Kerala backwaters

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A house Boat View from Vambanad Lake
Map of Backwaters in Kerala

The Kerala backwaters are a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (known as the Malabar Coast) of Kerala state in southern India. The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both manmade and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length of Kerala state. The backwaters were formed by the action of waves and shore currents creating low barrier islands across the mouths of the many rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats range.

The Kerala Backwaters are a network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets, a labyrinthine system formed by more than 900 km of waterways, and sometimes compared to the American Bayou.[1] In the midst of this landscape there are a number of towns and cities, which serve as the starting and end points of backwater cruises.[2] National Waterway No. 3 from Kollam to Kottapuram, covers a distance of 205 km and runs almost parallel to the coast line of southern Kerala facilitating both cargo movement and backwater tourism.[3] The important rivers from north to south are; Valapattanam river (110 kms.), Chaliar (69 kms.), Kadalundipuzha (130 kms.), Bharathapuzha (209 kms.), Chalakudy river (130 kms.), Periyar (244 kms), Pamba (176 kms), Achancoil (128 kms.) and Kalladayar (121 kms.). Other than these, there are 35 more small rivers and rivulets flowing down from the Ghats. Most of these rivers are navigable up to the midland region, in country crafts.


The backwaters have a unique ecosystem - freshwater from the rivers meets the seawater from the Arabian Sea. In certain areas, such as the Vembanad Kayal, where a barrage has been built near Kumarakom, salt water from the sea is prevented from entering the deep inside, keeping the fresh water intact. Such fresh water is extensively used for irrigation purposes.[3][4]

Many unique species of aquatic life including crabs, frogs and mudskippers, water birds such as terns, kingfishers, darters and cormorants, and animals such as otters and turtles live in and alongside the backwaters. Palm trees, pandanus shrubs, various leafy plants and bushes grow alongside the backwaters, providing a green hue to the surrounding landscape.[4]

Vembanad Kayal is the largest of the lakes, covering an area of 200 km², and bordered by Alappuzha (Alleppey), Kottayam, and Ernakulam districts. The port of Kochi (Cochin) is located at the lake's outlet to the Arabian Sea. Alleppey, "Venice of the East", has a large network of canals that meander through the town. Vembanad is India’s longest lake.[3]

Kerala Backwaters Sunset.JPG
Kerala backwaters in the Kuttanad area

Tourism[edit]

Kerala was placed among the `50 destinations of a lifetime' by National Geographic Traveler in a special collectors' issue released just before the turn of the millennium.[5]

House boat[edit]

A backwater in the Malabar, c.a. 1913

The kettuvallams (Kerala houseboats) in the backwaters are one of the prominent tourist attractions in Kerala. More than 2000 kettuvallams ply the backwaters,[6] 120 of them in Alappuzha.[7] Kerala government has classified the tourist houseboats as Platinum, Gold and silver.

The kettuvallams were traditionally used as grain barges, to transport the rice harvested in the fertile fields alongside the backwaters. Thatched roof covers over wooden hulls, 100 feet (30 m) in length, provided protection from the elements. At some point in time the boats were used as living quarters by the royalty. Converted to accommodate tourists, the houseboats have become floating cottages having a sleeping area, with western-style toilets, a dining area and a sit out on the deck. Most tourists spend the night on a house boat. Food is cooked on board by the accompanying staff – mostly having a flavour of Kerala. The houseboats are of various patterns and can be hired as per the size of the family or visiting group. The living-dining room is usually open on at least three sides providing a grand view of the surroundings, including other boats, throughout the day when it is on the move. It is brought to a standstill at times of taking food and at night. After sunset, the boat crew provide burning coils to drive away mosquitoes. Ketuvallams are motorised but generally proceed at a slow speed for smooth travel. All ketuvallams have a generator and most bedrooms are air-conditioned. At times, as per demand of customers, electricity is switched off and lanterns are provided to create a rural setting.[3][4]

A launch wades through water hyacinth in an Alappuzha canal

While many ketuvalloms take tourists from a particular point and bring them back to around the same point next morning there are some specific cruises mostly in the Alappuzha area, such as the one night cruise from Alappuzha to Thotapally via Punnamada Lake two nights cruise from Alappuzha to Alumkavadi,[8] one night cruise from Alappuzha to Kidangara, and one night cruise from Alappuzha to Mankotta.[9] There are numerous such cruises.[10]

