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.
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.