A rejuvenating voyage through the moving and soothing green and blue ecology of south Kerala is really cool and refreshing in summer. A cruise that connects Vembanad, Kayamkulam and Ashtamudy backwater lakes and inland canals and rivers is a dynamic dream venture materialized on a daily basis by Kerala State Water Transport Corporation that operates daily backwater tours between Alapuzha (Alepey) and Kollam (Quilon).
The boats leave both jetties at 10.30 am simultaneously and reache the destinations at 6. 20 pm. Almost eight hours of serene pleasure and peace are offered to the tourists for INR 300. This longest boat trip in Kerala was revived a year back by SWTC and is a great success today.
In the olden days it took only 10 Rupees to cover this 85km ride. There is no rush and no queue, only the really interested and patient cool customers are takers here. So a full day of calm relaxation and cozy leisure are guaranteed for the careful, imaginative and visually inclined sailor.
On Tuesday April 19, 2011 I enjoyed this cozy cruise, boarding from Alepey the Venice of the east with its network of canals and inland waterways. I began my journey from Kottayam my home.
I caught the State boat from Kodimatha jetty at 6.40 in the morning.It is only 10 bugs to Alapuzha and took two and a half hours to reach the ancient port city. The early morning boating that crosses Vembanad lake is breathtaking and delighful. The boat reached Alapuzha jetty at 9.15 am.
After having breakfast from Alapuzha I just dropped in DTPC information counter close to the landing and got some maps and leaflets on backwater boating and Alepey tourism. Then took the ticket from the office at the jetty and entered the white cruiser awaiting sailors.
It has a lower and upper deck. Even the upper deck is roofed and got some 20 fixed seats. It gives a surround view and foreigners prefer it. The lower deck has 60 pushed back seats and is a lot cooler than the upper. The cruiser also has a toilet.
The boat entered Punnamada Kayal and then turned south in to the National Waterway to Kollam. It passed through green paddy fields, coconut groves, banana and yam cultivating lands to reach Karumadi near Ambalapuzha and Thakazhi south of Alapuzha.
The historic Karumadi Kuttan or the ancient 10th century black granite Buddha is recovered from mud and installed here in a small pagoda consecrated by the Dalai Lama. This beautiful life size dark Buddha in sitting posture in Padmasana resembling the Mavelikara Buddha was partially demolished in the Brahmanical conquest of Kerala.
Brahmanic Hinduism was violently established by its Sudra henchmen in 8 to 10th centuries under the Brahmanical ideologues of Sankara and Vramilabhata by persecuting the Sramana ethical cultures of Jainism and Buddhism in Kerala that spread letters and ethics among people in BC 4th century itself.
Kuttanad got its name originally as the land of Kuttan or Buddhan of Karumadi. The medicinal practices of Thakazhi or Thiruvizha temples nearby are also reminiscent of the ethical health care and educational practices of Buddhism that was a missionary and charity religion in south India that was disseminated by the monks sent by Asoka.
From there our cruiser moved slowly south to Thotapally a small lake and spill way into Arabian sea. NH 47 passes through this barrage-bridge. The excess water in the Vembanad lake spills over to the sea through this barrage in monsoon.
The place name Thotapally means a garden shrine of Buddhism. The Pali word pally means Jain or Buddhist sacred shrines. The same word pally is still used by all non-Hindu minority religions in south India to refer to their worshiping places like Jews, Christians and Muslims apart from Jains and Buddhists.
From Thotapally we moved further south to Kumarakodi on river Pallana where Kumaran Asan the renowned poet in Malayalam in early 20th century was drowned in a boat capsize in 1924 while returning to Kollam from Alapuzha on a steam boat called Redeemer.
The monument, library, statue and school erected in his memory who fought for social justice and human rights through letters form a beautiful and meaningful sight by a bend in the river. I remember visiting the place with artist Wilfred Polycarp in 2006 on bike from Alapuzha his home. That day we crossed Valiazhikal ferry on a country boat with my old hundred CC bike and went up to Thangasery beach in Kollam and returned.
From Kumarakodi the cruiser swiftly progressed to Trikunapuzha after passing through the water lock locally known as Trikunapuzha Cheep. Trikunapuzha was also a Buddhist centre called Srimulavasam the southern seat of the Buddha renowned all over India and Asia in the verse “Dakshinapadhe mulavase lokanadha…” Historians also mark Thrimullavaram a southern beach in coastal Kollam just north of Thangasery as another likely location for this lost city of the Buddha in the southern west coast.
The old Sastha (Dharma Sastha is a synonym for the Buddha in Malayalam) temple in current Trikunapuzha could be a Hinduized relic of the ancient Buddhist pally or vihara. Probably it was also taken over by the Brahmanical Hindu henchmen and Sudra militia during the same time around 10th century when they demolished and threw away Karumadi Kuttan and Mavelikara Buddha.
Similar Buddha images and idols were also recovered from Mavelikara, Karunagapally, Adoor, Pallikal, Bharanikavu and so on. The present Hindu temples at Nilamperur and Kiliroor near Kottayam also housed Buddha idols that were later removed by Savarna forces.
