Backwaters Magic and Cultural Bonanza For those tourists enchanted by Kerala’s backwaters and delicious sea food, now there is more on offer. The cultural headiness of the 108-day Kochi Biennale awaits you.

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Every time I return to the Vembanad lake in Kerala, its charm and tranquillity, sheer bliss and magic hit me all over again.

As our well-appointed two-bedroom houseboat takes off from the Rainbow jetty near Kumarakom, and glides over the lake, the longest in India and the largest in Kerala, stretching over several districts, our boatman points out the various charms of the lake… paddy fields stretching over vast acres, cormorants, sea gulls and paddy birds darting in and out of the water, looking for their food in the shimmering waters so rich in marine wealth.

The unique charm of Vembanad is that one moment your houseboat moves over a vast expanse of water, the next it is negotiating a narrow passageway. Many rivers and canals empty their waters into Vembanad’s vast expanse. As you negotiate narrower passageways, the daily activities of people living along the shores are on display. While kids dive into its water and have a frolicking time, the women carry out household chores. The sight of them washing clothes and utensils is a little disturbing from the environmental point of view, but then you have to remember that they are the inhabitants and have original rights on this lake’s waters.

And then, as a tourist, aren’t your motorised boats also adding to the pollution?

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Suman Billa, former Secretary, Kerala Tourism, now with Incredible India, had told me in a recent chat, “after all, they’ve been following this lifestyle for decades, so we can’t suddenly tell them you can’t do this.”

But a process of education and encouragement has begun for the community living around this beautiful lake against disposing garbage, polythene bags, etc into the lake. In many tourist destinations Kerala Tourism has started biogas plants in homes to transform  bio-degradable garbage into cooking gas. The other laudable venture is “responsible tourism” through which the local community’s livelihoods are enhanced. Through this local artisans — craftspersons, dancers, artistes, etc — are linked with local hotels and resorts to ensure a partnership. Packages are also available where tourists can enjoy a village life experience by visiting local farms and enjoying coconut tree climbing, coir making, net fishing. This income helps more harmonious relations between the local community and the tourism industry.

Anupama A V, Additional Director, Kerala Tourism, says that in 2013–14, Kerala welcomed 8.58 lakh foreign tourists, a growth of 8 per cent over the previous year. Domestic tourists crossed the one crore mark. On the biggest attraction, she says, “Kerala has never been a one place/one product destination. We have our beaches, backwaters, hill stations, tea plantations, etc. And then there is Ayurveda, which is most popular among the Germans.”

Among foreign nationals the largest numbers are from Germany, followed by UK, France and US, she added.

Magic of the houseboat

There are around 1,000 houseboats plying in these waters, and they offer facilities ranging from 1-6 bedrooms, with attached washrooms and a sitting room in the front, which is the best place to relax with a book, a bottle of wine/chilled beer or a cup of chai. Or just do nothing and simply watch the world go by. A better tension buster will be difficult to find.

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The price per night varies from Rs 6,000–25,000, depending on the number of rooms and the package comes with meals. With Kerala Tourism not looking back in its marketing endeavours after the coining of its famous ‘God’s own country’ tag, Vembanad is also emerging as a popular venue for conferences.  Some houseboats offer conference facilities for over 100 passengers.

The first houseboats in India were built at Alumkadavu, north of Kollam district and 95 km from the Trivandrum airport, says a Kerala tourism spokesman. This being a major centre for making the traditional kettuvalloms (rice barges), the upgrade to the plush and luxurious houseboats of today was only natural. Skilled craftsmen put together these houseboats by using local, eco-friendly material like wood, bamboo poles and coconut fibre.

A delectable meal

In Kerala, food forms a very big part of any holiday… and nothing can beat a freshly prepared meal that comes from the kitchen of your houseboat to your table. After a delicious mix of aromas has been wafting from the houseboat kitchen, finally Unnikrishnan, our chef, invites us to the table for lunch. The piece de resistance is of course Kerala’s famous karimeen (pearl spot), which is fresh and delicious, gently spiced with a marinate of a little vinegar, turmeric, chilli powder and salt. The usual fare of Kerala — rice, sambar, rasam and two vegetable dishes is on offer, of course.

But a total surprise is a delicious offering of karela (bitter gourd) that doesn’t taste bitter at all. Actually it is delectable and Unni tells us the trick to remove the bitterness… marinate thin slices of the karela in half a cup of vinegar for two hours, fry it, and garnish with finely chopped onions, chillies, fresh coconut… and you have a crunchy salad.

Kochi Biennale

But then Kerala has much more than Vembanad and its backwaters. The Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB), features from December, a four-month-long performing-arts festival showcasing the country’s rich heritage across region and centuries, showcasing 650 artistes and collaborating with 25 cultural groups.

Competing with Chennai’s dance and music bonanza, also in December, the KMB’s second edition will have an array of theatre, dance, music, percussion and literary programmes cutting from different cultural genres of India — from south and north, from ancient to medieval to modern times.

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So for music and dance rasikas there will be a feast of Kathakali, Nangiarkoothu, Chavittu Natakam, ghazals and a Mappila Festival from Kerala besides Yakshagana of Karnataka and Chhau dance from Jharkhand, at 10 top venues.

Says Komu, KMB Director of Programmes, “No other biennales of the world gives prominence to performing arts as we do at Kochi-Muziris.”

Pictures by Parvez Bhagat

 

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