A cruise along the Kerala backwaters is one of the most enchanting experiences that Kerala offers. Exploring this labyrinthine network of waterways, which weave through villages set amidst lush vegetation, offers glimpses of Kerala’s unique rural lifestyle, where land and water are inseparable.
The Kerala backwaters are a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea Coast (known as the Malabar Coast) of Kerala. The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both manmade and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length of the state. The backwaters were formed by the action of waves and shore currents creating low barrier islands across the mouths of the many rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats range.
Compared to the American Bayou, the Kerala backwaters are a network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets, a labyrinthine system formed by more than 900 km of waterways. In the midst of this landscape there are a number of towns and cities, which serve as the starting and end points of backwater cruises. National Waterway No. 3 from Kollam to Kottapuram, covers a distance of 205 km and runs almost parallel to the coast line of southern Kerala facilitating both cargo movement and backwater tourism.
The backwaters have a unique ecosystem – freshwater from the rivers meets the seawater from the Arabian Sea. In certain areas, such as the Vembanad Kayal, where a barrage has been built near Kumarakom, salt water from the sea is prevented from entering the deep inside, keeping the fresh water intact. Such fresh water is extensively used for irrigation purposes.
Many unique species of aquatic life including crabs, frogs and mudskippers, water birds such as terns, kingfishers, darters and cormorants, and animals such as otters and turtles live in and alongside the backwaters. Palm trees, pandanus shrubs, various leafy plants and bushes grow alongside the backwaters, providing a green hue to the surrounding landscape.
Vembanad Kayal is the largest of the lakes, covering an area of 200 km², and bordered by Alappuzha (Alleppey), Kottayam, and Ernakulam districts. The port of Kochi (Cochin) is located at the lake’s outlet to the Arabian Sea. Alleppey, “Venice of the East”, has a large network of canals that meander through the town. Vembanad is India’s longest lake.
The most popular backwaters tour is from Kollam (Quilon), situated between Ashtamudi Lake and the Arabian Sea, to Alappuzha (Alleppey) on the edge of Vembanad Lake. The choice of transport ranges from local ferries and speedboats to kettuvallams (rice barges).
The kettuvallams (Kerala houseboats) that ply the Kerala backwaters are one of the prominent tourist attractions in Kerala. More than 2000 kettuvallams ply the backwaters, 120 of them in Alappuzha.
The kettuvallams were traditionally used as grain barges, to transport the rice harvested in the fertile fields alongside the backwaters. Thatched roof covers over wooden hulls, 100 feet (30 m) in length, provided protection from the elements. At some point in time the boats were used as living quarters by the royalty. Converted to accommodate tourists, the houseboats have become floating cottages having a sleeping area, with western-style toilets, a dining area and a sit out on the deck. Most tourists spend the night on a house boat. Food is cooked on board by the accompanying staff – mostly having a flavour of Kerala. The houseboats are of various patterns and can be hired as per the size of the family or visiting group. The living-dining room is usually open on at least three sides providing a grand view of the surroundings, including other boats, throughout the day when it is on the move. It is brought to a standstill during meal times and at night. After sunset, the boat crew provide burning coils to drive away mosquitoes. Ketuvallams are motorised but generally proceed at a slow speed for smooth travel. All ketuvallams have a generator and most bedrooms are air-conditioned. At times, as per demand of customers, electricity is switched off and lanterns are provided to create a rural setting.
While many kettuvallams take tourists from a particular point and bring them back to around the same point next morning, there are some specific cruises mostly in the Alappuzha area. Popular routes include a one night cruise from Alappuzha to Thotapally via Punnamada Lake, two nights cruise from Alappuzha to Alumkavadi, one night cruise from Alappuzha to Kidangara, and one night cruise from Alappuzha to Mankotta.
The main source of attraction on a kettuvallam houseboat is watching the activities unfold along the canals as the day begins. Human life is strongly intertwined with the waterways so most activities take place here. Some of the common sights to be seen on the waterways as you float along in the kettuvalam include children being bathed by their mothers, women washing utensils and clothes, local fishermen heading to work in their canoes, and children going to school by boat. Sitting in a kettuvallam floating down the canals and waterways of Kerala, it feels as if life has passed through the ‘Looking Glass’ and has become an altogether more laid-back place.