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Beckoning backwaters and banana fritters Beckoning backwaters and banana fritters
by Dr Elsa Lycias Joel
2019-04-20 09:10:27
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I had no compelling reasons to decide on Alleppey as my weekend getaway. This trip with my bosom buddy Navina came about by accident; it was certainly not my intention to travel to a place ravaged by floods. Life doesn’t go always as planned and so are vacations.

As Alleppey Express started rolling, so many things I heard and read about Alleppey and its beauty kept my mind occupied.  Sooner, three women comprising of a mother and her two twin daughters occupied the seat opposite to us. Their conversation flowed effortlessly, exactly how they wanted it to be. Within an hour they had enlightened me on who had problems with whose mother-in-law and stratagems to outwit everybody classified under the kingdom “in-laws”.  Another interesting point is that the seemingly enterprising mother would’ve spent her entire day preparing the full-course dinner she had packed meticulously. Tired of seeing and listening, I didn’t wait to see when they gulped down that bottle of buttermilk which was inside their family meal bag. A whiff of Zandu Balm followed by nail polish remover filled the compartment as I lay down. No doubt, they had braced themselves for a supposedly long journey. Next morning, I woke up to “Chaaaiiiiiii”. I saw no one but Navina looking out the window with a smile playing on her lips. Sensing my questioning look Navina informed that those three women deboarded at Thrissur with the same brouhaha they boarded.

elsa02_400Seeing involves more than the eyes is what I realized when caretaker Nibu opened the doors to Bowgain Villa, Heritage home of the Johnson family where we planned my three night stay at Alleppy. My first feeling was one of ecstasy as warm smiles welcomed me to light the hanging brass oil lamps signifying goodwill. Ushering us into the ocean room Nibu got into detailing. Minus the ocean view, this room was replete with a king size bed, ocean themed bed sheets, curtains, towels, doormats and a breath taking handmade lighthouse. Even the powder room didn’t look like an afterthought. Sipping the welcome drink made out of tender coconut water and honey I knew I was going to have one hell of a great time.  After an authentic Kerala lunch, Nibu drove us to Matha boat jetty which was pretty much close to the Alleppey Bus Stand and it was time for a Shikara cruise through the backwaters. The full glory of village life was vivid as Shaji Chetan, the boat operator took us through narrow maze of canals while explaining every detail behind owning Jeevan Jain his shikara boat, weather, stories behind mushrooming resorts and how Alleppey bounced back to normalcy after the recent floods. Being in the business Shaji seemed to know almost every house along the backwaters and what kind of a boat they owned. Every house owned a raft as the only mode of commutation. So lively was our conversation as there were none but only four of us in his 8 seated shikara. Disappointment over the fall in the number of tourists was largely written on his face. Honestly, I don’t remember the number of times Shaji, a man driven with a bigger picture, a mission, requested me to spread word on how Alleppey has recovered in all its splendour to welcome tourists. With pride, Shaji and Nibu told us about the 50,000 volunteers who descended in Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala to help the affected. My General knowledge was a bit brushed up by the cordial boat man when he told me Kuttanad is perhaps the only place in the world where farming is done up to 2 meters below sea level since the area is serviced by 4 major rivers: Pampa, Meenachil, Achankovil and Manimala. Trying to capture a few darter birds also called as snake birds by locals drying their wet feathers was a task. The boat man’s concern shifted towards the dwindling number of parrots that fed on the rice stalks. Destroyed paddy fields reflected the plight and woe of farmers but the way the village people carried and moved on told a different story of resilience.  Throughout the tour, my eyes scanned the waters for a carry bag or empty bottle or some junk in vain.  Having lived for a couple of years in Chennai, I couldn’t help but remain surprised at the clean backwaters and the diligence of the people who inhabit the villages of Alleppey, Ambalapuzha and Kuttand.  After an hour, I was determined to stop over at Kuppapuram to give Shaji a break, especially from talking. Red tender coconut quenched our thirst. Two trained Hawks fascinated me more for their refusal to perch only on my hands. They made a bird whisperer out of me for the sake of a photo after pecking me enough number of times. Back in Jeevan Jain we were told the Nehru Trophy Boat Race that was usually held every year on the second Saturday of August has been postponed for that weekend due to the ravaging floods.  Shaji would have made a better tourist guide than a boatman for he knew at least two sentences not only on every massage centre and toddy shops that lined the evergreen banks of the backwaters but also about Holland and Venice. How many boatmen would’ve heard the name Curzon who called Alleppey the “Venice of the East” and care to know about Holland just because Kuttanad is known as the ‘Holland of the East’? As our boat steered through Punnamada Lake I went into sulk mode thinking how unlucky we were to leave the previous day before the “Vallam Kalli” (Boat race) when I heard “Vanchipaatu “(Boat song).  As I live and breathe! I saw a Chundan Vallam (Snake boat) with “Payippadan Chundan” written on it. Is “What we do see depends mainly on what we look for” true? When I got on my toes to clap and encourage their practice session, few rowers gave away an acknowledging smile that prompted me to pray for their victory in the forthcoming race. Then, I requested Shaji to update me on the race results. Few water hyacinths seemed to race with them. Scattered boathouses on the vast expanse of waters offered the most wanted view of a best backwater village tour.

