Life moves at a serene pace in the backwaters of Alappuzha. Take your time to savour each sensual moment…
“Look at the sea,” I breathed, awestruck by the vast expanse of water. “Not the sea,” Rajeev, the driver smilingly explained with a hint of pride. “This is the Vembanad Lake, the lifeline of Kerala.”
It was then I realised that this was the Vembanad Kayal or Vembanad Kol which I had read so much about and that it is India's longest, largest lake. (The Vembanad wetland system covers an area of over 1,512 sq km and is approximately 14 kilometres wide at its widest point.)
The car turned into the driveway of Taamara, the Mahindra home stay at Alappuzha. The fragrance of the lotus blossoms (taamara) that filled the tiny pool at the entrance was welcoming as was the chilled glass of tender coconut water.
The room offered five-star comfort and through the sliding doors one could step out on to the little deck; yes, the room actually jutted over the water, with protective barrier and with seats. Sipping tall glasses of cold orange juice, many hours were spent watching the waters as canoes and house boats glided like phantoms in the falling dusk.
It is a birdwatcher's paradise too. Home to 20,000 waterfowl in India, the Vembanad Kol Wetlands is in fact included in the list of wetlands of international importance by the Ramsar Convention. Nests built on water hyacinth could be seen closer to the deck and as the shrimp season was at its peak, the lake was crowded with feathered guests. The hosts had thoughtfully provided Salim Ali's Guide to Birds to browse. Darters, herons, bitterns, egrets, snakebirds were very much at home — a sharp tap at the glass door got me scurrying from my siesta to open it, when I realised that it was an egret that was ‘ visiting' me.
After a feast of bananas fried in batter and coffee, an exhilarating ride in the vallam (village canoe), a stop at the ancient Gowri Shankar temple — where one can see the deities of Shiva and Parvati together — a walk through the village, watching the waddling ducks, the beached boats being mended and the distinct architecture of the old houses was a lifetime experience.
Once my hosts, Nirmala Babu and her film producer husband, V.V. Babu (of the award winning films “Agni Sakshi” and “Avarampoo”), knew my penchant for fish, fresh water fare from the lake was tastily cooked in different ways. My host pointed out that people living around the lake area believed in eating the fresh water fish and wouldn't touch sea food.
Feasting on curried red snapper fish with mango and fish cutlets, rupee-sized prawns grilled, with prawn biryani with the heady combination of a cold beer under the stars on the jetty was unforgettable.
Watching the spectacular sunrise from the bed and the fisherman pulling in his nets was a rejuvenating start to an activity-filled day. This began with the cooking demonstration by Manju who turned out delicious meals with masterly skill. She also showed me how to make a simple egg curry that goes well with bread, rotis, puttu or anything for that matter.
It was time now to try my hand at catching chemeen (prawns) in the shallow water near my room. Raji, the help at the home stay, called over the fence to the neighbours. Two ladies came not through the drive but swam out from their home, next door. With their large woven baskets they ducked under water to come up with the silver catch. The two chechi'salso groped the bottom with their feet and brought up fistfuls of clams, which were later shallow fried with enough masalato make an interesting side dish. The shells, I learned later, were powdered and mixed to lime powder that went into the making of whitewash.
A ride to Azhappuzha, visiting the coir industries and boating in the backwaters was next on the agenda. As the boats sliced the green water, we watched life on the backwaters: women selling foodstuff wrapped in banana leaves from the canoes, the transport service, the boat stops as schools kids hopped from one boat to another to get home, the different National waterways that the signs indicated and the homes that had their families bathing, washing utensils and clothes — the backwaters were indeed the artery of this area.
The next morning it was toddy (kallu) tapping time with Venu, the toddy tapper. He clambered up each tree that was allocated to him with ease. He used a bone from the milaavu— a kind of deer — that was infused with ghee, to tap the flower. As the toddy gushed into earthen pot, he took some clayish mud (from the paddy fields) from a pouch at his side and sealed the part he had sliced to take the toddy from. He transferred the liquid to the bag hanging from his shoulder.
That sultry afternoon, this liquid (chilled) was the perfect accompaniment to a meal that brought out the essence of Kerala — Kappa (tapioca yam) and Karimeen (pearl spot fish). Soaking in the silence that wafted over the lake, this little home tucked in the oasis of trees, offered the strength of tranquillity.
Activities around the house:
Ride the village canoe
Walk in the village
Visit the Temple
Spend the day with the fisher folk
In the house boat (2 days advance notice is necessary)
Visit a coir factory
Boating in the backwaters
For Online booking log on to www.mahindrahomestays.com or call 1800 425 2737 — toll free number available from Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10p.m.
Rooms and their approximate cost: Four premium Double rooms with attached sit outs, Air Conditioned
Room Tariff: Rs. 5,250 for double occupancy and breakfast for two.