The vast backwater stretches of Kuttand in Allappey an important backwater destination in Kerala is one of the few places in the world where farming is carried out below sea level. Q, S, T& R Block kayals is a striking example of the indigenous agricultural engineering know-how. Here, cultivation and habitation are made possible at four to 10 feet below sea level by reclaiming land from the backwaters and building dykes around it. Farming is the main stay occupation here and large farming areas near Vembanad Lake are actually reclaimed from the lake. The history of the paddy cultivation in Kuttanad can be traced back to centuries. The pioneering reclamation activity of kayal cultivation was made by two brothers Mathai Luka Pallithanam and Ouseph Luka Pallithanam belonging to Kainady village in Kuttanad. The period between 1865 and 1890 is considered as the first phase of kayal cultivation.
Life in the Backwaters
Ways of life on the backwaters have a different set of rules, since there are no roads to depend on; canals, rivers and lakes make for travel routes. The backwaters in Kerala are the source of livelihood and the lifeline of the state nurturing a flourishing agriculture and fishing industry. Most families have a boat of their own and children learn to swim as early as they learn to walk.
School buses float, so do the postal services and the shops. Boats and canoes glide around selling fish, vegetables and daily requirements from house to house, women folk happily going about their daily chores since most of the houses are largely surrounded by water. The constant sound of washing clothes and utensils is all around. Most of the canals are bordered by small embankments, with paths lined by coconut palms that are tapped for toddy, and the coconut fibre is used for coir production. Large rice paddy fields lower than sea levels also dot the horizon.
Kayal Raja of Kuttanad
Murikkummoottil Thommen Joseph (MurickenOuthachan) known locally as Kayal Raja, was an Indian visionary and social worker, who helped to transform parts of the Vembanad Lake, in Kerala from a marshy backwater into the rice bowl of Kerala, giving much needed jobs to tens of thousands and produced scarce grain for the population ravaged by the restrictions and scarcity of the World War I and II.
He started reclamation of Kayal (Lake) land under the orders of SreeChithiraThirunal, the then Maharaja of Travancore. The Kayal paddy fields reclaimed by him were named Chitthira (716 acres), Rani (568 acres) and Marthandom(674 acres) as a token of gratitude to the Travancore Royal Family. Thus the total Kayal reclaimed by Murickan is approximately 1958 acres. He did cultivation in a very large extent of reclaimed area and achieved such a success that he was crowned as “KrishiRajan” (farmer king) by the then prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The reservoir of water in Kuttand is filled with fish so naturally fishing is a means of livelihood. Besides paddy cultivation, it is one of the main sources of revenue for the people of this region. Fishing in Kerala’s serene backwaters and lagoons is truly a wonderful experience and holidaymakers are encouraged to try the various traditional fishing techniques used by the locals. Hand gathering of pearls spot, spearfishing, netting, angling and trapping to catch other varieties like the mullet, prawns, crabs, lobsters etc. a few of the tastiest varieties found in this area are the essential recreational activities one can try. Join the local fisherman for some night fishing in the backwaters. There are several fish farms here that are private and government owned. The shrimp farms (Tiger prawns) that are spread around offer opportunities to visitors to watch and catch them for either lunch or dinner.
Tending to ducks in the swamp and canal is another occupation of the people of Kuttanad. Paddy fields and canals are favourable for duck rearing and they are put in groups in the paddy fields. Since duck rearing is a subsidiary occupation for many farmers; thousands of ducks wadding over the fields, lakes and rivers is a beautiful sight across the district. A ready camera will help in getting the perfect picture.
The people of Kuttanad have used the Vembanadkayal for developing the coir industry. Coir and coir products have good demand in the Indian and foreign markets and is an important means of livelihood; and entire villages are seen engaged in coir manufacture along the waterside. It is very interesting to watch the coir making by the village ladies with the help of weaving wheels. Handmade coir carpets and rugs with unique Kerala motifs are simply amazing, and for those ready to try their hands at it, the weavers will readily lend a helping hand to start the process.
Toddy the fermented sap of the palm tree, a kind of country liquor is an intoxicating and popular drink consumed by the people. Toddy tapping from the palm trees is a common sight as villages are lined with these swaying palms. Any visitor who visits Kerala is likely to be attracted by the omnipresent boards before the thatched huts along the roads proclaiming the sale of kallu or toddy. These toddy shops are not visited merely for the toddy drink but also for the local delicacies like Tapiyoca& Shell fry that are served there. The food items have a local flavour that is typical of the countryside. Apart from the food and drinks served, the kallu shops are also venues for friendly gathering of the village people. Get adventurous and try toddy tapping and sip this heady drink.