Venice of East – Kollam/Quilon

When we started our trip to the backwaters of Kerala, in all the travel books we had read, area around the backwaters was referred to as the “Venice of the East.” Till we reached Kollam and explored it, we were finding this comparison exaggerated. Our visit to Kollam changed our complete perception about these backwaters.

In my guidebook, half-day trip to the Monroe Island, organized by DTPC was suggested. DTPC office is situated near the bus-stand in Kollam. I booked the trip in the morning. When I enquired about the number of co-passengers we should expect, I was told that in general booking for around 8-10 couples was done. When we reached at the assembly point after lunch we were surprised to know that on that day ours was the only family interested in the trip.

On normal days a mini-bus goes from Kollam to Monroe Island, on that day they apologized and arranged an auto-rickshaw. On the one hand, we were happy that fewer tourists meant less crowd and we could request for slight changes in the itinerary according to our liking. On the other hand, lack of tourist interest lowered our expectation and suggested that this tour had lost favor among tourists.

Monroe Island is at a distance of around 25 Km from Kollam. At Monroe Island our guide Sujith and rower RadhaKrishanji received us. The name “Monroe Island” might arouse in some readers’ minds memories of Marlyn Monroe. I am not aware of the origin of such a name for this island. However, let me assure you that the Island was as beautiful.

Munroe Island

Sujith, the guide in front and Radhakrishanji, the boatman behind him

We started the cruise at around 2:00 pm in Ashtmudi Lake. Ours was a very simple boat and was pushed and punted with a big bamboo. With 15-20 people on board it might have been crowded, but with only five of us it was comfortable quarters.

Our boat in Munroe Island

Munore Island

We rowed through a labyrinth of amazingly clean narrow alleys of backwater. These backwaters were far far away from any sort of pollution. Reflections of the surrounding greenery changed the color of the water to a dazzling emerald green. The numerous coconut trees alongside the canal surely would be gazing at and admiring their shimmering images in the placid waters. Occasionally we passed under simple curved footbridges and were forced to bend our heads seemingly with regard, respect and reverence to the divinely beautiful backwaters of Kollam. Time seemed to have stopped there. The peaceful surroundings could have a calming effect on any restless soul.

Bowing in reverence to Munroe Island

Munroe Island

We saw families living around these narrow alleys on land with enough room for a simple house, yard and boat. When we crossed them, the kids waved us and elders greeted us with gentle smiles. On the way we exchanged pleasantries with people on a boat loaded with lots of sand probably headed to a construction site.

Munroe Island

A boat loaded with sand on Munroe Island

Smiling locals of Munroe Island

At one point a private tour operator’s boat quite full of foreign tourists, crossed us. The ability of private tour operators to lure tourists was in stark contrast to that of DTPC. We were told that at times the DTPC craft does not get even a single tourist while private tour operators always carry boatloads. This is despite the fact that these tour operators confine tourists to narrow alleys and never take them to the vast expanses of the lake.

I felt that for a guide more tourists (esp. foreign tourists) meant more money and so I asked Sujith why he also did not think of moving over to the private tour operators. He elucidated that being a government tour guide was a matter of great personal pride and so he would prefer to remain with good old DTPC.

Sujith had a very pleasing personality. I told him that his accent reminded me of young Kamalhasan of the 80s. He smiled and then further queried me about his style and mannerisms. I admitted that it was also similar, which pleased him immensely.

On the route we visited a small island (island within Monroe island), apparently owned by one family! They were living on that big and beautiful piece of land with their livestock – The cattle, goats and dogs altogether. We quizzed Sujith, whether they were the rich people of that area. Strangely, he told us that they were neither very rich nor poor, but were of middle class. I noticed that they appeared very contended with their pace and style of life.

Vast expanse of the Munroe Island

On that island, our boatman climbed on a coconut tree and threw down three coconuts. He seemed adroit in climbing swiftly up to the top of that curved sky-bound swaying coconut tree. . We were then offered fresh coconut water as welcome drink, fresh from the three artillery shells that had just bombarded us! We drank and cherished the sweet coconut nectar. The effect of unpolluted surroundings was evident in its delightfully sweet taste. Ah it tasted like ambrosia!

