“Look out!” said Rejesh Nair of Saroma Holidays, pointing to the expanse of water to the right. We’re cruising through the network of Aleppey’s shimmering backwaters, and it’s hard to see how one lake / canal is different from another. “It’s not a lake,” said Rejesh. “It’s a paddy field.”

Crazy, but true. The “field” is now under water (with blades of rice grass sticking out), but in the dry season, the water is drained out for farming.

This is Kuttanad, one of the places in the world where farming is done 1.5 to two metres below sea level. In an amazing geo-feature, bunds keep out inland waterways flowing above land level, across 500 sq km. “Holland,” I mumbled. Chided Mathews our companion: “This is the heart of the backwaters, and Kerala’s rice bowl.”

Sure, so why is it called Kuttanad? “Both farmers and fisherfolk look diminutive as they work in the fields. ‘Kutta’ means small — the land of small people.”

“There’s something in these waters,” said Mathews. “Food grown here must have artistic properties.”

Indeed. Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai hailed from Kuttanad, so did poet Ayyappa Panikkar, folklorist Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, his musician son Kavalam Sreekumar and filmmaker John Abraham. Say “Nedumudi Venu” and the locals point to this actor’s place beyond the crisscrossing canals. In some ways, Kuttanad is the cradle of Kathakali. Many famous dancers call this home.

Waterworld

The boat ride is irresistible. On a day trip, you cover as much as you can of a latticed web of 29 lakes, 41 rivers, estuaries and canals. And, when you hire these boats, you ride a chunk of history.

Kettuvallams (literally “boats tied with knots”) were traditionally made from angili, a local hardwood. The planks were bound together with coconut fibre and waterproofed with cashew oil.

They plied these waters non-stop, hauling rice, bricks and stuff. Goods trains came in and edged them out of business.

About a decade ago, rice boats began a new avatar as tourist transportation. At the Aleppey jetty, you can choose your boats. You cruise for a few hours or a few days and be a guest of the unspoilt backwaters.

Some 800 boats tour the waters now. Many accommodate only a couple or two, but some can pack in a gang. Entertainment on board comes through satellite dishes and TV screens. The gold-star rated Saroma boat has a rooftop swimming pool, double bedrooms, an open deck, lounge … the works. It is also disabled-friendly.

Access comes through a special jetty and there’s sufficient moving space inside the boat. Room fixtures are at the right height and there are hand railings for support.

From my comfortable perch on the Kettuvallam, I watched darters flash by and egrets too. Boats plied through water alleys — narrow and broad.

Smooth traffic

“How do you remember the route and avoid collisions?’ I asked “Captain” Sankar at the helm wheel. “No traffic violations here,” he laughed. “If something happened to tourists, we lose our licence.”

Lagoons, lush and inhabited, separate the water streets. For people who live here, water means everything. Every household has a “private” bathing ghat where kids splash, women wash and men fish.

Swimming is a natural skill, canoeing is inborn. Men and women use the family dugout to shop at floating “bazaars”, visit neighbours and temples across the languid canal and commute to paddy fields. They also assemble to watch snakeboat races, a throwback to warring times. We stopped briefly for a waterbreak on one of the islands.

Being in a Kettuvallam is to be in a house “that doesn’t stand still”. So, do take a Kettuvallam holiday, making sure you choose a recycled boat.

When you hire the Kettuvallams, you ride a chunk of history

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