Milk, gas cylinders, vegetables all arrive by boat in villages near Kumarakom. Rivers and canals are the main thoroughfares here. Most houses face the river, not the roads. Most households catch their own fish for food. People commute mostly by boat—country boats are parked in front of nearly every house.
Kumarakom in southern Kerala lies at the heart of a network of nearly 1,500km of backwaters and canals that surround the vast Vembanad Lake. Kumarakom is the centre of Kerala’s backwater tourism ecosystem, and among the most popular and expensive tourist destinations in India today.
A houseboat. Photo: Lenish Namath/Wikimedia Commons
As I take a cruise on the Meenachil river some 10km from Kumarakom town, the sounds nearby are of the yips, whistles and cheeps of birds. Once in a while, there is the resounding splash of children jumping into the water. The rare putter of an auto feels like an unwelcome intrusion into the quiet.
Speedboats don’t zip by, houseboats don’t stir the still, clear water. It’s appropriate that I’m drifting by in a tiny, unmotored country boat.
Kumarakom did not exist a couple of centuries ago. The village came up on land reclaimed from Vembanad Lake. Much of it was reclaimed for cultivation in 1847 by Alfred George Baker, a British missionary. A local saying goes, “God made man. Man made Kuttanad” (Kuttanad is the name of the larger region in which Kumarakom lies).
Also See TRIP PLANNER/ KUMARAKOM (PDF)
Kumarakom is being shown to me by the charming Maneesha Panicker, who runs Silk Route Escapes, a company offering custom tours of Kerala.
Panicker tells me that until about 20 years ago, Kumarakom was just another village in the interiors of Kerala, unknown to tourism and to the world. The region around it had plenty of waterways, most flowing into the vast Vembanad Lake. For centuries, boats had been used to transport crops, goods and people in the area.
In the 1990s, when tourism in Kashmir took a hit because of terrorism, houseboats were what tourists missed the most. Tour operators in Kerala sensed an opportunity, and converted crop-carrying cargo boats called kettuvalloms into houseboats, offering what were known as “rice boat tours”. The initial response was encouraging, and houseboat tourism took off. As tourists started to show up for houseboat tours, resorts and home stays gradually set up shop.
More than 90% of the resorts and home stays in Kumarakom are traditional. Most locals who moved into tourism simply stuck to offering local food and traditional sloped-roof houses. With no exposure to tourism or service businesses, they simply offered what they knew.
In addition, the Kerala government also offered subsidies to houses that wanted to become home stays, but only houses older than 50 years could avail of it. Consequently, there aren’t many concrete high-rise resorts in Kumarakom, nor are there many restaurants offering, say, Chinese or tandoori food.
Still waters: A boat makes its way across the backwaters. Photo: Manoj Madhavan/Mint
Most properties have plain, unadorned white walls and tiled roofs. Beds, and sometimes walls and roofs, are made of dense teak, rosewood or jackfruit wood. Sometimes there are carefully chiselled carvings of deities on doors. The thick, oily wood is sturdy—there’s a reassuring thump when I climb the stairs. These large houses are reminiscent of grand ancestral homes.
Even then, it’s hard sometimes to miss a deliberate sanitization of local culture for tourists. Resorts offer truncated Kathakali and Kalaripayattu performances. Home stays have air-conditioned luxury rooms in traditional gabled houses. Houseboats have furnished rooms and cable TV connections.
Toddy “parlours” cater to those who find toddy shops infra dig. Occasional Chinese fishing nets are placed just to be viewed by tourists—they’re not actually used for fishing. The very upscale Kumarakom Lake Resort has a traditional roadside tea shop on its premises to provide visitors a taste of roadside street food.
Panicker tells me most of her clients say that if they had wanted urbane luxury suites, they would have stayed in London or New York—they visit Kumarakom to experience traditional Kerala. She adds that most traditional houses are also perfectly suited to the climate of the region—the wooden structures are long-lasting, the red oxide floors keep houses cool in summer, and the sloping roofs drain the rainwater.
Resisting a soul sale
A canal neatly divides Kumarakom town into two, with a couple of bridges going across it. The main street still has small bakeries, textile shops and provision stores—much that caters to residents’ everyday needs, not to tourists. By-lanes still have garden-fronted houses and small canals—and resolutely keep out hotels, resorts or restaurants. There aren’t many travel agents in town, other than in the vicinity of the jetty. Most tourist activity is on houseboats, or in resorts along the lake outside town.
Yet Kumarakom worries it might become a hard-selling tourist destination. Locals worry that Kumarakom might end up like Kovalam, where travel agents, cheap hotels, touts and garbage seem to be ubiquitous.
Locals think too many houseboats may already be chopping up the quiet waters. The sounds from TVs and music systems on the houseboats mingle with birdsong. The water now has plastic and tourist effluvium. Panicker tells me the waters were much clearer in her childhood days.
But even today, villages in the interior, such as Aymanam, are hardly touched by tourist traffic. Aymanam, of course, is the leafy, humid Ayemenem of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, about which Roy says, “the loudest sound in Ayemenem was that of a bus horn”.
Life goes by slowly here. As an ad for Kerala Tourism put it, Life flows by at 10 kmph. The river ambles on, almost unwilling to move. Leaves, water lilies and wood bob lazily in the water. The words that come to mind are not “sluggish” or “tired”, but “languid” and “dreamy”.
A precarious river crossing. Photo: Shamanth Rao
There are no industries, shops or commercial enterprises by the riverside. There are only residences—most village residents work in nearby towns, almost as if to keep the villages free of activity.
As I take my third long cruise, the languor, the easy pace of the riverside villages, fills me with peace. In the near-complete absence of activity, it’s difficult to avoid existential questions, such as whether anything is worth doing.
Trees arc and bend over the water, twisting themselves to get the most of the sunlight. Mango, coconut, banana and rubber trees soar to form a canopy over the river, filling the banks with the comforting shadow of intense green. A bright blue bird pirouettes in the balmy air above me.
My boat delicately, noiselessly, slices through the still, placid waters. All in the golden afternoon, leisurely I glide.
Children will enjoy the novelty of backwater life, but there are no activities especially targeted at them.
Kumarakom does not involve strenuous physical activity. Most locals and guides are senior-friendly.
Homosexuality is legal. However, locals are conservative.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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