South Indian Backwaters

Kerala’s natural beauty can only be found when one discovers the harmonious balance, which nature and man have found together through a voyage of its backwaters region. The  passageway of greens, reds, and browns and a myriad other colors, pan out to form 40 large and small canals, functioning as veins to a living organ. They support the daily life of its native inhabitants and their villages, by assuring distribution of food and trading efforts through the canal network, and allowing social communications to be maintained.


It is a wonder to the newcomer, that this small, south-west Indian state, boasting the highest literacy rate in the country can still retain its historical beauty. One need not journey through the Amazon to experience the beauty of the lush green palm forests, carpeted with layers of rice paddies, thick enough that one might imagine walking on top their leaf!


Throughout the small state’s history, traders from distant lands have influenced its culture: Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, Arabs, and Jews have all taken part in the state’s development. Most visually notable, have been the Chinese whose intricately designed fishing nets support industry and local trade, and add to the over all charm of the backwaters. The traveler cannot help but appreciate these instruments that silhouette themselves against the dark green curtain of the palms.

We embark on our journey northwards, through the backwaters, pushing off from the small market town of Quillon, two hours north of Kerala’s capital Trivandrum. The ferry, old but confident, loud but steady, gradually increases in speed, creasing the waters at a smooth ten miles per hour; stopping endlessly, it seems, at many homes and villages, bring locals to and from their daily commitments. I am now in their word traveling through a neighborhood familiar to them. This is their answer to public transportation; their substitute for the car, bus, and train. The ferry departs twice daily, a slow but steady means of transport; it is the glue that bonds a family’s social commitments and trading efforts together. For myself and a handful of others, traveling on this ferry is to fulfill an intellectual curiosity.

Sitting on the right flank of the boat dangling my feet over the side in an attempt to escape the oppressive rays of the mid-morning sun, I watch dugouts (small, handmade wooden boats, sometimes with a roof made of woven palm leaf) with their towering patchwork white sails, quietly glide by past. Sails and wooden boats freely show their imperfections, true signs of hand-made labor. Some proudly flaunt a sculptured bow representing a local mythological figure, giving their owners credibility on the river. Their boats are their private couriers, helping to sustain the economic system of the waterways, transporting life-sustaining goods, such as dried coconut meat, coconut fiber and cashews. Passing through the small splits of land, no more than several meters wide, water surrounding all sides, one cannot help but admire the resourcefulness of the back water farmer, maintaining an assortment of animals, pigs, chickens, ducks and the vegetable garden.


Our four-to-five hour trip now begins to feel even longer, crawling at a snails pace towards my final stop, the village of Airangthenga. “Airangthenga, Airangthenga?” I shout several times to the captain, the scream of the engine making every utter of communication a strain. Pointing towards the shore, he nods …yes.  For all other travelers this tea stop would mark the half way point of the ferry’s journey up the canals, for myself, the beginning. My next objective was to find a vullum, a small, narrow boat that will take me the opposite side of the river, to the island of Arhikkal. Stepping off the vullum, the owner handing my pack to me, I quickly realize that I must organize a ride back, enabling me to rendezvous with the ferry en route north. Backpack over my left shoulder, I walk slowly into a village, with no apparent shape or structure to its overall layout, but with consistency in the way the homes are designed. The hut walls are constructed of woven palm leaf. Several homes have used the trunk of the coconut tree to fortify the walls. The huts, no taller than six feet inside, are divided into two chambers; an area to cook, eat and play, and another to sleep. Stopping to gain my sense of direction, I attempt to ask a local man, unshaven, darkened from the years of sun, and work on the fishing boats, “How far away is the ocean?” For this would be my home for the evening. He replies with no great hurry, and with no command of the English language, I then decide to try primitive sigh language, hoping this would enable me to communicate the idea of the ocean. “Melbin! Melbin!”  He replies, pointing his finger towards himself.

Melbin and I have found that we are becoming the center of attention in Arhikkal, its members smile and stare, wondering where Melbin and I are going, and what we are doing together. Walking without exchanging a word, accepting direction without hesitation, I am now in his world, and, my instincts allow me to continue. We stop at a small hut, with the sound of the ocean near. I am approached by a pretty woman, wrapped in a faded red sari. Slender, with a broad smile from cheek to cheek, also darkened from the sun, her first words are “Bella… Bella and Melbin.”

I soon realize that they are the couple that lives in this small palm leaf home, and I would be their guest. He directs me to enter. I wonder how much room there could be, his hut is not larger that 12 feet and not wider than six.  I bend my head down so not to collide with the top of their doorway, and enter. Once inside, I am shown to a very small room off the side of the hut. Noticing the window, I expected to see a view of the ocean; I move towards it and peek outside only to find an additional connecting space, this one for the family goat! Placing my backpack on the floor while looking for a place to change my clothing, as expected, I find no furniture except the ground I walk on.

