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Discovering the Backwaters of Kerala

I was standing on a miniscule land spit surrounded by water, site of a classic backwater village in the southern state of Kerala. Below me, a bent old man poling an ancient wooden punt glanced up and smiled. I waved, watching until he disappeared down a narrow, shady canal. Near me, on a stone embankment, a pretty young girl removed a long piece of purple cloth from its dying bowl and hung it out to dry on a tightly-woven coir rope. Watching her quietly from the shade of a large jack tree were two girls, a small child, a fat white cow, and a motley gang of clucking chickens and ducks. Behind them was a string of simple frond-roof cottages, a tiny grove of palms, and, inevitably, the water.


Copyright India Tourist Office - used with permission.

The backwaters -- an 1100-mile stretch running just inside India's southwest coast, from Cochin to past Quilon -- are an extensive network of rivers, lakes, canals and lagoons dotted with narrow strips of land. Life here is lived not only beside, but on and in the water, a kinship of elements reflected in the ancient Keralan creation myth which tells how the sea womb gave birth to the land.

In centuries past, merchant ships sailed these waters with cargoes of ivory, gold, teak and spices. Often, before reaching safe harbor in exotic outposts like Kottayam or Kannoor, traders were attacked by the area's bold and ruthless pirates, including the infamous Captain Kidd. Today the pirates are gone, but the waterways remain vital to the transport of goods, produce and people, providing the only link between isolated villages and larger towns.

The only way to explore this area is by boat, and the adventurous traveler has a number of options. Government ferries -- operated primarily to transport local residents -- make daily trips of varying lengths. In addition, Kerala's Department of Tourism runs a variety of two and four-hour tourist cruises (these boats, more comfortable than the simple ferries, may also be privately hired). The third option is to charter a boat with overnight and kitchen facilities, spending two or more days touring the backwaters.

copyright India Tourist Office - used with permission

That's what we did -- a group of unrelated travelers -- and our time here became the highlight of my entire visit to southern India. We had met while staying at the Malabar Hotel in Cochin, a beautiful and ancient city which defines the northern-most point of the backwaters. Sitting by the pool one day we decided to share a two-day cruise, and the hotel manager was happy to make the arrangements. We opted to start from Alleppey, a congenial market town about 60 miles south. We hopped a bus for the one-hour trip, boarding the Pathira Manal (Midnight Sun) -- our air-conditioned home for the next two days -- late in the morning. The stone jetty was crowded with friendly, dhoti-clad men who watched, seemingly fascinated, as our group of westerners climbed aboard and settled on the open-air top deck for the trip. Lines were cast, friendly goodbyes waved from ship to shore, and with a blast of the ship's horn we were off.

The magic began almost immediately. As we eased slowly down the narrow canal we had to duck our heads to avoid being brushed by sweeping branches of lush, willow-like trees. Suddenly the trees disappeared and we entered a large, open body of water lit by the sun. Graceful coconut palms lined the shore, and in the distance we could see a group of long, slender rice boats gliding across the water. Close by a fisherman threw a net from a small punt with a lateen- rigged sail, then glanced skyward to follow the flight of a white heron. Eventually we approached the other side of the palm-fringed lake and entered a broad, shady canal. A dugout, carrying a load of copra, passed on its way to Alleppey. A strip of land separated the canal from a shallow lagoon where half a dozen men, up to their waists in water, methodically pulled weeds from a dazzling-green rice paddy. Every now and then a smaller canal shot off from the main route, its narrow waterway arched over by thick trees. By now the open sun was scorching, so most of us retreated to the cool shade of the lower deck. Lunch, served here shortly after noon, was light: cold chicken, a variety of cooked salads, a large bowl of tropical fruit, and lots of purified water.

Copyright India Tourist Office - used with permission.

Since entering the canals we had occasionally passed small settlements whose residents emerged from palmyra-leaf huts to watch and wave as we meandered by. We were just as curious about them as they were about us, and at last we pulled alongside a stone quai at one tiny village for a tea stop. The friendly villagers emerged from huts and fields to greet us and, with the captain acting as interpreter, we asked about life on their miniature island.

As expected, the waterways are vital, influencing every aspect of existence. Children paddle to the area school, adults commute via rice boat or punt; even after death the water is important, transporting the dead to a holy place for cremation. The water is necessary for the work of fishermen or rice growers, and farmers use its rich mud to increase the fertility of fields. While cashews are a vital cash crop, every single part of the palm tree is used to sustain life: its meat is dried and sold as copra, its fiber bark turned into coir rope or baskets, and its leaves become thatch roofs. The trunk's marrow -- the heart of the palm -- is a highly-marketable foodstuff, and its sap is used in the production of palm wine, a pungent fermented liquor reputed to have hallucinogenic qualities.

Late in the afternoon we docked in another, even smaller settlement called Kumarakam. Nearby, on the grounds of a former rubber planation, we visited a bird sanctuary where Siberian storks, owls, cuckoos, night herons, cormorants and other avian species can be found. Strolling past the sanctuary we stumbled onto the mysterious ruins of a swimming pool buried amidst palm and rubber trees. Here we sat silently and watched the dusk deepen.

It was dark when we returned to the Midnight Sun. After a short nap and a long, hot shower, I joined the others for a spicy Indian buffet. Later we walked a short distance to "Baker's Mansion", a former plantation house which is today a handsome, government-run hotel nestled amidst one hundred acres of lake and jungle. The host, delighted to see a bevy of strangers pop up from nowhere, dotted our foreheads with red kum-kum powder and placed fragrant jasmine wreaths on our shoulders. Then, insisting we sample one of those palm wine toddies, he settled us comfortably on the spacious front lawn with a tray of hors d'oeuvres. On the veranda before us, lounging atop plush silk pillows, a trio composed of sitar, harmonium and tabla produced a soft and haunting atonal music which drifted languidly into the night air, broken now and then by the far-off cry of a hyena. Colorful, fire-lit lanterns danced atop the water of a nearby pond. The night was warm and fragrant with the scent of jasmine, and overhead the stars twinkled bright. That night we slept cool and comfortable aboard the Midnight Sun, and in the morning --sipping coffee and munching Indian breakfast pastries -- we began the journey back to Cochin and reality.

Copyright India Tourist Office - used with permission.For information call India Tourism. In Canada tel: 416 962 3787. In the US call 212 586 4901.

You can also visit the India Tourist web site at www.tourindia.com