Beypore, located 10 km south of Kozhikode at the mouth of the Chaliyar River, is a famous fishing harbour, port and boat building centre. Beypore has a 1,500 year-tradition of boatbuilding. The skill of the local shipwrights and boat builders are widely sought after. There is a houseboat-building yard at Alumkadavu, in Ashtamudi Kayal near Kollam.[3]

Ferry services[edit]

Regular ferry services connect most locations on both banks of the backwaters.[3] The Kerala State Water Transport Department operates ferries for passengers as well as tourists. It is the cheapest mode of transport through the backwaters.

Resorts[edit]

Resort at Kumarakom

Kumarakom, which was a sleepy town for years, has been transformed into a busy tourist destination with plush resorts around the Vembanad Kayal and the backwaters.[3]

Impact on eco-system[edit]

The unregulated proliferation of motorised houseboats in the lakes and backwaters have raised concerns regarding the adverse impact of pollution from diesel engines and outboard motors on the fragile ecosystem.

Economic significance[edit]

Connected by artificial canals, the backwaters form an economical means of transport, and a large local trade is carried on by inland navigation. Fishing, along with fish curing is an important industry.

Kerala backwaters have been used for centuries by the local people for transportation, fishing and agriculture. It has supported the efforts of the local people to earn a livelihood. In more recent times, agricultural efforts have been strengthened with reclamation of some backwater lands for rice growing, particularly in the Kuttanad area. Boat making has been a traditional craft, so has been the coir industry.[4]

Paddy fields in the Kuttanad region at a level lower than that of water in the canal

Kuttanad is crisscrossed with waterways that run alongside extensive paddy fields, as well as fields of cassava, banana and yam. A unique feature of Kuttanad is that many of these fields are below sea level and are surrounded by earthen embankments. The crops are grown on the low-lying ground and irrigated with fresh water from canal and waterways connected to Vembanad lake. The area is similar to the dikes of the Netherlands where land has been reclaimed from the sea and crops are grown.[11]

Ecological significance[edit]

Vembanad Kol Wetland and Ashtamudi Wetland were included in the list of wetlands of international importance, as defined by the Ramsar Convention for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetlands.[12]

Boat races[edit]

See also: Vallam Kali

Chundan vallams or snake boats are narrow boats over 100 feet (30 m) long, with a raised prow that stands 10 feet (3.0 m) above water and resembles the hood of a snake. Traditionally these were used by local rulers to transport soldiers during waterfront wars. In modern times, it has spawned a new sport – the Vallam Kali (boat race). Each chundan vallam accommodates about a hundred muscular oarsmen.[3]

Boat races are occasions of great excitement and entertainment with thousands gathered on the banks to watch and cheer. Most of these races are held in the Kuttanad region of Alappuzha.[3]

The boat races starts with Champakulam Moolam Boat Race which is held on the Pamba River in the village Champakulam on Moolam day (according to the Malayalam Era M.E) of the Malayalam month Midhunam, the day of the installation of the deity at the Ambalappuzha Sree Krishna Temple. Very interesting stories lie behind the origin of Moolam Boat Race.

When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Kerala in 1952, four traditional chundan valloms went to receive him. A snake boat race was organised for him. He was so impressed that when he went back to Delhi, he sent back a gleaming silver trophy for a boat race. Even today, the 1.5 km Nehru Trophy Boat Race is the most prestigious. It is held during the Onam harvest festival in August in Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha.[3]

The Thazhathangadi boat race held every year on Meenachil river, at Thazhathangadi, Kottayam is one of the oldest and popular boat races in the state.

Other renowned boat races are: Indira Gandhi Boat Race, Champakulam Moolam Boat Race, Aranmula Uthrattadi Vallamkali, Payippad Jalotsavam, kallada Boat Race and Kumarakom Boat Race.

Backwater regions[edit]

Kollam[edit]

A houseboat - Scene from Thevally, Kollam

Kollam (earlier known as Quilon) was one of the leading trade centres of the ancient world, eulogised by travellers such as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. It is also the starting point of the backwater waterways. The Ashtamudi Kayal, known as the gateway to the backwaters, covers about 30 per cent of Kollam.[3] Sasthamcotta Kayal, the large fresh water lake is 28.5 km from Kollam city.

