The Kerala Backwaters are a network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets forming a labyrinthine system of waterways. In the midst of this landscape there are a number of towns and cities, which serve as the starting and end points of backwater cruises.
The backwaters have a unique ecosystem – freshwater from the rivers meets the seawater from the Arabian Sea. But what I find most fascinating about the Backwaters is that it is a major form of public transportation from village to village in this region.
Indeed, traversing many of these canals is akin to riding a motorbike through narrow streets in rural neighborhoods. Many homes bank onto the waterways and one can witness the rhythm of daily life – feeding goats, milking cows, etc – in the same manner as when walking down a road in any residential area.
An important feature of the Backwaters experience is the kettuvallams, or the Kerala houseboats, which are prominent tourist attractions in Kerala. The kettuvallams were traditionally used as grain barges, to transport the rice harvested in the fertile fields along the backwaters.
Thatched roof covers over wooden hulls, 100 feet (30 m) in length, provided protection from the elements. At some point in time the boats were used as living quarters by the royalty. Converted to accommodate tourists who generally spend the night, the houseboats have become floating cottages having a sleeping area, with western-style toilets, a dining area and a sitting area on the deck. Food is cooked on board by the accompanying staff .
Kerala has been placed among the ’50 Destinations of a lifetime’ by National Geographic Traveler. The Backwaters experience is an essential part of any South Indian itinerary.