Kumarakom / Alleppey : Reflections on Backwater Bliss

Alleppey Travel Blog

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Kerala scene : reflections in green

[ Disclaimer :  Any budding botanists, ornithologists, linguists and pedants please bear with me on this one as I play fast, loose and incorrect with many a spelling, species and observation.  It’s a truth I often point out to myself that not only am I an atrocious linguist in the true, communicative sense of the pursuit but also in my paucity of the broader descriptive languages of the world such as the nomenclature of flora and fauna.  Most names attributed to animals and plants observed in the following entry are merely dodgy transliterations of things half-heard from my friendly guides Monachan and Sernan, often from their Malayali names and further presupposing that they know a) what I’m talking about when I make enquiries and b) actually know the correct answer themselves.

Mallards in the mulch
  I’ve also spliced and diced the chronology of my experiences in Kumarakom and Alleppey (principally two backwater canoe days and a ferry ride) in favour of facilitating more just a flow of images and moments, so confusion may abound. ] 

The paddle breaks the water.  The sun breaks the horizon line.  The sun hits the water.  The paddle breaks the sun.  It reforms in peach slice ripples and shivers and swims on uninterrupted into the sky.  Monachan and I in our 'dachoot' canoe made of the wood of the 'small jack fruit' tree move in silence through the glassy waters at the bidding of his coconut palm bark oar.

Meenakshi and friend in the Kerala green
  Small clusters of the bulbous green tuber 'piyel' plants float past, an occasional blue orchid-like bloom and their mud-brown frilly tendril roots drifting, drowned tresses of hair.  Bats screech as they escape the dawn, taking shelter in the thick boughs of the manchadi, chamatha, lololicka and jack fruit trees of the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary.  As they search blindly for sleep others are wide awake and watchful.  Faun herons sit upon the shallow wire and net fences posted in the waters around this shore of lake Vembanad to hold back the encroaching piyel plants.  They look like spies with their shoulders hunched up in great coats, staking out the water below to catch the silver flash of breakfast.

Many small fish congregate in the shallows at the lake and canal fringes.

  Weighing the options of survival between threats from above and below this seems to be their preference.  The waters that we pass through are stippled with the tiny ripples that they make, fooling me into imagining a shower of invisible rain.  Occasionally they leap to feel the touch of the sun and drop back 'plip!'

The far shore of the lake is not visible.  Black cormorants dressed like undertakers in their long black coat and tails also have the appearance of bedraggled, closed umbrellas.  They perch upon any protuberance above the waterline they can find.  A fishing pot marker.  A buoy.  The ghostly limb of a sunken tree.  When the sun is higher they and their cousins the snake birds - whose long sinuous necks give them their name - will stretch their wings out like lacquered Chinese fans to dry off following forays into the weedy depths for food.

A view of Kumarakom town
  One flies over, a clutch of twigs in its beak to take to add to its high thrown home. 

Houseboats resembling weaver birds' nests or wicker and bamboo Chinese fish traps with their woven palm frond exteriors slumber in the misty morning.  Well paying guests not ready to rise.  Monachan paddles along the shoreline pointing out birds for me.  A quick blue flash.  A kingfisher darts to the water, hovers, muscular little wings a blur, stubby little tail flicking up and down, and then flits back to his branch.  Successful or not he appears to grin with his oversize beak.  I love these birds but have rarely seen them in Britain.  A rarer sight and exclusive to the countryside.  Here in India, a land where necessity dictates to man and beast alike, I have seen them almost anywhere there's a sizeable body of water.

Fisherman plying the waters in Kumarakom town
  Even in urban environments. 

We turn away from the lake and back into a wide inland heading water channel.  More islands of piyel plants hover upon the mirror that surrounds us.  These buoyant green lily-like plants heavily populate the backwaters of Kerala often behaving like weeds, clogging and sometimes utterly choking the smaller canal ways.  Sometimes old water-logged canoes lean, foundering into their grasp.  Ship wrecks sunk in emerald treasures.  Moving through such patches of growth I must grab my paddle and assist.  Forcing our way through this floating garden.  Amidst the piyel a depressing prevalence of deceased plastic bottles and, oddly, throughout the day a noticeable tally of discarded light bulbs float.

