It’s oddly surprising that a landscape as gorgeous and brimming with opportunities as the backwaters spread across central and southern Kerala is poorly serviced by the government with a tourist perspective. There are the decades-old, wooden boats which connect islands and hamlets across Alappuzha and used by locals, but it’s very clear they don’t fit the traveller’s bill. And so, for the last several decades, that gap has been shrewdly filled by private players using houseboats — by now, a fleet so big that they are impossible to miss, lounging on long stretches of the backwaters.
It is in this context that the introduction of a boat service by the state government targeting domestic and foreign tourists in Alappuzha is a promising move. Vega-2, a 120-seater diesel-powered Catamaran with both air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned seating, began operations on the eve of Christmas last year. Tickets per head are priced at Rs 400 in non-AC ones and Rs 600 in AC.
Every day, the boat departs from the busy Alappuzha boat jetty around 11:30 am, taking tourists on a fascinating five-hour journey through the backwaters with the accompaniment of a traditional Kerala lunch on board. And from the initial response, it’s clear that the service has hit its target audience with people, especially families, travelling to Alappuzha in large numbers from districts far and near to secure a seat on the boat. Weekends are sold out in advance.
On a recent weekday, this correspondent hopped on Vega-2 to get a feel of the journey and the quality of the service. It’s a few minutes past 11 am, the official reporting time, and the boat is fast filling up with people. Normally, it’s good to book seats in advance, especially when travelling in groups, by calling on the phone numbers provided on the website of the state water transport department. There are plans for an online booking service too, though details are sketchy right now.
On this day, all seats have not been filled, so bookings were made on the spot. It’s a mixture of different kinds of passengers: couples, families with kids and elderly persons, groups of friends, vloggers and solo travellers. After months of staying at home, the emotional relief of travelling and returning to nature is writ large on their faces. But aboard the boat, Covid-19 protocols including wearing masks and keeping physical distance have to be followed. Those looking for a more relaxed, cooler environment can opt for the AC section which comes with 40 seats at the front and, on hot afternoons like this one, it could be the wiser choice. But if it’s a pleasant day with the likelihood of a drizzle, there’s nothing like the comfort of a window seat in the non-AC section. There are expansive viewing decks both to the front and the back which are open to passengers in the course of the journey.
“We have fixed the reporting time at 11 am so that people from neighbouring districts like Ernakulam or even far-off from Thiruvananthapuram or Kannur have plenty of time to start early in the morning and reach Alappuzha. We return before 5 pm so that they can reach home by night,” says Sunil Kumar, the boat captain.
At 11:40 am, ten minutes past the time of departure, the Catamaran lets out a loud honk, signalling that it was ready to leave and gradually inching away from the dock. The Alappuzha jetty is located along a narrow canal in the heart of the town and is a terminal point for many regular passenger boats operating services to neighbouring islands. And so, Vega-2 takes a bit of time, just like a train chugging out of a major station like Mumbai CST or New Delhi, to make its way and set off on its journey.
The narrow canals snaking through Alappuzha town, like veins and arteries in a human body, are historically significant as they were the primary trade routes for centuries since the reign of Raja Kesavadas who designed the town. This is one district where canals are as important as roads in connectivity and trading. In the pre-independence era, hundreds of boats and canoes criss-crossed the canals on an average day, carrying people and transporting grains, pulses, vegetables and coir products. And further from the port at Alappuzha, coir and spices used to make their way to other countries.
“With the development of the port at Kochi and massive construction of roads, the importance of the port at Alappuzha gradually declined. Subsequently, trading of goods through the canals also came down. The ‘vallams’ (boats) carrying cargo transformed into houseboats as we see today,” says Kumar, who hails from neighbouring Kuttanad and knows the history of the region like the back of his hand.
By now, our boat has left the narrow canal behind, entering the Punnamada ‘kayal’ (lake), famous for hosting the annual Nehru Trophy boat race institutionalised by India’s first prime minister who visited the region in 1952. When Pt Nehru travelled that year from Kottayam to Alappuzha by boat, the farmers of Kuttanad welcomed him by organising a massive race of ‘chundamvallams’ (snake boats). Enthralled by the reception, the prime minister, upon returning to Delhi, sent an autographed silver trophy in the form of a snake-boat which eventually became the rolling trophy for the race.
