Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made Kumarakom nationally known, when he chose this place as his weeklong sojourn in December 2000. Kumarakom, about 15 km from Kottayam city in Kerala is known for its expansive back waters, a small bird sanctuary and Vembanad lake and ayurvedic treatment.
After Vajpayee stayed here for about a week got ayurvedic treatment for his recently operated knees and wrote poetry and essays, which was widely published- people from far and near flocked to rediscover this place and now it has become a major tourist draw. Dozens of resorts have sprouted. Number of houseboats multiplied.
There is a song in Bengali (sabai kare bale sabai kare tai) which translated in English reads like: everybody is doing because everybody else it doing that. Following that trend I decided to visit Kumarakon with my local Man-Friday Sabu (He calls himself ‘Sabu Driver’. He is proud of the fact that he has been professionally driving for 37 years. I’ll tell about him some other time).
He took me to Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary spread over 14 acres (5.7 ha) on the southern bank of the Kavanar River and adjacent to Vembanad lake, it attracts several species of migratory birds, besides being home to many local species.
Developed in a rubber plantation as a bird sanctuary by Englishman George Alfred Baker the sanctuary was formerly known as Baker’s Estate. There is a system of paths for moving around within the sanctuary. Beyond the sanctuary, one can take a boat ride in Vembanad Lake or along the Kavanar River.
As I strode inside the sanctuary, Sabu accompanying me, I found many young couples – seemed like college kids more interested in each other than the birds or the lake. I could see the telltale signs of the first stage of love- both are unsure of themselves, there is apprehension, nervousness, and also the pleasure of trading into an unknown zone. I kept my face straight, dark glasses doing the rest. Coming to the birds, they decided to give me a slip en masse. A lone young lizard slithered by, stopped, looked at me and moved inside a bush. It probably told me it is not a zoo moron. It is our home. We’ll come out, when we like. So be it.
Houseboats (called kettu- vallams in Malayali language) in Kerala are like floating hotels with AC rooms, large TV sets, good fresh cooked food. It comes in different sizes. From just sitting to three large air-conditioned bed rooms plus a living area. The prices vary accordingly.
Expensive though- it gives one a unique experience. As more people want that experience, over a period the number of houseboats have increased.
So much so that it is causing the problem of pollution in the lake, which needs to be addressed.
Churches of Kotttayam
Christanity is the third-most practised religion in Kerala, accounting for 18% of the population. In fact history records that Christianity arrived in Kerala by 52 AD. Kottayam has a large and varied Christian population comprising of 43.48 per cent of the total population of the district according to 2011 census. Christian missionaries arrived here early, set up educational institutions and churches.
There are several old majestic looking churches in and around Kottayam. There are churches with different architecture. But all the churches that I could visit are immaculately maintained. Very clean. Very neat and orderly.
The day I went around Kumarakom at least two churches had marraige ceremony. I wanted to see the rituals. But I was told it was over, and marraige feast was being held at adjacent Mandapam. I was interested to go there and eat. (Yes, I had done that before). But Sabu driver had some other ideas.
Toddy Shops in Kerala
Sabu took me to a Toddy Shop instead. For your information, toddy shops serve the most authentic non-veg food. The service is quick. The place is clean and I found several people with their family eating there.
Throughout the state of Kerala, there are plenty of toddy shops that serve authentic toddy along with spicy Kerala food. The friendly atmosphere you enjoy at these shops makes sure you have a good memory to remember when you return home.
For the uninitiated, toddy, also known as Palm Wine, is probably the most popular drink in the state of Kerala. Foreigners like to call it coconut vodka. The mildly alcoholic beverage is made from the fermented sap of coconut palm tree. It tastes best when stored in a mud vessel. Kerala’s hot and spicy food becomes a perfect complement to a glass or two of toddy.
For a list of Toddy Shops that you may visit on your next trip to Kerala- google it.
Declaration: I have not tasted toddy. It is not mandatory to take in the toddy shop.
Why does it feel that the distance has increased and it is more time, when you are returning home after a long time.
Mrinal chatterjee is a journalist turned media academician. He lives in Dhenkanal, Odisha.