Coconut-water at Munroe island

Coconut-water at Munroe island

On that island we were shown the coir making process. During the cruise we had mentioned Sujith that we had never seen a cashew plant and he promised to show us one. You too can see it here.

Cashew-plant at Munroe Island

We restarted from the island and moved from the narrow alleys towards the vast expanse of the lake. On that day cool and gentle breeze was blowing. Sujith made a fan with banana leaves and gifted it to Rachit. Rachit started enjoying the wind-powered rotation of his new toy. For several moments when wind slowed down and his fan stopped rotating, a question mark popped up on his face, a sudden gust of wind rotated the fan, removed wrinkles on his face and brought back the smile.

We were rowing on the edges. The only sound in the vicinity was that of the oars gently caressing the water. We saw many water birds sitting on the edges. Some of them were sitting in philosophical mood, enjoying their solitude and others were frolicking around playfully in groups. At one point we crossed flock of black feather water birds sitting in an orderly fashion, looking like a bunch of lawyers patiently waiting outside the court. At another point, there were flocks of sea gulls – the white birds. Though it is rare, but sometimes life can present itself in perfect black & white – devoid of any grayish shade in it :). We got glimpses of egret from the veil of coconut leaves and we also sighted a kingfisher resting on broad coconut leaves, blending the blue shades with the green surroundings.

Egret at Munroe Island

Kingfisher at Munroe Island

Cormorant at Munroe Island

Birds at Munroe Island

Birds at Munroe Island

Birds at Munroe Island

Birds at Munroe Island

What a wonderful evening! The sun was about to set in perhaps an hour. We had already started imagining sight of the sun taking a dip and vanishing behind the backwaters.

Suddenly, we were shaken awake from that dream-like reality. We were told that it was time to return! We plaintively requested them to remain there till sunset and even offered extra money for that. But the rower had to go back home to cook for his kids and wife, who was returning late on that day. When we learnt of his genuine limitation we understood and disappointedly relented.

Sujith came up with an interesting proposal and asked us whether we would mind visiting his house? He told us that from there we could catch wonderful views of sunset. “अँधा क्या चाहे दो आँखे”. What a blind man would wish for – the answer is obvious two eyes. We happily agreed to his earnest suggestion.

Sujith guided us on his motorbike and we followed him on the auto rickshaw. On the way, Venice came back to our minds. Though comparing these two beautiful places would not be fair, still we felt that the myriad paths and canals of Monroe Island were a bit different from Venice. Buildings around canals in Venice are in dilapidated state. It costs a bomb to maintain them and a nuclear bomb to get them repaired! There are only a very few Venetians left in Venice and only tourists related activities thrive and survive there today. Kollam on the other hand, is away from that insane rush of tourists. Here one could enjoy the Keralite tradition, way of living and hospitalities as compared to the tourist culture of Venice.

In around 15 minutes we reached at Sujith’s house. Sujith introduced us to his mother and sister’s son. It was a beautiful family and we got a warm welcome. There we were offered home cooked cake, made by Sujith’s mother. It was very delicious and made us lick our fingers. A few words of genuine praise from us ensured that rest of that cake was packed for Rachit :) Then we came out and Sujith showed us one-day-old kid of his goat that was barely able to open its eyes.

As we moved to the backyard of Sujith’s house, much to our surprise, awe and delight there were shimmering backwaters right in front of us. It was such a spectacular view and location that we actually suggested Sujith to build a few rooms for tourists.

That moment had a perfect combination – A gradually setting sun in full view, marvelous backwaters and some of the nicest people in our company. Many a times one forgets wonderful places or ornate monuments, however it is not possible to forget nice people one meets and the profound effect they have on you. I am quoting Sheen-Kaaf Nizam whom I heard reciting this poem at one of my college cultural functions:

रास्ते में वो मिला, अच्छा लगा,
सूना-सूना सा रास्ता अच्छा लगा,
बादे-मुद्दत आईने में अपना चेहरा अच्छा लगा

In short it can be roughly translated in English as “ Sometimes some strangers with their pleasing company change our outlook of ourselves.”

