A date with Kumarakom

No matter how advanced and easy city life may be, there’s always an undying thirst to get away from it all – if only for a while. That dream mostly comes true during annual leave, when there’s a mad rush to book seats for either a trip back home or to a scenic tourist destination somewhere with only one thing on the agenda: sit back and relax.

Lake Vembanad

The World Travel and Tourism Council has predicted an 11.6 per cent growth rate for Kerala’s tourism sector by 2013. Having spotted the kind of revenue that can be made in the tourism business, many countries all over the world are investing millions (if not more) into transforming their lands aesthetically; all of them vying to be the best. But Kerala’s natural beauty with its backwaters, rainforests and monsoons make it a strong contender for title No.1. Any book on this green state will list numerous places that are ‘must-bes’ and sights that are ‘must-sees’. Kumarakom is at the top of that list.

Kumarakom lies in the heart of Kerala, approx. 15kms inland from the nearest town, Kottayam. It is famous prAlappuzha-Kumarakom region houses about 600 boats of different kinds: houseboats, cruise boats or simple motor boats. A bird sanctuary on one side and well-maintained resorts on the other encircle the harbour. The busiest time of the year starts from August, especially during the Onam season (the harvest festival of Kerala) and goes on for the next six months. Paved roads make it all the more easier to get to the destination. imarily for its boating attractions and a single experience onboard clearly indicates why.

Soothing to the mind, it forces you to forget the pressures of work and indulge instead on topics of a lighter vein. Disturbing matters are carried away by the steady wind that blows the hair away from your face. Barefeet but surefooted, the boatmen steer the boat with experienced hands. They look like they’ll lose their balance any minute, standing at the very edge of the helm with no support; but after a while, realisation falls that they know their job. Scores of coconut trees and shrubbery line both sides of the wide passageway. If the colour green is indeed healthy for the eyes, spending enough time here would do wonders for one’s eyesight. The varying shades of green are a real treat for sore eyes.

But greenery is not the only life that exists on either side. Signs of civilization in the form of villagers going through the motions of daily routine by their cottages can be seen. The men folk dress in dhotis and make their living by ferrying tourists and visitors across the lake. Their women busy themselves with running the home front. Many of them can be seen slapping clothes against broad rocks, the traditional style of beating dirt out of clothes. A backbreaking job, but they seem to have learnt how to live without a washing machine. The banks though, are so low, it wouldn’t take more than one night of heavy showers to flood the cottages and wreak havoc. In fact, it is so low that the drooping leafy branches of the poovarashu – a local tree – can bend down long enough to caress the water’s surface. Boatmen assure that the villagers are in no such immediate danger though. Flooding doesn’t occur on this side of the bridge, they say. Sailing smoothly along, the backwaters open into a wide expanse of lake all around. This is Lake Vembanad… and it is beautiful.

The houseboat (Kettu-vallam) used to ferry visitors across the lake.

The houseboat that gets you there isn’t just any ordinary boat, by the way. It’s called kettu-vallam in the local language and is aptly named. It is sturdy, having the rough feel of wood and bamboo that secure the boat and keep it afloat. It boasts two furnished air-conditioned rooms, complete with inbuilt bathrooms, soft mattressed cots and the luxury of a television. Besides these, a separate washbasin counter and a kitchen are placed to the rear of the boat. Steaming, well-cooked meals are served on board. These boats take you on journeys that span a period of two hours to a couple of days. It’s reminiscent of a caravan, except that this house rolls on water, not wheels. The sitting area is right up front and provides an excellent view of the endless lake ahead. The boats are capable of housing between 10-50 people and are well-equipped with life jackets in the event of an emergency.

On a rainless day, the weather simply cannot get any better. White plumes of soft cotton hang overhead, forming various shapes and creatures to the imaginative eye. The journey is wonderfully peaceful and pleasant from beginning to end. Compared to the blaring horns of traffic or machinery from nearby construction sites in the city, the low hum of the engine, birds chirping and the waves lapping gently against the side of the boat is as calming as a mother’s lullaby to her baby.

