The BIG Backwater Conservation Story

A fish sanctuary in the making on Lake Vembanad, Kerala, India. PHOTO: Scroll

A fish sanctuary in the making on Lake Vembanad, Kerala, India. PHOTO: Scroll

We love the backwaters. Period. Every single time one of our Xandari Riverscapes houseboats puts out into these deep waters, our hearts swell with pride. Responsible showcasing the charm, the timelessness of these waters and its people brings us much joy. And when we come across conservation efforts to maintain the quintessence and soul of this stretch of paradise, we can’t help but let you know.

Spread over 36,000 hectares and three districts in Kerala, this is the kind of landscape that gives conservation ecologists a blinding headache – a resource-rich, highly-productive area that is pulled apart in several directions (waste-dumping, tourism, livelihoods, water security) and depended upon by conflicting communities who have no other alternatives. Lakes have been straddling this intersection all across India – from Chilika in Odisha, to the Bengaluru urban lakes, to Loktak in Manipur, to Vembanad.

Such heavy-use landscapes outside protected areas, however, also might hold answers to the future of conservation. Whether it is a large lake system, or forest fragments that serve as the refuge of a few species or a corridor for wild animals, or a forest fringe, or large agricultural swathes that also host biodiversity, a section of conservationists believes that the future lies in teamwork between nature and mankind.

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The Backwater People



Think Kerala, think backwaters. The world’s most fascinating water world, the network of canals, rivers and waterways runs along half of Kerala and is a tourists’ mecca. Imagine golden sunrises, lush green paddy fields, palm leaves dancing in the river breeze, long stretches of silence save for the ripples, pink kissed dusk and night company of stars. Beautiful, right? Probably why even President Barack Obama, the first US president to visit India twice, mentioned the backwaters in one of addresses on a recent visit. And then there are the houseboats – your floating home on the waters, with its windows opening to a moving tapestry of blue and green. Not to forget the backwater people – generations who depend on the water for all their needs, a people seemingly untouched by the ways of time.

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Ferry Around


The Cochin harbor lights caught on the move from the ferry

“Airrrrr, waterrrrrr and laaaaaand” – my first grade Geography teacher chanted the three main modes of transport until we pony-tailed girls were sure to never forget them. While travel by land was a plain daily affair, air transport completed family vacations. It was the much-awaited – but timed – visits to the grandparents, their home on an island in the backwaters, that sparked my love for the ferry.

As with love of all kinds and sizes, it began with the unknown. “How much water is there in the river,” “Will we die if the boat breaks”, “How works the ferry” – curiosity trumped grammar in my little world. There were some answers but the fascination stayed because how could wooden planks and boards placed across two large canoes carry people and vehicles! So every time the car reached the water’s edge, out jumped a little girl with 5 rs ($0.08), stood on tiptoes to reach the greasy ticket counter and waited until the father maneuvered the car to climb onto a ladder placed between the ferry platform and the edge of the boat (craving to do justice to this bit but Physics is not my cup of my tea). If I promised to not go close to the railings, I was allowed to stand out in the open, letting the river breeze ruffle my curls and rouse up conversations I’d drown my grandparents in.

Yesterday, the ferry was about a little girl reaching her elders on an island where once there was no bridge. Today, two decades on, the ferry is the bridge that connects the old and the new, brings together kindred and the wayfarers, and tells her stories of the land and its people. Continue reading

The Backwaters of Kerala, India

Upstairs deck/lounge

Upstairs deck/lounge

Our group of four was greeted with “tender coconuts” to drink while we got settled into the boat and into our bedrooms. Our houseboat was over 100ft long with three bedrooms, a dining room, an upstairs lounge deck and all the amenities of a hotel (including AC), I was in awe. The outside was covered in a coconut palm woven shell tied together by coconut husk rope. Truly a product of “Kerala”, meaning “Land of Coconuts”. Continue reading

Ducks at Kuttanad

Photo credits : Ramesh Kidangoor

Photo credits : Ramesh Kidangoor

Kuttanad is a large area made up of low-lying land spread across Alappuzha District. Agriculture is the major occupation and paddy is grown as far as the eye can see. Duck rearing is a subsidiary occupation for many farmers and thousands of ducks wadding over the fields, lakes and rivers is a beautiful sight across the district. Duck growers from even distant places bring their flocks to Kuttanad during the harvest season. Continue reading

My Houseboat Experience

View of the Kerala backwaters

View of the Kerala backwaters

A few days ago, I had the privilege of going on one of the Raxa Collective River Escapes houseboats to tour the backwaters of Kerala and although it was quite rainy, it was still very beautiful.  First off, the houseboat itself was fantastically designed for traveling the backwaters. While it contained all of the first class amenities that anybody could ask for, it did not go overboard (pun intended); instead of an abundance of glass and feeling as if you were in a bubble, other than the bedrooms the boat is open air, and as the cool breeze danced across your face, it really felt like you were out on the backwaters.