elsa06_400Occasionally a woman or a man rowed past a kothumbu vallam (tiny country raft) sharing a smile, a wave or a kind word. They were probably going to the nearby provision stores at the other end of the canal or to a neighbour’s house. I was left to imagine.  It was almost evening as Punnamada Lake led us to Vembanad and the sound of the slicing waters was replaced by the chitter chatter of school children. Far away, I saw children in all age groups walk the narrow banks effortlessly. My motherly instinct didn’t stop me from asking, “what if they slip and fall into the waters” and Nibu jokingly replied,” born by the waters, swimming is a birth right”.  Before I could settle down with the thought that it’s but natural for natives to boast of their innate survival skills, I saw a small boy with a school bag rowing across. The manner in which that boy rowed effortlessly and tied his canoe to a tree substantiated what Nibu told me minutes earlier. From that kid’s shy smile that revealed his not- fully- erupted central incisors, I knew he should be hardly 7 years old. A floating dispensary, said to be an innovative step of the National Rural Health Mission Kerala allayed my other concerns. Taking leave of the Shikara and Shaji wasn’t easy. His brotherly love that added energy and excitement to our 3 hour tour, invitation to his home, catering to our small needs, polite replies, stopping and starting as per our whims and fancies and how he went an extra mile to give us better views and photographs made him a marvellous person.

A short drive to the Alleppey Beach relaxed my senses because there is no better feeling in Kerala than having piping hot ‘Pazhamporis’ (Banana Fritters) and tea by a clean beach. Wrecked remains of the 137 years old Alleppey Sea Bridge stirred my imagination. I continued visualizing an incredibly busy port with noise, ships, goods and people till I ate up what I had in my plate. Small Deepams (lamps) welcomed us into Bowgain Villa for a lamp lit dinner. Dining table was well spread with Idiappam, Fried Crabs, egg curry and roasted beef. Joined by a friend, Maria Dolly, who regaled us with stories of many a kind, dinner tasted more spicy and juicy than it was meant to be.
Exploring this 5 generation ancestral house was another tour in itself. Framed family photos hung on walls told stories of people who lived good lives and did good thinking. The tempo of excitement increased as I explored every room with Navina who spent few years in this house as a small girl. The manner in which she explained every photo, her favourite doll, family tree painted on the wall with photos hung on branches, huge glass and bronze jars her grandfather used to prepare medicines,  wall hangings, and furniture gave me too an intense sense of home, especially the wooden staircase which is so typical of any house of the past. I experienced a déjà vu as I walked across the corridor which led into the century old kitchen, the main hub of Bowgain Villa. In the kitchen Nibu turned a cook who has it all to hit it big, behind the wheels he turned an expert driver, in tourist places he turned a tour guide and with a camera he was as patient and enthusiastic as a professional photographer. Whenever we wanted to explore unknown territories Nibu turned a bodyguard in his own right safeguarding us and our DSLR. One man show at Bowgain Villa was perfect in every way.

