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Kettuvallams of Kerala

by Cheryl Bentley
cheryl@indolink.com


Although filled with wondrous sites, my press trip across India had been too much of a fairy tale. No one seemed willing to admit anything negative existed.

Until I met Babu.

We drove up to a hotel exalted in Indian tourist literature. "Terrible service," he grumped.

I perked up. Fueled by such candor, this segment might prove different.

As, indeed, it did. Serving as my guide in Trivandrum, India, where he owns the travel agency TourIndia, Babu Varghese uttered nary a word of tourist trivia.

Instead, he found me a barefoot ayurvedic healer, led me through a public ayurvedic hospital where I saw healing that made me a believer, introduced me to a woman entrepreneur, and answered every question, even the personal ones, with a rare honesty. The only thing he balked at was when caught up in my quest to understand the Indian woman, I asked him to round up a prostitute for an interview.

On that first visit the bearded Babu imbued in me his own fierce love of his state, Kerala. It has drawn me back several times. Babu always delights with his slightly askance view of life and ready quotes that are a writer's dream.

Indeed, I am not the only journalist who values Babu's unerring eye for quality and quick mind. In between visits I read about him in National Geographic and best-selling books such as Chasing the Monsoon.

During my last visit to Trivandrum, Babu was busy with his boats, "my babies," as he calls them. Intent on giving his tourists something entirely Keralan, he devised the idea of turning cargo vessels into houseboats some years ago.

Plying the backwaters for thousands of years, formerly these kettuvallams, or "tied" (their wooden planks are tied together with rope) boats were the lords of Kerala's abundant waterways. Only through them could Keralans exchange precious goods.

But with the advent of roads, the kettuvallams lost their ascendancy and began a half-century sleep.

Although their craft was moribund, boatpersons were initially reluctant to change centuries-old designs when Babu suggested heightening roofs and breaking up interiors into bathrooms and windowed rooms in order to accommodate tourists.

But he eventually gained their trust. "I had to talk with them, sit with them, eat their bad food with them," laughs Babu in his soft voice. "Slowly I convinced them it would work."

Currently he employees 50-some villagers to repair, maintain, and navigate the houseboats. Although he has reincarnated eleven boats into tourist vessels, received glowing reviews by everyone from travel writers to honeymooners, and been copied by the state's tourist agency, which has created its own rather touristy version of the houseboats, Babu is most proud of his role in reviving a dying craft. "The whole village has come back," he says.

Today master craftsman Kunchan Masery, who helped his father build the last cargo boat 40 years ago and is the only man capable of crafting such a vessel today, is busy once again at his trade because of Babu's houseboat business.

"When he dies," says Babu, "the art will be gone."

But perhaps not. Babu is reawakening the locals' pride in their tradition. Through his insistence that all houseboats be furnished in pure Keralan style and his tourists be fed local produce, which they themselves can choose and bargain for at waterside villages, with banana leaves as plates, and fingers taking the place of forks, per the local custom (Keralans say the sense of touch adds an additional enhancement to the food), they have discovered the wonders of their own heritage. Jaded by a steady diet of 5-star hotels, tourists are enchanted with the peaceful tour of the backwaters.

Sometimes propelled by a small motor, sometimes punted by oarsmen, the houseboats glide past a life scarcely changed by time. Men cast fishing nets, and women wash their clothes. Egrets and herons work the waters. Lulling away the hours from a rocking chair on one of the decks, you feel stresses soothed by the ancient rhythms of the tides and winds and sun. At night under a sky sparkling with stars, the boatmen chant the same tunes their forefathers sang as they sailed through the Keralan waters, conceivably from the very boat on which you now lounge.

Encouraged by travelers' enthusiasm for such glimpses of life in the backwaters, Babu is currently mulling over building his own boat from scratch (his present ones have been rescued from the old-boat graveyard), starting with the ancient ceremony of asking the tree's permission for use of its wood. The cost, however, for a new boat is astronomical.

But in a race between rupees and Babu's passion to impart Keralan culture, my money's on Babu.



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