Kerala Backwaters

Five minutes after landing in Kerala, we realized that that we were about to be introduced to a totally new India.  The men here wear what we have been calling man skirts, but which are actually long pieces of fabric that they wrap around their waists called mundus.  Depending upon how they wrap them, they can stop at the knee and look kind of like shorts, or can go all the way down to the feet.  These mundus look very comfortable and versatile, but Sarah has told me that I can’t buy one.  I’d just love to wear Kerala 2009-11-10 020it around the house, I swear!  The other thing that we noticed was the difference in language.  Everyone here speaks Mayalam, which sounds to me like the gibberish I would come up with as a child, but spoken very quickly with few pauses between the words.  Mayalam uses its own alphabet that is very rounded, and we literally haven’t spotted any Hindi.  Finally, it is more tropical down here, with coconut and banana trees, and the weather to go with them.

The top draw in Kerala is the backwaters, or more specifically houseboating on the backwaters.  The backwaters are a fascinating set of waterways surrounding islands that run most of the length of the state.  The area used to be an estuary, but thousands of years ago settlers began reclaiming the land and building islands.  According to Thomas who is from a family that has been in the area for hundreds of years, the process of building the islands was something like:

  1. Find a shallow area of the estuary
  2. Build a mud dyke around the outside of the shallow area by removing mud from the deeper areas and piling it up onto the shallows
  3. Once you’ve fully encircled an area, pump the water out of that area (using water wheels, buckets, etc.)
  4. Voila, you have an island

Of course there were many tricks that these early settlers had to learn such as planting coconut trees along the perimeter so that their roots hold the dykes in place during the monsoon, and building their houses high up to deal with the slowly sinking land (it’s built on river mud after all.)

Each island in the backwaters follows the same general pattern from outside to in of a sharp bank wall (nowadays generally made of rock and concrete), then an earthen path with coconut trees interspersed, then houses along the path, and finally rice fields filling the middle.  This setup lends perfectly to rice farming as you have a field that is below the water level.  If you want to flood your rice field, you just open a small hole in the dyke and boom, easy water.

As you can see, the backwaters are a fascinating place to learn about and to visit.  With all of these mazelike small waterways, however, how to see it all?  The most popular way is on a houseboat modeled on the old spice and rice trading vessels of the past.  These houseboats are impressive vessels with bedrooms (usually one or two) with full bath, an open living space in the front, and even a kitchen in back.  Sarah and I splurged, and for 5,000 rupees ($106) we had own houseboat complete with 3 crew and all food and water for 24 hours.  We were served delicious local meals with astounding amounts of food and toured around the area like royalty.  At some points it felt a bit packaged, like when we left for the morning, and our houseboat pulled into a line of at least 10 other boats all steaming out; but when the sun was setting, and we were cruising through a canal with only ten feet of room on either side of the boat, with no one in sight, we were mesmerized.

After our houseboat adventure (yes, we slept on it just fine,) we stayed in a homestay in a village which felt like it was in the middle of nowhere.  That village is where we learned about the real life and history of the area, and I think that village, with its gentle and happy way of life will be what I think of when I remember the backwaters of Kerala.


4 comments to Kerala Backwaters

  • Ed

    Sarah, you’ll forever regret it if you don’t buy Gabe a mundu!

  • Kate

    I love the way they decorate those trucks! beautiful. also, did you pet those goats?

  • Gabe and Sarah

    Ha! I actually did end up buying a Mundu. I can’t wait to wear it around the house on a hot day.


  • Karthik

    Kerala is one of the oldest states in India. Did you get a chance to visit the backwaters? Kumaragam has houseboats that you can rent out. They come with a cook/maid, who take maintain the houseboat. I’ve heard they are amazing.

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