Boating in the Backwaters of Kerala *

Imagine cruising in a beautifully furnished houseboat that could take you through the deltas of 44 rivers. That is possible in the 550-mile-long [900 km] backwaters of the state of Kerala, in southwest India. It is a joyful experience, a unique one—indeed, it is like floating on nature’s lap. As your boat lazily moves along, you cannot help but admire the coconut-rimmed lagoons, lush green paddy fields, natural lakes, and man-made canals. Yes, likely because of these backwaters, the National Geographic Traveler listed Kerala as “one of the top 50 ‘must-see destinations of a lifetime.’”

Not to be missed are the folk who live on the shores of the many canals. They remember a time when there were neither tourists nor five-star hotels in their neighborhood. However, their lives have not changed much. Although some of them are now employed in newly developed hotels or other tourism-related establishments, by and large their culture and their daily routine remain the same. They care for their paddy fields and coconut groves, supplementing their daily diet and income by fishing and selling fish.

Fishing in the Backwaters

Fishing is part of life here. A sight you may see nowhere else is that of women catching pearl spot fish, or karimeen, with their bare hands. Unique to Kerala’s backwaters, karimeen are a delicacy to Indians and foreigners alike. Searching for the fish, the women wade through the backwaters with their pots floating behind them. Seeing the women approaching, the fish dive down and bury their heads in the mud. Not to be outsmarted, the women feel around in the mud with their sensitive feet and locate the fish. Then, ducking quickly under the water, they grab the unsuspecting prize with their bare hands and transfer their wriggling catch to the floating pots. When they have caught a sufficient number, they wade to the shore, where eager buyers are waiting. The bigger and more expensive fish go to five-star hotels, where they delight the rich, while the smaller ones become a tasty meal for those of more modest means.

Chinese Fishing Nets

A common sight on the shores of the backwaters are graceful Chinese-style fishing nets. These also serve as a major tourist attraction.

It is believed that Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan first brought the nets to Cochin (now Kochi) before the year 1400. These hand-operated fishing devices were used first by the Chinese and then later by Portuguese settlers. Today they provide a livelihood for many Indian fishermen, as well as food for countless people, even as they did over 600 years ago. Surprisingly, the catch from one net can feed an entire village. For many tourists a romantic picture of the drying nets silhouetted against the setting sun has a special place in their vacation photograph album.

It is not only images of the Chinese nets that beckon tourists to the backwaters. Aquatic activities, such as the traditional snake boat races, attract thousands each year.

Boat Races in the Backwaters

Snake boats are long, slim canoes. The stern is shaped like a cobra’s hood, hence the name snake boat. In times past, the warring kings of the backwaters used these boats for their postharvest wars. When the wars finally ceased, the need for the boats lessened. Only during temple festivals did these majestic craft ply the waters. With great fanfare, they were crewed and decorated and used as showpieces of the local culture. During the festive period, boat races were held in honor of dignitaries who attended. This tradition, which began about a thousand years ago, is still thriving.

It is common for as many as 20 such boats to compete in the races, each manned by a crew of between 100 and 150 men. Over a hundred with short oars sit in two rows along the length of each boat. Four helmsmen with longer oars stand at the stern to steer the boat. Two others stand midship, beating wooden rods on a sounding board to mark time for the oarsmen. Such encouragement is complemented by at least half a dozen other men who ride along. These men clap, whistle, shout, and sing the unique boatmen’s songs to urge the crew to keep up the pace. Then, after precision rowing to the rhythmic beat, the young men release their remaining energy in a spectacular race to the finish line.

In 1952, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited Alleppey, a key town in the backwaters, and was greatly impressed by a boat race he attended there. In fact, so fascinated was he that he ignored security arrangements and jumped onto the winning boat, clapping and singing along with the rowers. On his return to Delhi, he sent a gift, a silver replica of a snake boat, bearing his signature and the inscription: “To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life.” This silver boat is used as the trophy for the annual Nehru Trophy Race. About a hundred thousand people flock to see such races every year. At those times the generally slow-paced backwaters really come alive.