The 8 hours boat ride from Kollam to Alappuzha is the longest cruise in Kerala and is delightful ride with lotuses and water lilies all around.[13] The historic Thangasseri Fort is near Kollam, which is situated 71 km north of Thiruvananathapuram.

Alappuzha[edit]

With the Kuttanad region and the Vembanad Pottyl nearby, Alappuzha (earlier known as Alleppy) attracts tourists throughout the year. The criss-crossing canals in the area evoke comparisons with Venice, but the differences are also substantial. Each has an identity of its own. Amongst the notable sights is the palm covered Pathiramanal Island in Vembanad Kayal, one hour by boat from Alappuzha.[3] The place is famous for the snake boat races and also has a number of historic colonial buildings and a beach. Kollam and Alappuzha connected to the beautiful Kayamkulam Lake. Now newly started a major snake boat race in Kayamkulam basis.Kayamkulam town and National Thermal Power Plant are located in the banks of Kayamkulam Lake.(A part of ashtamudi Lake)[14]

Kuttanad[edit]

The Kuttanad region is a vast area of partly reclaimed land, covered with bright green paddy fields, separated by dikes. The level of water is a few feet higher than the level of the surrounding land.[3] It is an amazing labyrinth of shimmering waterways composed of lakes, canals, rivers and rivulets. Lined with dense tropical greenery, it offers a glimpse into rural life-styles of Kerala.[15] Kuttanad is a backwater paradise and an ideal destination for a backwater cruise in Kerala. It is possible to drift along in a houseboat and enjoy the scenic view of the Kerala countryside.[11]

Kottayam - Kumarakom[edit]

The village of Kumarakom is a cluster of little islands on the Vembanad Kayal, and is part of the Kuttanad region.[16] The blue backwaters of Vembanad Kayal and the amazing shades of green of the vegetation, combines with the quietness of the place to make it an idyllic holiday destination. Many of the resorts also offer ayurvedic treatment While Kuttanad is ideal for a house boat cruise, the resorts are the main attraction in Kumarakonam. One can also take a boat trip in Kumaramonam It is located 15 km west of Kottayam. The bird sanctuary and the drift

Srinivas, a singer summed up: “Imagine opening your eyes every morning to a sheet of still, blue water and majestic palm tress gently swaying in the breeze. To define the feeling in one sentence: Nature undisturbed by man is wonderful and inspiring, and Kumarakom is just that!”[17]

Paravur(Kollam)[edit]

Paravur is one of the wonderful backwater destination and a Municipal town situated in the Kollam district of Kerala state. The beautiful lakes and sea coast in Paravur attract visitors and foreigners.[18] The main attraction is the interconnection of Paravur Kayal lake (part of a system of back waters) and the Arabian sea.[19] There is a coastal road in between Paravur & Kollam. This road is starting in the western end of Paravur town, passing through the land between the banks of Arabian sea and Paravur Kayal(lake).[20] The 14 km long journey through this particular road will be one of the amazing experience for the travelers. 3 Resorts are there in Paravur. Among them, one is situated in the middle of beautiful Paravur lake.

Munroe island[edit]

Munroethuruth or Munroe Island is a place surrounded by Kallada River, Ashtamudi Lake and Sasthamkotta Lake in Kollam district, Munroe Island is a cluster of eight tiny islands, Blessed with a number of criss-cross canals and zigzag water channels, this Island plays a host to many migratory birds from various countries around the world. You can watch birds such as Kingfisher, Woodpecker, Egret, Bee-eater, Crow pheasant, and Paddy Birds. There is yet another rare chance to see the traditional Indian spice plants such as Pepper, Nutmeg and Cloves.([1])

The first community tourism programme in the State will start functioning from the MunroeThuruthu islands. Coir making is a home industry to almost all the village living people. It is very interesting to watch the coir making by the village ladies with the help of weaving Wheels. They make the coir ropes by hand. In addition to this, on the way, you can see the process of extracting coconut oil from the "copra" [dried coconut]. Among the routine traditional engagements, duck, poultry farm and prawn breeding are common in all houses.([2])

