Life on the water: human stories from Kerala's palm-fringed backwaters

The waterways of the Indian state teem with birdlife and the rhythms of rice production. But beneath the surface, the Periyar National Park and the tranquil Vembanad lake are finding a balance between the needs of agriculture and nature.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Vishal, a ranger in the Periyar National Park, is patrolling a tourist boat heading out onto Periyar Lake early in the morning. As he struts, he announces tiger facts to an increasingly confused audience. He starts each of his proclamations with a demand for our “kind attention”. Vishal has a neatly pressed olive-green uniform, a serious countenance and a black moustache so impenetrable it looks like it could deflect bullets.

“Your kind attention,” Vishal repeats, walking between the rows of seated passengers as the boat putters away from its jetty. “We have around 40 tigers here. Very strong animals. Many bison, too. No giraffes.” His final remark seems something of an afterthought: “You’ll only find giraffes in Africa. And Australia.” At this news, he certainly has my attention. “But tigers, yes, we have many. Tigers are only found here in Asia. And in South America,” he continues, incorrect again, before closing with some eyebrow-raising bragging on the felines’ behalf. “Bengal tigers are very strong — stronger than six lions,” he says. “Tigers can kill elephants, no problem.” 

I don’t think Vishal wishes to mislead us, more that he’s innocently indulging in a bit of hyperbole to emphasise a point: this is tiger country and tigers aren’t to be trifled with. I’m less clear about why he mentioned the giraffes, but he speaks with such authority that no one in our small group has the guts to press him.

This much is true, however: Periyar National Park and its namesake lake lie in the highlands of Kerala, a winding five-hour drive east from the state capital of Kochi, through seemingly endless corridors of tea plantations and spice gardens. Established in 1982, the park’s status as a tourism destination, much like the wider state’s, is slowly growing, both domestically and internationally. Not that it’s possible to tell from looking at it, but the huge lake is actually man-made, dating back to 1895 when the ruling British erected the Mullaperiyar Dam, quite accidentally creating an Edenic wildlife sanctuary. 

Vishal boat is one of three double-decker, park-operated vessels heading off shortly after dawn in search of wildlife along the lake’s shores. “The mornings are very cold,” says Vishal, which, unlike some of his pronouncements about wildlife, is correct. “Maybe the mammals will wait until afternoon to get warm before moving,” he adds, stamping his feet. I suspect Vishal is insuring himself against the possibility of us seeing nothing during the excursion. Tigers have spent 200,000 years evolving to go unseen, and while they have been spotted from these noisy boats, sightings are incredibly rare. We’ve a much more realistic chance of spotting gaur (a wild cattle species), Asian elephants and wild dogs. 

These cruises leave every morning throughout the tourist season, which starts in October and runs until June, when the monsoon makes the journey far less appealing. For the past two years, flooding (particularly severe in 2018) has meant that park has been off-limits to visitors. 

In real life, the lake looks less artificial than it does on a map, its waters spreading into valleys like insidious fingers. But despite having been here for 125 years, it’s yet to erode certain vestiges of the former landscape. As we move south along one of these watery digits, our route seems to be marked by huge stakes. Initially, I think they’re markers to show boat captains which channels are shallow enough to navigate, but I soon see that they’re actually the remnants of dead trees, long since drowned by this unnatural body of water.

Indian cormorants, river terns and grey-headed fish eagles are among the species using them as perches from which to launch sorties into the water. Behind them, jungle stretches up hills and to the horizon, disappearing into the blue sky. Up here, far from the more polluted coastal areas, the sky really is blue, and most of the plants are so perfectly formed and bombastically green as to appear shop-bought. The animals clearly appreciate the conditions. Over the hour or so we’re out on the lake, we see healthy herds of gaur lumbering around the shoreline and a wild boar nervously peering through the scrub.

Later, on a nature walk beginning at the Periyar Nature Interpretation Centre — now led by a more measured guide, Subhash — I come face to face with a cranky-looking gaur, almost get urinated on by a Nilgiri langur and see a small herd of sambar deer flitting though the jungle-like wraiths. Just as we begin to turn for home, we also stumble across a family of Asian elephants casually crashing through the undergrowth, apparently not in the least concerned by Vishal’s gossip that super-strength tigers are plotting to assassinate them. 

