“There are three things you should know about Kerala,” my Tamil boss announced to our group as we gathered our rickshaws on the parking lot in Kanyakumari, “They’re the most literate state in India, they are mostly communist, and they also drink a lot”. We had just driven from Chennai to the southernmost point of the Indian mainland on rickshaws, and we were on our last day – crossing from Tamil Nadu into Kerala to the finishing line in Trivandrum.
For everyone it had been a party, but for me it was an exhausting trip collecting stories, photographs, doing social media updates from the road among the swaying coconut palms and thousand year old temples, before arriving at the hotel at midnight to upload a blog post that people over in Europe would read on their lunch break.
I was ready for a holiday, and I had another rally coming up to cover for my old job – this time in ambassador cars – and I needed to recharge. I toyed with the idea of using my off-days to fly to Sri Lanka or head up to Rajasthan, but in the end I decided to bloom where I was planted at the end of the rally: in one of India’s most beautiful states, Kerala.
The rally participants scattered, some went home, some went to Goa or Agra, and I bought a train ticket to Alleppey to spend the time doing nothing in the backwaters.
Kerala’s backwaters are unique;, they are a chain of interconnected lagoons running parallel to the Malabar Coast hugging the Arabian Sea.
The water is slightly saline, but not so much that freshwater plants won’t flourish in its ecosystem. This aquatic network of water is diverse in its topography with five large lakes linked by natural and man-made canals that are fed by over 35 rivers. Islands enclosing parakeet green rice paddies lined by towering coconut palms, dotted with houses set on the waters edge lie scattered in the landscape.
The town of Alappuzha, also known by its former colonial name Alleppey, hugs the coast of the Laccadive Sea and backs onto the canals of the backwaters. Canals penetrate the town, giving it the clichéd nickname “Venice of the East”, where local boats dock to load up on travelers commuting between villages and towns dotted along the backwaters.
There are three ways you can explore Kerala’s backwaters. The most famous and expensive option is to spend a night or more on a reworked “Kettuvallam”, a barge used to carry rice and spices along the canals. Planks of jack-wood held together with fibers taken from the outer husks of the coconut and coated with a caustic black resin rom boiled cashew kernels support these floating dwellings, marked by their thatched roofing built out of bamboo and coconut husk-fibers.
The budget option is to admire these iconic houseboats from afar from the local government ferry going from Alappuzha to Kottayam (costing around 19 rupees one way, around 30 cents USD), which takes 2.5 hours there, and then just ride back on the same boat. A midway option is to take a canoe tour which will get you out of the larger backwaters clogged up with houseboats and government ferries, but into the small lily coated canals lined with villages. I took the latter to as my way to unwind for a few days in the backwaters.
The ferry is spectacular, taking you through the grand canals and vast lakes that make up this unique ecosystem. Small barges cut in between with farmers ferrying rice between villages, as they use long poles to cut through the jungle-like vegetation thriving in the water.
The water itself is alive, with plants and flowers floating on the calm waters.
It takes almost three hours to get between the towns, and if you want to come back
to Alleppey you need to budget a whole day (without sightseeing in Kottayam) to do so, but it’s worth every rupee and minute to simply be present in landscape, from the carpet of hot pink flowers floating on the water to the reflections of the coconut palms in the mirror water.
The canoe boat gets you closer to the water, where you can reach out and touch the flowers as you float by in the water (I only found out after returning that there may be crocodiles in the water, but I didn’t see a sign of any).
The large boats can’t enter the smaller canals, which is why it’s worth forking out for a canoe trip as it gets you into the quieter parts of the backwaters, past the villages where locals gather on the banks of the water. Kerala’s backwaters are not only about the nature itself, but the people who make up its community.
It’s a part of India with a heritage rich in spices, tradition, and culture.
You may not clamber over ruins and temples in Kerala’s backwaters, nor jostle against the crowds in vibrant Indian bazaars or downtown Indian metropolises, instead Kerala teaches you to slow down, relax and appreciate the beauty of this unique state.