Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Backwaters of Kerala

One of the main features and attractions of Kerala are its famous backwaters comprising some 900 kms of waterways/canals that fringe the coast and extend inland. Aleppey from which we started our trip is known as the 'Venice of the East'.

We have spent 3 days and nights exploring the backwaters on a houseboat designed like a Kettuvallam, the traditional rice barge of the area, albeit with lots of mod-cons supposedly, however our boat was so new it was unfinished and lacked these mod cons but we did have a fine crew with Captain Suda and chef Benedict! The traditional Kerelan food produced by Bendict has been truly sumptuous, there is no chance of losing weight in India!

Most of the canals are bordered by small strips of land similar to levees, with paths lined by coconut palms that are tapped for toddy, the local tipple, and whose coconut fibre is used for coir production and behind which are large rice paddy fields lower than sea level. The tiny farmers houses are also sited on these thin strips of land many of which are accessible only by water - either ferry, or canoes paddled or poled along like a gondola. Occasionally the land widens and small villages appear.

The main occupations apart from farming and now tourism is fishing and mussel collecting using the traditional methods of diving and scooping them up by hand, sifting them out underwater through a basket tied to the waist or by standing in a canoe using a pole with a metal rake and net attached and dragging that along the river bed.

Our overall impression of the backwaters was of peaceful calm compared with nearby towns such as Cochin and Alleppey and the area retains many of the traditional ways of living although larger grander homes are starting to encroach. Life revolves around the water, the constant whack of washing clothes lifted high over the shoulders and brought crashing down onto large flat stones can be heard everywhere and we see people bathing themselves, their children and their metal plates and pans in the water that is all around.

Day 1

Crossed Vembanod Lake and view Kerala snake boat 110 feet long that races with 100 men rowing some standing in the middle chanting the oarsman's beat and others guiding the boat. 16 villages take part every year and the competition is an important annual community focus.

Visited Chavara Bhavan - the birthplace of the St Elias Chavara where we saw his old wooden house where he was born beautifully preserved in a building attached to a church that houses his relics (hand) and had a Pelican and her young depicted in silver relief on the altar. Chavara Bhavan was sainted by Pope John Paul. He was an early proponent of education for all.

Overnight at C Block East by paddy fields.

Day 2

Started early viewing sunrise and mussel fishermen, followed by the ladies who arrived to work in the paddy, they work from 8-1 after that it is too hot.

We take a backwater south from Vembanod Lake towards Kollom.

Stop at village and visit a family who demonstrated traditional methods of making coir first totally by hand rubbing the coconut fibre which has been soaked in water for six months, dried and fluffed up, then by using a spinning wheel comprising old bicycle wheels and what look like enormous crochet hooks. Ann had a go and successfully made two lengths of coir which were twisted together into 2 ply, which form a strong string.

We pass old Buddhist images of Karumandaikutton

Stop overnight just outside Thattapally

Day 3

Walk to Thattapully beach and watch fisherman using hand thrown nets in the narrow race where the high tide comes into the lake and the lake waters rush out to meet the sea. All five fishermen threw their nets in at roughly the same time and covered most of the narrow inlet. They caught one or two small fish each time and had collected perhaps half a bucket full each by the time we came across them. The area is also used for drying shrimp shells which will be added to cattle feed.

We pause to sit in the shade at a bus stop where there are schoolgirls waiting to catch the bus, they start school at 10 and finish at 4.00. All the school children we have seen look immaculately turned out in their pristine uniforms and bright hair ribbons.

Go east then north through canals.

Visit wood carving artist who was in the process of carving a statue of Saint Alphonsa India's newest and only female saint. We walk on to nearby Saint Mary's at Champakulam, one of the most ancient churches in India.

We moor up for the night just off Lake Vembanod ready for an early start back to the
boatyard and our taxi to Munnar. Tonight we had contact from Anil the owner of the
homestay we are headed for, his driver needed instructions on how to find the boatyard which is outside of Alleppey. Tomorrow we climb high into the hills of the Western Ghats.

more photos to add when I have the time

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