Sunset on the Kerala backwaters

A Semester in India: Kerala Backwaters

ALLEPPEY, Kerala—Flying into Kochi, a coastal town in the south Indian state of Kerala, the lushness of India’s Shangri-la revealed itself: dense forest amongst a web of canals stretched far and ride with only the Arabian Sea hindering the forest’s path. Also, clean skies, not “hazardous” air, welcomed our tour group for the first in three weeks.

Prior to arriving in Kerala, I was expecting Kochi and the state of Kerala to still be reeling from devastating monsoon floods in August that had killed nearly 500 people and displaced more than 200,000 people. Upon landing at the airport, Kerala’s reputation as an industrious and best run state in India immediately rang true. Despite being completely inundated for 14 days during the August floods, the 100% solar energy-powered airport and one of the busiest airports in India felt brand new .

Our guide greeted us at baggage claim, and we transferred to the jetty where we boarded the kettuvallams, or famous Kerala houseboats. Originally transporting rice through the channels, the kettuvallums now haul tourists.

Kerala Backwaters

For the next two days, we relaxed on the houseboats, visited local villages, ate the best food (coconut fish curry), and explored the extensive channel network. Consisting of both natural and man-made channels, the backwaters feel like a tropical Holland.

Life in the backwaters revolves around the water. From washing and providing food to transportation and leisurely activities, the channels are the center of life. Instead of taking buses to school, children may take a ferry. With their fields below the water level, the rice farmers neighboring the backchannels utilize pumps to effectively flood their rice fields.

The feel, look, and climate of Kerala were similar to a Caribbean country. People are visibly content and happy; in the backwaters, the children and adults — not just the children — waved happily at us as our house boat slowly glided by.

Left: The most common form of transportation in the backwaters. Center: Countless other houseboats filled the backwaters. Right: One of the many channels that our house boat glided down.

The relaxed pace of life in south India was a marked change from bustling north India. Still, the villages were astir with life despite many of the homes and buildings still having visible water marks from the height of the flooding.

Furthermore, wandering cows and stray dogs — a ubiquitous site in north India — were practically non-existent. The cows that we did see were either in fenced areas or tied up, and the dogs that we saw had collars.

Left: A pristine rice field in Kerala. Center: We passed an evening tutoring session, and all the kids raced out to greet us. Right: Most of the houses and villages sit below the water level and hug the river banks which exacerbated the August flooding disaster.

Sabarimala Temple Issue

During our last day on the houseboat, two women in their forties entered the Sabarimala Temple — home to one of the largest pilgrimages in the world with nearly 45 million people visiting each year. Due to a purification process that devotees much perform for 41 days prior to entering the temple, women between the age of 10 and 50 are not allowed to enter the temple due to menstruation. In late September, the India Supreme Court ended that decades-old ban.

The week prior to us arriving in Kerala, a group of women — all middle aged — with a large police escort attempted to enter the temple, but a large crowd blocked their path. The women and police were forced to turn around and seek safety. Then on January 1, between 3.5 and 5 million women formed a human chain that stretched nearly 385 miles across Kerala to show their solidarity with the Supreme Court ruling.

After the two women in their early forties actually entered the Sabarimala temple on January 2, various right-wing Hindu organizations called for a dawn-to-dusk shutdown in Kerala the next day. The “next day” being the next day that we would be transiting to Kochi, a historical port trading city.

Our guide said that protestors would likely ignore us as we were tourists, and at worst, we would have to slightly change our tour schedule due to the shutdown. After having breakfast onboard the houseboat, we returned to the jetty and were picked up by our bus driver. Pasted on the windshield was a paper that read “AIRPORT” to show the protestors that we were tourists and to hopefully dissuade them from stopping us. Next stop: Kochi.

Sunrise in the Kerala backwaters

Georgetown University student. I lived in India from December 2018 to April 2019. As it has done to so many others, India stole my heart.