The Kerala backwaters are a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (known as the Malabar Coast) of Kerala state in southern India. The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both manmade and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length of Kerala state. The backwaters were formed by the action of waves and shore currents creating low barrier islands across the mouths of the many rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats range.
Kerala has over 900 km of interconnected waterways, rivers, lakes and inlets that make up the Kerala backwaters. In the midst of this beautiful landscape there are a number of towns and cities, which are the starting and end points of backwater cruises. National Waterway No. 3 from Kollam to Kottapuram, covers a distance of 205 km and runs almost parallel to the coast line of southern Kerala facilitating both cargo movement and backwater tourism.
The backwaters have a unique ecosystem - freshwater from the rivers meets the seawater from the Arabian Sea. In certain areas, such as the Vembanad Kayal, where a barrage has been built near Kumarakom, salt water from the sea is prevented from entering the deep inside, keeping the fresh water intact. Such fresh water is extensively used for irrigation purposes.
Many unique species of aquatic life including crabs, frogs and mudskippers, water birds such as terns, kingfishers, darters and cormorants, and animals such as otters and turtles live in and alongside the backwaters. Palm trees, pandanus shrubs, various leafy plants and bushes grow alongside the backwaters, providing a green hue to the surrounding landscape.
Vembanad Kayal is the largest of the lakes, covering an area of 200 km², and bordered by Alappuzha (Alleppey), Kottayam, and Ernakulam districts. The port of Kochi (Cochin) is located at the lake's outlet to the Arabian Sea. Alleppey, "Venice of the East", has a large network of canals that meander through the town. Vembanad is India’s longest lake.
The houseboats in Kerala are huge, slow-moving, exotic barges used for leisure trips.
Keralan Rice Boats are a reworked model of Kettuvallams (in the Malayalam language, Kettu means "tied with ropes", and vallam means "boat"), which, in earlier times, were used to carry rice and spices from Kuttanad to the Kochi port. Kerala houseboats were considered a convenient means of transportation. They have thatched roof covers over wooden hulls.
Boats in a variety of shapes and sizes have traditionally been the main means of transport of men and materials in the Kerala Backwaters since olden days. In particular, the house boats were used to ship rice and spices and other goods between Kuttanad and the Cochin port. It was a three-day affair in those days. A standard house boat, which could be about 100 feet long, can hold up to 30 tons, and that is as much as three big lorries can.
For the royalty these boats even became comfortable living quarters. It was the important mode of transportation in coastal Kerala just because of its accessibility to the most remote areas.
It took the vision and enterpreneurship of a couple of enterprising young men to refurbish one of these leviathans, hoisting on to it a wooden super-structure incorporating a huge bed room, a toilet, a kitchenette and an open balcony. The ancient houseboat with a modernized interior became a hot favourite with tourists.
As the houseboats glide over the Kerala backwaters at a leisurely pace, the sights are new, the sounds are new, and every sensation is new every passing moment. A cruise along the mirror-still lagoons, picture-book lakeside, palm-fringed canals and shimmering rivulets of `God's Own Country' is the most enchanting holidaying experience in the country. With a cruise along the palm-fringed waterways turning to be part and parcel of holidayers' itinerary, the traditional kettuvallam has emerged as the mascot of Kerala Tourism
A houseboat is about 60 to 70 feet (about 18 to 21 meters) long and about 15 feet (about 5 m) wide at the middle. The hull which is made of hundreds of fine but heavy-duty planks of jack-wood is held together absolutely by coir knots (not a single nail is used). This framework is then coated with a caustic black resin extracted from boiled cashew kernels. And it lasts for generations. The roof is made of bamboo poles and palm leaves. The exterior of the boat is painted with protective coats of cashew nut oil.
The kettuvallam is motorised and is steered in deep waters by means of oars or a rudder. Long bamboo poles or 'punts' are used to propel in shadow areas. The crew of a kettuvallam comprises two oarsmen and a cook or chef. Fresh food, cooked in inimitable Kuttanadan style is the rage of the international tourists.
Basically the kettuvallam was originally designed to transport cargo and as such many design changes had to be made to make it a tourist vehicle. The height of the roof was increased to get sufficient headroom. A plank was laid all through the length to reduce the disadvantages of the curved shape of the hull for walking and comfortable seating. Windows and other openings were provided for light, airflow and view. The entrance is provided in the centre of the linear axis with a top hung panel.
More than 400 kettuvallams ply the backwaters. Alappuzha is the citadel of house boats. There are some 120 of them, well maintained and perfected as luxury liners there. The house boats have all the creature comforts of a good hotel: well-furnished bedrooms, modern hygienic toilets, cosy living rooms, a beautiful kitchen and in some cases even a balcony for angling.