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Afloat a Kettuvallam on Lake Vembamad in India
The sky was a magnificent blue and the Arabian Sea its reflection, except for the roll of white foam that splashed against the sands on the beach. Clear skies shimmered through palm leaf canopies as we drove past coconut groves. On a cool December morning we were driving along the coastal road from Kochi, a major city in India, to Aalappuza in Kerala for a houseboat holiday on Lake Vembanad.
Legend has it that Kerala was reclaimed from the seas by the warrior lord Parasuraman by a throw of his battle-axe. True or false, Kerala has a labyrinth of backwaters comprised of idyllic lakes, lagoons, estuaries and deltas of some forty-four rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea. Vembanad Kaayal (as it is called in our language Malayalam), one of Asia's largest freshwater lakes and Kerala’s largest, spreads across coastal central Kerala and opens out to sea at the port of Kochi. The lagoons act as links between inland and the sea and most of this intricate water terrain is navigable.
We boarded our Kettuvallam (houseboat) at Aalappuzha around noon. We were greeted by our captain Madhu, first mate Gopi and cook Suresh, all of them clad in plaid lungis and bright colored shirts. With the help of his mate, Madhu pulled the anchor and stowed it. He took a long bamboo pole, immersed it in water until it touched the ground below, and began to push ahead. Gopi had already started the motor at the back of the boat. Once the boat started moving Madhu pulled the pole from the water and settled himself behind the boat’s wheel. We left the shore and glided through small canals into Lake Vembanad. The view in front of us was simply magnificent- no picture post card could be more picturesque. As we floated along the winding web of canals untouched and otherwise inaccessible rural Kerala came into view. It was an incredible experience that will for ever remain etched in our memory.
As the boat drifted we felt soft and gentle breeze on the face, occasional twittering of passing by birds, sun playing hide and seek behind fluffy white clouds, wind swaying through coconut palms on the shore and the rhythm of gently splashing waters. The houseboat rolled gently, for there was little motion in the waters - the whole backwaters seemed at peace. The shoreline was amazingly beautiful with green rice fields and banana plantations and lush flowering hibiscus and bougainvillea. The skyline was fading into columns of coconut trees on the banks.
Water hyacinths full of purple flowers were floating all around us. Madhu told us that these perennial weeds are a big menace as they often get entangled in the motor and make it difficult to maneuver the boat. Laughing children raced across the narrow walkways along the shore. On the wooded shore women washed clothes by slapping them against huge stones. The calm waters of the lagoons are a self-sustaining eco-system teeming with aquatic life. Fishermen stood immersed up to their necks in water, searching for the tasty Karimeen fish. The picture slowly changed from thick foliage to drenched rice fields, from quiet farms to villages that seemed lost in a wonderful quirky time warp. We saw open barges being loaded with coir, copra (dried coconut) and cashew; floating markets of tiny canoes selling fresh green coconuts and flocks of ducks paddling happily ahead of our boat. We carried books with us, but we were too engrossed in watching the fascinating sights around us to read.
Our boat had two bed rooms with attached baths and a parlor on the deck where we spent nearly all our time. When it was one in the afternoon Gopi was called to navigate the boat and Madhu began to set the table for our lunch. He slightly lifted the centerpiece of our deck, a large wooden swing almost the size of a bed, and pulled out four table legs from underneath. He hooked them firmly with metal hooks, and the swing was instantly transformed into a dining table. He laid out colorful table mats and spread rustic dinnerware on top. We sat around the table in rattan chairs sipping mineral water. Although there were only four of us we had several special requests - one of us a vegetarian, one allergic to crustaceans and another who didn’t eat any fish. In spite of these restrictions Madhu and Suresh produced an astonishing lunch - crisp green beans sautéed with fresh shredded coconut, pan fried okra with green chilies and onions, the quintessential aviyal made with a medley of fresh vegetables, reddish brown sambar (a south Indian staple), crisp pappadams and grilled fresh karimeen fish. A colorful salad of fresh tropical vegetables and a platter of steaming plump red rice rounded up the menu. Fig bananas and fresh sweet pineapple were there for dessert. It was amazing that this fabulous meal came from a tiny kitchen in the galley, roughly 4 feet by 3 feet, had one gas stove with two burners and no running water.
An amazing feature of the land surrounding the waterways is that it is below sea level. The seasoned farmers along the upper reaches of Lake Vembanad have developed ingenious methods to reclaim the backwaters temporarily for growing rice below sea level by creating a network of mud bunds and using traditional water pumping system. We passed by settlements where people live on a small plot of reclaimed land with their chickens, cattle and little gardens. They earn a living by fishing, rice farming, making coir fabric from coconut husks and boat building. They sail to work on their own boats and canoes. Children waved at us as they were ferried back from school in small canoes. Along the shore women were soaking coconut husks in water to later spin into coir. Occasionally a fisherman paddled by in his canoe with his fresh catch of the day.