Rejoining Melbin and Bella, I am handed a freshly opened coconut, one of the many gifts nature offers on the island. Gulping down the sweet water with great enthusiasm I am now introduced to the several young children who have been curiously watching us. One, two, three, and now a fourth; all are his daughters, Megil, Merin, Matilda, and Mercy. After a brief block in communication, Melbin discovers I cannot speak Malayalam, his native tongue but he understands my broken Hindi. We now explore the island together.

During our exploration of the island, we are met with great generosity, in the form of food, tea, and coconut water, offered to us by families owning small huts along the way. Arriving in less than an hour at the very tip of the island I discover why it is so special. It is here that the waters of the three great oceans merge in a frothy, swirling frenzied motion. Melbin demonstrates his fishing skills with a net he has borrowed from a fisherman at work near by. Collecting the net over his arm, twisting his waist and taking a stance, that of a discus athlete, he gracefully unwinds his body 360 degrees, allowing the net to propel itself into the ocean.

The hand-made white net, woven into thousands of half-inch squares captures a piece of the ocean. Watching him slowly pull it back to shore, we await anxiously to see his catch. To my eye the catch is small, but to the fisherman of the island a handful of small silver fish, no more than five to six inches in length, and two inches in diameter, provides an important staple food.

Now, for my benefit, Melbin and his friend attempt to cast their nets simultaneously into the ocean, in the hope that I can photograph this moment. Melbin, turns towards me in an attempt to see if I enjoyed their demonstration, suddenly he smiles and pointing to the slowly setting sun, beckons me to follow. It is time to return home.

Following his lead as usual, I have the opportunity to experience an even more enchanting sight. With the setting sun come the long shadows of the palm extending themselves across the white sands. These shadows not only give shade to the villagers, but also their animals; cows and goats.                           imagesnets

Before arriving back at Melbin and Bella’s home, we stop along the way to meet with all their relatives, and to have freshly picked coconuts, drinking the water while the family watches. His parents’ home is much like his own, slightly larger using more tree trunks than palm leaves. The mother like Bella, is quiet, kind and shy and his father, like his grandfather, is a fisherman too.

It is now time for dinner. Displaying my canned food to Bella, I soon learn that she has had little or no experience with ready-made foods. Not knowing what to do with the cans I have handed her, she smiles politely, turning to Melbin. He looks curious and confused. I try to explain that these cans will need to be opened with tool. After repeated attempts with a knife and stone, we were able to open the cans, first the tuna and then the baked beans. We heat the fish and beans over the fire built with twigs, on the floor of their home. The floor is safe, it being built of stone. In keeping with their traditions, the family offers me their food, a fresh catch of spicy seasoned fried sardines. I hesitate, not wanting to consume the little food they have, in addition to my own. I eat alone, as they watch, anticipating a sign of satisfaction from me. I smile, thank the family, leave and camp on the beach; three minutes away from their home.

Moments before daybreak, I wake to see teams of fisherman drag the 40-foot long boats from their storage positions under the shaded areas of the palm covered beach to the water’s edge. Preparing for the morning catch, the boats now float horizontally to the beach, 50 to 75 yard to the shore. On every boat, fisherman, eight to nine of them, stand evenly spaced from one another each holding a portion of the net, allowing it to dangle over the side of the deck into the water. The boat’s long narrow design provides room for many men to work as a team. Its multi-colored sides make it easy to spot looking on from the shore. There are only a handful of these fishing boats, performing a task carried on from generation to generation, allowing these people to sustain their way of life.

Recent changes to the local fishing industry have been traced to the mobile phone use by fisherman. According to the Economist, since 1997, the mobile phone has revolutionized the fishing industry in Kerala, by providing up to date pricing information and inventory requirements, making it more efficient for local fishermen selling their daily catch. Brough Turner, a telecom and internet specialist has also documented recent studies about how mobile phone use by fishermen in Kerala has reduced price volatility in the fish markets. He refers to Robert Jensen’s paper on this topic published by the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which shows the quantitative benefits for fishermen and for the fish consuming public in Kerala.

It is a sad but happy morning for me, knowing that in a few hours I will rejoin the ferry to continue my journey north. I have become attached to a family, a village, and a way of life that until now could not have been understood emotionally, without the experience of time, and being there.

Rejoining my friends I explain to Melbin that I would like pani (the Hindi word for water) even though in Kerala the native language is Malayalam, for washing. Within minutes the entire family returns from the well, carrying water-filed vessels of various sizes.

It is now nearly midday, and time for me to rejoin the ferry on its journey north, and leave the village and my new friends behind. Arriving in time to meet the ferry, I board, finding myself a seat, while capturing a final glimpse of this extraordinary village. The engine, now started, grows louder and louder as we slice through the rippleless waters ahead. With a glance to the right over my shoulder, I recognize a man in a bright orange colored lungi (a garment worn around the waist). It is Melbin standing in the water knee-deep, his left arm held high over his head, swinging back and forth like the palm trees swaying in the breeze.

By: Peter Sabbagh


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s