Visiting St. Antony’s Miraculous Shrine after dinner wasn’t in my itinerary. Dolly’s stories of ‘lost and found’ stuff motivated us to take a 5 minute walk to the shrine. After lighting one candle for all women of my maternal lineage who are known for misplacing or losing stuff, I felt the urge to sneak a peek into the Mount Carmel Cathedral that stood majestic just across the road. An octagon shaped baptismal font inside is an attraction apart from a grotto outside. Horror, scary and creepy are the words that always come to my mind when I hear the word ‘cemetery’ because most of them look that way with overgrown shrubs that hide epitaphs, peeling paints, a weathered cross atop tombs and the distant call of some bird.  Still I said yes to Dolly’s enthusiastic request, also as a gratitude to all her wonderful testimonies. To my surprise I saw a well-lit, clean place with plaques on either side of the compound walls that described great events in the Bible. Veneration for the saints as well as ‘The Blessed’ were visibly written on every visitor’s face for they have learnt of the miracles every cathedral is known after.

Under the warm blanket the entire day replayed in my head. The streets I had never walked, people I had never met, smells of food and drinks my nose isn’t supposed to recognize, this terra incognita- everything and everybody seemed familiar and comforting. Did my photo on the painted family tree cast that magic spell on me! I drifted off to sleep with a head full of plans for the next day.

On the second day, we woke up to the consistent ringing of a church bell to see the sun shining bright and hot. It was late enough to skip the ‘Puttu and Kadala curry’ (steamed rice flour and chickpea curry) that we badly wanted to have at Avees Puttu House, Alleppey. Home grown plantains were aplenty. So, we grabbed a dozen of them and set out. En route to Basilica of St. Mary, Champakulam, we encountered a traffic jam reason being a horde of people stopping by, dropped at or picked up. And Bingo! We saw a board welcoming us to Kreupasanam Marian Retreat Centre. Curiosity got the better of us and we made our way to the shrine which overflowed with people belonging to different faiths. A chat with a few pilgrims and devotees enlightened me about the purpose and role of this centre also a National Heritage Study Centre. Miracles seen and experienced seemed to spread the good news far and wide. Once again, I lighted one candle for the happiness and peace of everybody present at the centre. To me, lighting a candle at pilgrim centres is a task as I can’t simply walk away seeing other candles flicker and die. Thus, I end up lighting many more candles with the only prayer, ‘Let them all shine’.

Seated inside a speeding car, my eyes could only catch a glimpse of the soothing place dotted with shrines, temples and churches, big and small. Out of the blue, my eyes caught a road side pottery shop, colourful and welcoming. We pulled over for a quick look of everything. But I couldn’t take my eyes and hands off the clay wind chimes for the entire five minutes or so telling myself that I must come with a bigger bag next time.

One of the oldest churches in India, St. Mary’s Forane Church has everything in it that fosters any visitor’s prayerful life by evoking feelings of transcendence and devotion. Places of worship were clean, irrespective of the number of visitors. Yes, we all learnt and heard it right, ‘Cleanliness is Godliness’. The inscriptions on the Champakulam open air Rock Cross is a clear documentation of its antiquity up to AD 1151. Our hungry stomach growled for a grand buffet. In no time did we reach Marari Beach Resort. My appetite satiated. All waiters sported a goatee with a moustache except Hari who chose to do it a bit differently without a stache. On request, they politely posed for a photo fighting back their pearly smiles. Men in beard have to look tough in a photograph! Post lunch the butterfly garden enticed me, the organic vegetable garden beckoned me, the wooden compost bin and the small dairy farm surprised me, the roots of a tree whose name I’m yet to find out spread on the compound walls invited me to climb and peek over and I knew why Marari Beach Resort has been the choice of who’s who from around the world.

