Anand & Madhura Katti are enamoured by the picture perfect scenery and serene backwaters of Kumarakom
Picture perfect scenery of coconut tree-lined banks and their reflection on the backwaters of Vembanad Lake makes for a lasting memory. Kumarakom’s popularity as a resort town on this huge lake has made tourists outnumber the town’s scarce population of 25,000. The lake’s beauty bordered with lush greenery is a natural attraction of Kerala. Its real splendour though lays beyond – inside small villages engaged in farming and fishing, that is best experienced through a village life tour.
We start the tour from the Kumarakom boat jetty with a ride through the canals in a country boat (vallom). Cool winds blow from the lake as we stride on the slow ride leaving behind the resort area and pass the bird sanctuary. We sight some people working in paddy fields.
Kumarakom is actually a cluster of islands in the Kuttanad area, which is known as the rice bowl of Kerala. Guide Rupesh explained the uniqueness of the area that lies below the sea level. Rice cultivation in Kumarakom, though economically viable, is not easy. There is a cycle of activities that begins with the removal of aquatic weeds from the rice fields to construction or repair of outer bunds for the fields. Bunds are necessary for dewatering before farming on the land below the sea level. We stop to watch rare red water lilies. Guide Rupesh says that there are plenty in the area; in fact, tourists coming for village life experience enjoy the luxury of being welcomed with a garland made of red lilies.
Everyday life on the banks was fascinating as we sailed further. A man was fishing, a few children were swimming in the lake, two ladies were washing clothes on the banks in front of their house and a young girl was braiding another’s hair. A foreign tourist couple sitting on the stone bench seemed happy playing with two little goats.
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We arrive at village Manjira and are welcomed by a few villagers. We follow Ajeesh into the paddy fields flanked by coconut trees. The toddy tapper stops at the coconut tree that has an earthen pot hanging at the top. Ajeesh quickly climbs and took off the pot filled with a milky sap and pours it into his container tied to his hand-made, natural waist belt. He then made a fresh incision on the inflorescence of the coconut tree and put back the mud pot for collecting more sap. Fresh toddy he offered was sweet, tangy taste. This Madhura Kallu or sweet toddy, on fermentation, will turn alcoholic and sour. Sweet toddy is used in making kallappams, a popular pancake of Kerala. We preferred tender coconut water later offered at Sabu’s house next, to yet to be acquired taste of toddy.
Vast expanse of green paddy fields is a treat to the eyes. Paddy kernels had just begun to form and the whole area would turn brown once those were ready, Rupesh said. Rice is cultivated in blocks called padasekharams (polders), each of which is worked by especially formed farmers groups or samities. The samithi ensures joint sowing, dewatering, polder preparation and irrigation activities. Two crops are planted in a year. Kudumbasree (Women folk) units of Kumarakom also cultivate paddy in about 300 acres of converted fallow land.
We then stop at Sita’s house which has many vegetable plants in the front yard. Hibiscus plants make a natural fence. Here she demonstrates on coconut palm and screw pine weaving. She makes the weaving out of the long and slender leaves of screw pine look very easy. Our try though becomes difficult, trying to tighten the weave with our hands while squatting on the ground. There is an abundance of screw pine plants in this locality. The shaft of the plant is used for weaving mats, hats and bags.
At the next house, Muralidhar brings out his fishing net and spreads it onto the canal in front. He gathers it back and six fish are already caught in two minutes. He releases them back into the water as he says cooking is already done for the day and that they don’t need fish anymore at home. What a luxury? Fresh fish, vegetables, coconut, rice, bananas, everything is in the backyard of clean, green nature.
An Englishman, A G Baker, was responsible for developing Kumarakom’s paddy and coconut cultivation on 500 acres of wetland granted by the King of Travancore in mid 19th century. Baker spared 10 acres of land for avian life and today this land with an additional four acres, is the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary. It is the first scientifically formed and preserved bird sanctuary in India, with about180 species of birds, half of them migratory.
Vembanadu is rich in varieties of fish, estimated to be about 150. Shrimp, prawns, catfish and pearl fish are found in abundance. Plenty of black clam yield to lime shell fishery in Vembanad which is sold to cement, fertilizers and pharmaceuticals plants as a raw material.
Ending the tour at Kudumbashree run Samrudhi restaurant makes for a delicious goodbye note. Karimeen (Pearl Spot), shrimp and prawns are used to make delicious dishes prepared with fresh Kerala spices and coconut. Kappa (mashed tapioca) with fish curry and boiled rice makes a popular local meal. Banana leaf wrapped coconut and jaggery filled steamed rice cake, banana fritters and neyyappam are tasty.
(Photos by Anand & Madhura Katti)
Getting there: Kumarakom is at a two hour drive from Kochi, which has good bus, train and air connections.
Stay: There are many stay options in the popular resort town.
Shopping: Popular Kerala banana and tapioca chips fried in pure coconut oil, halwa and handicrafts.