Luxuriously furnished houseboats are a familiar sight on the backwaters today. These modern houseboats are reworked kettuvallams of olden times. Giant country crafts, measuring up to 85 feet in length, have been so much a part of Kerala's culture and heritage for centuries. They were used in the past for transportation of people and goods - loaded with rice, coconuts, rubber and spices they used to traverse long distances between remote villages and large towns. In Kerala’s language Malayalam Kettu means knot and vallam means boat. The kettuvallam or ‘boat with knots’- was so called because the entire boat is held together with coir knots only - not even a single nail is used in its construction. The boat is made of planks of jack-wood tied together with coir. It is then coated with a black resin made from boiled cashew kernels. Bamboo mats, sticks and wood of the areca nut tree are used for roofing, coir mats and wooden planks for the flooring and wood of coconut trees and coir for beds. Today’s houseboats have all the comforts of a good hotel including furnished bedrooms, some of them air-conditioned, modern toilets, cozy decks, a tiny kitchen and a very good crew. While smaller boats are poled by local oarsmen, the larger ones are powered by a 40 HP engine.
Late in the afternoon as the relaxing caress of tropical breezes were making our eyelids heavy Madhu surprised us with warm bowls of semiya paayasam (Indian vermicelli pudding) garnished with toasted cashews and raisins and scented with crushed cardamom. Gopi helped Madhu with the anchor and he pulled out the long bamboo pole and began pushing the boat towards the banks. We had pulled over to buy tender coconuts. There were acres of lush green rice fields as far as the eye could see. We got off the boat and walked along the narrow mud banks that separated one rice fields from the other. Flocks of white water fowl were fishing for worms in the fields. Madhu clapped his hands loudly and the birds flew up in unison.
He started the boat again and we moved forward. Gopi brought us steaming cups of hot tea. As hours passed the sky was drenched in brilliant hues of orange and red. The sunset was brilliant, silhouetting the coconut groves as the sun slowly faded at the tip of the horizon. As evening fell the crew anchored the boat for the night. By night the stars began to shine as if they loved shining and each was trying to light up the sky more brightly than the others. A full moon adorned the center of the star-lit sky. The rays from the lanterns hung on houseboats sent reflections shimmering upon the dark and placid waters.
Around eight in the evening we dined on freshly rolled thin chappathis (wheat flat bread) and creamy chicken curry. There was a bowl of spicy dal (lentil) curry and hot mango pickles for the picky vegetarian. The light on board was not bright enough for any serious reading. The comforting silence around us was very rarely interrupted, only when another boat went by. We retired early to wake up before dawn to witness the sunrise. Our beds draped in veils of mosquito net, were covered with crisp clean sheets. Summer is perpetual here and there was no need for blankets even on that December night. It was amazing- I was going to sleep in a kettuvallam in the middle of Lake Vembanad, a spot that was considered very dangerous to explore in my childhood.
We woke up before dawn, eager to get a glimpse of the beautiful sunrise. The winds were still and the lake's surface was quieted to a glassy smoothness. The stillness of the water only magnified the beauty of the sunrise by capturing its reflection. Even the ever swaying palm leaves seemed to relax as the glory of the dawn unfolded. A dense fog had slipped over rice fields. The fog lifted slowly with the shimmering golden light of dawn. We sat there spellbound as this magnificent sight unfolded in front of us.
Back on board Gopi was busy in the kitchen chopping green chili peppers, fresh ginger and onions for the masala curry to be served with puffed pooris Madhu had already made. Breakfast was superb: poori and masala curry, toast with butter and jam, eggs, sweet finger bananas and coffee. After breakfast they pulled up the anchor and we were on our way back to the shores of Aalappuza.
Ducks waddled along the banks and school children waved at us from their boats. The waterway was getting busy in the morning. Motorized ferries were transporting people to work. It was fascinating to see a train of some ten canoes pulled by a small motor boat. Madhu told us that the occupants, mostly women, were on their way to cut grass or work in the rice fields. There were other kettuvallams returning to the shore after a night stay at Lake Vembanad. We reached the shores before noon and our driver Naryanan was waiting there to take us back to Kochi.
Eclectic green rice fields, endless rows of coconut palms, flocks of white water fowl, vibrant butterflies drifting between colorful hibiscus and bougainvillea, mesmerizing sunsets, fascinating dawns and above all the luxury of cozy giant kettuvallams – I am heading back, and it can’t be soon enough.
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is working on a cookbook about the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala against a backdrop of cultural and culinary history. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.