A Backwaters Cruise in Kerala

Lakes, canals, and lagoons form more than 600 miles of the backwaters of Kerala, India.

One way to experience the backwaters is by ferry services. The other is to rent a houseboat [kettuvallam] for a day or an overnight trip. A private two-cabin houseboat with an excellent crew can make your journey memorable.

Time spent in the backwaters can stimulate contemplation. In a private houseboat, you are the occasion. I had the good fortune of revisiting the backwaters with a couple of dear friends. As we glided gently along the lake and canals, the following words of Lord Buddha echoed in my mind:

“Better than a hundred years
of not perceiving how things arise and pass away,
is living one day if a person
does perceive how things arise and pass away.”

Kettuvallam (Kerala houseboat)

Don't be deceived by the looks. The houseboats were traditionally used to transport harvested rice from fertile fields alongside the backwaters. The houseboats now seem like floating private cottages that have a small sit-out, dining area, and air-conditioned cabins with attached western-style toilets. A crew of three—captain, engineer, and cook—cater to your needs.

Interior

The interior of our houseboat was clean, spacious, and comfortable. The beds seemed larger than standard queen-sized beds with crisp white cotton sheets and a fluffy comforter. A floor fan is standard and the bedrooms have a quiet air-conditioning system that is available overnight. The houseboat is equipped with flotation devices, fire extinguishers, etc.

Vembanad Lake

Separated from the Arabian Sea by a narrow barrier island, Vembanad Lake is the largest wetland system in India and one of its largest lakes. The lake is under a wetland conservation program that takes a "multi-stakeholder interdisciplinary approach designed and implemented to bring democratic principles into wetland conservation."

Our overnight trip began on the shores of this lake and the houseboat proceeded at a slow speed for smooth travel.

Livelihood

Major livelihood activities of the people living on the shores of Lake Vembanad include agriculture, fishing, coir retting [fiber extracted mechanically from coconut husks after a biodegradation process called retting], etc. Chinese fishing nets [possibly introduced by Chinese explorer Zheng He] can be seen along the shorelines. Fishermen on small boats cast their nets in the morning and it is not unusual to see women fishing from a coracle [bowl-shaped boat with a frame of woven grasses or reeds covered with hides].

View of a paddy field

Along our journey, we saw paddy fields that ran alongside the canals, as well as banana plantations. Rice is grown on low-lying ground that is irrigated with fresh water from canals and waterways connected to the Vembanad Lake. Rice paddies help to conserve ground water, provide natural drainage paths for flood waters, and are crucial for the preservation of the state's wide variety of flora and fauna.

Life along a narrow canal

People live alongside the narrow canals on homes that are usually one room long and 1-3 rooms wide. Drinking water is piped into the households and so is electricity. Canal water is used for washing dishes, bathing, washing clothes, etc.

A flavor of Kerala

Mostly Kerala food was cooked and served on board, though there were some options to satisfy most palettes. Fresh fruit juice is served and tea or coffee are always an option. For dinner, you can shop for fish or shrimp along the canals.

Rice as a staple and more

Rice is the staple food for the people of Kerala, as in many other parts of India. Kerala's Matta rice has a unique taste and is usually parboiled to ensure retention of its nutritional value.

A few years ago, indigenous varieties of paddy were lost to a few high-yielding varieties developed in labs. However, efforts led by a few farmers [along with a few scientists] who refused to forgo their heritage seeds as well as national campaigns such as the "Save our Rice Campaign" have helped preserve and propagate more than 1,000 varieties in fields across India.

Environmental concerns

A proliferation of unregulated motorized houseboats in the backwaters of Kerala has raised environmental concerns. A good practice is to use certified houseboats.

As an invasive species, Eichhornia crassipes [commonly known as water hyacinth] is having an unforeseen impact on the backwaters. However, efforts led by a local college professor have led to using the stem of Eichhornia crassipes as a material for pulp, a bed for mushroom cultivation, etc.

As the day winds down

We left the shores of Lake Vembanad around noon, crossed the lake, glided through canals, enjoyed a delicious lunch, and took a nap on deck. By evening, our Captain docked the houseboat and we were served tea with traditional Kerala snacks. Dinner was a traditional meal with a wide variety of delicious eats.

Note: If your idea of an evening is to be at a vibrant locale with tourists and restaurants, an overnight houseboat trip is definitely not for you.

Backwaters to beach to mountains

Kerala provides a traveler with abundant opportunities to explore a wide variety of experiences — from the backwaters to the beaches to the mountains.

Kerala has been a favorite destination of mine. I hope you will have an opportunity to experience the state of Kerala like I have — the people, the food, and the experiences will captivate you; I know!

10 Replies to “A Backwaters Cruise in Kerala”

  1. Beautiful story and, for that matter, all of them are beautiful. You challenge the cliche “so much to see and so little time to see it.” There’s plenty of time to linger over each travel and each photo, and after, I’s almost like I was there.

    Looking forward to more trips we can take.

    1. Thanks Dan! I am delighted that you are able to travel via the Pxley stories. I’ve enjoyed sharing them and hope to share more in the future. If you wish to receive updates when new stories are added, do subscribe to them from the footer of this page or from the Stories page.

  2. We enjoyed a similar experience this past Christmas. Many memorable moments, but the one that we talk about the most with our friends is our rendezvous with another houseboat from whom we purchased (thrown to us) beers. Mid-water refueling, I called it :-), although not as complicated or treacherous as the mid-air refuelings. Love the Pics and the stories. Since you have our emails, will you send out a notification when there is new content?

    1. Tomas, Thanks for sharing about your trip and your comments! “Mid-water refueling” does sound like a memorable moment. I will soon enable a “subscription” option to allow you and others to subscribe and receive updates on new stories. Thanks for asking about this notification.

  3. Hi Traveller/Photographer/Philosopher,

    The photographs speak!!! One could hear the rustle of the countless coconut fronds and the water gently lashing the side of the kettuvallam. Perfect picture of God’s own country!! My favourite is that of the church peeking through the coconut palms.

    1. Hi SP, Glad you enjoyed the backwaters story. It sounds like you might have taken a similar trip at some point. A story indeed unfolds as one rides along.

  4. The pictures are beautiful and the story/history is captivating. The Kettuvallam appears to be a 5 star hotel on the water. The Kettuvallam should remind us that beauty lies within and the outside is just a protective shell. The experience must have been serene and a time to reflect on one’s self.

    1. Thank you, Brad, and well said. Yes, the experience was serene and there was ample time to reflect on one’s self.

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