This is a visually alluring stretch, with tiny homes and shops on either banks; tall, swinging coconut palms; and men angling in canoes. This is also a stretch where a large number of houseboats can be seen parked, either for repairs or maintenance. Further ahead, on the right, appears the centre of the Sports Authority of India (SAI), where national and international-level athletes are trained in water-sports like canoeing, kayaking and rowing.
To provide refreshments aboard the boat, there’s a unit of Kudumbashree, Kerala’s famed women self-help network, selling tea and snacks. For Rs 100 per plate, they also provide a decent traditional Malayali lunch consisting of brown matta rice, sambar, aviyal, pickle and fish fry. On certain days, they also offer boiled kappa (cassava) with kakka (clams), a combination considered must-have in Kerala.
Within an hour of the commencement of the journey, our boat sails into the majestic Vembanad lake, the largest in Kerala and the second-largest wetland system in India after the Sunderbans. Spread over 2000 sq kms, the lake hosts a diverse marine ecosystem and attracts flocks of migratory birds through the year. In this stretch, the front viewing deck of Vega-2 is opened to passengers to click photographs and admire the vast expanse of the lake as the boat moves listlessly through the waters.
“The boat can travel up to a speed of 15 nautical miles, but here in this stretch, we drive it slow so that tourists can appreciate the beauty of the lake. Since there are houseboats and canoes operating here, we have to be careful too,” said Dileep, one of the staff.
Pathiramanal, a natural uninhabited island spread over 19 hectares in the Vembanad lake, is the only stop on this journey. By around 1 pm, the boat reaches the small jetty here where it will halt for the next 30 minutes so that tourists can take a walk on the small island. There’s nothing much to see here; but a walk from one end of the swampy island to the other is relaxing. It’s a favourite haunt for birdwatchers as the island attracts rare species.
The journey then moves to the most tourist-friendly region in Kottayam district — Kumarakom, home to budget and luxury resorts, villas and homestays which see record bookings by foreign tourists in the Nov-March period. This year, though, most properties on the backwaters lie empty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, cutting a deep hole in the pockets of these owners. While our boat merely passes Kumarakom on the Vembanad Lake itself, Kumar says the best experience is had by travelling deep into the heart of Kumarakom on tiny, wooden canoes through an intricate network of canals. Here, in these densely populated parts, people prefer to commute by water as opposed to road. It’s a photographer’s haven too.
Towards the fag end of the journey appears the magical world of Kuttanad, known as Kerala’s paddy bowl, one of the few places in the world where farming is done below the sea-level. This, easily, is the best stretch of the journey where no matter where you point your camera to, you’ll get a breathtaking frame for sure. If it’s one of those evenings with overcast skies and a light breeze, you’re not gonna want anything else in the world. By now, most passengers had settled themselves on the front and back decks of the boat.
The boat glides through a broad channel of the backwaters with luscious green paddy fields on both sides. These fields, known as ‘padasekharams’ in Malayalam, were reclaimed from the Vembanad Lake to cultivate rice during the second World War when the region was afflicted with abject food shortage.
“It was Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, then monarch of the Travancore kingdom, who gave approval to grow rice by reclaiming the shallow areas of the Vembanad Lake. Around 1959 acres of fields were prepared this way and cultivation began in 1940. These areas were renamed as Rani, Chithira and Marthandam lakes as a note of gratitude to the royals,” says Kumar.
Kuttanad is a delta region formed by the merging of several rivers like Pamba, Manimalayar, Achankovil and Meenachil with the Vembanad Lake. This also means that Kuttanad suffers from perennial flooding with devastating effects like in the great deluge of 2018.
As the evening light begins to fade, the boat sails into its last lap by entering the Pamba river near Kuppapuram and finally making its way back to Alappuzha. The journey is certainly a very satisfying one primarily because it gives tourists access to large swathes of the backwaters for a price no private houseboat operator can offer.
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