Sailing Through the Backwaters of Kuttanad

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Houseboat ride in Kuttanad
Kuttanad is a gem of Kerala, God’s own country.

An elderly man greeted us as soon as we parked our car. We had a chat with him over the phone just a while back; we were about to take a ride in his shikara through the backwaters of Kuttanad. 

It was like a dream come true for me. I longed for a backwater ride in Kuttanad region for a long time. Kuttanad is a gem of Kerala, God’s own country. The region is drained by four big rivers, one big lake and innumerable canals. The elderly man, Shivananda, had parked his shikara in one of those canals and we got into it. 

Though Shivananda’s shikara is not too big, it is beautifully decorated. It has four chairs and a bed big enough for one. The bed has been laid out with clean, sanitized sheets and two pillows as well. One can just recline on the bed and enjoy the ride. Whether it rains or the sun shines brightly, it would not be a problem as the boat is covered. 

Different types of houseboats are available for hire.

There are two types of packages for a shikara ride– two-hour package and three-hour package. The small shikaras can host a maximum of six persons.  For these, the rate is Rs 700 per hour. After sailing through the small canal for a few moments, we entered into a relatively bigger water body. It is the Pamba River. 

The four rivers which drain the Kuttanad region are Pamba, Meenachil, Achankovil and Manimala. Of them Pamba is considered to be the holiest. Apart from it, India’s longest lake, Vembanad also passes through Kuttanad region. 

Kuttanad has many interesting aspects in its culture, geography and agricultural practices. With a major portion of the area lying in the Alappuzha district of Kerala, it is a land where backwaters and canals make their presence felt more than any other region in Kerala. 

Kuttanad has four rivers and countless canals

Apart from Alappuzha, the Kuttanad region is spread through the districts of Kottayam and Pathanamthitta as well, covering an area of 960 square kilometres. 

Kuttanad is also known as the ‘Rice Bowl of Kerala’. Its wealth of paddy crops is what got it this unique nickname. The image of Kuttanad which is very popular among us are the vast green paddy fields all around, the crisscrossing canals and tall coconut trees swaying in the breeze. 

The lives of the local people of Kuttanad revolve around the backwaters

However, to our utter surprise we noticed that green paddy fields were nowhere to be seen. It was water and water all around. Here lies the most fascinating fact about Kuttanad, about which I will talk a bit later. 

Be it the canals, the rivers or the lake, these are all backwaters. These backwaters are the lifeline of Kuttanad. The life of the people here revolve around these water bodies. 

One of the biggest villages of this region is Kainakary. The village lies on both sides of the Pamba River. Primary schools, high school, temple, mosque, church – this village has everything. 

Boatman of Kuttanad

As we moved on, we came across several houseboats. These houseboats are another fascinating thing in Kuttanad. These are available on rent. They range from one-room boats to large vessels equipped with 100-seater conference halls. There are at least 1,000 boats here but the routes these boats take and the menu served on board are largely the same. For those who wish to spend a night on the backwaters, a houseboat ride in Kuttanad is highly recommended.

Crystal clear blue skies greeted us through our journey. After sailing for almost an hour, Shivananda parked his shikara in front of a tea shop. It was almost four in the evening, and our cravings for an evening tea had just started. Shivananda could sense our cravings. 

We came across several houseboats

The tea breaks are also an eternal part of a Shikara ride. There needs to be some refreshment at the middle of such a long journey. Apart from tea, one can have snacks as well. 

After a break of 15 minutes, our journey resumed. We sailed through the holy waters of Pamba observing the lifestyle of the people here. Fishing, swimming, and boat riding are integral parts of their lives. 

Kids here learn to swim before learning alphabets, and to sail boats before riding a bicycle. And when they are a little older they learn to fish before searching for any other jobs. 

As we sailed we observed the lives of the local people

From Pamba, we turned right and moved through another small canal when another fascinating thing attracted our attention. We could see a two-storied house in the middle of a pond. A boat is parked on the ground floor where there is water and the residents are in the second. 

“Why is the house constructed in the middle of that pond?” I asked Shivananda. 

“Who told you that it’s a pond? It is the paddy field!”

Shivananda’s reply surprised me. He continued, “It is one of the numerous paddy fields that are currently under water and will remain the same at least till December.”

Here comes the most fascinating fact about Kuttanad.  Kuttanad is a waterlogged region that spreads over about one lakh hectares. Of it, more than 50 thousand hectares remain submerged in water for most of the year. 

It is one of the few places in the world, and the only one in India, where farming activities are being held below sea level. The paddy fields here are actually located below the sea level and they are generally separated from the water bodies by dykes.

The local ferry service run by KSRTC

However, water overflows the dykes and enters the paddy fields once the rainy season starts, like it has happened now. Since the monsoon is prolonged in Kerala, it rains almost till December here. So the fields here remain waterlogged for most of the year. From January to early May, paddy farming is done extensively in Kuttanad. 

 

Such is the importance of water bodies here, that Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) runs service ferries here. Three big towns of Kerala – Kottayam in the north, Alappuzha in central and Kollam in the south are connected through this ferry service. The ferry service runs every day from 5 in the morning, till 10 in the night. 

After three hours, the cruise through the waters of Kuttanad came to an end. Shivananda parked his shikara at the same place from where we had started. The past three hours were really special. The beautiful backwaters, the people, their lives and their struggles, all made great memories I will cherish for a long time to come. When we got down from the shikara, the setting sun was still smiling on us.

Images used in this article are from the author’s collecton.

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