The sheer collage of colors blinded us – a natural mosaic of greens, yellows and browns that merged into a beautiful pattern. Even the muddy roads seemed picturesque. We gazed endlessly into a seamless montage of mangrove forests, paddy fields, green meadows and coconut trees that were interrupted by canals and lakes. Suddenly, a narrow creek appeared out of nowhere. We took a short detour and followed the stream, cutting through the foliage until it turned into a vast expanse of water. We had reached our destination.We were in Kumarakom, a small village in God’s own country, actually created by man.
Carved out of the backwaters, way back in the 19th century by a British missionary, George Baker, Kumarakom is a cluster of islands huddled together on the banks of the Vembanad lake. The story goes that Baker decided to settle down here and hence he cleared the marshy mangrove forests around the backwaters and planted some coconut trees on its banks and lo, Kumarakom was born. Today, Baker’s bungalow is a five star resort in this idyllic destination.
We were however not headed to any resort. Our agenda was to spend a floating holiday on the backwaters, sailing across these “ kayals” as they are referred to locally. A spacious double bedroom kettuvellam or the traditional rice barge was waiting for us on the narrow creek with her crew on board. More than 60 feet long, these country crafts are now personalized luxury houseboats, complete with a living room, an open lounge, a kitchenette and a personal bathroom attached to the bedroom.
We let the sunshine come in as we opened the thatched windows and the entire canvas came alive. Our first glance of the Vembanad lake was mesmerizing We feasted on an endless expanse of blues, with tinges of green and browns. The dainty water lilies danced. The water hyacinths floated aimlessly. The green fabric of paddy fields lay submerged within water. As we were gazing out, we realized why Kumarakom was called the Rice Bowl of India. These submerged fields of paddy, fringed with coconut and banana plantations were once reclaimed from the lake. These fields were just separated from the backwaters by a clay wall that prevented the waters from flooding it further. Small tharavadu houses dot these areas which were built on a slightly higher level and locals took their boats when they needed to head out of their homes.
Drifting on the kayals
As we started sailing towards Azhapuzha (or Alleppey), we crossed several clusters of islands and farms separated by a labyrinth of brooks, streams and lagoons. The inclined coconut trees interrupted the landscape as we found ourselves flanked by lush greenery on either side. Several tourists and locals sailed past us in their barges and canoes, taking in the moment. We passed by a few who were attempting to fish, but the native “Karimeen” seemed elusive. The silence grew on us as our eyes took in the endless blue-green spectacle. And then we had our first meal aboard – a sumptuous spread of traditional and local dishes with some fresh toddy to quench our thirst.These kayals are an endless flow of brackish lagoons and inland lakes which curled and furled around the town. It is said that 42 of the 44 rivers originating from the Western Ghats empty into these waterways that engulfs everything in sight. The Vembanad lake, which is the largest of them, borders the districts – Alapuzha, Kottayam and Ernakulam.
We continued our journey watching the lake turn several hues. It was one heady mix of beauty and peace. Occasionally, the birds broke the silence, feasting on the paddy fields submerged in water. We paused for lunch on an idyllic island, sipping in the natural flavor of toddy. Our next port of halt was the bird sanctuary on the enchanting island called Pathiramanal, home to several migratory birds such as Siberian cranes, teal, egrets, heron and the water duck. Located on the distributary of the Meenachil river which flows through Kottayam, the sanctuary is spread over 14 acres.
The sunlight streamed in, creating patterns, a flock of cormorants flew in the distant horizon, a lone oarsman slowly rowed his way through, leaved a hard day’s work behind him… It was a moment captured in eternity . As the night closed in on us like a thick blanket that shrouded everything, I collected my thoughts of the day.
A regular day on Vembanad
Daylight brought in the first images of Azhapuzha. The waters were abuzz with life. Kids going to school, vegetable vendors selling their fares on the boats, fishermen with their nets, a few tourists on the canoe and lots like us watching the routine of the locals from our bedrooms. For the locals, it was their daily routine of life; for us, however it was an exotic holiday in the backwaters.
We were in our barges, sipping tender coconut water as our crew were getting our breakfast ready. But we weren’t the only ones. The cormorants were hunting for their breakfast too. A kingfisher made a quick dive. Our boat gently swayed as the breeze blew and the rope tied loosely to the coconut tree bobbed on the waters. A group of water hyacinths floated towards us.
We stepped out to see Azhapuzha , a nondescript town today, but during the colonial era, it was an important trading post. Today, Azhapuzha is more of a coir manufacturing centre. We had little time on us and so we decided to go for a morning stroll on the beach. The weather was just perfect as the pink and blue sky beckoned us to this unsoiled, calm beach. We walked a bit, taking in the fresh air and giving our lazy limbs some exercise. We soon returned to the kettuvallam to have our sumptuous breakfast and continued our cruise back to Kumarakom.
Our journey had not yet ended… but I think we found what we were looking for. A little bit of peace and lots of happiness.
Photos credit: Kerala Tourism