The Main Man Monachan paddles me around Kumarakom (with occasional assistance :)
  Though it's early, work has started.  Two men stand immersed in water to the neck, each besides a long canoe.  They duck down into the waters and resurface heaving up large dripping clods of riverbed mud that they heave with both arms up and over and into the boats.  This nutrient rich mulch will be used to build up the artificial land banks that create the maze of fresh water canals, and residential strip-villages in the area.  Fertile soils to transplant small coconut palm trees into whose tight, dense mesh root systems will help over time to further knit and bind this ad-hoc landscape together.  In the bright over-exposure of early morning light when colours remain a little bleached and blinding to the eye, and with the scene cast in silhouette for being played out in front of a rising sun, the oily dark brown forms of man, mud and water seem interchangeable.
Lily Blooms
  Of one substance.

Dragonflies are busy buzzing me.  They hover in the heat haze in great profusion, a myriad miniscule mirages.  Whole lace-winged heli-squadrons constructed of fine enamel work and glass.  Sun beam chasing casings of copper and gold and pearlescent blues and greens.  Flighty filaments of colour.  Delicate little clockwork dreams crafted under a master jeweller's magnifying glass.  Their shadows, larger and easier to spot than those that cast them, flit and dance across every object and surface.  They fall across lilies and dust and tarmac and rust and corrugated metal roofs and cattle and crops and wooden fences.  They fall across friends, neighbours, traders and labourers chatting outside tea stalls and 'toddy' bars and over rickshaws and boats and grass-swaddled drunks all slumbering in the afternoon heat.

Washing kids and pots in the backwaters
  They skip over ground strewn with blackened dried crushed-cracked sticky resin carob pods and the blackened dried crushed-cracked sticky resin form of a monitor lizard that never made it to the other side of the road. 

The bunched salmon pink flowers that one of the dragonflies alights upon are the 'chethi' flowers used often in puja rites of village temples.  Monachan is quick to point these small shrines out as we pass and we visit that of his village.  As is often the case throughout India, Shiva worship predominates.  He was a rural God ( ‘Rudra’ ) of the agricultural communities in origin.  Modest in scale though these shrines be, many are only part way finished as construction is paid for virtually one brick at a time as and when the villages collective means permit.

Some kinda weaver bird nests strung up high in the coconut palms.
  Occasional gaudy plinth obelisks, a hammer and sickle sculptural homage to socialist rule or such like, stand pompously at pathway junctions.  These are all completed as only gods and the poor, not politicians, are short of funds these days. 

A buffalo's head rises lazily out of the tightly woven carpet of piyel plants and floating grasses.  Cooling in brackish waters.  He lifts his nostrils high.  His fat flattened horns curling, his neck and back receding in a bristly black 'V' shape tapering into the water.  Upon him stands a white necked crane.  The buffalo wonders what you're staring at whilst you wonder what it's doing there and if the crane's its friend.  You will often observe white egrets strutting alongside buffaloes and cows in India, or perched upon their backs as the latter crop and chew the landscape and I wonder what is the purpose of their relationship?  To gossip and whisper conspiracies in the paddy fields?  They're so nervous when you raise a camera after all.

Backwater ways
We weave through patches of lilies.  The rubbery crenulated circumferences of their pads, veins radiating out from the centre, stretched wide to draw the sun's strength down into their submerged bodies.  Their beautiful pink blooms, like coral-carved crowns atop their rigid regal stalk pedestals, others much smaller like furry white six-petal snow flakes open early in the morning, grow wide and wider still until having drunk their fill of daylight they close up again come evening.  Eight o’clock or thereabouts says Monachan.  The rhythm of beauty.  As our ferry courses to Alleppey the bow wave we throw up constantly chasing us along the canal bank disturbs the lily patches like a strong wind rifling through trees.
  The wave engulfs them and the lily pads fold upwards like umbrellas inverting in the gale and are submerged. 

