This shot was taken in the backwaters of Kerala, India, a highly complex network of inland waterways that connect the area’s remote villages. I hopped out of my canoe to watch and photograph this otherwise normal morning sight for the locals. The man with the umbrella is most probably giving directions to a farmer about where fertiliser needs to be applied (the farmer was throwing white grains, so I assume it was fertiliser). The nearby stick and the white paper bags are in the field to scare away crows and other birds. Since I was quite far from where the activity was taking place, I used a 400mm Canon lens.
I have always loved the simple life of the countryside in Kerala, so whenever I am in Kochi, I make it a point to take a day tour of the backwaters of Kerala. Better yet, I try to stay a night there. Staying overnight makes it easy to explore during the mornings and evenings. This is when to get real glimpses of the village communities – when they are either coming to life or settling down. These are also the best times to capture images due to the light.
When I stay overnight, my favourite lodgings are backwater homestays. Locals who open their homes offer the best way to explore the backwaters and to experience local life firsthand. I have stayed in Ayana’s Homestay and Green Palms Homes. Both sets of hosts work together with numbers of other local homes. Of course, the classic houseboats are a nice experience too. Some have just one room, while others have multiple rooms and some even come with a conference hall. Dedicated staff look after you as you float around during the day and stay parked at night.
The best way to tour the backwaters, though, is to hop from one village to another by canoe. Big house boats are more limited in where they can go, but canoes are quite versatile and pass pass through even smaller waterways.
Some of the villages and other places in the backwater developed naturally on land that was already there for people to inhabit. As time passed, however, the population increased and there was a need to create land. The resulting reclaimed land is in constant need of care. Fortunately, a fascinating dike system controls water flow into and out of the canals, the fields and also the villages and homes.
Regularly maintained, these dikes are everywhere in the backwaters, their locations marked by water pump houses and doorways to control the flow of the water. The staff to man these locations is employed by the government and their jobs are to constantly watch the water level. During monsoons, excess water is taken out of the land and pumped to the canals, but in dry season, the water is let in. What fascinates me is that Vembanad (the lake where the water in the canals mainly comes from) is connected to the sea! Due to sea, the lake’s water is half saline, but what helps the water remain sweet are the rivers that flow into the canals from the nearby hills that receives quite a bit of rain throughout the year.
The local backwaters population is mainly agrarian. Their fields, most of which lie lower than sea level, produce the best coconuts and rice. Like in East India, where plenty of rainfall helps the local farmers to irrigate their crops, rice is a big part of Kerala eating culture. The local variety of rice is popularly known as fat rice; as its name suggests, it is literally quite fat and slightly reddish in colour. Just like coconut is an important ingredient in south Indian cooking – Kerala means the “Land of the Coconuts” – so too is rice an indispensable part of the diet and used in almost every delicacy or cuisine you find in the south of India.