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Destination Guide – Kerala – Backwaters


What is the ‘Backwaters?

In a special collectors’ edition by National Geographic Traveler Kerala has listed `50 destinations of a lifetime': the beauty and serenity of the ‘Backwaters’ has much to do with earning Kerala that privilege. What is popularly known as the Backwaters is an inter-connected system of brackish lagoons and lakes, inlets, riverine estuaries, and man-made canals that span a length of 450 km (north-south) slightly inland from the Arabian sea-coast of Kerala. The region is fed by 38 rivers which rush down from the higher reaches of the Western Ghats only to be blocked by sandbars that create small barrier islands which appear to fissure the land before meeting the sea. The calm waters that prevail in the lakes and the sluggish river waters have allowed a system of waterways to develop into a highway of commerce, as much as a tranquil waterscape. The edifying charm of the calm waters amongst the lush green countryside of the Kerala coast makes it a touristic draw for travellers from all over India and the world. Even the likes of Marco Polo and Ibn-Batuta have written eulogies on the port town of Kollam which is the starting point of the Backwaters.

The Region and Weather:

This system of labyrinthine waterways is dominated by about 34 major lakes that dot the landscape, the largest of which is theVembanadLake(200 km²) which flows into the Arabian Sea nearCochin. Some of the lakes are freshwater bodies and are important sources of water for the towns nearby. Many important towns have sprung up as commercial hubs or backwater tourist destinations along the waterways. For their sheer beauty and tourist facilities the important towns are Kottayam, Alapuzzha (Alleppey), Kollam (Quilon), Kozhikode (Calicut), Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), and Cochin. The weather is tropical and hot during most times of the year. While the best time to visit is between October and March, the Backwaters is best enjoyed during the Monsoon season (April-August). Experiencing a torrential deluge while ensconced in the security and comfort of a houseboat is a thrill you are unlikely to forget!

Connections and Hotspots:

Your experience of the Backwaters will depend on your starting point. Each sub-region has lake and waterway systems that are unique and will define the kind of experience you are likely to enjoy. In this section we will focus mainly on Kottayam-Kumarakom (Kuttanad) and Alleppey regions. For both these regions the air, rail and road access points areCochin. You can access the backwaters from Quilon orThekkady,CochinorTrivandrum, by road, depending on which part of the Backwaters you want spend your time in.

Kumarakom is a cluster if tiny islands on theVembanadLakeand is perhaps the most sought after resort destination in Kerala. Here the paddy grows thick in the countryside, separated by dykes: the reason- here the water level is slightly higher than the surrounding land. The paddy fields set amidst the riot of green vegetation along the waterline is a sight to behold, and cruising down the blue-black waters of the Vembanad makes for an idyllic holiday. Resorts and facilities to suit all budgets are available aplenty. Most resorts in Kumarakom offer Kerala ayurvedic rejuvenation packages which are much sought after.

The criss-crossing canals of Alleppey have been likened to that ofVenice, and together with Kumarakom is certainly the biggest backwater destination in Kerala. The palm coveredPathiramanalIslandin the Vembanad is a treat, and the snake-boat races along the beautifulKayamkulamLakeare an annual event not missed by many.

For a long cruise one can also use the National Waterway No. 3 from Kollam to Kottapuram which covers a distance of 205 km and runs almost parallel to the coast line of southern Kerala, facilitating both cargo shipment and backwater tourism.

Getting around by Boat:

While you can rent a whole manner and sizes of boats to take you around the Backwaters, the Kettuvallam or house-boat is the archetypal attraction. Traditionally used as grain barges for collecting harvested rice from the fertile paddy fields these boats have now become the epitome of luxury cruising in the Backwaters. They are literally ‘floating cottages’ with sleeping, dining, and sit-out areas on deck covered by a thatch roof, open on three-sides, and are about 30 m long. Usually food is cooked and served on the boat by the accompanying staff. Night time dinners on deck amidst lantern lighting is an experience many tourists are nostalgic of when they relive their experience of Kerala later. Of course, these days most Kettuvallams are motorised and even have air-conditioned bedrooms!

Apart from the Kettuvallams you can rent smaller boats for day time cruises, or by the hour. There are also Launches which glide around the hyacinth covered Alappuzha Canal.

Must Sees:

Kottayam-Kumarakom (Kuttanad) Stretch: This is easily the most scenic and popular Backwaters section that is preferred by most visitors.

Bird watching on Munroe Island:  Surrounded by the Kallada river, and the Ashtamudi and Sasthamkotta Lakes,MunroeIsland is a cluster of eight tiny islands.  It is host to many migratory birds - Kingfisher, Woodpecker, Egret, Bee-eater, Crow-Pheasant, Paddy Birds, and many others. You can also view traditional Indian spice plants such as Pepper, Nutmeg, and Cloves growing in the area.

Kasargod District: This is a backwater destination in north Kerala, known for rice cultivation and coir processing. There are cruises to Chandragiri and Valiyaparamba. You can visit the historic Chandragiri fort (4 km to the southeast of Kasargod town). Valiyaparamba is a scenic backwater stretch near Kasargod.

Kozhikode (Calicut): Vasco de Gama landed in Calicut in 1498 AD which gave the Portuguese a toehold in India and set up the colonial race amongst the European nations to India. It is also one of the earliest settlements of Christianity in India. It is a quiet destination, not overrun by tourists, and vestiges of the old spice trade remain. Korapuzha, the venue of the Korapuzha Jalotsavam (Water-festival) is fast becoming a popular water sport destination. It is also the starting point of the Backwaters fromLakeAshtamudi: you can take the longest backwater cruise ride from Kollam to Alappuzha which takes about eight hours: in a setting of water-lilies, hyacinths, and lotuses in the water.

Kollam(Quilon): This was one of the leading trading centres of the ancient world. Both Ibn-Batuta and Marco Polo mention the city in eloquent terms.

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