Sun was about to disappear behind the backwaters. The silhouette of a solitary fisherman’s boat on that crimson evening made the scene picture-perfect. We stood there looking at it and it filled us with bliss. We were drunk with the loveliness of it. It was time to close the eyes to take it in forever.

37 Comments

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    As I am posting this story I would like to thank my friend Vivek Sinha for helping me to refine the post and my wife Jaishree who is always so supportive.

  • Sudhir says:

    Awesome post and awesome pictures, Manish !

    While reading it, I was literally transported and felt as if I was in that boat with you. Backwaters is definitely on my agenda.

  • manish khamesra says:

    Hello Sudhir,

    As you might have felt that this trip was one of the those that we enjoyed a lot. I would suggest you to please include a half day trip to Monroe Island as and when you plan to go there. I am sure after your visit we would have a detailed beautiful account of your travel to the place :)

    Thanks for the generous comment. Its a pleasure that you liked the post :)

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Very good. For last two days, I was looking at this Prayag story and was wondering that no new story is coming up. I read it in the morning but then got lost amid worldly mess.

    Great post Manish. I thought you would share a line or two on coir making but never mind.

    Where do you take us next in Kerela ?

  • manish khamesra says:

    Thanks Nandan. I would like to keep the readers in Kollam for the next post on Kerala too and that should be end of it :)

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks for sharing with us this marvelous post on Kollam, supported by some most enchanting pictures. Although I have never been to Kollam, a very close friend and till recently our colleague, Renjith, often talks about his hometown in Kollam (or Quilon as it used to be called earlier). I believe this is the most picturesque and absorbing backwater town in the coastal area.

    Your description of journey to the Manroe Island and portrayal of Sujith is simply astounding.

    Incidentally, Kollam is the residence and headquarters of Matha Amrithanandamayi Devi, popularly known as “Amma”. I am told that here one can find people from all over the world speaking different languages and having different customs and religions. I believe that in their quest for the meaning of life each one almost becomes a child of Amma. I have attended a couple of Amma’s discourses in Delhi and feel that she has an amazing presence.

    Your post has created a strong urge to visit this beautiful part of Kerala.

    Would look forward to your next post on Kerala.

  • manish khamesra says:

    Ram Uncle,

    Thanks for the nice comment.
    Everytime you write about “Amma” the urge to visit her increases.

    This trip to Monroe Island and to Kollam was very special in our itinerary of Kerala. It had created long lasting impressions on us.

  • Kalyan says:

    WoW…Kerala never fails to impress us…truly its Gods own country….& Manish your pics & the words aptly describe the phrase…Some awesome photos & the wonderful documentary along with it…a very comprehensive post…well done!

  • Manish khamesra says:

    Thanks Kalyan for going through the post and for the praise.

    Whenever it rains, the leaves are devoid of dust and its sparkling green, we say we are having glimpses of Kerala sitting in North India. No doubt that Kerala is God’s own country :)

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Engrossed in work when the day is bright and beautiful typical English summer but when its Manish and Kerala, can I let it go?

    Another beautiful post about a beautiful place. Your eagerness to gather as much information as possible about the local populace and their lifestyle is commendable. Bird lawyers made interesting reading and sunset on the lake is enchanting. Rachits fan took me a long way into my own childhood.

    Alleppy is generally referred to as the Venice of the East. Munroe Thuruth (island) is named after a British Resident and Dewan of Travancore Colonel John Monroe, over a century before Marilyn Monroe became the blond bombshell.

    Keep going, Manish.

  • manish khamesra says:

    Patrick,

    You are blessed with a beautiful writing & commenting style. I have started to eagerly wait to read your comments on my posts. There are a few among us whose comment are so informative, do value addition to the posts and are delight to read and yours is definitely among them.

    Monroe Island is really a very beautiful place. And yes have I got the time, I would have read a lot-lot before writing anything about any place. But at this age we have so limited time at our disposal :(

    I know that Alleppy is known as the Venice of the East, but I liked to differ from that opinion. Alleppy didn’t impressed us, and Monroe Island I felt is something that I liked to compare with Venice. Well you can call it a traveller’s license to call Kollam as Venice of the East.

