Alappuzha is famous for houseboat cruises along its stunning backwaters and canals. The canals are connected to Vembanad Kayal which is one of the largest lakes in India. It is fed by ten rivers which flow into it. It is separated from Arabian Sea by a narrow barrier island.
Our houseboat had all modern amenities. It had air conditioning, satellite TV, entertainment system and diesel power generator. There was a bedroom, attached bathroom, kitchen and seating/dining areas. Food was freshly cooked on board by a chef.
Our cruise took us past many areas of Kuttanad which is one of the largest rice producing regions in Kerala. Much of the paddy fields in Kuttanad exist below sea level. Apart from agriculture, people generate income from tourism and fishing. Prawn farming is popular as there is a large export demand. Karimeen is another fish which is much sought after. Duck farming provides employment to many.
Kuttanad is densely populated. People live at the water’s edge. As we went by, we could see them on the banks of the lake – bathing, washing clothes and doing other household chores.
Boats of all sizes and shapes are seen in Kuttanad. Houseboats are new avatars of Kettuvallams which were employed to transport rice and other agricultural produce. There are reportedly more than 2,000 houseboats in Alappuzha. Shikara-type boats are used for sight-seeing. Most households have at least one boat, big or small. People have to depend on boats for local transport.
A lot many movies have been picturised in Kuttanad and Alappuzha. Recent Malayalam movies widely shot in Kuttanad include Amen, Friday, Venicile Vyapari, Champakkulam Thatchan, Puthiya Theerangal, Sangam and Bagyadevatha. Hindi movies that chose to focus on Kuttanad – Tashan, Dil Se and many more.
Some of the most beautiful villages are found in Kuttanad. Their names are equally fascinating – Kumarakom, Nedumudi, Champakkulam, Kainakary, Cheruthana and Chennamkary.
Our cruise lasted five hours. A couple of hours into the cruise, the boat stopped briefly at lakeside shop selling fish. We bought jumbo prawns which were cooked for us by the chef. Our lunch was an elaborate affair with rice, karimeen fry, Kuttanadan duck curry, sambhar, cabbage thoran, beetroot pachadi, pappadam, curds and pickles. A typical Kerala fare and very delicious.
The boat shown above passed us somewhere along the way. The limitation of this kind of boats is that passengers cannot get up and move about due to safety considerations.
During peak summer, salinity in the water rises a bit. But with the onset of rains in May and June, fresh water flows increase and salinity disappears.
Many of the bridges in Kuttanad are elevated to allow boats to pass underneath. The bridge shown below was picturised in the Malayalam movie Sound Thoma.
The Kuttanad area is also rich in bird population, and one can find flocks of parrots over the paddy fields, especially those fields with rice stalks in bloom. There are also darter birds which converge on the backwaters in and around Kuttanad.
The unique feature about paddy cultivation in Kuttanad is that the water level is a few feet higher than that of the cultivated land. It is the region with the lowest altitude in India and one of the few places in the world where farming is carried out below sea level.
A number of churches could be seen at the lakeside. This is St. Joseph’s Church in Chennamkary village. It is a Syro-Malabar church. Its claim to fame rests on the fact that it is the first catholic church dedicated to St. Joseph ever erected in the whole of the continent of Asia.