Wednesday, April 21, 2010
The sun breaks the dawn as the temple bells begin to chime. I look at the time and turn to the other side cursing the devotees. Soon the resident geese honk and join the merry clanging of the bells. It’s time to get out of bed. I step onto the patio outside the bamboo cottage as the geese flap out their wings and walk single file to the pond slightly away from the cottage. There are other birds, storks being the easily identifiable ones, flying past. The early bird catches the worm as they say, or presumably fish- from the kayal. I needed breakfast...
The steaming puttu and kadala curry, pappadam powdered by hand into the mix, is decimated in a trice. Our first objective for the day is set- locate a retired merchant navy captain, K. U. Crispin, owner of the eponymous kettuvallom, the quintessential experience of the Vembanad. A short jaunt down the jetty and the canal snakes towards the big lake, women washing clothes and vessels on either side. A blind turn reveals the canal chock-o-block with kochu valloms- dwarf snake boats, some carry vegetables, others fish- a veritable gliding grocery shop and even others carry what was explained later to be sludge, apparently good for cementing houses; and a host of kettuvalloms in shapes, services and storeys that would suit budgets from us (read middle class) to former Prime Ministers of India. St.Crispin hides behind a huge double decker, Kottayam Kunchachchan eye-catchingly noticeable because of its enticing bar, an array of the best tipples on its upper deck display. Ret. Capt. Crispin (his parents and later him are ardent devotees of the saint, interestingly the saint had a twin brother, Crispinian and together are the patron saints cobblers, tanners and other members of the leather sub-culture) is counting crisp new 500 rupee notes as we board and the guests from the previous night bid him farewell.
Having spent practically every summer vacation listening to the wind whispering in the coconut fronds, downing tender water from the nut by the dozens, gazing at green paddy fields and experiencing various other sensory soothing balm qualities in Kerala; we weren't enthused by the idea of doing the same by day and night atop a kettuvallom. Besides, a 24 cruise, a majority of it anchored in the middle of the Vembanad, the authorities prohibit kettuvalloms from plying the waters from early evening to just after dawn, would have set us back clean by 15,000 Indian monies. A chat on how he set sail on the kayal in late 2008 after having seen enough of the high seas later he heads home for a short nap before his next ‘full day-night’ cruiser couple arrive, leaving us in the company of the affable Sunil, the pilot; Rahul, the deck hand and an Old Man Mozz-esque achchayan (my fading memory is responsible for not remembering his name) who runs the kitchen on board St.Crispin.
Guided by poles in the safe hands of Old Man Mozz and Rahul and gentle coaxing of the brand new Yamaha engine we putter past other kettuvalloms getting readied for their next batch of occupants. At the meeting point with the outer reaches of the Vembanad where the canal ends many a local youth and a couple of septuagenarians stand on the concrete pier awaiting their dose of eye feasting on the bare white skins of phoren madamas. Our feasting (a precursor to the spread being prepared at our heritage home-Tharavadu) begins with a bunch of poovan pazham. Sunil who hails from near-by Vechoor soon takes us past the waterfronts of the 5 star and boutique variety hotels with snazzy jacuzzis that overlook the banks of the Vembanad. While a lone electric blue kingfisher flits across the surface, successfully having mouthed his lunch, Sunil explains how the kettuvallom industry is only close to two decades old. With the road connections to the three bordering districts- Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Kottayam, improving drastically during the 80’s and early 90’s it became uneconomical to ply boats, leaving the boat-owners to either move out to the coast to take up fishing or change their lines of business. An enterprising few however decided to redesign their boats to look like mansions on water and welcome the cash rich tourist to the veritable experience of the Vembanad.
We pass vast paddy fields which are actually below the level of the kayal, which is at sea level, and need to be pumped out during seasons of plenty to avoid the crops from getting damaged. Infact a majority of the fields were reclaimed from the kayal. Sunil’s free hand cuts an arc into the horizon to demarcate one of the richest achchayan’s (name escapes me again) fields. Like most other rich agriculturalists he too escaped much of the wrath of EMS and his Communist brethren during the Land Ceiling days of yore aided by his vast siblings, cousins and other blood brothers. He even had a church built bang in the middle of a field, so that his labourers could get back to work immediately after service!
Vembanad, herself is an undulating, sheer glazy green, dotted with hyacinth and the occasional vallam in any direction the eyes gaze. At some point, having lost ourselves in our thoughts of the emerald expanse below, we realise we are floating back on the canal that leads to the municipal boat jetty.
Our appetites perky, we head to Tharavadu, in the process passing by what the locals call “Pambu”- a drunk, splayed on the ground, occasionally attempting serpentine movement in the direction of his home or ultimate destination- in all probability the next TASMAC parlour. Kerala has the highest incidence of alcoholism anywhere in India; the papers carried an article the next day of how Chalakkudy district topped its previous record of drunken revelry on Christmas Eve, a record it apparently breaks annually.