Kasargod[edit]

Kasargod in north Kerala is a backwater destination, known for rice cultivation, coir processing and lovely landscape, it has the sea to the west and the Western Ghats to the north and east. Cruise options are Chandragiri and Valiyaparamba near Kavvayi Backwater. Chandragiri is situated 4 km to the southeast of Kasargod town and takes tourists to the historic Chandragiri fort. Valiyaparamba is a scenic backwater stretch near Kasargod. Four rivers flow into the backwaters near Kasargod and there are many small islands along these backwater stretches, where birds can be seen.

Thiruvallam[edit]

Thiruvallam backwaters are just 6 km from Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital. Known for its canoe rides Thiruvallam is becoming increasingly popular with tourists. Two rivers, the Killi and the Karamana come together at Thiruvallam. Not far from Thiruvallam is the Veli Lagoon, where there are facilities for water sports, a waterfront park and a floating bridge. The Akkulam Boat club, which offers boating cruises on Akkulam Lake and a park for children, is also a popular tourist attraction near Thiruvallam.

Kozhikode[edit]

Kozhikode (also known as Calicut) has backwaters which are largely “unexplored” by tourist hordes. Elathur, the Canoly Canal and the Kallayi River are favourite haunts for boating and cruising. Korapuzha, the venue of the Korapuzha Jalotsavam is fast becoming a popular water sport destination.

Literature[edit]

Two prominent writers in the region are Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and Arundhati Roy.

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, (1912–1999), Padmabhusan, and Jnanpith and Sahitya Akedemi award winning writer, was born in Thakazhi village in Alappuzha district.[21] He wrote in Malayalam. His novel Chemmeen has been translated into most Indian languages and several foreign languages.

Arundhati Roy (born 1961), was brought up in Ayemenem near Kottayam, and her Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things is set in Kerala.[22]

Photo gallery[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Austin Pick: A Billion People in a Coconut Shell". Retrieved 2008-12-28. 
  2. ^ "11 Prime Destinations in Kerala for Backwater Tour". Retrieved 2014-07-01. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Ayub, Akber (ed), Kerala: Maps & More, Backwaters, 2006 edition 2007 reprint, pp. 40-53, Stark World Publishing, Bangalore, ISBN 81-902505-2-3
  4. ^ a b c d "Bacwaters in Kerala". Kerala Backwater. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  5. ^ Mathew, Mony K. "Going beyond God’s own country". The Hindu Business Line, 13 July 2000. Retrieved 2008-01-08. 
  6. ^ Abraham, Tanya. "Eco-friendly boats to ply backwaters". The Hindu, 31 October 2005. Retrieved 2008-01-06. 
  7. ^ "Cargo boats". Worldviewer. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  8. ^ "Alumkadavu Bacwaters of Kerala". Tranquil voyage through backwaters. Backwaters in Kerala. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  9. ^ "Mankotta Bacwaters of Kerala". Tranquil voyage through backwaters. Backwaters in Kerala. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  10. ^ https://www.keralatourism.org/destination/backwater/
  11. ^ a b "Kuttanad Bacwaters". Kerala Backwater. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  12. ^ "The List of Wetlands of International Importances". The Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971) Rue Mauverney 28, CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland. Archived from the original on 2 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-07. 
  13. ^ "Kollam Bacwaters". Kerala Backwater Tours. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  14. ^ "Alappuzha Bacwaters". Kerala Backwater. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  15. ^ "Kuttanad Backwaters". Kerala Backwater Tours. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  16. ^ "Kumarakom Bacwaters". Kerala Backwater Tours. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  17. ^ Swaminathan, Chitra. "Srinivas – My kind of Place". Metro Plus Coimbatore. The Hindu, 30 June 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-08. 
  18. ^ Paravur - The heaven of foreigners
  19. ^ Paravur - The blessed land of estuary, backwaters & beaches
  20. ^ Coastal Zone Management
  21. ^ "Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai". india9.com. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  22. ^ "Arundhati Roy – a life full of beginnings and no ends". chitram.org. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 9°51′49″N 76°21′34″E / 9.86348°N 76.3594°E / 9.86348; 76.3594