Have you ever dreamt of owning an island? Well, your dreams can come true in the backwaters of Alappuzha, the Venice of the East, where you can own your very own miniature island, perhaps for less than the cost of a luxury car. A sliver of a state in India’s deep south, Kerala, truly God’s own country, is shaped by its landscape – almost 600 kms of glorious Arabian Sea coast and beaches, a languid networks of lakes and lagoons and the spice and tea-covered hills of the Western Ghats. Its famous backwaters are home to rice paddies, coconut groves, elegant houseboats and humble fishermen, delicate, taste-bud-tingling cuisine, exotic birds and heady spices, the odd dolphin and vibrant traditions such as Kathakali dance plays and snake-boat races.
As relaxing as an ayurvedic massage, just floating in the watery world of the Backwaters, among swathes of soul-quenching green palms, set in a languid swirl of canals, will slow your stride to a blissed-out amble. Kerala is a world away from the frenzy of elsewhere, as if India had passed through the looking glass and become an altogether more laid-back place.
Alappuzha – still more romantically known as Alleppey – is the hub of Kerala’s backwaters, home to a vast network of waterways (part of the National Waterway 3), and more than 1,000 houseboats. Wandering around the small but chaotic city centre, with its modest grid of canals, you’d be hard-pressed to agree with the ‘Venice of the East’ tag given to it by the British Viceroy, Lord Curzon. But step out of this mini-mayhem and head west to the beach – or in practically any other direction towards the backwaters – and Alleppey is graceful and greenery-fringed, disappearing into a watery world of villages, canoes, toddy shops and, of course, houseboats. Glide along and gaze over rice fields of succulent green, curvaceous rice barges and village life along the banks. It is definitely one of Kerala’s most mesmerisingly beautiful and relaxing experiences.
The Kerala Backwaters were formed as a result of forceful sea waves against the shore currents creating low barrier islands across the river mouths in the Western Ghats, with the water from the sea flowing back into the rivers, resulting in an intermixing of seawater and freshwater, evolving into a unique ecosystem. Many species of aquatic life including crabs, frogs and mudskippers, water birds like terns, kingfishers and animals like otters and turtles live in the backwaters.
Palm trees, shrubs and bushes grow alongside, providing a green hue to the surrounding landscape. Alappuzha is crisscrossed by a system of intricate canals and is the oldest planned town in this region. Its lighthouse is the first of its kind along the Kerala coast, with the Arabian sea to its west, and the town has always enjoyed a unique place in the maritime history of Kerala, with British merchants quick to grasp the trade potential of the place, with its many canals and proximity to the sea.
The best option to explore hydro-highways of Kerala’s backwaters’ paradise is to board a houseboat and do an overnighter, a truly memorable experience. A cruise along the palm fringed waterways of Alappuzha in a luxury houseboat is a unique experience, as your boat chugs past fishermen with Chinese fishing nets, serene water lilies, or women toiling in paddy fields or weaving coir baskets in traditional villages fringed by fisheries, coconut groves, cashew plantations and whitewashed churches.
Several lagoons, lakes, canals, estuaries and deltas and six rivers make up the long stretch of backwaters of Alappuzha, from where you can visit three other districts of Kerala - Kollam, Kottayam and Kochi. The largest backwater body, the Vembanad lake, flows through Alappuzha and Kottayam and opens out into the sea at Kochi port. Sandwiched between the Western Ghats and the backwaters, Kottayam is renowned for being the centre of Kerala’s spice and rubber trade. It is well connected to both the mountains and the backwaters, with many travellers taking the backwater cruise to or from Alleppey.
