The Kerala backwaters are a
chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea
coast (known as the Malabar Coast) of Kerala state in southern India.
The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both manmade
and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length
of Kerala state. The backwaters were formed by the action of waves and
shore currents creating low barrier islands across the mouths of the
many rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats range.
Kerala has over 900 km of
interconnected waterways, rivers, lakes and inlets that make up the
Kerala backwaters. In the midst of this beautiful landscape there are a
number of towns and cities, which are the starting and end points of
backwater cruises. National Waterway No. 3 from Kollam to Kottapuram,
covers a distance of 205 km and runs almost parallel to the coast line
of southern Kerala facilitating both cargo movement and backwater
The backwaters have a
unique ecosystem - freshwater from the rivers meets the seawater from
the Arabian Sea. In certain areas, such as the Vembanad Kayal, where a
barrage has been built near Kumarakom, salt water from the sea is
prevented from entering the deep inside, keeping the fresh water
intact. Such fresh water is extensively used for irrigation purposes.
Many unique species of
aquatic life including crabs, frogs and mudskippers, water birds such
as terns, kingfishers, darters and cormorants, and animals such as
otters and turtles live in and alongside the backwaters. Palm trees,
pandanus shrubs, various leafy plants and bushes grow alongside the
backwaters, providing a green hue to the surrounding landscape.
Vembanad Kayal is the
largest of the lakes, covering an area of 200 km², and bordered by
Alappuzha (Alleppey), Kottayam, and Ernakulam districts. The port of
Kochi (Cochin) is located at the lake's outlet to the Arabian Sea.
Alleppey, "Venice of the East", has a large network of canals that
meander through the town. Vembanad is India’s longest lake.
The houseboats in Kerala
are huge, slow-moving, exotic barges used for leisure trips. Keralan
Rice Boats are a reworked model of Kettuvallams (in the Malayalam
language, Kettu means "tied with ropes", and vallam means "boat"),
which, in earlier times, were used to carry rice and spices from
Kuttanad to the Kochi port. Kerala houseboats were considered a
convenient means of transportation. They have thatched roof covers over
Boats in a variety of
shapes and sizes have traditionally been the main means of transport of
men and materials in the Kerala Backwaters since olden days. In
particular, the house boats were used to ship rice and spices and other
goods between Kuttanad and the Cochin port. It was a three-day affair
in those days. A standard house boat, which could be about 100 feet
long, can hold up to 30 tons, and that is as much as three big lorries
can.For the royalty these boats even became comfortable living
quarters. It was the important mode of transportation in coastal Kerala
just because of its accessibility to the most remote areas.
It took the vision and
enterpreneurship of a couple of enterprising young men to refurbish one
of these leviathans, hoisting on to it a wooden super-structure
incorporating a huge bed room, a toilet, a kitchenette and an open
balcony. The ancient houseboat with a modernized interior became a hot
favourite with tourists.
As the houseboats glide
over the Kerala backwaters at a leisurely pace, the sights are new, the
sounds are new, and every sensation is new every passing moment. A
cruise along the mirror-still lagoons, picture-book lakeside,
palm-fringed canals and shimmering rivulets of `God's Own Country' is
the most enchanting holidaying experience in the country. With a cruise
along the palm-fringed waterways turning to be part and parcel of
holidayers' itinerary, the traditional kettuvallam has emerged as the
mascot of Kerala Tourism
A houseboat is about 60 to
70 feet (about 18 to 21 meters) long and about 15 feet (about 5 m) wide
at the middle. The hull which is made of hundreds of fine but
heavy-duty planks of jack-wood is held together absolutely by coir
knots (not a single nail is used). This framework is then coated with a
caustic black resin extracted from boiled cashew kernels. And it lasts
for generations. The roof is made of bamboo poles and palm leaves. The
exterior of the boat is painted with protective coats of cashew nut oil.
The kettuvallam is
motorised and is steered in deep waters by means of oars or a rudder.
Long bamboo poles or 'punts' are used to propel in shadow areas. The
crew of a kettuvallam comprises two oarsmen and a cook or chef. Fresh
food, cooked in inimitable Kuttanadan style is the rage of the
Basically the kettuvallam
was originally designed to transport cargo and as such many design
changes had to be made to make it a tourist vehicle. The height of the
roof was increased to get sufficient headroom. A plank was laid all
through the length to reduce the disadvantages of the curved shape of
the hull for walking and comfortable seating. Windows and other
openings were provided for light, airflow and view. The entrance is
provided in the centre of the linear axis with a top hung panel.
More than 400 kettuvallams
ply the backwaters. Alappuzha is the citadel of house boats. There are
some 120 of them, well maintained and perfected as luxury liners there.
The house boats have all the creature comforts of a good hotel:
well-furnished bedrooms, modern hygienic toilets, cosy living rooms, a
beautiful kitchen and in some cases even a balcony for angling.