From the mid-nineteenth century, Alappuzha (or “Alleppey”) served as the main port for the backwater region. Spices, coffee, tea, cashews, coir and other produce were shipped out from the inland waterways to the sea via its grid of canals and rail lines. Tourist literature loves to dub the town as “the Venice of the East”, but in truth the comparison does few favours to Venice. Apart from a handful of colonial-era warehouses and mansions, and a derelict pier jutting into the sea from a sun-blasted and dirty beach, few monuments survive, while the old canals enclose a typically ramshackle Keralan market of bazaars and noisy traffic.
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That said, Alappuzha makes a congenial place to while away an evening en route to or from the backwaters. Streams of visitors do just that during the winter season, for the town has become Kerala’s pre-eminent rice boat cruising hub, with an estimated four hundred kettu vallam moored on the fringes of nearby Vembanad and Punnamada lakes. To cash in on the seasonal influx, the local tourist offices lay on excursion boats for day-trips, while in mid-December the sands lining the west end of town host a popular beach festival, during which cultural events and a procession of fifty caparisoned elephants are staged with the dilapidated British-built pier as a backdrop. Alappuzha’s really big day, however, is the second Saturday of August, in the middle of the monsoon, when it serves as the venue for one of Kerala’s major spectacles – the Nehru Trophy snake boat race.
Kuttanad: the backwaters of Kerala
One of the most memorable experiences for travellers in India is the opportunity to take a boat journey on the backwaters of Kerala. The area known as Kuttanad stretches for 75km from Kollam in the south to Kochi in the north, sandwiched between the sea and the hills. This bewildering labyrinth of shimmering waterways, composed of lakes, canals, rivers and rivulets, is lined with dense tropical greenery and preserves rural Keralan lifestyles that are completely hidden from the road.
The region’s bucolic way of life has long fascinated visitors. And the ever entrepreneurial Keralans were quick to spot its potential as a visitor destination – particularly after it was discovered that foreigners and wealthy tourists from India’s cities were prepared to pay vast sums in local terms to explore the area aboard converted rice barges, or kettu vallam. Since its inception in the early 1990s, the houseboat tour industry has grown exponentially in both size and sophistication, and has brought with it major environmental drawbacks as well as increased prosperity. You can, however, explore this extraordinary region in lower-impact ways, too.