History of houseboats in Kerala
Houseboats in Kerala have a distinctive place in the state economy. Natives have monetized through the backwater bounty of ‘God’s Own Country’ by offering thrilling and relaxing rides on the houseboats or Kettuvallam. Kettuvalam term was derived by joining Kettu (tied with ropes) and vallam (boat). It has come to dominate the rich cultural heritage of Kerala by being one of the most popular means of transporting cargo over the years, in the past. Kettuvalams with thatched roof covering the wooden hulls has been a common sight for villages fringing the backwaters for many centuries.
The first construction of houseboats in south-western India started around 3,000 BC. They were primarily deployed for merchandise transportation, particularly spices and rice apart from transporting passengers. They used to span about 100 feet on an average and ferried across the backwaters connecting remote villages collecting the merchandise from them and supplying to traders. A standard Kettuvalam could ferry about 30 tons of merchandise with ease. Most of the houseboats used to ply between Cochin port and Kuttanad ( a place famous for its delicious marine dishes).
Over the years, the Kettuvallam has been part and parcel of the culture and heritage of Kerala. It is said that the master brain behind building shades over the boats, was that of a British man, who on one of his journeys across the waters suggested this idea to build bamboo roof overhead. This gave rise to the creation of exquisite floating houses. And today one can see these lovely water abodes having a wide range of bedroom options, fitted with modern amenities and other elements to provide utmost comfort, yet reflecting the traditional essence through its architecture.
During ancient times, the Kettuvallam was instrumental in economic development – transporting men and cargo from everywhere across the waters, the remote places which were not otherwise accessible. These boats, which are around 100 feet long, were mostly used to transport spices, rice and other kinds of goods. Interestingly the magnificent structure and size of Kettuvallam are three times more than a normal cargo truck! That is, the houseboat can carry more than 25 tons which is equivalent to what three huge trucks can carry. Amazing, right? That is why in olden days, this was the most preferred transport option to carry heavy loads and also take people to remotest of villages via backwaters. Moreover, the other means of transportation like rail and road ways were either expensive or not developed in those days.
The houseboat offered good provision for the boatmen in terms of cooking food and sleeping purpose and also, ample space for their families to accompany them on long journeys. People of royal hierarchy found a comfortable advantage of living in these floating houses while traveling to different places. However, with the coming of modernization, houseboat took a backseat while other means of transportation got rapidly developed and were used more. Eventually, the Kerala houseboats were merely left for promoting tourism and, what was once a humble transport option turned out to be a means of luxury and relaxation.
Truly enough these houseboats have been highly influential in boosting the travel and tourism industry of Kerala. Thanks to Kettuvallam, God’s Own Country has become a hub of tourism and the most favorite destination for holiday and rejuvenation. Traveling in a houseboat will make you feel that time has come to a standstill. One would find it quite fascinating and exciting to take a trip down the lovely backwaters in the kettuvallam. While sailing down slowly, you can simply sit in the comforts of your bedroom or on the deck and enjoy the scenery passing by – watching the lush green banks, the blue waters below, occasionally waving children on the banks of the villages and taking a deep breath of fresh air.
Nowadays it has become mandatory to infuse eco-friendly elements within the mechanism of one’s lifestyle that includes the mode of transportation. Thereby making a houseboat in Kerala one of the most environmentally friendly, non-polluting and economical travel options. So relevant steps are being taken to promote and develop these kinds of boats. Owning to the high demands of tourists, these old fashioned kettuvallams are back in vogue with a modern twist. They have given a redefined meaning for leisure, tranquillity, and trip down the historical locales of Kerala.
Traditional construction techniques Kettuvallam / Houseboat
The body of the houseboat never featured any nail. The hull was made from elongated wooden planks and secured tightly with other parts through coconut fiber made coir ropes. Cashew nut shells were boiled and the resultant greasy resin, black in color, was used to coat the body. This additionally served to waterproof the wooden part and prevented premature rotting due to prolonged exposure to water. Bamboo poles were used for maneuvering the kettuvalam along the aquamarine backwater. The top portion of the houseboat was prepared by the weaving of natural products such as coir, bamboo, and panambu. The upper part was fashioned into vaulted shapes which allowed the creation of spacious interiors and elevated ceilings. The furnishings inside the boat were manufactured from products similar to the aforesaid to facilitate optimum comfort, luxury, and tranquil ambiance. Just like the present day, houseboats were used in the days of the yore to enjoy best backwaters trips in Kerala. True holistic backwater experience can only be availed of by staying overnight in a houseboat exuding traditional fervor and fragrant with the appetizing aroma of marine cuisine. The royalty of Cochin and Travancore used to sponsor the construction of robust houseboats in order to engage in profitable trading with the Arabian and African countries. The design of houseboats also appealed to other nations to which these boats were used for shipping of cargo and architects becoming inspired from traditional designs started copying its distinctive construction methods.