Up until the 1980s, large barges made of oiled jackwood and canopies of plaited palm leaves were used throughout the Kuttinad region of Kerala to transport rice and other produce through the backwaters. Now, trucks do the haulage work, but the boats – known as kettu vallam in Malayali – have been put to more lucrative uses, taking visitors on cruises around the canals, rivers and lagoons of this fascinating region, where most of the population still live in island villages.
A far cry from the oily craft of old, kettu vallam are today fitted with comfortable en-suite, air-con bedrooms, galleys, and viewing decks from which you can watch the watery world slip past while lounging with a chilled beer on bolster cushions. Four-course meals are served by uniformed staff. The most luxurious boats even have Jacuzzis and giant plasma TVs!
One thing that changes little over time, however, is everyday life in the backwaters. Villagers still bathe and wash their clothes from steps on the riverbanks, and travel around in canoes. Floating duck farms with thousands of birds being herded by a man paddling a dugout are a common sight, as are locals fishing by torch light for crab, karimeen and the other backwater delicacies that make Kuttinadi cuisine one of the most varied and succulent in India.
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