The tranquil trading town of Kollam (Quilon), is the southern approach to Kerala’s backwaters and one end of a popular backwater ferry trip to Alleppey. One of the oldest ports in the Arabian Sea, it was once a major commercial hub that saw Roman, Arab, Chinese and later Portuguese, Dutch and British traders jostle into port – eager to get their hands on spices and the region’s cashew crops. The centre of town is reasonably hectic, but surrounding it are the calm, untouristy waterways of Ashtamudi Lake – a great place to get a feel for the backwaters without the crowds. Serene Kochi has been drawing traders and explorers to its shores for over 600 years. Nowhere else in India could you find such an intriguing mix: giant fishing nets from China, a 400-year-old synagogue, ancient mosques, Portuguese houses and the crumbling remains of the British Raj. It’s an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast and a delightful place to spend some time and nap in some of India’s finest homestays or enjoy superb heritage accommodation.
Houseboats in Alleppey are called Kettuvallams and made by fastening together several pieces of wooden planks. Unbelievable as it may sound, not a single nail is used in the construction of a traditional Kettuvallam. Jackwood planks are joined together with coir rope and then coated with black resin made from boiled cashewnut shells. Earlier, when the roads were inadequate, Kettuvallams were primarily used as goods carriers. Today, many of these giant 80-foot long crafts have been adapted into luxuriously furnished floating hotels. Generally, a houseboat has bedrooms with attached bath, an open lounge, deck, kitchenette and a crew comprising oarsmen, cook and a guide.
The standard package includes a boat ride during the day. You can stop the boat whenever you want to explore more or to sip tender coconut water from a wayside vendor or you can ask for a canoe ride through the narrow canals, where you can have closeup glimpses of the scenic countryside and local life, from ladies angling for the fish to bite so they can cook their lunch, toddy tappers extracting alcoholic sap from coconut palms, duck farmers pushing their flock for their daily swim, local ferries carrying passengers and much more. An interesting sight is locals, including ladies and children, merrily rowing small canoes to commute from one place to another as there are no roads. Their canoe is a substitute for the bicycle. At night, the boats generally don’t cruise, instead they will anchor anywhere in the Backwaters you choose. Food of your choice is prepared on board with flavours of the local cuisine. If you are a non-vegetarian, there are varieties of fish and seafood, freshly caught and fried or prepared in a yummy coconut milk curry or in fiery Kerala spices.
There are different classes of houseboats to suit any budget. From the Gold star, with green palm certification, run by premium luxury business groups, to Silver star luxury boats to standard houseboats. If your budget is limited, explore this aquatic world by boarding a three-hour ferry from Alappuzha to Kottayam or a day-long ferry from Alappuzha to Kollam. Excellent tours through the canals are organised by the DTPC and a few private operators. After a drive to the starting point, you take a three-hour trip via punted canoe. On these guided excursions you can observe daily village life, see kettuvallam (rice barge) construction, toddy (palm beer) tapping, coir-making, prawn and fish farming, and do some birdwatching or spice-garden visits. Small boats with 12-seats are also available for hire on an hourly basis.
A standard boat has 1 or 2 bedrooms, but there are also huge ones with 5 to 7 rooms and some even offer a swimming pool! But locals simply dive right into the tranquil waters for a bath as they are not picky.
Their life here is totally dependent on water, from being a source of food to household washing, to enjoying a boat race. Naturally, these folks become good swimmers and young talent from this region could become excellent swimmers for the country. You will also see several houses situated much below water level as the inland waterways flow above the land level, an amazing feature of the topography here. You may wonder how these people survive without any fear but for them it’s simply a way of life. During the monsoons the water levels rise even higher but not very many mishaps happen, for nature and humans live in mutual understanding, respect and harmony.
The district also houses a region known as Kuttandu, the granary of Kerala, one of the few regions in the world where farming is done below sea level. Kuttanadu is known as the rice bowl of Kerala because of its rich in paddy crops in the heart of the backwaters.
Owing to its proximity to the sea, the climate is hot and humid in summer but cool and pleasant from October to January. It gets the benefit of both southwest and northeast monsoons. Alappuzha can be reached easily by several trains. Otherwise, it is a 90-minute drive from Cochin international Airport.