Luxury Hotels That Float and Cruise

Snake boats are not the only backwater vessels that attract tourists. Increasingly popular are rice boats—old-style vessels converted into luxurious houseboats.

Although many of those used by tourists are newly constructed, rice boats still exist that are more than a hundred years old and that have been made over for tourism. Originally they were known as kettuvallam, meaning “boat with knots.” The entire boat was made of jackwood planks and was held together with coir-rope knots, without the use of even a single nail. These boats were used for carrying rice and other commodities from village to village and spices to faraway places. With the arrival of modern conveyances, the boats became almost obsolete. Then a bright entrepreneur hit upon the idea of converting them into houseboats for the tourist industry. With balcony, luxury bedrooms with en suite facilities, and beautifully furnished living rooms, the houseboats can be called floating hotels. Attendants are provided to take your boat wherever you want to go and to cook whatever you wish to eat.

* This article published in April 2008 issue of Awake magazine.

In South India, a Low-Key and Cheap Alternative to Goa *

The ride was brief, albeit a touch hair-raising. Our vehicle, a rickety auto rickshaw, hurtled down residential lanes emblazoned with Communist-friendly graffiti and lined with houses painted in what appeared to be the official state colors of Kerala: teal, hot pink and tangerine. But the pristine coves of Edava beach near Varkala, a coastal town an hour from Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, at the southwestern rim of India, would have been worth far more trouble to get to.

When I arrived, loudspeakers were broadcasting students reciting the Quran at a mint green oceanfront mosque with fuchsia trim, setting an unusually melodic soundtrack for a seaside retreat. Dozens of fishermen unloaded their catch from boats awash in primary colors, too focused to take notice of the handful of surfers bobbing in the water nearby. The surfers, the fishermen, my family and a few stray dogs: all of us seemingly oblivious to one another and coexisting happily on this exquisite swath of sand. After a lifetime of traveling to India, “peaceful” is not a word I typically associate with the country, but that’s precisely what Edava beach was.

Varkala is primarily known for a triumvirate of activities that render it appealing for active and leisure visitors alike: yoga, ayurveda and surfing. These wholesome pursuits make it a far cry from the overpriced resorts and drug-fueled ragers that India’s far-better-known beach destination, Goa, about 600 miles north, seems to have become synonymous with. I haven’t been to Goa so I can’t compare the two, but I can certainly vouch for Varkala’s low-key vibe and affordable pleasures.

Others had no problem making the comparison. “It’s like Goa, but better,” a fellow traveler remarked; perhaps like the Goa of yore, before it became the go-to New Year’s spot for Mumbai socialites and Russian sunbathers. And its prices are commensurately lower, making it an appealing frugal alternative. As those trend seekers infiltrated Goa, backpackers and hippies migrated farther south to Kerala’s untouched beaches. Varkala might be one of the last resort-free seaside destinations, devoid of megachains and brimming with independent bed-and-breakfasts and ayurvedic spas. And the state’s new restrictions on alcohol (liquor licenses are now extremely difficult to come by, and bars are generally limited to four- and five-star hotels) mean you’re forced to consider less boozy endeavors. You go to Goa to rave, but you go to Varkala to rejuvenate.

I arrived in Varkala at the peak of the peak season, Christmas week, and my visit still had all the trappings of a budget holiday, despite only modest attempts at scrimping. Dinner for 15 people? Less than $10 a head. Three nights in an oceanfront hotel? Under $300. And because this is India, everything is negotiable, from persuading the hotel to exempt us from its “mandatory” 1,500 rupee-per-person Christmas dinner to bargaining down the advertised rates for cooking classes, pedicures and ayurvedic treatments. Whatever the price, it’s always worth it to ask proprietors to shave off a couple hundred rupees.