The ‘natural air-conditioning’ creates ripples in the aqua green waters, in which bits of seaweed float about. If the water isn’t disturbed much, the seaweed grow as a colony in plenty. But when there is too much movement, they break off in clumps and begin to drift away to the land of the Little Mermaid. A little while on, the ‘Sands of Midnight’ comes into view in the distant horizon. A hundred acres of natural island covered fully by trees, it is being currently developed further by the government.

The return journey gives one another glimpse of the bird sanctuary and resorts. The sanctuary has such a wild undergrowth of trees that you can barely see deeper in. The occasional wild fowl wanders out to skim the water. The sanctuary is a stretch of about two kilometers and home to almost every kind of tropical bird. Visitors can take a walk through its forest paths in suitable weather conditions. As for the resorts, there are about 7-10 major resorts and numerous smaller ones. They are available in all ranges from economical or low-budgeted all the way to high class living accommodations where a single day would cost Rs. 75000 and one could expect all sorts of modern amenities including swimming pools.

But for all of these, Kumarakom has been in the news more recently for its outstanding performance in the annual Nehru Trophy boat race. To be more specific, the members of the Kumarakom Town Boat Club are still rejoicing in their hatrick victory. For the past three years, their team has been winning the rolling trophy consecutively. Their position as reigning champions will be challenged next month on August 11 by competing clubs. President P I Abraham of the Kumarakom Town Boat Club is confident of defending their position this year too. Speaking of the club’s activities, he says, “The club was formed in 1998 and since then, it has taken part in all the major events, especially the Nehru Trophy boat race. Every year, there are seven major trophies that we compete for.”

The speciality of this boat race is in the sheer number of rowers required and the incredible coordination involved which is crucial for victory. There are 93 rowers, five helmsmen and nine others called cheerers, who encourage and give directions to their comrades – all in one boat. As if this feat wasn’t commendable enough, it is accomplished with just 11 days of training, three hours a day. “The oarsmen are fishermen who are already trained. All they need to learn is complete coordination with the others. It is the cheerers along with their team captain who carry out the training,” explains Abraham. It wasn’t always a ‘piece-of-work’ victory. “The first year that we won, we had tight competition because the boat we were using wasn’t so great. The next two times, we had an easy victory,” he says, proudly. “Our boat ‘Paippad Chundan’ was the best because it was custom made and lightweight.”

The Nehru Trophy boat race is the only race that’s held at the same time every year, in connection with the festival of Onam. Lakhs of people turn out as spectators to watch this prestigious and widely acclaimed race. In fact, its fame has spread so far that this year that foreign teams also register for the race. “It’s not just about having a nice team,” Abraham emphasises. “You need to have discipline, and this team had that.” This annual boat race is also a part of the government’s tourism programme, marketed all over the world.

Man-made works such as amusement parks are lovely in their own right as works of art but they cannot even hope to compare with such natural splendor. There are many reasons to make Kumarakom one of the next destinations of your visit. Where else can one discover beauty so rich except in nature herself? It is, after all, God’s own country.

[* On August 11, 2007, the Kumarakom Town Boat Club did clinch the rolling trophy, making it their fourth consecutive victory.]

3 Comments

  1. :)I am glad you haven’t mentioned the issues concerning the waste, houseboats etc are throwing out being diverted to backwaters. We have a beautiful land but unfortunately we take it for granted, and have no idea how to preserve it. At one end everything is rosy but the other end, it’s the opposite. Glad that you enjoyed the trip:).

  2. @Meera's World: Man made waste is going to be the bane of any tourist destination, We did come across piles of waste and felt helpless. Mentioning that would have ruined the beautiful pictures we have in our memories. That's why I left it out.

    The Indian culture is all for cleanliness at home, but no one seems to care about our surroundings. We blame the government and the municipality for the garbage problems, when each of us can help by not throwing it around.

    Glad you dropped by and had a say 🙂 .. It Kinda get's lonely, writing to anonymous visitors, who do not leave a comment 🙂

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