There’s no doubt about it – the high point of my trip to Kerala was a trawl through the backwaters in a houseboat. My hotel – Kumarakom’s Radisson Plaza – has its own houseboat, but getting a houseboat on hire is hardly rocket science: in the course of around six hours, I probably passed eighty others.
Our little crew consisted of two sailors – you can hardly call them oarsmen, for the houseboat had a motorized steering system – a hotel cook and Manisha, my girl Friday, also from the hotel. I didn’t need to tell the sailors where to go: there seemed to be a fixed route. At first, it was nothing great: just the vast expanse of the Vembanad Lake all around, with the shoreline of Kumarakom receding. Little did I realize it at the time, but that’s when I should have had lunch. Instead, I elected to have it when we were reaching Allapuzha (formerly Allepey), and scarcely knew whether to tuck into the admittedly delicious fried prawns and fish curry or to wield my camera.
The whole point of a houseboat in Kerala is to sightsee, and the best places to do it in are the villages that are surrounded by water. Vast expanses of water are pleasant enough – you can listen to music on your i-Pod or take a well-earned snooze: the combination of the movement of the boat and the strong breeze is soporific indeed. But the real purpose of a ride on a houseboat is to see how the other half lives. Besides the quick-silver flash of sunlight on water, I saw tiny boats with tattered sails proceeding at a stately pace along the shores of the lake. I saw double-storey motor launches stopping by to pick up passengers who wait patiently in government-constructed boat stops. Best of all, I got to see a slice of life that only exists in that part of the world.
A ten year old girl, wearing a white First Communion dress (this is Christian country, after all) tripping along a raised embankment, supremely unselfconsciously, ladies wearing nighties in broad daylight, washing clothes in the backwaters, a couple of coconut growers throwing ripe coconuts from tree-tops into their boat, never missing aim, passengers with rolled up umbrellas in hand waiting for ferry boats, animatedly chatting over their cell-phones.
On the way to Allapuzha was a kind of boat-yard where the full force of the boat-building industry is visible to all who pass by. Over a kilometer of shore-line is given over to eight houseboat factories. Some boats are nothing more than the base, made from a local wood according to the age-old design of rice boats that have been in Kerala’s backwaters from time immemorial. Others are almost complete: the all-important name is being stuck on in shiny brass lettering. Still others are completely ready and are tied up like giant presents under a tropical Christmas tree with white or blue plastic covering until the owner comes along, probably with the final payment.
I had the option of taking a houseboat ride overnight or all day. The overnight ride includes dinner and stay in an air-conditioned bedroom while the boat is moored at a particular point, but I found it too akin to sleeping in a hotel bed. Technically, you can spend several days in a houseboat, traveling through the backwaters that stretch from Kollam (formerly Quilon) to Thrissur, but practically, there are many areas where the water is too shallow or the bridges too low to allow houseboats. Kumarakom, right on the Vembanad Lake has become, ipso facto, the houseboat capital of the state. And with good reason too.
The design for the bottom half of Kerala’s houseboats are age-old. Called kettuvellams, they are made out of planks of wood called anjili (artocarpus hirsute or jackwood), that are tied together by rope. Needless to say, both the wood and the coir rope are locally procured. The only metal in the bottom half is copper nails which do not rust. It is the frame of the upper half where boat-builders give free rein to their imagination: each boat is slightly different from its neighbours, but in general a frame of bamboo and bamboo grass is the norm. Inside, there can be anything from one to ten bedrooms, though two-three are the most common. It is not unheard of for conferences and team-building exercises to take place on houseboats. Meals are always included in the cost, and like Kashmir’s houseboat community who have a distinct cuisine, Kerala’s boat people have their own style of cooking, called kuttanadan. The vast majority of houseboats have air-conditioned bedrooms, but there’s little that can beat the breeze of the backwaters as one sits on the front balcony of the boat, which doubles up as a dining area. There are some areas which have high density houseboat traffic and others where you won’t spot a single one.
How to reach
The nearest convenient airport is Kochi; from there Kumarakom is an hour and a half drive away. Conversely, you can be driven by 4-seater motor launch in half that time to Kumarakom/Allapuzha (formerly Allepey). That’s where you have a plethora of routes because of relatively deep waters. The cost of a single room in a houseboat varies between RS 7,000 and Rs 15,000 per day/night. If you are going as a couple, you will have to specify that you want a single-bedroom houseboat; if not, you’ll have to share with other families, and Kerala’s kettuvallams are not large enough to afford privacy. All food is strictly local Kerala cuisine, strongly seafood-based, though vegetarians will be taken good care of.
As a wag commented on the difference between houseboats in Kashmir and Kerala, one stays still and the customers move around; in the other, the houseboat moves and the guests stay still.