Given the busy time of year and lack of options for a group our size (we were 15, including my husband and his extended family), I was nervous about the hotel we’d booked. I need not have worried. Krishnatheeram Ayur Holy Beach Resort is a collection of terra-cotta-roofed cottages evoking traditional Kerala homes, all clustered around a swimming pool. The 30 or so rooms are spotless, the beds comfortable, the air-conditioning powerful enough to create a mini Arctic climate indoors and the staff is immensely helpful. There’s a terrace overlooking the ocean where you can join yoga classes twice a day, and the resort has its own ayurvedic center with simple but clean treatment rooms and lush gardens. Our three-night stay in a non-sea-facing double came to 16,650 rupees (about $273 at 61 rupees to the U.S. dollar). And those are peak prices; rates in March start at (a negotiable) 4,250 rupees.

When you walk out of Krishnatheeram in the direction of the ocean, you turn left to ascend toward the more commercial hub of North Cliff. Pockets of the expansive main beach are occasionally marred by garbage chucked over the cliff by careless businesses without much concern for natural beauty, and I counted more than one bloated diaper washed ashore.

But if you turn right outside the hotel instead, you’ll find yourself on a much more relaxed stroll, walking past tranquil vignettes of local life unfolding alongside the sea: families splashing fully clothed in the surf; a dozen or so local boys in a heated volleyball match; a ponytailed man leading two foreign hippies in a flute lesson; cows grazing at cliff’s edge. This is also the way to the much quieter (and spotless) Black Beach, where you can scamper down the boulders to a stunning stretch of ebony sand that’s a far calmer alternative to the comparatively busy main beach.

“People who come here are not looking for a psychedelic drug-fueled trance,” said Raffael Kably, general manager of the Soul & Surf hotel, where I popped in for a chapati quesadilla and iced coffee (500 rupees). “It’s not about partying and smoking, it’s a more chilled-out, healthy spot.”

Opened by Ed and Sofie Templeton, a British couple who fell in love with Kerala while on a round-the-world trip, Soul & Surf is, for surfers of all levels, the place to go, even if you’re not staying at the hotel. A one-and-a-half-hour lesson is 2,300 rupees, or you can rent a board for three hours for 850 rupees. Mr. Kably advised that the best waves are during the premonsoon and postmonsoon seasons: March to May and October to November.

“Varkala in general has great waves for surfing,” he said, “but you’re not coming here just for the surf; it’s the culture, the lifestyle. It’s a nice break from Goa, with a lot more to offer in terms of culture and still undiscovered.”

There are a few sites away from the beaches that you should explore, like the 2,000-year-old Janardhana Swamy temple and the 1904 Sivagiri Mutt ashram, which Mahatma Gandhi, Indian prime ministers and the Dalai Lama have all visited. Both places are worth a stop (and are free of charge), though neither has many signs in English.

But most of Varkala’s action is centered along the cliffs, where countless restaurants ply you with near-identical global menus (Swedish, Mexican and Thai dishes are regularly featured, perhaps to cater to the variety of tourists) and entice with ice-laden display cases showcasing the day’s catch. At Sky Lounge, I tried the fiery prawn fry (350 rupees), a popular Kerala dish, washed down with a refreshing mint, apple, pineapple and lemon juice (70 rupees). I popped into Bohemian Masala Art Cafe, a narrow, thatched, cavelike space that’s ideal for cooling off with a sweet cardamom lassi (80 rupees). Lhasa is the go-to spot for momos, Tibetan dumplings; the tasty prawn variety came to 180 rupees. At Abba, a Nepalese-Swedish hybrid, I devoured a moist, airy coffee cream cake for 60 rupees.

But perhaps the nicest restaurant on the strip, and one I kept returning to, was Clafouti. When you find something you like, stick with it, I figured, and I certainly enjoyed the prawn masala, garlic naan and tandoori red snapper (which we selected from the display). Total cost: 1,220 rupees.