What is so astonishing about the Kerala backwaters, and consequently what I, a student from the United States, have to often remind myself of, is that these backwaters define the lifestyle of so many individuals. Continue reading

Navigating the Backwaters of Kerala

Have you ever felt like you were in a book ?

 Traveling on a houseboat  in the Backwaters was a desire of mine for quite a while, and I had been told the monsoon was the ideal period to take a trip on the Backwaters. The boats are fewer on the waterways, you can see locals compete in spectacular snake-boat races, the rice-paddies fill-up with rainwater, everybody gets around by canoe or ferry. It’s as different to my everyday life as can be. Continue reading

Beauty Of Kerala- Alappuzha

Photo credits: Ramesh Kidangoor

Sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and Vembanad Lake on a sliver of land barely 4 km wide, Alappuzha has the dual advantage of cheap inland water transport on its eastern end and calm seas suitable for an all-weather port on the west. Its criss-crossing canals, which were once busy waterways, historically evoked comparisons with Venice. Continue reading

Beauty Of Kerala- Kumbalangi

Photo credits: Ramesh Kidangoor

Kumbalangi is a tiny village facing the backwaters in the western part of Cochin. Described as the first eco-friendly tourist village in India, the village has been preserved in such a way that nature can be seen in its essence in order to strike a balance between tourism and the ecosystem.  Continue reading

Connecting Over Competition

Guest Author: Siobhan Powers

I’ve been staying in the beautiful backwaters of Kerala for the past few days, which has put me at ease as I always feel more comfortable by the water.  Jonathon and I took some time out of our workday to take a walk and get a feel of the area, including all it has to offer, both culturally and agriculturally. We interrupted the construction of a stone wall surrounding a rice paddy field and watched a young boy catch fish in a stream at the side of the narrow road. In the heat of the Indian sun’s rays, we contemplated buying ice cream, but, on our return, settled on the universal refreshing thirst-quencher that is an ice-cold cola.

Rice paddy in Panangad

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Backwaters Of Kerala

Kerala has an extensive network of waterways covering a distance of approximately 560 km. Besides the large inland lakes, the backwaters include the whole network of canals and waterbodies made by the unique craftsmanship of nature. The lifestyles along these waterways has given rise to a popular but easy going form of tourism. The photos in this post are taken from Alappuzha (Alleppey), the smallest district of Kerala.  Continue reading

Backwater Fishing

Kerala is a land of rivers, lakes, lagoons, rivulets and beautiful canals filled with rich and diversified fish fauna, many of which are rare and endemic species. Fisherman ply the Vemabanad Lake, Ashtamudi Lake and Kayamkulam Lake as well as the backwaters still using using traditional methods, including Chinese fishing nets as well as small nets that are cast by hand.

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The Unseen Scenes

March 2012

A morning on Kerala’s Backwaters. Although in the general sense you know what to expect in terms of how the day will play out, you are guaranteed to see some strange and possibly surreal things between breakfast and lunch. More if you rise before the sun comes up. This is purely out of self-preservation – during the heat of the day, any significant physical activity ends up being exhausting, and the locals know best. That said, it’s worth being up early to catch a number of interesting photographs that you would have been unable to were you sleeping. To the left are two fishermen – one rowing slowly while the other (suitably attired for protection from the sun) checks nettings for a catch. This was my first time seeing fishermen wearing umbrella hats, but I see workers in the paddy fields with them often. Despite this fact, I haven’t photographed them due to poor lighting conditions and a significant distance between us every time. Continue reading

Enchanting Backwaters – Kuttanad

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Kerala is a land of extensive networks of rivers, canals, streams and lagoons that form the Enchanting Backwaters which exemplify an amazing relationship between the ingenuity of man and the artistry of Nature. Its crisscrossing canals which were once busy waterways, have evoked comparisons with Venice since travelers began visiting them. The backwater region of Kuttanad is famous for paddy fields, duck farming and fishing. Most of Kuttanad consists of paddy fields that spill out into vast structures inland from the backwaters. With its abuntant paddy Kuttanad has been named the “Rice Bowl of Kerala”.

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Shop on the Water

Kerala’s Backwaters may be the only home to certain cultural items such as the snakeboat races and the traditional Kettuvalam houseboats, but they are also host to universal waterway phenomena. There is the mandatory bounty that nature provides in the form of distinct and delicious fish and crustaceans, not to mention the huge swathes of coconut palms that grow naturally. Acres and acres of rice paddies are cultivated at below sea level – a feat not unique of Kerala. But in today’s universal culture of rapid globalization, few areas are content with being entirely self-sufficient. So what do the residents of the Kerala Backwaters do if they can’t grow or forage a supply they want? The strips of land are too remote and inaccessible for a  run-of-the-mill supermarket to be profitable, let alone practical. As usual, Kerala folks have come up with a creative yet simple solution to the problem of accessibility and functionality – a floating supermarket.