Kuttanad is a region in the central and southern part of Kerala stretching from Kochi down upto Kollam (formerly Quilon), and bordered by the Arabian Sea in the West to the Western Ghats in the East. An immense labyrinth of interconnecting canals, islets, paddy fields, lagoons, and inland lakes are characteristic of this region and these form what are also known as the backwaters. These canals and waterways also provide an alternate mode of transport, and you will see many rural folk calmly and quietly gliding along the canals in their canoes from one place to the other.
Kuttanad is also known as the rice bowl of Kerala. The rice is sowed by hand carefully, in water-filled fields, green in the monsoons, golden yellow and ripe for threshing in the winter. Kuttanad owes its distinctive geography to the proximity of the Western Ghats, 100 km inland, which block the advance of the monsoon clouds when they sweep in from the Arabian Sea in early June. Sustained by a bountiful supply of rice, coconuts and fish, Kuttanadis have adapted ingeniously to life in the floodwaters. Life is slow paced and deceptively calm, and there is nothing to suggest that this was once the heartland of a powerful Communist movement.
When you visit Kerala, and particularly Kuttanad, there is such a bewildering array of stay options, that it is difficult to decide. There are the regular star rated hotels along the banks of the Vembanad Lake, or you can stay in a variety of houseboats, some as big as a bungalow and others as small as a floating one bedroom-kitchen apartment.
The other option, and the one we chose, was to stay at a Homestay run by a resident Syrian Christian family.
The best way to find out about homestays is, you guessed right, the Internet! You have to decide beforehand the location and the ambience of the place where you would like to stay. After searching for nearly two days I chose the “Backwater Heritage Homestay” as the option best suited to us. It is run by Mr. Xavier Joseph, helped by his wife and two grown-up children. It is located mid-way between Kottayam and Kumarakom, and is in a rural setting, near the town of Ayamenem, made famous by Arundhati Roy in her book “The God of Small Things”. I felt it would be a good place for three days of R and R away from the noise and bustle of the tourist hot-spots.
I had already done our train booking from Pune to Kottayam for 20-May-2010. About a week before our departure I telephoned Mr. Xavier informing him about our intention to come and stay with him and his family. Luckily May is not high season for Kerala and he was quite happy to have us as his guests. Of course, I had to inform him that we were just three of us, which included my wife and daughter, since he had only two rooms to let out at that time.
We left home at 6pm by rickshaw and were at the station in half-an-hour to catch the Kanniyakumari Express (aka Jayanti Janata) departing from Pune station at 7.25pm.
Awoke to the swaying of the train around 6 am to discover that it was late by about 3 hours. We had tea and breakfast ordered from catering along with some khakras which we had packed for the journey. I sent an sms to Xavier Joseph, our homestay host to inform him that we would be arriving late. Thanks to the delay though, we got to see the scenery between Ernakulam and Kottayam. It was full of green trees, mainly coconut, betelnut, and jackfruit. We crossed a couple of rivers (backwaters) with houseboats (kettuvelloms) moving on the waters.
We arrived at the station at 9 am. Xavier called just as the train was entering the platform, and advised us to take a prepaid rickshaw which would cost us Rs.120 to his place. Xavier gave the directions to our rickshawman on our cellphone in Malayalam and we reached the “Backwater Heritage Homestay” within half an hour. It was about 8.5 km from Kottayam station. The rickshaw driver would not have found it even after making enquiries with the locals, if I had not pointed to the distinctive bungalow standing in a compound with a beautiful garden by the riverside. On the way from the station we passed the village of Ayemenem. There were pretty bungalows and plenty of greenery along the way, typical of a coastal countryside.
We were welcomed by Mr. Xavier who was getting ready to leave with his family for a wedding function. He showed us our rooms in his one hundred year old heritage bungalow and they seemed very cosy and comfortable. Since they were going out, lunch had already been prepared and served on the dining table. The dining room was between the two bedrooms, and there was a covered verandah next to the dining room which had a wash-basin, and could be used for drying our clothes after washing.
