Plying the waterways of Kerala

Kerala is located on the south western tip of India.  It has over 900 waterways that are connected with one and other, so one of the best ways to travel around the region is to see it slowly by boat.

Of course, the boats you travel on are not the modern cruisers or houseboats you see in western countries, these boats are more traditional and are called kettuvallam. The kettuvallam or ‘boat with knots’ was so called because the entire boat was held together with coir knots only. Not even a single nail is used during the construction of the boat.  The boat is made of planks of jack-wood joined together with coir. This is then coated with a caustic black resin made from boiled cashew kernels. With careful maintenance, a kettuvallam can last for generations.

Today, the houseboats have all the creature comforts of a good hotel including furnished bedrooms, modern toilets, cosy living rooms, a kitchen and even a balcony for angling. Parts of the curved roof of wood or plaited palm open out to provide shade and allow uninterrupted views. While most boats are poled by local oarsmen, some are powered by a 40 HP engine. Boat-trains – formed by joining two or more houseboats together are also used by large groups of sightseers, but that gets a bit busy for me, if I’m going to ply a quiet waterway I don’t want to do it surround by lots of other people, thank you.

Apart from the inland waterways, Kerala is also known for its lovely beaches, and with 600 kilometres of coastline there are plenty of them from which to choose.  

Kovalam is an internationally renowned beach with three adjacent crescent beaches. It has been a favourite haunt of tourists, especially Europeans, since the 1930s. A massive rocky promontory on the beach has created a beautiful bay of calm waters ideal for swimming.   It is close to Kerala’s Capital Thiruvananthapuram, being only 16 kms away.  A bit further north is Varkala. A dip in the holy waters at this beach is believed to purge the body of impurities and the soul of all sins. A dip in the holy waters at this beach is believed to purge the body of impurities and the soul of all sins.

The Portuguese had a presence in Kerala for many years, particularly at Fort Kochi.  The eventful history of Kochi commenced when a major flood in AD 1341 threw open the estuary at Kochi, which was till then a landlocked region, turning it into one of the finest natural harbours in the world. Kochi thus became a haven for seafaring visitors from all over the world and became the first European township in India when the Portuguese settled here in the 15th century.  Fort Kochi is also home to one of India’s oldest churches – the St.Francis Church. This was a Roman Catholic Church during the Portuguese rule from 1503 to 1663, then a Dutch Reformist Church from 1664 to 1804, and Anglican Church from 1804 to 1947. Today it is governed by the Church of South India (CSI). Another important fact about the church is that Vasco Da Gama, who died in 1524, was buried here before his mortal remains were returned to Portugal 14 years later. Each and every structure, street, door, window and brick in Fort Kochi has several stories to tell.

The best time to visit Kerala is between September and May, at other times you will encounter the monsoons, which give you a great introduction to rain, but do inhibit your ability to travel easily.  Getting to Kerala is rather easy.  There are several international airlines which fly to a number of cities in Kerala, as well as India’s domestic airlines.  India also has an efficient, but crowded, rail system, and Indian buses can be an experience you will never forget.  This being India, accommodation ranges from the opulent to the really nasty, depending on your budget.

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