Sitting on a porch in Alleppey I realise why this place is called the Venice of the East. In front of me is a pond created by capturing a part of the backwaters within man-made walls. I can see a heron gently gliding through the pond. Its sudden flight draws my attention to rains that have just begun. Like a thousand pearls dancing uninhibited on a stage set by nature, they draw you into their rhythm. At a small distance from the pond, tall coconut trees stand proudly welcoming the visitors to God’s Own Country.
I chose a heritage resort for my stay at Alleppey and it proved to be a really good bet. Surrounded on all sides by water, a two-minute skiff ride takes you to the main building of the resort where your hosts wait for you with broad smiles. Very possibly, they are going to laugh at your first clumsy attempt at getting off a skiff. Inside, the property owners have attempted to create a feeling of being on a houseboat on land. Walls of the cottages are built of wood and oak beams of the roof remind you of traditional homes that existed in Kerala once upon a time. The tiny windows with chics instead of curtains and dark interiors, all spell houseboats.
Rains that had begun at three in the afternoon stopped after half an hour, a miracle in Kerala during monsoons. As the feeble sun of evening peeped again through the clouds, I could see birds hopping on the grass surrounding my cottage. I waited for the coffee to arrive and did some surreptitious bird watching from a distance. The manager of the resort, Mr. Jobin told me that birdwatching is quite prevalent in Alleppey, especially from October to January. An enthusiastic birdwatcher, he helped me distinguish calls of different types of birds. It is amazing how the absence of mundane noises can afford you a very different experience of things around you. I watched a kingfisher, a heron, spot bills, woodpeckers and a number of other birds that I could not identify. As I sipped coffee on the porch, I hardly realised the onset of evening till resort staff came to switch on the lights. Ah, yes, night found me as fascinated as the afternoon at this laidback haven. Gone were the fresh and bright rain-washed environs and the chirping birds. Shadows of dense green foliage loomed large and the pond no longer looked friendly. With frogs croaking nearby and crickets singing ceaselessly somewhere in the distance made me slightly edgy till the lights came on and everything in the periphery of my vision, was bathed in a muted glow. I made my orders for dinner. Hot and silky Kerala parothas and crisp pakodas dipped in tangy kadhi with a tadka of curry leaves and mustard seeds. Life can hardly get any better but it did the next morning.
I woke up to chirping of birds, no honking vehicles or alarm clock! At breakfast, I dug into puttu (a steamed dish made of rice flour and grated coconut) with whole Bengal gram curry followed by a vada dipped in piping-hot sambhar. After washing down my breakfast with a steaming cup of filter coffee, I was ready to experience the backwaters.
The resort had all amenities to spend a lazy day; hammocks in between the trees, fishing rods to try your luck at ponds, and pedal boats to traverse the water bodies inside the resort. It even offered a guided shikara ride for guests. However, for me, the day was defined by some other experiences altogether. The resort has a Centre for Ayurveda where you can luxuriate with a pre-booked massage or take a steam-bath filled with herbs. I spent the day at the Centre where Mini, my masseur, proved to be quite a find. She was full of stories and information on nearby areas. Mini’s family history was as interesting as her stories. She related tales about three generations of her family, who were all masseurs before her. I whiled away the morning, enjoying the steam bath and Mini’s animated tales.
Later in the day, I had a second experience which can be best described as poetry hidden in everyday realities. Me, and some other guests of the resort set sail on hyacinth covered crisscrossing backwaters of Alleppey at a slow pace. As our motorboat glided through the backwaters, the life in villages located along these water bodies came alive. Children on bicycle, women carrying water, and men concentrating on casting their nets to catch fish wove a tale of their own.
Chinese fishing nets that I had heard about so often appear frequently in water here. They are mechanical contraptions that are seen only in India outside the Chinese realms. I watched a fisherman at his gear. Does he feel disappointed when there is no fish in the net or has he accepted uncertainties that come with his vocation? My reverie was broken by another man on a vallam (traditional fishing boat) used in Kerala. He was singing while navigating the waters. As we drew nearer, I could see a fishing net lying at his feet. He remained on my mind for a long time even as we docked in the reeds and made our way to the beach.
The beach was quite unlike the ones located at popular tourist spots. It was quiet and had just a few onlookers apart from our party. In the distance, The Arabian Sea was in full swell. I found myself a spot on nearby rocks after a walk on the beach to watch the sunset. It would be a while before I can forget the sound of those waves and the purple and orange swirls on a blue sky.
To stay cocooned in my room with a book and enjoy the view from porch was a tempting proposition the next day but exploring Alleppey was equally alluring. So, I decided to don my explorer’s hat and embarked on a journey towards the many delights it has to offer. Mullakal Street was my first stop. Jewellery, coir products and a number of other shops selling knick-knacks kept me busy for an hour or so. Mini had told me about Canal Bazaar and it became my next destination on the itinerary for the day. It is a marketplace chock-full of quaint shops selling colourful and aromatic spices. Apart from spices, I ended up shopping for chips of all varieties, shapes and sizes for friends and family.
Walking through the streets of Alleppey, its bazaars, temples, churches and meandering backwaters, I was lost in the pulse of this wonderful place. Today, as I sit down to capture the memories of my stay, Alleppey is a different place. It has been hit by floods. As the waters recede, the district stands ravaged. Tourism, which is one of the main stay for this region is going to bear a severe brunt.
While the structures might have been damaged, the natural beauty and grace of Alleppey remain untouched. I am looking forward to returning to Kerala to soak once again in the serenity I experienced on my last visit.