Nikhil Sreekandan discovers the magical beauty of his homeland through a cruise on the waters of Kumarakom
Text Credits: Nikhil Sreekandan Image Credits: Wandertrails
Hugging a steaming cuppa, I sat curled against the wooden railing of the large slow-moving barge that had accommodated us for the past day. As the sky gradually bled a bright orange, like a mirror, the lake below me reflected the rising sun’s vast canvas on its gentle waters.
Songs from a temple nearby echoed in my ears as a flock of I don’t know what specie of birds (herons maybe?) flew past. Julia would have known, herons or otherwise, but she was fast asleep in one of the rooms behind me. A wildlife enthusiast and photographer, she along with a couple of our friends from my time in the UK had come to tour India and were now on the southern leg of their tour.
From the moment I heard they were visiting Kerala, I had been perplexed as to what their itinerary would be for the two days that they were here. What would make for a true Kerala experience? But, looking back, my worries had been very much unfounded as every single one of us had thoroughly enjoyed the past day. I couldn’t have possibly picked a better choice, exploring the backwaters of Kerala in a houseboat was indeed the real Malayali experience. A shoutout to my pals at Wandertrails for setting it all up so well.
Interestingly, I had never been to Kumarakom before, let alone a houseboat, making me equally or even more curious than my foreign friends. Of course, growing up, I had heard so much about cruising over the beautiful backwaters of Kerala. Kumarakom and Alleppey were after all the poster boys of the state tourism department. But in my 25 years, I had never been there.
After a sleepover at my home in Trivandrum, we had left early in the morning for Kumarakom. We reached the Kottayam railway station by around 11 and were picked up by Mr Shanoj, the owner of the houseboat we were spending the night in. I have to stress on the fact that we made it right on time, checking in exactly at 12.00pm.
Located 16km to the west of Kottayam and on the banks of Kerala’s largest lake – Vembanad, Kumarakom is a laid-back village in the serene backwaters of God’s Own Country. This tiny cluster of islands is interconnected by a network of canals, brackish lagoons, and the vast Vembanad Lake which spans across several districts.
Our abode for the night
Before we boarded the houseboat, we were introduced to the Indraprastham Cruise and its crew – Sreejith, the Captain and Vinoj, the chef. Reincarnated from the traditional ‘Kettuvallam’, which was used to carry rice and spices to the Kochi port back in the day, today’s houseboats are large floating barges fitted with all the modern living comforts, but set in a truly ethnic setting. The Indraprastham Cruise was a three-bedroom houseboat with a spacious sundeck from where we could enjoy the mesmerising views and under the large bamboo-thatched canopy lay the entire home-unit of the houseboat with three bedrooms and a small kitchen.
The backwaters have always been the emblem of Kerala’s tourism efforts and we were spellbound from the moment we started the journey. Dotted by swaying coconut trees and the tiny houses of the locals on either side of the lagoon, the Indraprastham Cruise sliced through the smooth waters with the ease and grace of a seasoned sailor. It took us a good thirty minutes before we lifted our buried noses from our DSLRs, attempting to capture the magical beauty that was unfolding in front of us, and actually enjoy it. We invaded a number of smaller canals, on either side of which lay paddy fields that stretched as far as the eye could see, before we broke into the voluminous Vembanad Lake.
Oh, yes, prior to that we took a pit stop at a local toddy shop to buy kappa meen curry aka tapioca and fish curry, and of course toddy! Vinoj promised he would catch us some fresh karimeen and fry it up for dinner, so we skipped on the karimeen fry at the shop (which I have to confess I found very difficult).
The Vembanad lake was truly boundless, stretching out into infinity; we were barely able to see the strip of land in the far horizon, merely a tiny little speck. A front-seat view of the limitless Vembanad Lake with your best mates and sweet toddy and spicy fish curry to keep you company; now that’s something you will only find on this tiny strip of land and not anywhere else. Joe took his guitar out (always a good metric to measure the mood) and soon we were all singing along to McLean, Cohen, and Lennon. That’s when the Captain decided to join in and Sreejith started ripping the uber-famous ‘Kuttanadan punjayile.’ I tried my best to sing along, suffice to say, clueless Joe did a better job with his guitar. We had some passing by fishermen cast curious glances and some of them were even clapping to our tunes, or I just might have imagined it. Need to confirm that when the others wake up, I made a mental note.
Before we knew it, the sun had started to set and we docked for the night. Vinoj delivered on his promise with some fresh karimeen, as we watched in glee at the ease with which he caught them. As the night slowly crept up on us, the air took on the aroma of fried fish, the mosquito nets came down shrouding the Indraprastham Cruise like a cocoon, and a bright moon took to the sky. Under the diffused moonlight that came in through the mosquito net, the night took on a tranquil and calming ambience, the pin drop silence only adding to the mood. Tucking in on the delicious fish fry and some more tapioca and fish curry, I had to congratulate myself for the difficult toddy shop decision; this was undoubtedly the best karimeen fry ever! With a ready to burst stomach and a happy soul, we retired to our rooms for a good night’s sleep.
A gentle breeze lifted me from my trance. The morning twilight had almost given way to that moment when the sun rose over the horizon. Leaving my now empty cup behind, but with a big smile stuck to my face, I headed for the bedroom. Indraprastham and Kumarakom had promptly delivered on the real Kerala experience, now for the bright orange cherry on the topping, the much gushed-over Kumarakom sunrise.
It took me 25 years to witness something as genuinely beautiful as the sunrise on the Kumarakom horizon, while rocking to its backwaters in a houseboat. But, I had travelled all the way to Scotland and gushed over its perennial beauty. Sometimes, it’ll surprise you, the things that you’ll unearth in your own backyard, if you ever bothered to look.
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A lover of the written word for as long as he can remember, Nikhil Sreekandan works as a content specialist with Wandertrails. Interestingly, it took an Engineering degree and a gap year for him to realise that the world of words was indeed his home. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature, or his earphones; he exercises his skills over the written word at Wandertrails across the website, social media, magazine, and blogs.