Monsoon weeding

India has a population of over 1.3 billion people; to put it another way, one person in every six on Earth hails from the country. Kerala contributes relatively modestly to this glut of humankind, being the 13th most populous of the 28 states; Kochi, the historic trading port at the state’s heart, doesn’t even make the list of the nation’s top 20 megacities. It is, however, home to a notable record-breaker: India’s longest lake, the mighty Vembanad, which clocks in at 60 miles from top to bottom and empties out into the Laccadive Sea at the Port of Kochi. The second largest body of water in India, the livelihoods of around 1.6 million people depend on it. 

One of them is Sabu Amani, a farmer and part-time tour guide from the village of Manjira. Other than when a 20-year army career periodically took him away from home, the 53-year-old has spent his whole life here, at the very water’s edge, as did at least four generations of his family before him. I meet Sabu aboard his noisy boat, the Chottanikkara Amma. As we traverse a small waterway, he points out a dozen or so species of bird. “That’s a blue-tailed bee-eater, a migratory species. Comes here from Nepal and the Himalayas around October, then leaves before the rains,” he says, flexing his ornithology muscles.

As was the case in Periyar, the monsoons of the past two years resulted in widespread flooding here. “In 2018, the water went inside everyone’s house,” says Sabu with a frown. “August 15th, boats were sent out to help people, but it took 15 days before they got to us here. Very tough.” To his annoyance, the deluges also meant that Kerala’s traditional snake boat races (a hugely popular spectacle involving 100 oarsmen per vessel rowing to the frenzied beat of large drums) haven’t happened since 2017.

With this year’s monsoons still several months away, we’re on our way to visit his home, where family members will, variously, demonstrate traditional ropemaking and weaving and coconut-harvesting. First, we have to get there, though, which would be a simple business were it not for a blanket of water hyacinths covering the surface of the river.

As far as pollutants go, it’s hard to imagine many more beautiful than the water hyacinth, with its mauve flowers — Indian pond herons and bronze-winged jacanas walking between them like inspectors looking through crime scenes. The plants sit atop the water and, while looking very pretty, draw out oxygen, reduce sunlight and suffocate algae and fish below. They tend to snag in boats’ propellers, too. “When the saltwater comes, the hyacinths will die, but now it’s a big problem,” says Sabu, sucking his teeth. The natural cycle of the lake should mean that when the monsoon rains come, the surging freshwater forces saline water out into the Laccadive. For the other, rain-less, half of the year, the ocean creeps back in and the water becomes brackish; opposing forces taking turns at controlling the lake. However, in order to improve rice production, it was decided in the 1970s to build the Thanneermukkom Bund, a massive saltwater barrier with a central gate that stretches across the middle of Vembanad like a belt that’s too tight.

It was designed to keep half the lake filled with freshwater long enough to allow for two rice harvests, but this restriction has interfered with the natural cycle and enabled the water hyacinths to spread at an alarming rate.

It’s hard to tell how much Sabu cares about that, save for endlessly having to clear his boat’s propeller of snagged hyacinths. He is, after all, a rice farmer and the barrage has, for the time being, made his life more comfortable. He also sees the rising value of tourism and in the future hopes his three children will follow him into that business, rather than toiling in the paddies. 

As we enter his front garden to watch his daughter demonstrate weaving rope by hand, a group of men in cobalt overalls come to watch us, in turn. There’s much shared fascination, at least until their foreman catches them skiving and sets them back to work hauling sacks of rice onto a truck, depriving them of the chance to laugh at our own oafish attempts at making the rope.

As our group says goodbye to Sabu and family just after sunset, I’m left wondering how long the lake’s unnatural pattern can continue. With record floods, rising overpopulation, worrisome air quality and plastic pollution, India often feels like the climate crisis writ large. Having learned of the challenges faced by Vembanad, it’s clear the odds are stacked against the ecological heath of Kerala’s waterways. But, as I’m later to find out, there’s hope, too. 

Below the surface

As we look out from one of Kerala’s ubiquitous kettuvallam houseboats, it’s hard to believe that tranquil Lake Vembanad is facing any problems at all. These vessels provide the quintessential Kerala backwaters experience: lazily navigating waterways between colossal rice paddies, languidly observing the lives of those who live there. Occasionally, giggling teenagers dare each other to wave to us, but for the most part we’re ignored. The sun is warm, the breeze a refreshing whisper and the cold Kingfisher beers gratefully received. Hours pass like this, and it’s an undeniably lovely way to spend an afternoon, watching the people fishing and washing in the water, birds doing the same, snake boats sitting idle, all life appearing forever unrushed. The most urgent activity appears through the haze: two goats butting each other while crows look on at the edge of a rice field that’s almost ready for harvest. 

