The Backwaters in Kerala, India

Kerala, on India’s southwest coast, has a unique landscape with an extensive network of natural and man-made canals and lakes. This large estuary is formed when rivers, coming from the Western Ghats mountain range meet the Arabia Sea. The resulting brackish waters form over 900 km of interconnected waterways referred to as ‘The Backwaters’.

Life in this part of Kerala is dependent upon the backwaters. They provide transportation, irrigation, fish and recently tourism. We took the public ferry between the cities of Kollum and Alleppey (now called Alappuzha). It was a slow-paced cruise as the ferry worked its way up the palm fringed, narrow canals and lakes. From the ferry we witnessed life in the backwaters. There are many homes along the canals where we saw people washing their clothes, fishing, swimming and bathing. The water is very shallow, and we think if the ferry tipped over, we’d wouldn’t swim, instead we’d be able to walk to shore.

One lake had one of the most interesting ‘light houses’ we’ve ever seen. The Naked Lady Lighthouse seemed very strange in a country where women need to dress ultra-conservatively. Apparently there are a few of these strange statues near Kollum.

During the ferry ride we saw were many fishermen, with nets and rods, fishing from their boats or from shore. Their colourful wooden fishing boats motored by us and many more lined the shores. We passed a few Chinese fishing nets (see more on these in an upcoming post). These are large shore nets attached to wooden frames that are manually lowered into the water.

A popular thing to do in the area is to take an overnight houseboat cruise on the backwaters. The houseboats putter their way through the various canals and lakes and give you a different view of Kerala. These funny looking boats have wicker-style houses built on top of old rice barges. Some, like ours, have one bedroom, a living room and a kitchen/staff room. Others are quite large with two stories, several bedrooms and a full dining room.

We took a houseboat trip that began in Alleppey where, instead of the narrow canals we went through on the ferry, we traveled on wide, open canals. In this area the canals are bordered by stone walls that act as dams between canals, lakes and rice paddies. These old stone walls must work because many times our canal was higher than the dry rice fields on the other side of the wall.

Villages are located on the narrow strip of land between the canals and the rice fields. We stopped at one village where we met people who were fishing in the canal, working on their boats and harvesting rice in the fields. Our houseboat docked near one of these small villages where we spent the night. It was a quiet, relaxing evening.

The canals are teeming with birds and fish. On both cruises we saw many water and fishing birds such as cormorants, gulls, kingfishers and the pretty red-winged Kerala Eagle. In the lakes we saw many flying fish who were jumping out of the water and flying for at least 10-15m before diving back in to the water.

The city of Alleppey also has a few canals with large trees providing shade. At the eastern end, the canals are filled with shikaras (wooden boats) waiting to take tourists on day tours in the backwaters. At the western end, however, the canals were in desperate need of maintenance. They were covered in water plants with little if any water flowing through. There was a nice shaded walkway along the canals that led to a large beach. The beach wasn’t much of a sun tanning or swimming beach though as the canals dumped their foul water into the sea nearby. On the beach we found large, rusty pillars from a 150-year-old pier. They are the most picturesque part of Alleppey Beach.

Coming up next: Kerala, Land of Tea and Spice

For extra pics from this trip go to Gallery/Western India. For extra pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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