A cathartic cruise

Kerala backwaters

A cathartic cruise

Houseboats are no longer a Kashmiri speciality. Kerala has been offering those for some years now. However, unlike the Kashmiri ones, the Kerala counterparts offer trips around their famous backwaters that are fed by numerous rivers.

Kerala’s backwaters abound in Allapuzha, on the state’s western shore, abetting the Arabian sea. Snaking their way through palm and banana trees and paddy fields, the shimmering canals are a wonderful way of exploring the countryside in a non-frenetic and restful way. If you’re not keen on getting off anywhere, you can doze off on the deck or in your room, lulled by the gentle movement of the boat, that cruises smoothly with noiseless engines.

All aboard

I boarded a houseboat in Thottappally. The boat was designed to look like a hut, as most Kerala houseboats are. We cruised our way around, in a horseshoe formation, to Karumady Kuttan and Kanjipaddam; returning to Thotapally the next morning, via Thakazhy.

After a snack of tapioca chips, fried banana and delicious masala tea, we set off on our canal, that was fed by Pamba river. As we wound our way around the Spillway, I was shown several water birds and plants by the eloquent and enthusiastic guide Joshi. It was a veritable nature ‘glide’.

I spotted turquoise-backed, stork-billed kingfishers, drongos, pond herons, brahmani kites, cormorants, golden orioles, black and Asian storks, river terns and swifts, hovering either above or at water level. The flora that grew on the banks were the bright red and seductive ixora red, known as odallam, hibiscus, pink cassia, a different variety of champa, and screw pines or pinanas as they were known locally.

Both sides of the canal offered vast expanses of paddy fields. Paddy seeds are either sown or scattered in Kerala and what is unique to the state is that their harvesting time differs, depending on when they were planted. One side of the bank offered tender green paddy, which had just been planted, while the other side was brown with ripened paddy that was being harvested. When the harvest is over, the fields are flooded with the canal water and sometimes it is hard to make out whether one is looking at the backwaters or flooded fields that are being readied for the next crop.

As we cruise into the sunset, the evening air resounds with Carnatic music, bhajans and azaans. The odour of freshly-harvested paddy and cow dung, along with the fragrance of burning wood assails us, as we start looking for a spot to anchor the boat. We negotiate a bend in the water and suddenly come across millions of twinkling lights and beautiful devotional music. Joshi informs me that it is a festival celebrating the life of Shri Narayana Guru, a saint, who preached the oneness of all religions and castes.

The culturescape

After finding a good place for the halt, we jump offshore to watch the procession. Young women in simple, traditional off-white mundu, with jasmine flowers entwined in their hair, silently weave their way to the temple, carrying oil lamps, while the men move to the beats of the drums, in a theyyam-like ritualistic dance.

We later visit Allapuzha’s famous Krishna temple, which is supposed to be second only to the Gurvayoor temple in Kerala. There is a classical dance performance in progress. After a sumptuous meal of local delicacies including avial, pineapple pachadi, chicken curry, and deep fried blue fin fish to name a few, I drift off into a deep and peaceful slumber.

The next morning, we glide past churches, temples and a Buddhist temple, with a unique statue of a dark Buddha. En route, I also witness the every day activities of people living on the banks of the backwaters. At one point I thought I saw circling flotsam, but it turned out to be hundreds of ducks, bunched together and moored to one spot, paddling their feet to keep from floating away. It was an amazing sight. They were the poultry that fisher folk kept for their eggs.

When we finally made it back to Thottappally, I realised this was indeed a cathartic experience for my work-exhausted city nerves.

Fact file

Where to hire: A majority of houseboats are hired from Allapuzha, the gateway to the backwaters in between Kochi and Kollam.

 Best season: Peak season is from December to the end of January, when the weather is cool and dry.

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