Makeshift clothing stands also line the cliffs, perched alongside herbal shops, ayurvedic centers, cafes and bars. The smell of incense is heady, and most stalls are heaving with racks of flimsy harem pants and shiny satchels, all of which look as if they’ll last two wears and are priced to match. But if you’re willing to hunt, there are definite shopping scores; boutiques carrying beautiful Kashmiri and Tibetan handicrafts are tucked away throughout the stretch. At a leather shop (one of dozens of unnamed stalls in a row) I bought a pair of red suede sandals for 400 rupees, bargained down from 600. Shopkeepers are friendly but not overly pushy; in fact, it seemed as if many wanted nothing more than to shake my hand and say, “Happy Christmas.”

Since I was concerned that leaving Varkala without dabbling in ayurveda might be violating some sacred law, I decided to have my first-ever treatment at the resort. Dr. P.J. Ajeeb oversees the center, and he tried to explain the 5,000-year-old philosophy to me: The universe is made up of five elements — space, air, water, earth, fire — and “man is a microcosm of the macros,” he said. “Ayurveda defines health as equilibrium.”

I tried to find my own equilibrium with an hourlong purification massage: The attendant liberally daubed warm oils all over me, then slathered a medicated powder that combines 12 herbs. The soothing treatment is listed at 1,500 rupees; light negotiations brought the price down to 1,300.

On our final evening we returned to Clafouti. By now we knew our favorites and, owing to our newfound status as regulars, we were brazen enough to pop by in the afternoon to place orders for the kitchen to have ready for us by 8 p.m. We arrived on the dot to find our spread waiting, from bhindi masala (okra) to dal makhani (lentils) to tandoori butterfish. The bill for 15 people came to 5,450 rupees, about $6 per person. I may not have been to Goa yet, but something tells me I don’t need to.

* This article was written by By SARAH KHAN and published in The New York Times FEB. 19, 2015.

Kerala and the Maldives: a perfect combination *

With the best will in the world, there isn't much to do in the Maldives. However well-appointed your over-water villa, however shimmering the Indian Ocean, however colourful the sea-life, however engrossing your holiday reading, there's a limit to how you can fill your time.

On the tiny coral islands, there are no cultural relics, no historical sites, no village cafés and no local life.

So this is what you should do: visit southern India first and then take a one-hour flight to the Maldives for seas, sand and spas before you fly home.

My trip went like this: I spent a week in Kerala, exploring the historic city of Kochi, chugging through inland lakes and backwaters, driving into the foothills and on through ramshackle towns.

I then followed the coast to the southernmost tip of the continent. At Trivandrum, I hopped on a plane to Malé, capital of the Maldives, and a speedboat whisked me to the incomparable Cocoa Island.

India has no beaches to compare with the Maldives, and the calm of this five-star desert island was a perfect sequel to the noise, congestion and dust of India.

Kerala is perhaps the most welcoming and least alarming state in India for British visitors. A narrow coastal strip a quarter the size of England, it makes up only one per cent of India's land mass.

Although the population density is twice that of England, the ambience is relaxed, the climate is tropical, the vegetation lush, the traditional culture vibrant. The people are friendly and courteous – what's more, many of them speak English.

The food is also delicious, with fish from the Malabar coast, cooked with spices grown on the hills of the Western Ghats. Arguably the first state in the world to have an elected communist-led government, Kerala has the highest standard of living in India, and boasts almost 100 per cent literacy, an efficient healthcare system, a strong service sector, and a comparatively equitable distribution of wealth.

My trip was comfortable from start to finish. I started with two nights in Kochi, staying in an elegant colonial bungalow, with time to enjoy the laid-back village atmosphere of the old town centre and its picturesque Chinese fishing nets, which local fishermen have worked since the days of Kubla Khan in the 13th century.

Then I explored Kerala's famous backwaters. Traditional rice-barges can seem dank and dark beneath their woven roofs, but my private boat had an air-conditioned bedroom, bathroom and sitting room, sun-deck and canopied dining area.

A chef served delicious Malabar fish as we chugged quietly across Lake Vembanad, its palm-fringed banks dotted with small villages. I watched a fish-eagle dive into the water and emerge with a wriggling snake. A turquoise kingfisher skimmed the lake.