In no way do these huge, gold-green spaces look like the environmental bulldozers they are. Modifications to Vembanad first began in 1865 during British rule. Some estimates say as much as two-thirds of the lake and its marshes have since been reclaimed for growing rice, each mega-paddy named after the local king who approved the British plan for its creation. From above, they look like shards from a dropped pane of glass, all straight lines and sharp corners. Of course, this rearrangement of the natural landscape drastically altered the ecosystem, but at the time no one would have predicted the future cost. 

Aboard the kettuvallam I feel like I’ve rejoined part of that history. These double-decked, thatch-roofed tourist boats look like they belong to a precolonial era. Kerala was regarded as so agricultural that tourism only really took hold here in the early 1990s. The boats have since become incredibly popular — an estimated 2,000 are now thought to be sailing around Vembanad. Outside of the monsoon season, this armada typically spends half of each day navigating the narrow waterways between the paddies or else heading out into the larger body of the lake itself, the distant north shore of which is always lost in the blue-grey horizon.

After disembarking the boat, our group visits the local office of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), where we’re met by project coordinator Jojo. For the past decade, the trust has worked with National Geographic — and, more recently, our tour operator, G Adventures, too — to address environmental concerns around the country. By way of introduction, Jojo tells us that our visit is contributing to the trust’s funding (via a contribution by G Adventures).

Stalking the room barefoot, Jojo speaks passionately about a history of “uncontrolled human interventions”, clearly concerned about the fate of the lake and its wildlife. On the wall, a poster shows a fish being speared by a plastic straw. I can’t read the Hindi text, but I understand the message very clearly. “A study in the 1980s said the lake had 180 species of fish,” Jojo continues. “But ever since we started a fish count in 2008, the maximum number of species we’ve found is 117.”

Jojo explains that things are a little better for the black clam population. Around 60% of India’s entire production is harvested in Vembanad, offering a cheap, sustainable form of protein to locals. ATREE encourages the farmers to collect any plastic they find while gathering clams (last year they removed 80 sacks). I ask why, during my week in Kerala, I haven’t seen the clams on any English-language menu. Jojo smiles. “Well, you know they’re filter feeders,” he replies. “Our stomachs are used to them, but you might surely have some problems.”

We head out to watch some of the clam-steamers go about their pungent work. Afterwards, we walk to the lakeshore, where fishermen are navigating small islands of water hyacinths, looking for blooms of fresh clams. As we watch the men work in the morning sun, Jojo asks a passing fisherman to hack the top off a fresh coconut for each of us. I’m relieved, although perhaps not surprised, to note that the drinking straw in my coconut is made of paper.

As one of the fishermen rakes the shallow lakebed and comes up with nothing, I ask Jojo if he’s pessimistic for the future. “No, not overall,” he replies quickly. “We have a concern about the siltation of the lake — it’s getting shallower — but the government is enforcing new regulations and we’re seeing pollution come down.” And if he were in charge? Well, the houseboats would stay, he says, but — no surprise here — there’d be changes made to the barrage. “The only way to revive this system is to let the salinity come like it used to, by keeping the gates open longer,” Jojo explains. “Keep it natural, that’s it.” 

In his more optimistic moments, Jojo believes that, with successful ecological management, Vembanad can become an example for other parts of this colossal country to follow. If the tide can literally be turned in Kerala, he reasons, it can happen elsewhere, too.


Getting there & around

Air India offers the only direct flights to Kochi from the UK, departing from Heathrow twice weekly. British Airways flies twice daily to Mumbai from Heathrow, with codeshare flights on to Kochi. Etihad Airways flies daily from London to Kochi via Abu Dhabi.
To explore the state, book ahead with a tour operator or organise local car transfers through your hotel. 

Average flight time: 10h (direct).

When to go
Kerala is defined by two rainy seasons. While the October monsoons tend not to cause much disruption, the same can’t be said of the summer rains (June to August) in recent years. For the rest of the year, the weather is warm and often humid, averaging 27C. The area around Periyar National Park benefits from being at higher altitude and so is cooler than coastal Kochi.

Where to stay 
Kumarakom Heritage Resort

More info:

How to do it
G Adventures offers a bespoke, seven-day TailorMade South India trip from £1,649 per person, based on two sharing. Includes B&B accommodation, some meals and a host throughout. Excludes flights. 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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