A maze of interlocking canals and lakes, the backwater area stretching between Kollam in the south to Kochi in the north is known as Kuttanad. Lines of sand bars and long thin islands, formed by the action of waves and tides along the coastline, account for this region's unique geography.
Four major rivers-the Pampa, Meenachil, Achankovil and Manimala-flows to the Kuttanad backwaters. These backwaters act like natural dams-a crazy patchwork of inland lagoons where fresh and salt water mingles.
Massive area of land have been reclaimed in recent centuries to supply Kerala's growing population with rice, vegetables and fruit, but water still dominates every aspect of life for the estimated two million inhabitants of Kuttanad.
Tourism in Kuttanad
The region's idyllic rural way of life-deployed to great effect as a backdrop in films and in novels.
The ever-entrepreneurial Keralites were quick to spot its potential as a visitor destination-particularly after it was discovered that foreigners and wealthy tourists from India's cities were prepared to pay vast sums in local terms to explore the area aboard converted rice barges, or kettuvallam.
Since its inception in the early 1990's, the houseboat tour industry has grown exponentially in both size and sophistication, reshaping not just the economy of Kuttanad, but the actual appearance of its waterways.
Kettuvallam and other tourist vessels now account for the bulk of traffic plying the canals and rivers east and south of Alappuzha-Kuttanad's principal gateway. However, once you press beyond the wider, more congested channels around the town itself, you enter a world on which tourism has made negligible impact.
Views constantly changes as you navigate the narrow canals, enclosed by dense tunnels of vegetation, to enter wide, open expanse of rice paddy fringed by ranks of coconut palms.
Homes, farms, churches, mosques and temples can be seen among the trees, and every so often you might catch the blue flash of a kingfisher, the green of a parakeet, a cormorant perched on a log with its wings outstretched.
Life in Kuttanad
Villages and farmsteads occupy even the tiniest islets, with some families living on pockets of land barely large enough for a simple house, yard and boat. They bathe and wash their clothes at the water's edge.
Traditional country vessels glide past you, powered by boatmen with long poles. Fishermen work form tiny dugout canoes, while massive Chinese nets dangle over the banks.
Poles sticking out of the water indicate dangerous shallows. Here and there, basic drawbridges can be raised on ropes, but major bridges are few and far between; most people still rely on boatmen to ferry them across the water to connect with roads and bus services, resulting in a constant crisscrossing of the waters from dawn until dusk.
This continuing activity provides more than enough interest for travellers chugging around Kuttanad in a kettuvallam. But houseboat cruises can be expensive even the most flexible of budgets.
So you'll probably find yourself looking for less expensive ways to extend your explorations of the area. One is to base yourself in Alappuzha, or a homestay out in the backwaters themselves, making the day-trips out to villages such as Champakualam, Mannarasala and Amritapuri.
A Fragile Ecosystem
With a population four times denser than other coastal zones of southwest India, the Kuttanad backwaters is very fertile but now its equilibrium has come under mounting pressure over the past fifty years from farming and tourism.
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