An enormous flock of chirruping mallard chicks, the population of an open water duck farm strain their tiny bodies through the water towards our ferry as it bears down upon them, fooled into thinking it some mythically sized Mother Duck, but realise their error just in time and turn and chirrup back towards shore.  Cheap-cheap!  Paddle paddle, splash-splash.  Glug-glug, gurgle sputter-splutter the bilge pump pipe mutters.  Their little feathered brown-gold pollen spore bodies scattered by our breeze.  Further up ahead the dark-brown winged forms of kites glide on thermals above our passage and flocks of bronze, white headed eagles with umber-tipped wings and small white gulls (or are they terns?) perch in the palm trees and upon Chinese fishing nets that sit like giant water spiders in the now wide open waterway, ready to swoop and catch any fish that escape the fishermen's nets.

A grinning little hippo surfaces with a smile :)

Monachan reaches down into the water as we row along and plucks out a small green sphere.  I am encouraged to do the same.  These are sour mangoes.  Warm to the touch from these amniotic waters with the promise of sweetness to come.  Fallen prematurely for they will not be ripe until June he says.  Edible nevertheless, we happily chew away.  The stones once discarded sending ripples wide.  Be wary though of the ‘karnika’ tree whose leaves and fruit bear great resemblance to that of their mango cousin yet whose bounty is poisonous and used in much ayurvedic medicine.  Look out for the small white star blossoms that give it away. 

A woodpecker with a bright red cap and black back dusted with gold taps a beat upon his tree.

A snake bird dries its wings in the morning sun.
  More iridescent blue flashes across the canal mark the rapid passage of kingfishers small and large.  From time to time a deafening clack-a-clack-a-clack of quacks comes from the direction of the fish farms where the ducks congregate too.  The faun herons with their stippled Morse Code  patterned throats ( dot-dot-dash-dash) and bright white wings once in flight continue to trot gingerly across the archipelagos of lilies, piyel and water-grasses that support their weight.  Strange woven-basket birds nests hang down from the high crests of coconut palms whose hard bounty along with the stupendously pendulous jack fruits threaten to drop at any moment.  A ‘kujuvee’ bird sits on a power cable it’s two long black slender tail feathers reaching down like TV antennae.
Palms and their reflections

We stop for a ’toddy’ break.  The misty white alcoholic distillation favoured by the locals here.  Tapped from coconut trees by severing a palm frond limb and patching the wound with a clay pot to catch the exuding milky resin.  It’s too early for a tipple for me and alcohol at this time has all but disappeared from my travel diet but I feel I must show willing.  ‘This very kick!‘  explains Monachan.  Meaning potent as it’s yesterdays batch.  Not fresh.  A little over fermented.  Sure enough I have to realign my eyeballs after each sip, but do so until the glass is dry.  We sit and drink and watch paddy field workers as they and their raggedy scarecrows fail to scare the crows.

Coco Nuts :)
  Women in baggy check shirts wielding hand-sickles and wearing comedy umbrella-shaped hats.  A flock of thirty or so egrets strut about the paddy too, like stern, exacting white-frocked overseers.  No cows here to whisper to.  Larger black-necked cranes and purple herons are in situ too.  A boy and his side-saddle sister or beau form a romantic vision of rural India as cycling along a paddy path, their bike concealed from view by the golden stems, they appear to float across the landscape in a clichéd shot from a Bollywood love song.

Aside from the parade of small natural wonders the real pleasure of Keralan backwater excursions is the comfortable and candid observances of canal-village life that one can take in in these slow canoe perambulations.

The truly dire state of Keralan street crime is a little reported fact of day to day life in the backwaters! :D
  ( Don’t go down the outboard motor route people!).  Each home has a small flight of rough stone steps leading down into the water.  Women stand shin deep on these scrubbing the family pots and utensils or otherwise their soap sudded clothes or their gangly, pot bellied babes in arms.  Up and down, up and down, they rub the large yellow bricks of soap into their garments.  Elderly ladies slap saris, skirts and bedding onto stones in huge over-arm arcs, these ‘SLAP! SLAP!‘ impacts echoing loudly back from the jungle depths on the other side of the water.  I ask Monachan what the colourful loose one piece dresses the women in Kerala mostly wear are called thinking them akin to a nighty in my mind : ’They are called nighties, nigh-ty!’ he explains.
Gossip and Grass

