredients often sourced from various vendors and along the banks.
In contrast, it is a different experience to cruise on one of the lakes, such as Vembanad or Ashtamudi, though the former makes for a unique experience. It is a sprawling lake, considered to be among the country’s longest and largest lakes, which is more than 95 kms long and 14 kms wide at its widest point. Fed by 10 rivers, including the Pamba and Periyar, two of the state’s main rivers, it is also one of the country’s most important wetland systems with a labyrinth of lagoons, brooks and canals.
In addition to various communities that inhabit along its banks, there’s also the Kumarakom bird sanctuary and the lake itself is home to more than 20,000 waterfowls, the largest such collection in the country. But the best time to cruise the Vembanad is around sunset when the true magnificence of its size is set in true perspective. There are all kinds of birds that are visible while fishing. Boats of many sizes as well as some pretty houseboats dot the lake’s surface. It is enchanting to see the sun sinking at the horizon, while turning the water into a rippling mass of golden yellow. This perhaps makes the perfect end to Kerala’s backwater sojourn.
Written by: Anita Rao-Kashi