On the spur of the moment we decide to lunch in Alappuzha and then explore the place. The road curves over tiny canals, the bigger ones away from the town have a few kettuvalloms ready to head out into the kayal and then we pass over the immense Thanneermukkom salt water barrier, which prevents the salt water from entering into the Kuttanad lowlands. The divide is clear- brackish sea water on one side, in clear contrast to the clean jade of the river-fed Vembanad.
Alappuzha, after the serene Kumarakom, is a hot and overcrowded town built around canals, which are mostly covered in water hyacinth. Though we didn’t have much time to explore the Venice of the East, (it being half past three by the time we drove into Alappuzha) we hurriedly down a rather late lunch comprising of toast, scrambled eggs, cutlets and cold coffee at the Indian Coffee House opposite the Beach. A mandatory photo session among the sand and waves later we are headed towards Ambalappuzha, famed for its Krishna Temple and more interestingly for me the prasadam offered- the famous paal-payasam. Legend has it that Krishna himself, in the guise of a sage, challenged the king of the land to a game of chess. The prize the king had to pay if defeated was ‘a few grains’ of rice which was to be laid on the chess board in a particular order- one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so forth with each square adding grain worth twice the previous square. The king readily agreed and unsurprisingly lost. On realising the geometric progression involved in the scheme of the prize, the king panicked, naturally, considering the final figure would empty not only his but his neighbour’s granaries many times over. The ever-pardoning Krishna reveals his true form and in probably the first case of a financial reconciliation- agrees to aid the king with an installment scheme; viz. a promise to serve paal-payasam to devotees daily till the debt is paid-off. Presumably the debt was paid off by the time we reached there, for we did not receive any. It was indeed, since it is apparently dished out only in the mornings. Being wary of temples apart from the architecture, myth and history behind them the only thing that interested me was the mizhavu used by Kunjan Nambiar, the satirist poet who invented and popularised thulllal.
The sun was lowering itself into the western horizon, setting the sky ablaze as we approached the banks of the lake Punnamada. Our object of interest: the centuries old black granite statue or at least the half that remains of the Buddha. Karumadikuttan as he is locally known is covered by a small concrete stupa and a pathway leads away from the stupa to the banks, across which lie what in the late evening sunlight look like fields of gold. Buddhism was a prominent religion in Kerala circa 200 B.C. to 800 A.D. until the revival of Hinduism under renewed royal patronage. Why exactly was only one half shorn of the statue remains a question as we drive back to Kumarakom.
As promised earlier in the day a feast awaits us at Tharavadu. Raw rice, a spicy sambar liberally filled with the delicious small onions, a carrot-beans-cabbage thoran (finely diced vegetables stir fried with grated coconut and assorted spices), the ubiquitous yet meal completing flared pappadam, avial, a beetroot pachchidi (again grated coconut plays an important role with thin strips of beetroot curried in curd) and the protagonist in the symphony being played out on the table- karimeen pollichathu, a double my palm sized roasted pearl spot fish brought straight out of the kayal earlier in the day onto my plate in a banana leaf. Feasting complete, there is little else to do but reflect on the true nature of happiness (something which I was experiencing contentedly at that precise moment) on the bamboo chairs of the portico outside our room. A late onset of mosquitoes, aided by general lethargy prompts us to vacate the chairs and seek the comfort of the bed.
We were advised the previous evening to be ready by early morning for a walk at the bird sanctuary adjacent to the Taj Garden Retreat. Considering the heavy meal hanging in our digestive systems it took a while before we threw off the final vestiges of drowsiness and bought our tickets for the walk. Enveloped in an incessant chirping of crickets and other insects we were warned of not sighting much since it was not the breeding season. Our twitching antennas raised we kept a keen look out for any sight of feathers and beaks. Instead, we cut across a thick copse of tropical trees and bushes with overhanging creepers and bridges over shallow pools looking much like what Ophelia could have drowned in. After covering the circuitous path we encountered- two cormorants, a muster of storks on the far end of the Vembanad which bordered the sanctuary and three men in kurta-pajamas out for their morning constitutional.
After sufficiently fortifying our cells with some fluffy palappams and coconut milk it is time to settle dues and be headed out. We pass the Bay Island Driftwood Museum and decide to give it a miss due to time constraints to accommodate visits to the Vaikom Shiva Temple, the eye of the storm of the Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924-25; a host of relatives in Ernakulam and then onward to Trichur, our base-camp.
All the while on our kayal sojourn we complained of the heat and how the rains could have eased the temperature as well as enhanced the ethereal beauty of the Vembanad and its interlinked eco-system. That evening while driving on the highway from Ernakulam to Trichur-it finally rained- by the ‘vallom’ loads! Maybe I shall return to gaze upon the Vembanad under the reign of the monsoon magic. Soon...
Images 1, 3,5 and 8 credit: Vandana Nenmni (fellow traveler and sister)