    Can you please elaborate that why that island was named after Dewan of Travancore ? I love to read/write and listen stories. In case you know more about him, please share information :)

    And thanks Patrick for leaving yet another beautiful comment.

  • Patrick Jones says:

    You are so effusive in your comments; thanks a lot, Manish.

    Now a bit about Colonel Munro.

    Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, the Maharani of Travancore appointed British Resident Colonel John Daniel Munro as her Dewan in 1811. An able administrator, he introduced modern judicial system, reorganised the police force and undertook other administrative reforms to root out corruption. Time and again he argued against the British on behalf of the states he represented. In 1814 Col. Munro resigned his Dewanship.

    During Munro’s time, a senior priest of the Malankara church (for details read Philip Mathais post on Syrian Christians of Kerala), Pulikkotil Joseph Kathanar expressed his desire to establish seminary for training priests and a place to settle the newly converted Christians. The piece of land thus provided by the mercy of Colonel Munro was named after him by the locals and is known as Munro Thuruth (Munro Island).

    History has recorded that Col. John Munro was the greatest British administrator of Travancore and Cochin in 150 years of British domination. John Munro went back to his birthplace in Teaninich, Ross-shire in Scotland and lived there until he died in 1858.

  • bikerdude says:

    Manish, been quite a while since I commented on anything on this site… was busy with recuperation and getting things lined up for some projects I had… but dude gotta hand it to you… I dont have to spend even a single penny to be in Kerala.. your posts and snaps transport me there in spirit… enjoying the boat rides and looking at the views captured by the camera… Bilssful indeed!

  • Geetha Saravanan says:

    hi Manish,
    A truly refreshing story. The photographs are beautiful. The beauty of the colour green. Its rejuvenating isn’t it? As Ram uncle says – enchanting!
    I ‘ve been on a trip in the Ashtamudi backwaters, but on a motorlaunch ( so we covered only the wide expanses of the lakes. Your experience on the boat has been wonderfully fulfilling and almost a private rendesvouz with nature!
    I sincerely hope I get a chance to trace your steps to Monroe island.

  • manish khamesra says:

    Dear Patrick,

    Thanks a lot for information about Mr Munroe. I am so happy to know that why the island was called Munroe Island and also in detail about Mr. Munroe ( I don’t think its so easy to know about him on net, though I didn’t search it extensively). Thanks for filling the loopholes.

    My understanding about Kerala is definitely increasing a lot with your valuable feedbacks :)

  • lakshmi says:

    Always passed Kollam..but never thought of stopping byas I have considered it a transit point ….Monroe Island is quite popular as several tourists go there…this post is tempting me to leave immediately

  • manish khamesra says:

    Bikerdude/Manish

    Thanks a lot for the appreciation. Its a pleasure to read that you liked it so much.

    I hope that you have recovered completely now. The mails I received from soul trail, leaves me wondering that when I would be able to travel with you :)

  • manish khamesra says:

    Hello Geetha,

    Let me accept that readers like you are the main driving force behind posting and writing more and more. Its a pleasure that you liked it.

    Indeed the color green is rejuvenating, refreshing and enchanting and that’s why its associated with so many good things of life.

    I am sure that you would be able to travel in the winding alleys of Munroe island, but I am not sure will I get a chance to enjoy the wide expanses of the lake ?

    Thanks for your comment that always bring something new for the readers going through comments too.

  • manish khamesra says:

    Lakshmi,

    I think I am addressing you with your real name for the first time. Its immense pleasure that you have liked the post. Its always a pleasure to get appreciation from someone whom you consider so talented and gifted.

    I am also happy that Kollam would get a tourist like you. It gives a pleasure when your writings can interest a person to visit a place. India is so beautiful and diverse, isn’t it :)

    Thanks.

  • NIthin says:

    Manish…I am from Kollam! .. now living in Delhi,, if there is anything that I miss about home.. it is the water..thanks for bringing memories back ..

  • Manish khamesra says:

    Hi Nithin,

    I am happy to know that this post brought back good old memories. It gives a pleasure when someone who is native to a place, comments on a tourists account of a place.

