“This is not just an ordinary river; it’s a seemingly endless river!” I muttered as our houseboat sailed along the scenic backwaters of Alappuzha – a bucolic district in Kerala, India also known for its colonial name ‘Allepey”.
Cruising down the backwaters of Alapuzzha,Kerala brings you close to traditional Indian village life.
Hemmed in by immense rice fields and a vast network of palm-fringed lakes, lagoons, canals and freshwater rivers, Alappuzha served as a vital trading post since the era of the Greeks and Romans, earning the moniker “Venice of the East”. In the olden days, kettuvallams (houseboats) were the original cargo vehicles for transporting staple crops such as rice, coconuts and spices.
Kettuvalams carry tourists along the backwaters of Kerala.
Today, they still flank the rivers and lagoons, but instead of transporting goods, they carry tourists. These traditional houseboats underwent a slight face-lift during the boom of backwater tourism sometime in the 90’s. They are now beautifully furnished with air-conditioned bedrooms, hot and cold shower, dining area and an al fresco lounge. Additionally, on board cooks prepare and serve meals for guests; a lovely way to enjoy traditional Kerala cuisines.
Rolling Down the River
Together with Edgar and Ivan, we were blessed to have experienced an overnight cruise at Pamba River via Lakes and Lagoons – one of the top notch houseboat tour operators in Alappuzha.
Kettuvalams (houseboats) are not just known for their fully-furnished rooms but also for serving traditional Kerala cuisine.
We spent hours relaxing by the upholstered lounge as our kettuvallam cruised at a languid pace. We passed by palm-fringed pastoral communities and we watched in awe at the traditional village life. Occasionally, we would encounter villagers paddling their boats; fishermen catching fishes and farmers attending herd of ducks.
It’s also a great spot for bird-watching. “Look up, an Indian darter with snakelike necks spreading its wings to dry up in the sun!’ Edgar was so keyed up with the sight of Indian darters (Anhinga melanogaster).
These birds have dense bones and wettable feathers which allows them to stay submerged while chasing and spearing fish. They lose body heat while under water, and must perch and spread their wings to dry their bodies. It’s awe-inspiring to see them toss the fish in the air before swallowing them headfirst.
Meanwhile, sociable egrets ran around in frenzied pursuit of prey; their wings held aloft flaunting their delicate nuptial plumes. We sighted herons with short neck and big heads roosting in trees. The large wading white ibis dapple the vast riverside paddy fields while foraging for prey.
For the uninitiated, Alappuzha is dubbed as the “Rice Bowl of Kerala”, particularly the region of Kuttanad. It is one of the few places in the world where farming below sea level exists. Kayal cultivation (backwater paddy cultivation) is the brainchild of Mathai Luka Pallithanam and Ouseph Luka Pallithanam from Kainady village. Dikes and channels were constructed – mostly around Vembanad Lake –for agriculture.
A soothing view along Pamba River.
Aside from farming, manufacture of coir – brought about by the Arabs – is also an important industry in Alappuzha. Before our overnight houseboat tour with Lakes and Lagoons, we visited the posh lakeside hotel of Welcom Hotel Raviz Resort and Ayurveda Spa where traditional production of coir products was demonstrated to us. The backwater which is suitable for getting the green husks is the main reason why this industry thrives in Alappuzha.
The Delights of Ayurveda
But if there is another thing – aside from the kettuvallam cruise – that one should experience while in Alappuzha, that would be getting an iconic ayurveda massage.
“Ayurveda, which literally means the science of life (Ayur = Life, Veda = Science), ayurveda is an ancient medical science which was developed in India thousands of years ago. Believed to have been passed on to humans from the Gods themselves, Ayurveda developed and evolved into what it is today from several ancient treatises, most notably Adharva Veda which dates back to five thousand years. The ancient Vedic literature by sages has clearly laid out instructions to maintain health as well as fighting illness through therapies, massages, herbal medicines, diet control and exercise,” explained to as at Soomatherem Ayurveda Resort – the first ayurveda resort in the world.
Want barefoot luxury in Kerala? Stay at Coconut Lagoon.
Prior to our overnight cruise, we stayed at Coconut Lagoon – a barefoot luxury resort where we had our first ayurveda massage. I took a shower before lying on the massage bed as two masseuses prepare the warm Dosha oil and other herbs. Then they started tapping, squeezing and kneading my entire body using their hands, forearms, feet and elbows. I was told this style of massage helps rejuvenates the body, eliminate toxins and strengthen the tone of my muscles. It was definitely one of the best massages I ever had.
Back in Pamba River, as the last light of the day cast a cheerful spell on the emerald green water, our boat moored in a tributary. We watch in joy as towering coconut trees gleams in the late sun. It’s one of those times were days pass by lazily; it felt as if all my worries were momentarily forgotten. I used to wonder why Kerala was called “God’s Own Country”, but cruising around its vast network of backwaters in a traditional houseboat somehow helped me understand why.
*Our Alappuzha Houseboat Cruise was sponsored by www.lakesandlagoons.com
Where to Stay:
We stayed at the Coconut Lagoon in Kumarakom.
Disclosure: Our India trip was made possible by Kerala Tourism through Kerala Blog Express where 27 bloggers, writers and photographers from 14 countries explored the state ( from Trivandrum to Wayanad) last March 9-26, 2014 .
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