ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY explore India’s largest freshwater lake Vembanad and the Kuttanad region of Alleppey, Kumarakom & Mararikulam in plush houseboats and country crafts, savouring Kerala’s delectable backwater cuisine
Women ducked into the water like Little Grebes to hunt for clams and shells, surfacing intermittently to deposit their catch onto the boat. A lone Darter sat still on a stump as if punished or in penance. A group of neer kaka (water crows) or cormorants flew in a tight formation like low-flying fighter jets on a sortie avoiding detection by radar. Whistling ducks rummaged clumps of hyacinth which appeared like floats in a constant parade. Our country boat purred through the quiet waters of the Vembanad Lake, its tranquility a far cry from the busy Nehru Trophy Boat Race when thousands flocked to Punnamada to watch the great snake boat races of Kerala.
The ride into the narrow canals of Punnamada offered insightful glimpses into the riverine culture of the paddy-growing region of Kuttanad. Fishing, coir making, duck farming, toddy tapping, cultivating coconut, banana and tapioca, besides staring at tourist boats with feigned disinterest seemed the primary occupations. The boatman lured us to visit an unnamed kallu shaap (local bar) swearing that the kappa-meen was mind blowing. It was, literally. This culinary tag team works in tandem, the fish curry is liquid fire and toddy fuels its flames.
Suitably inebriated, we returned to Punnamada Resort. Located just 1 km from the finish line, it is the perfect base to cover the Nehru Trophy race and Alappuzha, a port town developed by Diwan Raja Kesava Das in 1776. From our lakefront cottage, we saw kayaks diligently practice their strokes off the Alappuzha Boat Club islet. After demolishing meen pollichathu (fish masala steamed in banana leaf), kozhi pepper fry and Kerala parathas, we were off for a houseboat cruise on Vembanad, the second largest freshwater lake in South Asia.
Food on water
Not too long ago, the entire transportation system in Kerala was a 900km network of interconnected rivers, lakes, inlets and backwater canals. With the help of these National Waterways (aquatic equivalent of a national highway), you could hop on at Cochin and hop off as far south as Kollam.
However, it was Vembanad lake that became the heart and soul of the houseboat circuit. Stretching for over 110 km and spanning three districts, Vembanad was formed by the joining of five rivers – Periyar, Meenachil, Pampa, Manimala and Achankovil. Ironically it took the knee surgery of ex-PM Vajpayee and his convalescence at Kumarakom to place it on the domestic tourism map.
At the Puthenangadi boat jetty, Mr. John of Spice Coast Tours welcomed us aboard the luxurious houseboat. Entrusted to the care of driver Sanil Kumar, navigator Tomy George and chef Kochumon Thomas, we set off clutching our welcome drink of tender coconut. None can ascertain how the transformation of grain barges into plush kettu vallams (house boats) and war canoes into chundan vallams (snake boats) came about, but it can perhaps be ascribed to the uncanny Malayali sense of enterprise.
Dykes to prevent seawater from flowing in soon led to paddy cultivation on the reclaimed land. It was apparent why Kuttanad was called the Rice Bowl of Kerala. George pointed to a lush stretch of paddy called 900-acres. ‘And that’s R-Block, a 3000-acre patch that’s actually lower than the sea level. It was once owned by the Marickans, Kings of the Backwaters who named it after one of their daughters Rani.’
As Thaneermukkam Bund (literally ‘mouth of the water’) loomed ahead, the houseboat slipped through a channel like an eel. The Vembanad is a fabulous eco-system. During monsoons, Thaneermukkam’s locks are opened to maintain water levels, making the lake saline. But the roots of mangrove trees absorb salinity, making the water fresh again.
Lunch was soon ready and a mind-boggling spread of Kerala rice, sambar, kaalan (curd-based gravy) and banana flower fry appeared alongside fresh catch from Vembanad – Meen Moilee, Jumbo Prawns and fish fry. The piece de resistance was a tangy fish curry and we learnt it was due to gamboge or Malabar tamarind, mistaken by most as kokum (Garcinia). The yellowish fruit is deseeded, rubbed with coconut oil and salt, sun-dried and smoked in kitchen chimneys to acquire its unique taste. It is typical to central Kerala where it is used as a souring agent in fish dishes.
