The Sunday TimesPlus

25th February 1996




A Watery Seduction

In this exclusive travel series, Royston Ellis and photographer Gemunu Amarasinge stop in transit in three countries.

The coastline and the climate of Kerala is enough to make a Sri Lankan feel at home in India. With its coconut groves, paddy fields and plantations of rubber, tea, pepper and cardomon, it inevitably seems familiar.

What is not familiar are the new names of popular places. Kerala's jaunty capital of Trivandrum is no more. Now it is officially known as Thiruvananathapuram. If you take the eight hour cruise along the backwaters from Kollam to Alappuzha, you are not actually venturing into unexplored territory but are merely travelling lazily along the waterways from Quilon to Alleppey.

Alappuzha (Alleppey) is the centre of the backwaters and is now more easily reached by train since a new railway links it with Quilon, sorry, Kollam. Not long ago I chartered a boat there to cruise to Kottayam past water logged paddy fields and ledges of land where boys leapfrogged without a care in their wet and watery world.

We approached the town through a floating jungle of water hyacinths clogging the canal. Kottayam is a pilgrim centre poised between the backwaters and fertile plantations. There are toddy taverns beside the canals cut through the palm groves, where bites to go with foaming mugs of toddy are fried frogs legs.

A backwaters retreat has recently opened only 10 km from Kottayam and we discovered it during a recent visit to Cochin, now called Kochi. The backwaters extend east and west from the harbour and are dotted with tiny islands formed naturally by alluvial deposits from the rivers.

Cochin's hallmark is the Chinese fishing nets hanging over the edge of the sea and backwaters. Their name comes from being introduced to Cochin by Chinese sailors in the days of Kublai Khan. With nets strung from poles in a scoop shape, they are odd but picturesque contraptions. They are lowered into the water to trap any fish foolish enough to be within their scope.

The first stage of a retreat to the backwaters begins from the Casino Hotel (no casino) on Willingdon Island at Cochin. A minibus takes guests for the 45 km ride to Thanneermukkan. There a jetty juts out into a festoon of water weeds where a launch nonchalantly nudges its way through.

The destination is the obviously-named but brilliantly conceived Coconut Lagoon Heritage Resort. It lies hidden in a jungle of palm trees and lush vegetation, with a river running around it. You can only reach this backwater retreat by boat. The silken silence of the waters soon seduces the most frazzled guest with an enduring, natural calm.

The idyllic setting is matched by the centuries-old mansions of wood and traditional, deeply sloping roofs, which provide the guest accommodation. The mansions - called tharawad -- were bought in a tumble-down state from their owners who had inherited, but had no use for, them. Old craftsmen had to be brought out of retirement to reassemble these ancient mansions. Every piece of wood in a tharawad is carved and notched to a specific, and almost forgotten, design. No nails are used.

The mansions are part of Kerala's heritage. They have long verandahs shaded by upper wooden balconies. They have been divided into separate units with a sitting room on the ground floor and a bedroom, reached by a tight wooden staircase, above. There are no glass window panes, only wooden shutters, and the furnishings are rustic but comfortable. Floors are of terra-cotta tiles or wood. You have to stoop to enter through low-beamed wooden doorways. The bathroom is where the interior courtyard would have been and is open to the sky without a roof. There are also single-story cottages which are air-conditioned. There are 14 mansions and 23 cottages in the 11 acre park.

There is no television or room service as a matter of policy. Meals are buffets served in an open-sided restaurant converted from a building over 300 years old. A swimming pool, its bright blue water a garish contrast to the sombre shade of the river, meanders in front of the rooms.

You float up to reception by boat, and cross the waterways channelled through the resort by bridges (there are nine of them, some ornate with stone birds, others simple wooden humps). A dug out canoe is available if you want to paddle to your own tharawad.

You can explore the real, unexploited backwaters while staying at the resort. A sunset cruise abroad the coir upholstered, hoop-awned kettuvallam local boat, with stewards in attendance, is popular. The vessel is punted along in the traditional manner with a bamboo pole, and steered by an oar as rudder. It glides noiselessly through the neighbouring bird sanctuary or around the lake.

To stay at this backwaters retreat costs about US $65 for two, without meals. There is an extra 10 percent government tax on the room rate, and a six percent sales tax on meals.

The resort is dedicated to those who desire tranquility in comfort; it is as far off-the-beaten-track as most people could tolerate. A journey there is a voyage of discovery, of oneself as well as of the bliss of this riverine retreat.

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