    Thanks also for visiting Ghumakkar and leaving a comment. We ghumakkars wish to see more often of you :)

    BTW I also saw your blog. Very impressive. Pictures are wonderful. Please also think about sharing your experiences on ghumakkar.

  • Celine says:

    Marvellous post, and beautiful photographs. A hug to Rachit on my behalf, he looks adorable.:)

  • manish khamesra says:

    Thanks Celine.

    So you had a marvellous trip to Valley of flowers and Hemkund Sahab. Good, we hope to read it soon from you. Your long absence was an indication in itself that you are exploring yet another beautiful place. But this is also true that you were missed and we were waiting for you to return and share your experiences.

    Good to know that you are back among us.

  • Jerry Jaleel says:

    Manish,

    Once again your excellent text and gorgeous photographs ignited my memories of Travancore side of Kerala with its backwaters, large transport ‘vallams’ (Boats), coconut trees and young cashews as well as mango trees and curry leaves.

    Kollam (Quilon) was once a very prosperous town which had numerous cashew processing factories. To the best of my knowledge all these factories are now closed down, and cashews are exported raw without removing the shell to European and American wholesale merchants. Being close to the (Arabian) sea, many men are still employed in fishing industry here. The state capital of Trivandrum is only a few miles south of Kollam.

    with best wishes!

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      I am curious Jerry, are your from Kerala ? You have such a good knowledge about the place :-)

      Its my pleasure that these pictures re-ignited your memories of Kerala. Can you please throw more light on how Kerala was partitioned in old days, as you have mentioned about Travencore side.

      Its a little sad to know that all cashew processing industies are closed, because many might have lost their jobs in the process. It is also sad that the major push to Kerala economy is mainly from Arab economy and some from Tourism (Though it is good as I feel that tourism can do wonder as an industry).

  • Lovely post, and well written travelogue.

    In the strictest sense, Alappuzha (Alleppey) is called the Venice of the East with its intricate system of canals and backwaters. Well, Kollam could borrow it for a day, no issues, it is as charming as Alappuzha ;)

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      Thanks Scorpiogenius for liking the post and leaving your comment :-)

      I know its Alappuzha that is classified more as the venice-of-east, still to me it looked more suitable to the green canals of Monroe Island. A boat ride in these canals is highly rewarding even more than the one on Gondolas of Venice. And thanks for allowing me to do so, as aptly and beautifully written by you, “Well, Kollam could borrow it for a day, no issues, it is as charming as Alappuzha ;)”.

      For us, Monroe island was the one that stole the show.

  • Rajesh says:

    Hi Manish,
    I hail from Kollam , presently working in UAE and have never been to this kind of an expedition. Thanks for the info. This time i shall try to explore myself. Hope the DTPC office still can be found near the bus stand.

    • Manish khamesra says:

      Hello Rajesh,

      Its a pleasure to get a comment from someone from Kollam. I think DTPC should be there. I am sure you will also enjoy a trip to Monroe Island as much we enjoyed it.

      Please do share your experience and it will also be a pleasure to learn something about Kollam that as a traveller we might have missed out.

  • Ivone says:

    Amazing place!!!! wait me….

  • WOW , WONDERFUL MY BRO .
    REALLY GLADE TO SEE PHOTOS ,
    I HAVE READ A LOTS OF KERALA . ITS MY DREAM TO COME AND STAY A LONG TO KERALA.
    I LOVE & LIKE NUTURE OF KERALA.
    U ALL R KERALA PEOPLE LUCKY.
    REAGRDS TO ALL.

  • Shaji K says:

    I am a native of this wounderful Island. We are proud to be natives of this primitive, virgin place. We welcome all of u to our place and we are in progress of accommodating u even overnight in this Island. Hope things will be in place at the earliest.

    Your narration with best matching shots gives a marvellous insight into our place. Thanks Manish Khamesra

  • Shaji K says:

    In Monroe, a Primary School called Bethel, Church and convent are functioning under the Christian Mission. On your next visit 2 our place, we will be glad to take u there, if required, can arrange accommodation also.

    • Manish khamesra says:

      Dear Shaji

      Thanks for the invitation. I am sure it would be enchanting to spend a night there. Once the accommodation is ready please provide your contact details so the interested readers can contact you.

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