Kumarakom: Adrift on the Vembanad

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Statistics reveal that after Lake Superior in China, Vembanad happens to be the second largest freshwater lake in South Asia, and the largest in India. But if you were to visit Kerala and see this geographical marvel for yourself, your mind will refuse to believe that Vembanad is a lake. In fact, in the vast archive of God’s Own Office, it has to be a clerical error in classification. 

Stretching for 110 odd km, spanning three districts and formed because of the joining of the three rivers Periyar (Kochi), Meenachil (Kottayam) and Pampa (Alapuzha), Vembanad is as huge as the sea. At its widest point at Kumarakom, it measures 6 km across and its other end simply disappears from view. The strong sea breeze that billows in from the northwest lashes the water surface with huge waves. Sandwiched between this huge expanse and the parallel network of backwaters further inland lies one of the most picturesque villages of Kerala. It seems quite ironic that it took the knee surgery of our prime minister and his subsequent convalescence at Kumarakom to draw the attention of domestic tourists. 

Kumarakom wouldn’t have been discovered in the first place had it not been for an Essex missionary called Henry Baker who came here in 1818. His third son, Alfred George Baker bought 500 acres from the Maharaja of Travancore, reclaimed the backwaters, made canals and developed a coconut and paddy farm. The fruits used to be broken and thrown into the water while a boat navigated the canals to pick up the coconuts bobbing on the water. I had the good fortune of staying at a 17-acre backwater stretch that was once part of Baker’s empire. In its current avatar it was Kumarakom’s only authentic backwater resort, Golden Waters. Though the little islets now had 28 modern cottages that were interconnected by bridges, the age-old canals had been kept intact. 

While Baker’s main homestead was absorbed into the Taj property, his rubber plantation was converted into the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary. In a landscape strewn with churches he had erected and plots of land he had gifted, it was difficult not to find Baker’s imprint on Kumarakom. So much so that he even made his way into the most famous Indian novel of recent times. Baker was the inspiration behind the angrez sahib Karpa Sayi in Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’. And why not, the much-celebrated village Ayemenem was just a stone’s throw away from where I was.

Swinging from a hammock, stuffed to my gills with half of the creatures of the pond in front of me, life couldn’t have been better. The very thought of an excursion made my hair stand on end; but not me. Kumarakom had to wait to be discovered. Or so I thought until the crew of the evening boat came along. Before I could even protest I found myself slumped on a chair on the terrace of the boat. 

The boat slowly wove its way through the narrow canal giving a lazy slideshow of rural Kuttanad culture. “This lush stretch of paddy on your left is called 900-acres” piped a voice. No one had noticed the guide until he decided to speak. We stared at him waiting for an explanation but he didn’t speak again for 10 minutes. “Duck”. We looked around for creatures flapping in the water until someone saw the low overhead bridge right ahead. Umbrellas, tourists, plastic chairs all went down in one swoop. While others got back up, I continued the rest of my journey from my comfortable but horizontal position. 

The canal met up with a bigger one and soon the backwater stretch had disgorged us onto Vembanad Lake. We drifted down and anchored at a piece of land. The guide felt six pairs of eyes trained on him demanding an explanation. “R-Block”, he said, as if that settled it. “It’s a unique 3000-acre stretch of land that is actually lower than the sea level. Does anyone want toddy?” Four ayes and 2 maybes. A dark lithe man with an eager smile disappeared into the bushes. He returned after 15 minutes with a canister and smelly breath. 

Toddy was poured into glasses. Now we were interested. All eyes on the guide. “Dykes were constructed to prevent the seawater from flowing in and soon paddy began to be cultivated on the reclaimed land. The whole of R-Block was once owned by the Marickan family, the Kings of the Backwaters. When the Land Ceiling Act came and people were allowed a maximum 5 acres, Marickan cleverly chose the edges (in the shape of a ring), knowing that even if he lost his paddy, he’d still have coconuts.” So why R-Block? “They say it’s after Rani, Marickan’s daughter. Or maybe his wife. Actually I’m not sure saar. It’s a very old story”. 

The story was short, the pauses were long and soon five inebriated souls sailed down the Vembanad. We cruised past Pathiramanal or Midnight Sand, an island where the King of Kochi used to make a nightly halt on his journey to south Kerala. The island is supposed to have surfaced from the lake after an earthquake, though some believe it’s man-made. Local legends say that it was formed when a devout Brahmin dived in to perform his ritual evening bath and the waters of the Vembanad parted. Around late evening Pathiramanal also became the feeding-ground for all the birds of Kumarakom sanctuary. It was uncanny, but all the activity seemed to be happening around evening. Before the blue evening transformed to darkness, we were glad to be back in the confines of our plush beds at Golden Waters. Dinner was a heavenly spread of Kerala fare – Appams, Chicken Stew, Mutton Fry, Fish Curry and more. It was going to be tough getting up early for our date with the residents of Kumarakom Bird sanctuary. 

The 2 km walk to the sanctuary was brisk in the crisp cool morning air. A pathway through thick woods took us past trees from which giant fruit bats hung like bunches of grapes. The core of the sanctuary was 5 acres of swamp area, which teemed with Grey Herons, Indian Darters, White Ibis and Purple Heron. Apart from all four cormorant species, Kumarakom and its adjoining area has recorded as many as 135 species, including Marsh Harrier and White-breasted Water-hen. With such a ready source of fish and water, one could hardly blame them for overcrowding. The Vembanad itself was a fabulous eco-system. During monsoons, the ancient Thaneermukkam Dam’s locks are opened to maintain the water level, making the lake saline. But the mangrove trees, whose roots absorb salinity, made the water fresh again. 

If the evening cultural programs of Kalari and Mohini-attam at Golden Waters don’t whet your appetite, you could try excursions to Kottayam and Ettumanoor. After all the activity, you’ll find that the retreat is also a good place to rejuvenate, as the in-house Ayurveda retreat is run by pioneers of the Kalari system, the highest form of healing used by martial artists. But when it’s time to leave, nothing comes close to the feeling that you’ve stayed at a resort that has played host to the De Gaulle family of France and Lord David Putnam of Chariots of Fire fame.

Factfile:

For reservations, contact Golden Waters – Alex Resorts, 21/1, Rest House Road, Bangalore 560 001 Ph: 5591416/7, 5595031 Fax: 5586473 E-mail: alexresorts2002@yahoo.co.in, alexresorts@hotmail.com www.goldenwaters.com

Getting there: Nearest airport: Kochi (78 km), Nearest railhead: Kottayam (10km)

Excursions:

Kottayam (10 km)

Kottayam, like the rest of Kerala, is a fascinating blend of diverse cultures. Visit the 1000-year-old Thazhathangadi mosque famous for its architecture, the win churches of Cheriapally and Valiapalli, the latter being built in 1550 AD by the descendants of Syrian Christians who had migrated from Jerusalem and the ancient Thirunakkara temple.

Ettumanoor 

The Ettumanoor Temple, one of the most revered Shiva shrines in South India, is the innacle of traditional Kerala architecture. The precinct is replete with ornate carvings and some of the most exquisite mural paintings in India.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in October, 2003 in Deccan Herald (Sunday).

 
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