#kerala, Travel

The Beauty of Kuttanad

Kuttanadan Punjayile
Kochu Penne Kuyilale
Kottu Venam Kuzhal Venam
Kurava Venam” – an evergreen boat song (watch the catchy fusion version by Vidya Vox)

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a young father went to collect his family from his wife’s homestead…

Sounds like the beginning to a fantasy novel doesn’t it? This was how my dad described his adventure-filled travel to Kuttanad back in the day when the bridges there were coconut logs. Travelling away from was more common than travelling towards.

Photo courtesy: Joyal Antony Thomas

Poems, songs and many literary works have had their setting in this land of the famed backwaters of Vembanad Lake. Coastal backwaters, rivers and well networked water ways; green, green paddy fields as far as the eye can see; shimmering water and countless ‘kettuvallams‘ and smaller ‘vallams‘ are the norm here.

When visiting my grandparents, the ride to the destination was picturesque to say the least. The adventure started when we had to get on a vallam (something like a canoe). Bags and people were loaded on and, getting on and off required great balance because:

  • a) the bank was higher up than the canoe and                                                  
  • b) the waves caused by motorboats kept the canoe swaying.

We once had a tinier-than-a-canoe pick us up from the jetty. There was probably a half-inch difference between the upper edge of the vallam and the river we were crossing. My kuttanad-born mom was more nervous for that than us kids!  

Photo courtesy: Joyal Antony Thomas

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race, although happens in Alleppey, is a prominent crowd puller from this part of the district. I have never understood the fevour the people have for the ‘vallam kali‘ (boat race). It was (and still is) impossible to get a clear cut view of which boat was where in a race that resembles a drag race! Every year, my husband goes to watch the ‘vallam kali‘but inevitably, I have learnt to expect a phone call asking who won the race. (I told you its impossible to see anything!).

Kuttanad lies in the heart of Alappuzha district and is fondly known as the Venice of the east. It is infact a huge area of reclaimed land that is separated by dikes from water higher than the land. It lies below sea- level and a two century old, ingenious method of rice cultivation is still being practised. The Food and Agricultural Organisation(FAO) has declared the Kuttanad farming method as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). Its Biosaline Farming system sets the land apart in terms of agricultural custom. It is unfortunate that I only recently came across such distinctions and history even though it’s where my mother grew up.

An aerial view of the backwaters

Years before frog hunting was banned, I remember my uncle going out after it rained,in the late evenings, to catch frogs to make crunchy fried frog’s legs. As daring as the French in their cuisine, weren’t they?! Duck, the famed Pearl Spot fish (karimeen), clam meat, were never exotic delicacies for the people here!

Paddy fields

So, back to my dad’s journey to Kuttanad. My brother had a bout of food poisoning from drinking pond water and he was adamant to see my father (the stubborn oaf😁). Anyway, my dad started sometime in the late afternoon and travelled by bus for one stretch of the journey and then he was on his own. There was still 30kms to cover, a jangar (ferry) to cross and two lakes between him and the house. But the malayalee man is a resourceful being, a sip of good brandy is enough for a kilometer worth of walk. When he finally reached the last water body he had to cross, it was pitch dark, there was no one about and no way to cross the river. Providence finally brought a kettuvallam and its vallakaaran (oarsman) passing through. My dad shouted and whistled, got the man’s attention, agreed on a price to ferry him across. Bang in the middle of the crossing the vallakaaran demanded double the money! Well, desperate times and all that. Finally, exhausted and only slightly intoxicated, my dad reached my grandparents house, looked in on my brother and promptly fell asleep.

Now the land and my maternal house is better connected with roadways, bridges and motorboats. But whatever developments continue to happen the Kuttanadan native is as close to the land and its waters as he was then.