Boating in the Backwaters of Kerala
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN INDIA
IMAGINE cruising in a beautifully furnished houseboat that could take you through the deltas of 44 rivers. That is possible in the 550-mile-long [900 km] backwaters of the state of Kerala, in southwest India. It is a joyful experience, a unique one—indeed, it is like floating on nature’s lap. As your boat lazily moves along, you cannot help but admire the coconut-rimmed lagoons, lush green paddy fields, natural lakes, and man-made canals. Yes, likely because of these backwaters, the National Geographic Traveler listed Kerala as “one of the top 50 ‘must-see destinations of a lifetime.’”
Not to be missed are the folk who live on the shores of the many canals. They remember a time when there were neither tourists nor five-star hotels in their neighborhood. However, their lives have not changed much. Although some of them are now employed in newly developed hotels or other tourism-related establishments, by and large their culture and their daily routine remain the same. They care for their paddy fields and coconut groves, supplementing their daily diet and income by fishing and selling fish.
Fishing in the Backwaters
Fishing is part of life here. A sight you may see nowhere else is that of women catching pearl spot fish, or karimeen, with their bare hands. Unique to Kerala’s backwaters, karimeen are a delicacy to Indians and foreigners alike. Searching for the fish, the women wade through the backwaters with their pots floating behind them. Seeing the women approaching, the fish dive down and bury their heads in the mud. Not to be outsmarted, the women feel around in the mud with their sensitive feet and locate the fish. Then, ducking quickly under the water, they grab the unsuspecting prize with their bare hands and transfer their wriggling catch to the floating pots. When they have caught a sufficient number, they wade to the shore, where eager buyers are waiting. The bigger and more expensive fish go to five-star hotels, where they delight the rich, while the smaller ones become a tasty meal for those of more modest means.
Chinese Fishing Nets
A common sight on the shores of the backwaters are graceful Chinese-style fishing nets. These also serve as a major tourist attraction.
It is believed that Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan first brought the nets to Cochin (now Kochi) before the year 1400. These hand-operated fishing devices were used first by the Chinese and then later by Portuguese settlers. Today they provide a livelihood for many Indian fishermen, as well as food for countless people, even as they did over 600 years ago. Surprisingly, the catch from one net can feed an entire village. For many tourists a romantic picture of the drying nets silhouetted against the setting sun has a special place in their vacation photograph album.
It is not only images of the Chinese nets that beckon tourists to the backwaters. Aquatic activities, such as the traditional snake boat races, attract thousands each year.
Boat Races in the Backwaters
Snake boats are long, slim canoes. The stern is shaped like a cobra’s hood, hence the name snake boat. In times past, the warring kings of the backwaters used these boats for their postharvest wars. When the wars finally ceased, the need for the boats lessened. Only during temple festivals did these majestic craft ply the waters. With great fanfare, they were crewed and decorated and used as showpieces of the local culture. During the festive period, boat races were held in honor of dignitaries who attended. This tradition, which began about a thousand years ago, is still thriving.
It is common for as many as 20 such boats to compete in the races, each manned by a crew of between 100 and 150 men. Over a hundred with short oars sit in two rows along the length of each boat. Four helmsmen with longer oars stand at the stern to steer the boat. Two others stand midship, beating wooden rods on a sounding board to mark time for the oarsmen. Such encouragement is complemented by at least half a dozen other men who ride along. These men clap, whistle, shout, and sing the unique boatmen’s songs to urge the crew to keep up the pace. Then, after precision rowing to the rhythmic beat, the young men release their remaining energy in a spectacular race to the finish line.
In 1952, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited Alleppey, a key town in the backwaters, and was greatly impressed by a boat race he attended there. In fact, so fascinated was he that he ignored security arrangements and jumped onto the winning boat, clapping and singing along with the rowers. On his return to Delhi, he sent a gift, a silver replica of a snake boat, bearing his signature and the inscription: “To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life.” This silver boat is used as the trophy for the annual Nehru Trophy Race. About a hundred thousand people flock to see such races every year. At those times the generally slow-paced backwaters really come alive.
Luxury Hotels That Float and Cruise
Snake boats are not the only backwater vessels that attract tourists. Increasingly popular are rice boats—old-style vessels converted into luxurious houseboats.
Although many of those used by tourists are newly constructed, rice boats still exist that are more than a hundred years old and that have been made over for tourism. Originally they were known as kettuvallam, meaning “boat with knots.” The entire boat was made of jackwood planks and was held together with coir-rope knots, without the use of even a single nail. These boats were used for carrying rice and other commodities from village to village and spices to faraway places. With the arrival of modern conveyances, the boats became almost obsolete. Then a bright entrepreneur hit upon the idea of converting them into houseboats for the tourist industry. With balcony, luxury bedrooms with en suite facilities, and beautifully furnished living rooms, the houseboats can be called floating hotels. Attendants are provided to take your boat wherever you want to go and to cook whatever you wish to eat.
When evening comes, the boats are anchored either near the shore or, for those who desire more peace and privacy, out in the middle of a lake. There one can enjoy the enchanting backwater silence except, of course, for the occasional splash of a sleepless fish!
Not all backwater life is so relaxed, however. “Fishers of men” are awake and zealous in the area.
‘Fishing for Men’ in the Backwaters
The expression “fishers of men” comes from Jesus’ words to the fishermen who became his disciples. He said: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus was referring to the work of helping people to become his disciples. (Matthew 4:18, 19; 28:19, 20) That commission is being fulfilled by Jehovah’s Witnesses the world over, including those in the areas surrounding the backwaters.
There are 132 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kerala, including 13 around the backwaters. Many members of these congregations are also fishermen by trade. While out fishing, one of them spoke about God’s Kingdom to a fishing companion. Soon the man could see the difference between the teachings of his church and the Bible. His wife and four children became interested too. A study of the Bible was started with them. Their progress was fast, and four of the six are already baptized. Two more of the children are progressing toward that goal.
Members of one congregation traveled by boat to a small island in order to preach there. Because of the irregular boat service to and from the island, the local people call it kadamakudi, meaning “trapped if you enter.” There the Witnesses met Johny and his wife, Rani. Although Catholics by birth, they associated with a meditation center and donated all the money they could to it. Johny showed great interest in the message of Bible truth, and a Bible study was started with him. He began sharing his newfound faith with others. Bible truth helped him to give up smoking and to stop abusing alcohol!
Johny’s secular work was not in harmony with the Scriptures, so he made changes. At first this brought financial difficulty upon the family. Soon, however, Johny started catching crabs to sell and was thus able to care for the family. He was baptized in September 2006, and his wife and two children were baptized a year later. The prospect of living eternally in a global paradise has completely changed their view of life.—Psalm 97:1; 1 John 2:17.
Truly, visiting Kerala’s backwaters is an enjoyable experience. That is so not only because of the Chinese fishing nets, the snake boats, and the houseboats but also because of the “fishers of men,” the faithful Witnesses of Jehovah who live there.
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Fishing is part of life in Kerala
Top photo: Salim Pushpanath
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Women catching fish bare-handed
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Johny and his wife, Rani
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