A bite of history
A strong sea breeze billowing in from the northwest lashed the surface with huge waves. At its widest point Kumarakom, the lake measured 6 km across while its other end simply disappeared from view. If you dozed off and awoke suddenly, you could assume you had drifted into the sea! A dense clump of vegetation caught our eye and we decided to dock at Pathiramanal or Island of Midnight Sand, where the King of Kochi traditionally made a night halt on his journey to south Kerala.
The 19.6 hectares island supposedly surfaced from the lake after an earthquake, though locals say it was formed when a devout Brahmin Sree Narayan Gurudev, dived in to perform his ritual evening bath and like Moses at the Red Sea, the waters of the Vembanad parted. A paved path led to the other end of the island and by evening Pathiramanal became the feeding-ground for birds from Kumarakom sanctuary nearby.
At dusk, we alighted onto a smaller boat for a 10-min ride from Kavanatinkara boat landing to Coconut Lagoon, one of the first resorts in the area. Mr. Anil Kumar, the General Manager regaled us with interesting anecdotes and historical nuggets. We learnt that Kuttanad probably got its name from Karimadi Kuttan, a black statue of Buddha as the area was under the sway of Buddhism, eons ago.
Kumarakom itself owed its existence to Henry Baker, an Essex missionary who came here in 1818. His son, Alfred George Baker bought 500 acres of land from the Maharaja of Travancore, reclaimed the backwaters, built canals and cultivated a coconut and paddy farm. In the coming years, Baker’s main homestead was assimilated into the Taj property while his rubber plantation became the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, the roost of several aquatic birds and large fruit bats.
The buffet meals offered a great introduction to the little known flavours of Kuttanad that are otherwise difficult to source in town. But to us, perfection lay on a banana leaf. Coconut Lagoon’s curry meals feature a fine selection of non-veg and vegetarian items…
Starting with an appetizer – raw jackfruit mash (an interesting variation of tapioca) in combination with fish curry and fish fry, we moved on to a wholesome meal of red rice with duck roast, beef fry, prawn masala, fish fry, mango kalan, beetroot pachadi, papad and pickles. For dessert we could only manage a bowl of ada pradaman and banana.
When you gorge so much, the best way to work out is the guided birdwatching trail and butterfly walk in the morning. To our surprise we learnt that the setting for Arundhati Roy’s Booker winner ‘God of Small Things’, the village of Ayemenem, was a stone’s throw away from Coconut Lagoon.
From the gentle backwaters of Kumarakom we headed to the seaside town of Mararikulam and dropped anchor at the luxurious thatch huts of Marari Beach Resort. The restaurant was named Chakara after the unique formation of mud banks during monsoon when nutrient rich silt washed down by the river attracts fish and prawns from the rough sea to seek sanctuary. This feasting pool offers a rich harvest for local fishermen.
With a lavish buffet including local specialties like beef-kaya (raw plantain) curry to international cuisine like pasta and baked seafood, Chakara lived up to its name. Every afternoon, old Sebastian, a local tea vendor rolls in his cart on the lawns and dexterously pours the ‘metre chai’, a tumbler of frothy tea.
With daily cooking demos, you can pick your own veggies from the organic farm and learn how to cook it. What’s more, you needn’t sing for your supper since the singing chefs of Marari provide live music every night! And you crawl into bed dreaming of wafting over rippling waters in a boat under a moonlit sky.
Things to Do
Temple Trail – In Alappuzha town, visit the Sree Jain Shwetambar Temple and Sree Mullackal Devi Temple where the Goddess appeared many times to protect a sacred jasmine tree. At Mararikulam, pay homage at the Mahadeva temple where Lord Shiva burnt Mara (Kama) into ashes. The Nagaraj Temple at Mannarsala is a serpent shrine where a priestess performs the puja. And don’t forget to taste the divine pal payasam (milk porridge) at the Krishna temple at Ambalapuzha.
Boat cruises – Choose from short 2-hr Kettuvallam Cruise, Sunset Cruise, 6-hour Day Cruise that includes on-board lunch and evening snacks/tea or Overnight Cruise with full board on the houseboat. Some resorts also offer single and double kayaks, speedboats and country canoes, which can navigate the narrow canals for a closer look at life in the backwaters.
Birdwatching – A pathway through the thick woods of Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary leads past trees laden with giant fruit bats and migrant birds. The core of the sanctuary, a 5 acre swamp, teems 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 Waterhen.
When to Go
The main tourist season is from October to March, though the monsoon months of June-August offer quiet romantic holidays.