Men bathe waist deep, white soap from top to torso to river.  Young lads somersault into the canals happy that school and labour are out for the day.  An impossibly perched cricket match ensues on a strip of land no more than five metres wide.  Defensive blocks a speciality.  The youth of India are adept at converting any topographical circumstance to serve their favourite game.  I encourage one lad to ’pull one to the boundary!’  Young boys and girls fish with salvaged threads of nylon baited with thick white grains of Keralan rice or suddenly rear their heads up out of the waters where they were swimming unnoticed like pygmy hippos coming up for air.  Their grins and nostrils flaring.  One girl splashes all the way across to hand me a bloom and giggles and swims back to shore.

The very pretty, orchid-emulating piyel blooms
  This happens walking around Kumarakom too, a girl dashing across the street, plucking me three red hibiscus blossoms and shyly presenting them to me.  Her gracious act is rewarded with a “School Ben” and note book from the depths of my day bag which her brother then bullies from her.

Behind all these little scenes sit the peoples’ homes.  Though I know none of the ins and outs of the social history of these communities or how the land for them was formed or reclaimed; reclaimed it has been, though so voraciously fecund is the lush watered green Keralan landscape here that a constant war of attrition must be fought between Man’s and Nature’s mutual need of space.  Tucked one besides the other along the narrow canal embankments, squat bungalow homes sit pretty, often painted in bright, almost gaudy, pastel colours so as to defy the universal green palette of the large drooping banana tree leaves and creeping sharpened fingers of coconut palm fronds that reach out to tickle them.

(Tree Print) Kumarakom
  Larger buildings for schools.  Around Alleppey the rather sad phenomenon of corporate sponsorship often blights the canals with horribly contrasting red Vodaphone wall-painted advertisements. 

The brick and concrete mainframes of the homes are built up on a foundation, a foot or two high, of stronger less porous stone for when the monsoon comes the rivers and their canal tributaries swell, burst and flood all the land about.  The paddy plantations are submerged ushering in temporary unemployment.  This being Sernan’s second seasonal job ( 200 Rupees / £2.70 a day for 6 hours of backbreaking labour under the sun) when the tourists down paddles and disappear leaving him without the 400 Rupees / £5.30 per gig, from the 1,000 Rupees / £13 I pay his boss for an 8 hour trip today and that he martyrs his heavily paddle-calloused hands to whenever he can.

Alleppey town canal
  Almost none of these boatmen can afford to own their own boats so circumventing the middlemen is very challenging.  Mossy green tide lines of damp are visible along those houses for whom annual repainting is not an affordable luxury.  Life is hard here when soaked insensible by the monsoons.  The dual concrete and red brick cube abode I sip sweet chai outside of and that is home to Sernan, his wife and two children is not plastered or painted at all. 

But sometimes it’s just hard to take your eyes away from the waters within which all this natural and social vibrancy find their mirrored reflections.  I get quite hypnotised by these visions of a green sunken world.  As if the whole planet, parched by an overbearing sun had taken the plunge for a swim.

Sernan does the strokes for this lazy little globe trotter in Alleppey
  Every line, shape, colour, plant and creature their images submerged and shivering slightly; the ripple caused by that first thrill of refreshment as nerve endings meet cool water with great and unexpected relief.  And I like the way staring at reflected, inverted worlds confuses the brain.  As piyel plants and fallen leaves (plastic bottles and light bulbs) float on top of what it considers the underlying true composition the brain suddenly struggles to focus like a disorientated camera lens.  But I like the vision, this upside down Green World an all scattered upon it as one of a whole.  Trees that don’t end at the waterline but bloom downwards a second time.  The boughs become trunks become boughs become roots reaching down into the rippling sky.
  Birds fly through the water.  Dragonflies hover upside down there too.  Blooms their blossoming are suddenly impossible to pluck.  The paddle breaks the water.  Breaks the world.  The world slowly settles and reforms in coloured shivers and slices.  The inverse process to that of dreams.  Which are reflections in their own way, often broken by the sun. 