Anyway it is evidently clear that Buddhism flourished in the land of Kuttan or Buddhan called Kuttanad and its margins in various current districts like Ernakulam, Kottayam, Alapuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kollam well into the 13th or 14th century. And it took a lot of persecution and bloodshed from the part of the Sudra henchmen of Brahmanism to eradicate it through extreme violence and barbarism.
The mutilated idols at Karumadi or Kallil near Perumabavur (Kallil was originally a Jain temple, now Hindu) are concrete living proof of such Sudra savagery that tried to erase, obliterate and mutilate people and their histories under the dogmatic spell of Brahmanism.
After enjoying lunch in a cozy coconut palm grove island near the ancient site of Srimulavasam in Trikunapuzha we moved further south to enter Kayamkulam Kayal. It is also vital to remember that Aratupuzha Velayudha Panikar an ardent fighter for social justice who questioned Brahmanical Savarna hegemony in 19th century lived and fought the Savarna henchmen near the Kayamkulam Kayal in Aratupuzha.
He was murdered by an assassin sent by the Savarna lords while in deep sleep in his Kettu Vallam or traditional boat in the Kayal at night. Like Asan, Aratupuzha Velayudha Panikar also met his watery grave while dreaming in sleep for an egalitarian and humane future for Kerala and the world.
Let me pay heartfelt homage to these early martyrs who advanced the cultural politics for egalitarian, democratic and human change in Kerala which was reduced to a mental asylum by the agents of caste and Brahmanism from the middle ages to mid twentieth century.
The subaltern struggles and rebellions at the wake of colonialism recaptured the lost ethical culture of Kerala and created the Kerala modernity and Keala model of social standards of high literacy and public participation in democracy and governance.
Crossing this backwater lake to the south we reached Azhikal estuary and fishing harbor. We could see a lot of fishing folks the brave Dheevara and Araya people of Kerala who conserved the challenging coastline of Kerala for thousands of years, new and old fishing vessels, fresh sea catch, busy fish markets and fish landings here as the cruiser smoothly passed them.
A lot of bridges and roads have come up here recently after the Tsunami rehabilitation projects by the state and NGOs. It is also vital to remember that Valiazhikal Aandi Arayan (Arachan means the ruler) was supreme commander in the Ambalapuzha native state and the army also had an Ezhava regiment for centuries.
The Coir cottage industries around Kayamkulam lake are also remarkable in processing the precious natural fiber of Kerala to makes the most powerful ropes in the world from ancient times onwards. The working culture of the people at the bottom are distinctly visible in and around the water bodies of Kerala. Their hard labor makes the coasts and wetlands of Kerala live and productive.
Through Valiazhikal and Cheriazhikal we reached Vallikavu the seat of Mata Amritanandamayi or Amma a popular woman spiritual leader who emerged from the humble fishing folks of Kerala. The foot bridge over the National Waterway and the skyscrapers of Amma are astounding among the greenery and Chinese fishing nests of the canal.
The Chinese fishing nests in Kuttanad that are spread through out Kochi and Travancore coast are also lasting influences of Chinese and other south Asian cultures and the lasting imprints of Kerala’s historic interactions with other parts of Asia, especially the Buddhist Asia.
Some of our fellow travelers from Europe alighted at the jetty of Vallikavu to see Amma. A few miles south of Amma’s coastal spiritual abode we again touched land at Alumkadavu in a charmingly designed boathouse like KTDC resaturant for spice tea at around 4.30 pm.
Then passing through the narrow canal at Chavara we saw Kerala Minerals and Metals that is digging up sand and naturally we were skeptical about the environmental impacts of large scale mining in fragile coastal belts. Plastic waste is another hazard in the narrow canals. The water quality at Kollam and Alapuzha jetties are also poor. The stench discourages the visitors.
The sight of the huge pipes of Kayamkulam thermal power plant was also not so delightful as we are fighting nuclear and thermal big plants after the Chernobil and Japan disasters. The sight of these monstrous constructions near water is scary and alarming in the futuristic sense.
From the canal we entered lake Ashtamudy and the entry was dramatic and spectacular. We were spell bound by the vast expanse of gray blue waters on all sides and the tiny little green islands in the lake. Small fishing boats and whiskered terns and kites are plenty in the lake. The sunset-cruise in Ashtamudy was the climax of our eight hour long siling and we saw Kollam from miles afar. The new jetty, park, KTDC Tamarind Hotel and bus terminal at Kollam offer remarkable sights from the lake.
We landed at Kollam at around 6.10 pm. KSRTC bus terminal is close by and railway station is just a kilometer away. I took an auto to the railway station and caught Vanchinad Express back to Kottayam at 6.50 pm. I reached home in Gandhinagar at around 9.30 at night.
It was really refreshing and enlightening a day for me in which I spent almost 12 hours on boat. It was a great voyage through the present and past, through the unique wetland ecology, daily struggles of the people and cultural geography of south Kerala. Water and water-scapes could also illuminate us in various ways.