November 19, 2018
Far Flung
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India
Paddling the Lagoons of Alappuzha

Exploring waterways forged by the head of a repentant warrior’s bloody ax

Our boat snipped through the waters like a pair of scissors through a swathe of rumpled silken fabric. The receding jetty seemed to unhinge the past soundlessly, pinning it to where it belonged: behind us. Life almost immediately slipped into a slow-motion glide.

We were in Alappuzha, on the shores of Vembanad Lake in Kerala state. This is a backwater world, with labyrinthine canals, lagoons, lakes and rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea. In the local Malayalam language, Alappuzha (pronounced Allapura) means “a broad river,” or “the land between the sea and a network of rivers flowing into it.”

I was relieved to be on the water. Kerala, a landscape of coconut trees, paddy fields and banana plantations, had invaded my waking hours, and had blundered through my dreams like Shreks with arms of green fronds. I needed a breather from the lushness.

We entered a portal of shimmer globules that rocked on the waters, flashed through the trees and shone on paddy fields and the tips of plants.

How Parasurama Created Kerala

This region rose from the water due to geological seismic shifts in the sea thousands of years ago. For natives, though, the ancient mythological story of Parasurama, the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu, is closer to the heart. It is said that this warrior sage vanquished all the male members of the Kshatriya clan, the ruling warrior caste of ancient times, and filled five lakes with their blood. To atone for his sin, Parasurama meditated for a long time. He was then blessed by Varuna, the god of the Oceans, and Bhumidevi, the goddess of Earth, and  traveled to the southern tip of India. From there he flung his bloodied battleaxe across the sea. The waters immediately receded from the spot where the ax fell, creating an eight-mile wide shore. And so Kerala was born.

They say that in Alappuzha children learn to swim before they can walk. We see vignettes of daily life on the embankments as we pass. A woman in a blue sari blouse, bare midriff and bright mustard lungi (a cloth wrap around the waist) scrubbed clothes on a stone slab; a group of school children sprinted along a dusty path, their satchels slapping behind them. At a jetty station, clusters of villagers wait for the boat-bus or for catamarans to ferry them to their destinations, while nearby boatmen offload goods wrapped in gunnysacks or Styrofoam.

Dugouts, canoes and paddleboats carry loads of cooking gas cylinders, rocks and sand-filled sacks; cashews and bags of rice; coconuts with their husks gleaming orange gold in the sun. The middle portions of the long country boats are just inches above the water, somehow avoiding being swamped. Fishermen, their boats stationed in the middle of the lagoons, are intent on their catch, while nearby the black cormorant birds stood rock still in Samadhi meditation before zinging into the water for their aquatic meal.

Not many people looked our way. Maybe they were tired of tourists, and just veered around them as they would a shoal of ducks gliding across their path.

And so we moved on this shimmer highway - a phantom water vehicle along with other boats.

Barges Retooled As Houseboats

We began to see the huge exotic domed-roofed houseboats known as kettuvalloms, or “boats with knots.” The planks are held together with coconut fiber, and caustic black resin extracted from boiled cashew kernels holds the ropes in place. It’s an ancient construction technique that uses no nails. Though rustic looking, these behemoths can carry about 30 tons - and if well-maintained, last for generations.

In the mid-18th century, kettuvalloms were commercial barges, shipping rice, cashews, spices and paddy harvest some 40 miles through these canals and lagoons to the port at Cochin. It could take boatmen five days to a week to carry a load to port, and they lived on the waters for most of the year. It was easy to catch the abundant fish, which they marinated with spices and ate with rice.? And when the moon sailed through the night they hung their lanterns in the kettuvallams and perhaps sang native songs before slipping into deep slumber on the thin mattresses on the floor of the hull, no doubt unaware that road and rail construction on the land nearby would one day put them out of business.

And yes, it was only a matter of time. In the 20th century, the lumbering kettuvalloms were sidelined by roads and rails, then air travel.  Then in the early 1970s, a few enterprising local entrepreneurs began to revive them as houseboats.  By the 1990s they were cast as luxury barges for tourists, where visitors could travel for one or several days, accompanied by oarsmen and a cook. Typical onboard dishes are pearl spot fish, rice and prawn curry, with the lentil flatbread pappadam and Kerala payasam, a rice pudding-like dessert.

“Madam, lench?”

Our boatman’s question cut through my reverie. He steered toward an eatery on the banks, where we were offered a simple menu of kappa (steamed and mashed tapioca) with meen (fish curry) and plump rice. The cooks doubled as waiters and cashiers, racing in and out of the kitchen to serve as many people as fast as they could.

Next we headed for Kumarakom, a cluster of islands. The somnambulistic drift of our boat, the slosh of oars, and the water spray erupting with each stroke; the women either working in the paddy fields, hustling after household chores, or drying coconut husks for twisting into strong coir ropes; were all woven into the silver-edged rhythm.

We would later continue another 150 miles by road to Kanyakumari, at the southernmost tip of India, where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea merge; from where Parasurama had thrown his ax northward; where, amid the crash of frothing waves, Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were placed before being scattered into the Arabian Sea.

But for now I was cradled in Alappuzha’s luminescent bubble, with life reflecting on itself from above and below on a softly heaving shimmering surface.

Learn more about Alappuzha

Hiring a kettuvallom

6 comments about “Paddling the Lagoons of Alappuzha”

  1. Rachana Gupta says:

    Amazing article; brings out the true colours of Kerala and Alappuzha indeed. Great visuals too!

  2. Divino Domingo says:

    Your articles and photographs always amaze me. You have a way of making me feel as if I were there.

  3. Suzanne Larocque says:

    Your article touched my heart - I felt present in time while reading, as your choice of words and sentences are so descriptive. It was as if I was watching a movie. The pictures are awsome and through the images, we can easily connect with Kerala and Alappuzha. Amazing work! You should be a director of Cinematography.

  4. Shobha says:

    Hey - thanks Suzanne! The journey was breathtaking and I hope you go to Alappuzha one day :)the boat ride feels like you are floating in time…

  5. RKGupta says:

    Hi! The article is good! The photos are also good! The funniest photo is the one with the bird (photo # 3)…it looks like a question mark! :) Very good shot! Good timing!

  6. Jack Miller says:

    Dear Shobha,

    Your words fill me with the warmth of Baba. Your eloquent sentences wrap me up in the softest linen where I am held with exquisite care as I read. Your story blends today and history together wtih a seamless, divine flow. I am delightfully spellbound as I gently drift from one paragraph to another. Your words so dignify the beaufiful people that you speak about. You light a fire of passion in me to experience such travel. Thank you for your unbridled willingness, honesty and integrity in unfolding your stories. With unconditional love, Jack xo

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