Often in these marshy backwater lands (if ‘land’ be the right word?) it’s often tricky to tell where solid earth ends and the ubiquitous waters begin.  The colour green is continuous whatever its foundation be and the many splay footed birds that make this environment their home strut from one to the other without a falter in their step.  Though of course the statuesque presence of herons usually indicates the hope of fish below.

"That's quackers!" - an open water duckling farm en route from Alleppey to... um?... can't remember where :)
   I sit at the edge of one such fringe area as sundown approaches and scribble the many tiny words that eventually, when brought together formed a picture here.  As I do so a red ladybird with his unique little Rorschach of black spots clambers to the top of a blade of grass in front of me, crests the emerald peak and then scuttles down the other side.  The sun winks of his shiny back once more as he ascends the next blade, and the next, and the next.  One blade at a time.  The world is made up of so many tiny endeavours and his arduous little journey has meaning for him.

[AFTERWORD 12/07/2010 : In response to my Disclaimer I received the following response and information from my travel pal John, a keen Ozzy Twitcher whom I knew would be watching my words with eagle eyes and ready to fill us in :

'Hi Steve,

Sorry about this but I reckon you invited it!

Faun Heron: Definitely Indian Pond Heron.

My little ladybird pal continues on his arduous journey...

Black Cormorants:  Probably Little Cormorants.

Snake Bird:  Colloquial term for Darter.

Kingfisher: You mentioned it hovered which indicates Pied Kingfisher a black and white kingfisher.

White-necked Crane:  No cranes in Kerala, possible Asian Openbill or Woolly-necked Stork.

White Egret: All Egrets are white but would have to be a Cattle Egret.

Dark brown winged form of Kite on thermals: More than likely Black Kite. Did it have a forked tail?

Bronze, white headed Eagles with umber tipped wings: Brahminy Kite.

White Gulls: Would have been Terns as you say, Possibly Whiskered Terns. Terns are tricky.

Woodpecker with bright red cap etc: Possible Black-rumped Flameback.

Kujuvee bird:  Greater or Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo.

Black-necked Crane;  Possible Black-necked Stork. A good bird.

Purple Heron; Purple Heron.

Some great birding Steve. Most travellers are oblivious to these gorgeous creatures.'

Stevie_Wes says:
Pleasure Joe - it's a most serene and beautiful experience to spend slow time in this fabulous part of India. Any plans to get there yourself?
Posted on: Mar 10, 2011
bbayboyz says:
Thanks for the wonderful article on the backwaters.
Posted on: Mar 07, 2011
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Kerala scene : reflections in green
Kerala scene : reflections in green
Mallards in the mulch
Mallards in the mulch
Meenakshi and friend in the Kerala…
Meenakshi and friend in the Keral…
A view of Kumarakom town
A view of Kumarakom town
Fisherman plying the waters in Kum…
Fisherman plying the waters in Ku…
The Main Man Monachan paddles me a…
The Main Man Monachan paddles me …
Lily Blooms
Lily Blooms
Washing kids and pots in the backw…
Washing kids and pots in the back…
Some kinda weaver bird nests strun…
Some kinda weaver bird nests stru…
Backwater ways
Backwater ways
A grinning little hippo surfaces w…
A grinning little hippo surfaces …
A snake bird dries its wings in th…
A snake bird dries its wings in t…
Palms and their reflections
Palms and their reflections
Coco Nuts :)
Coco Nuts :)
The truly dire state of Keralan st…
The truly dire state of Keralan s…
Gossip and Grass
Gossip and Grass
The very pretty, orchid-emulating …
The very pretty, orchid-emulating…
(Tree Print) Kumarakom
(Tree Print) Kumarakom
Alleppey town canal
Alleppey town canal
Sernan does the strokes for this l…
Sernan does the strokes for this …
Thats quackers! - an open water…
"That's quackers!" - an open wate…
My little ladybird pal continues o…
My little ladybird pal continues …
Bathing time
Bathing time
And the lady in yellow wins this y…
And the lady in yellow wins this …
One of the smaller Keralan Boat ho…
One of the smaller Keralan Boat h…
Going for the big catch!
Going for the big catch!
photo by: Stevie_Wes