We settled into our rooms and the Xavier family left for their function, leaving the bungalow all to ourselves. There did not seem to be anyone else around and it was very quiet and peaceful. While Komal devoured the food at the table, and Geeta unpacked in the bedroom, I went out into the garden for a bit of exploring. There was a small tree laden with green mangoes just outside the verandah with French windows which served as an entrance to the house. The Xaviers occupied the adjacent portion of the house with the kitchen visible at the extreme end. There were a number of coconut trees around the garden, and a lot of flowering bushes and small trees. The bungalow was situated on the banks of one of the tributaries of the Meenachil river. These tributaries are also known as kayals (Malayalam for canals). The width of the canal was about 20 meters across and there was open country on the other side. Occasionally a canoe could be seen moving along propelled by a man with a single paddle or bamboo. The tranquility of the surroundings was broken only occasionally by a noisy three wheeler careening down the lane outside the bungalow.
After a refreshing bath we settled down at the table to have lunch. Lunch was ‘karimeen’ fish fry, boiled rice, one vegetable dish in a coconut and curd curry (avial), pickles and pappadams. The ‘karimeen’ or pearl spot fish had probably been caught that very morning from the canal outside. Food was simple but quite filling and all three of us were zapped and slept for two hours after the meal. In the evening we were served coffee with jackfruit chips by Mrs. Xavier.
In the evening Xavier took us to his boat house nearby where he had two ‘snake-boats’ which he captains during the boat races in the Onam festival time. To reach the boat house we had to cross a very narrow foot bridge over the canal. The boats were at least 50 feet long and could seat about 50 oarsmen sitting side by side.
After seeing his snake-boats we were still keen to walk around the Kerala countryside, so he sent us to visit his friend’s rubber factory. ‘Glory Rubber’ is owned by Mr. George Cherian, who showed us around his factory which manufactures slippers, otherwise known as ‘flip-flops’. Basically the slippers were stamped out of rubber sheets, fitted with straps, packed in boxes and supplied to ‘Paragon Shoes’. Then we walked over to an adjacent estate which belonged to George’s brother, which had a farm with a small lake. There were many geese strutting around and squawking away as we walked in to meet them.
We walked further down the road till we reached Parippu village. The road meandered along the river on one side and green fields on the other. People were washing clothes, bathing, and swimming in the river and going about their daily lives. The kids kept staring at us as if we were aliens from outer space.
Even though the sky had been overcast the whole day, the evening was quite muggy and after the long walk my undershirt was soaking with perspiration by the time we reached back. We decided to use the a.c. in our room. Komal’s room was cooler, so she managed with the fan.
Dinner consisted of avial with chapatis, rice, pickle, salad, and curds followed by ‘elaichi’ bananas as dessert. After watching the TV news (airplane crash in Mangalore, 158 people dead), we retired to our rooms by 10 pm.
For breakfast we were served puttu (a dry mixture of rice and coconut powder baked in a hollow bamboo vessel) with chickpea curry, washed down with juice of mango plucked from the garden. Of course, there was an unlimited supply of the ‘elaichi’ banana too.
Today Xavier had arranged for a motorised boat to take us to Kumarakom and for a round of the Vembanad lake. This motor-boat has a capacity to seat around 20 people and the charges are Rs.350 per hour, whether there are 2 passengers or 20. You are free to utilise the boat for any length of time and disembark at any point. You would be charged for the number of hours utilised.
The boat arrived punctually at 10 am. It was driven by Mr. Sukhatan who welcomed us aboard. As the boat started off we felt the initial thrill of floating through the backwater canals, with a light breeze caressing our faces. On the banks the locals were going about their daily chores. The women folk were washing their clothes and utensils, children were playing and waving to us, men and women were fishing or paddling down the canal carrying their wares in dugout canoes. The banks were lined with coconut trees and other green bushes.
As we approached closer to Kumarakom the canal got wider and we could see the rice fields on both sides. These rice fields are situated below sea level. We had come down the Meenachil river and were now entering the Vembanad Lake, which is the largest wetland ecosystem in Kerala. There were a large number of houseboats, locally known as “kettuvallams”, anchored on both sides of the river. Their sizes varied from a small cottage to some as big as a large bungalow. These houseboats are made completely from natural materials like wood, bamboo and coir, and not a single nail has been used in their construction. Earlier these boats were used as rice barges, but with the improvement in road and rail connectivity they have been converted to houseboats for the tourists who come to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Kerala backwaters.