By Air: The nearest airport is Nedumbassery, Kochi 85 km from Alappuzha
By Road: Alappuzha is well connected to Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Tatanagar and other cities across India.
Boats ferry people from the jetty at Muhamma to Kumarakom or from Kavanatinkara boat landing, 10 km from Kottayam. Spice Coast Tours operate their houseboats from the private jetty at Puthenangad, 45 km from Kochi. Cabs are available on hire from Alappuzha or Cochin. For travel arrangements, contact Travel Cart Ph 0484 2669933/44/55 firstname.lastname@example.org
Punnamada, Alleppey 688006 Ph 0477 2233690-1 Fax: 0477 2233694 Email: email@example.com www.punnamada.com
A fabulous lakefront resort, Punnamada has traditional Kerala style cottages with charming open to sky bathrooms. Pamper yourself with a massage at the spa and gaze at the Vembanad as you dine at Chulha, a limestone kiln renovated into a restaurant. Lounge in a houseboat, go on village walks or take a canoe ride into the canals.
Kumarakom, Kottayam 686 563 Ph 0481 2525834-6, 2523572-4 Fax 0481 2523571 Email firstname.lastname@example.org www.cghearth.com
Drift into a watery oasis where you are given a traditional welcome with Indian percussion and flute. Stay at heritage bungalows that have been painstakingly transplanted in a 22 acre coconut plantation fringed by an 8 acre paddy farm and an open lake. Try the curry meal, enjoy a drink at Heron’s Pond, go birdwatching, chase butterflies in the garden or surrender to Ayurvedic rejuvenation based on ancient marma techniques
Marari Beach Resort
Mararikulam-North, Alleppey 688549 Ph 0478 2863801–09 Fax 0478 2863810 Email email@example.com
Return to the elements while staying in luxury thatch huts, watch the waves roll in at Marari Beach, spot Tigers, Crows and other winged wonders in the Butterfly Garden and get a guided tour of the organic vegetable plot. Float in the luxurious pool, warm up with a hot cuppa at the in-house Chai Kada (tea stall) and fall in love with Marari for the divine food and the infectious warmth of its staff who transform into singing chefs by night.
BOX: SNAKE BOAT RACES OF KERALA
About 250 years ago, the kings of Ambalapuzha and Kayamkulam were at war. The Ambalapuzha king asked his architect Devanarayana to design a sleek boat that could carry a lot of soldiers and also fire cannons. Devanarayana designed the chundan vallom or snake boat, named after the chundu (raised prow) that rose 10 feet above the water like the hood of a serpent. The craft was 100 feet long with a revolutionary mechanism that propelled the boat forward with the recoil of the cannon. Soon the Kayamkulam king demanded one but the loyal architect reversed the firing mechanism such that the boat would reverse whenever a shot was fired. Over time, the wars ended and the chundan valloms became symbols of competition.
The cannon is replaced by two people who rhythmically beat the odithatta (fire platform) with logs while 25 singers sing the vanchipattu (Song of the Boatman). A man chants ‘arpu irroh’ sending 130 thodazhilkar (oarsmen) into synchronized frenzy. The strongest oarsmen sits at front to set the pace while the rear is controlled by 6 amarakara (helmsmen). At the highest point stands the chief oarsman, who controls the movement of the boat through hand gestures. If an oarsman gets up and rows, the entire team is disqualified. Today, snake boat races are the largest team sport in the world. The boats are oiled with a black mixture of fish oil, coconut shell, carbon and egg shells, which keeps the wood strong and the boat slippery in water.
Vallamkali or the boat races of Kerala begin during the harvest festival of Onam. Champakulam Moolam Boat Race, the oldest and most popular snake boat race in Kerala, is closely connected to Ambalapuzha’s Sree Krishna Temple. The race is held at Champakulam Lake on the day of the installation of the deity at the temple. Payippad Jalotsavam (Sep 10) is a 3-day fest on the Payippad Lake, 35 km from Alappuzha, which commemorates the installation of the Subramanya deity at the Haripad Temple,. Aranmula Uthrattadi (Sep 12) is a 2-day water fiesta at Aranmula. But the race to look out for is the Indira Gandhi Boat Race held in the last week of December. 16 boats battle for this coveted trophy in the Marine Drive waters of Ernakulam Lake during the Cochin Carnival.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Sep-Nov 2012 issue of Time Out Explorer magazine.