Three cormorants perched on a log as fishermen paddled past in dugout canoes. On the bank, men and women were preparing shellfish – pouring their catch from baskets into a steaming cauldron over a log fire.

With a romantic companion, one could spend several days on board, though the boat was too large to navigate the narrowest channels. Alternatively, one could sleep in one of two traditional wooden homes, reassembled on the lake shore, and converted to become chic boutique bedrooms, a world away from the hurly-burly of the rest of Kerala.

The next morning, there was plenty of hurly-burly as we drove through an endless sprawl of shacks and houses, billboards and shops, many festooned with red hammer-and-sickle bunting.

The stifling streets contained a maelstrom of gaudily painted lorries, auto-rickshaws, Ambassador taxis, noisy motorbikes and wobbling bicycles. Scooters carried whole families – children crammed each side of the driver, the mother at the back, her sari fluttering.

At dusk, my driver swung off the main road on to a winding red-earth track into the fertile foothills of the Western Ghats. We stayed the night in a 1920s estate bungalow, until recently a rambling family home, with high ceilings, four-poster beds and hefty colonial furniture. The next morning, I rode an elephant called Lakshmi.

Precariously perched on an eiderdown astride her massive shoulders, I felt very small and far from the ground. But as we lurched along village lanes, I grew accustomed to Lakshmi's deeply fissured skin, her black bristly head and huge ears, which flapped like wings.

Loosening my white-knuckled grip, I began to enjoy the aerial views of coffee and tea plantations, groves of cinnamon, fields of cardamom and ginger, and rubber trees from which coconut shells dangled beneath gashes in the bark to collect the sap.

Continuing south towards the tip of India, we motored through an endless ribbon development, in which an occasional traditional wooden illam survived, sandwiched between half-finished concrete buildings and dilapidated shacks.

We passed cashew trees with embryonic nuts dangling from clusters of green pods, coconut groves planted for coir rope and matting, and stalls selling mangoes, jackfruit and bananas.

For a time, the road followed a series of backwaters. Beyond the dyke, a lagoon shimmered in the sun. By small waterside houses, women washed clothes while their bare-chested husbands stood in wooden gondolas, hurling nets over the water.

Our final stop in Kerala was at a seaside hotel with 21 traditional illam bungalows reassembled above a sandy cove on grey rocks which reminded me of Lakshmi. Out in the bay, fishermen balanced on weather-beaten planks, searching for cuttlefish, mackerel and sardines.

Bathing here is dangerous because of the steeply shelving beach, the pounding waves and the strong undertow. I was knocked over and tumbled as if I were in a washing machine – and I soon opted for a more relaxing option in the hotel's spa.

After an opening benediction, my tiny therapist smothered my naked body with dark brown oil, scrubbed me with gravel and sluiced me with ghee – an ancient Ayurvedic routine designed to eliminate toxic imbalances.

I was thus already quite relaxed when I left Kerala, but the astonishing calm of Cocoa Island completed the rest cure. Few passengers transfer from Trivandrum to Malé. I was the only tourist on the flight.

Calls to prayer wafted over from a nearby island, but for two days, I put all concerns to one side. I basked in warm, translucent shallows, snorkelled through shoals of fish too brightly coloured and dazzling to seem true, and peered anxiously over the precipitous edge of the reef into dark, unimaginable depths.

I watched the graceful progress of a pod of dolphins; I dined on delicious spiced fish and tropical fruit; I strolled on blisteringly hot, icing-sugar sand from one end of the island to the other – 600 paces.

I was massaged in a cabin overlooking turquoise sea and sky. Then, from my private veranda, I watched dramatic sunsets, with traditional dhonis silhouetted against an apricot horizon. At night, torrential rainstorms pummelled the thatch and lulled me to sleep.

Two days in paradise were enough – though I'd have taken more. I felt utterly restored, and ready to return to reality.

* This article was written by By Sarah Shuckburgh and published in The Daily Telegraph (travel) 02 Feb 2008.