There were quite a few 5 star resorts on the banks of the Vembanad Lake. Mr. Sukhatan pointed out the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary which was next to the Taj Kumarakom Resort. It looked like a dense forest and we saw a lot of odd looking and exotic birds flying around nearby and above the water. One bird suddenly swooped down in front of our boat, snatched a small fish from the water and was gone before I could point and shoot with my Canon. One can walk around the Bird sanctuary on foot but that would require at least 2 to 4 hours and is best done early in the morning.
In the far distance we could see the Pathiramanal Island in the middle of the lake, beyond which is the Thaneermukum Bund. Here the fresh water of the Vembanad Lake is seperated from the sea water of the Arabian Sea near Kochi. Since it was becoming quite warm we decided to conclude our boat trip and disembark at the Govt. Boat Jetty at Kumarakom. We had some refreshments and then visited the Bay Island Driftwood Museum nearby.
By now it had become warm and sticky, so we decided to head back to our homestay by auto-rickshaw. I had to call Mr. Xavier so that he gave the rickshaw driver proper directions in Malayalam, and also settle on a reasonable fare. The ride back was quite bumpy in the Piaggio three-wheeler. We had done the trip to Kumarakom through the backwaters, and now we were returning through the back roads! We returned back in time for lunch.
For lunch Mrs. Xavier had prepared chicken masala, dahi curry, carrot-coconut salad, tomato-onion salad, fried ivy gourd (tunle), and pappadoms. After lunch we slept for 2 hours. After coffee we had a lazy evening and I took some snaps in the compound. At 6 pm I went for a 45 minute walk. Though it wasn’t very hot the climate was humid and I was perspiring profusely by the time I was back. Dinner was a repeat of yesterday’s dinner menu.
We had a nice breakfast of idli-sambar with chutney, and mango juice to wash it down.
Xavier had already arranged a canoe to be at our disposal for the whole day. For Rs.100 we could wander around all the nearby canals as we pleased! The catch was that if we went on our own we would definitely get lost in the winding and twisting waterways. So we had to have the boatman with us.
As soon as the rain subsided we started out along the canal, the boatman pushing the canoe along with a long bamboo pole. It was a slow languid boat ride and I tried my hand at paddling to see if I remembered my canoeing skills. After some time the sun came out and it started getting hot in the open canoe. We had to turn back and returned to BHH after just 45 minutes of canoeing.
For lunch we were served dahi curry, rice, sambar, a dry dal, coconut veg mix, salad, pickle, and mango. This time we almost managed to finish everything on the table. Then we took an hour long siesta.
After evening tea we got into Xavier’s car and he drove us to Ayamenem to see Arundhati’s house. The house has been well described in her Booker Prize winning novel, ‘The God of Small Things”. It was about 4 km from BHH. The watchman refused to open the gates. So Xavier took us around the house and down to the Meenachil river behind the mansion. We had to be satisfied with clicking some snaps through the closed gates.
The road leading down to the river was just a dirt track and had become slushy with rain. Finally we reached the house of Xavier’s friend, Mr.Johnny, who is also a relative of Arundhati. He was very friendly, and we went up to his terrace with his teenaged daughter and son. We got a good view of the flowing Meenachil river lined with tall coconut trees along the banks, and dense green jungle on the other side. Johnny’s house had a very calm and peaceful setting, like a bungalow in the middle of a forest. There were other similar bungalows around, and Xavier told us that most of them belonged to Arundhati’s relatives from her mother’s side. Arundhati’s house itself was under dispute and presently there was no one living there.
Xavier brought us back via Parippu town. All along the route there were nice bungalows set amongst verdant greenery and tall coconut trees. There’s a lot of similarity with South Goa villages.
Back at the homestay Xavier’s son and daughter allowed us to use their computer so that we could catch up with our emails and updates. Dinner was the regular rice and potato veg coconut curry, with salad, chutney and bananas.
Woke up to a rainy morning. There was thunder and lightning too. Seems that the monsoon is setting in already. I went for a shorter 30 minute walk, and on the way back it started raining heavily. I wonder how it will be in Thekkady; will the rest of our holiday be washed out?
We were packed and ready by 10 am. Xavier had arranged for a private taxi for us, and it arrived promptly at 11 am. After wishing Xavier’s family good-bye we started out towards Kottayam, and then towards the High Ranges and the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary at Thekkady.