 St. Andrew’s Basilica of Arthunkal was our next stop. Being the largest shrine of St. Sebastian in the world, it was a must-see. Commonly depicted in art and literature as tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows, this Saint is known to have recovered and suffered a second martyrdom – hence, he is sometimes called the saint who was martyred twice. This Basilica has a statue of St. Sebastian with arrows all over his bleeding body, sculpted in Milan. History has it that the local Hindus helped Jesuits construct the church in 1560. After centuries, till today, during the month of January, Hindu pilgrims on their return journey from Sabarimala are known to visit this place to pay homage to the saint. Who would retell the forgotten tale of friendship between Father Fenicio and Lord Ayyappa! In that serene place nobody can help but enjoy the bliss of oneness with God. Near the altar of the Old church situated right behind the Arthunkal Basilica is the tomb of Father Fenicio, an Italian by birth, fondly addressed as ‘Veluthachan’ (Fair skinned father) where people make wishes, light candles and pray. Almost all shrines in and around Alleppey were clean and beautiful interiors with teak padded wall panels. Tea time reminded me of banana fritters. Awaiting our orders in hotel Aryaas, my eyes spotted the Flora Garden plant nursery right across the road. The two friendly nursery staff welcomed us assuming us to be customers. Real conversations aren’t difficult with friendly people. Within few minutes I got to know how nurseries coped up and still coping up with the gut-wrenching experience of the recent floods. It’s crushingly hard for not just homes but every small business to find the wherewithal to rebuild after losing so much. Through the conversation, smiles and laughter they accepted me as another concerned friend wanting to know more about their welfare. The bottom line is I saw people who were not stuck in stasis.

We stopped by an imposing temple in the heart of Alleppey. The 500 years old Mullakkal Rajarajeswari Temple built by King Devanarayana dedicated to Sree Rajarajeswari, stands as a reminder of the architectural brilliance of craftsman of those days. We were not disappointed about our inability to taste the urad dal vada Prasad or take a look at the sanctum, open roof shrine and Mullakkal Devi because we were already briefed on the puja timings. Neither an architecture enthusiast nor an ardent devotee, the only one I missed so much was Balakrishnan, the temple elephant. When an elephant touches my head with its trunk, I hear the snuffle, stroke its trunk, love the contact and feel trusted and blessed too. Handful of natives was surprised as to why we were there in the middle of nothing. Going by their stories I understood that not being part of the Navrathri or Mullakkal Chirappu Festival is nothing short of missing out on the temple in all its splendour, thousands of lit lamps, ample photographic moments, nine caparisoned elephants, best cultural programs, firework displays and grand feast. A gentle breeze wafting the scent of jasmine flowers got me thinking about the how the temple got its name. For your information, ‘mulla’ in Malayalam means Jasmine.

While at a place with beaches aplenty, nothing beats the pleasure of watching a sunset in one. Show me a beach and I turn a freak! Stroll became a jog, an occasional hop in my step gave way to bounces, a titanic pose at a boat bow and hanging on to an improvised pull-up bar pumped me up further. As we passed by a group of yoga enthusiasts, we heard a “Do you want to join us!”. Half an hour yoga with Christophe Van Campenhout as our instructor on the beach was fun filled. Patrick Platton made us feel so comfortable and belonged by translating every Dutch word of Christophe. It ended with a special applause for us the only two flexible Indians. I guess we received a full charge of admiration from the whole team for a perfect setu bandha sarvangasana. Meeting Christophe Van Campenhout, owner of Act-wise a Belgium travel company was unexpected.  He exactly knows how to give his clients a memorable vacation all around the world. He makes them sing, dance, dress up in their favourite comic, cartoon or jungle book characters and provides them opportunities to explore unlimitedly. Apart from his regular plans, Christophe gives his team enough surprises like Yoga in Cochin, Disco and beach games in Alleppey and lot more. We weren’t sure if we were making new friends until Christophe invited us to join the Act-wise Party at the Club House of Marari Beach Resort that night. The DJ in Christophe made everyone feel like they have got to hit the dance floor. The party ended with nice words, good byes and Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’. Late into the night, tucking myself under the ocean blue quilt, I could still hear the ocean, smell banana fritters, see the magnificent facades of shrines, feel the silence of the Basilicas and realize that good friendships can happen over a few kind words and gestures.

At the start of another new day, Nibu quickly updated us on the food he would pack for our night journey. Then did I realize we were leaving on that evening. For a moment aapams, coconut milk and honey made me forget that I was in great haste. After breakfast, in a jiffy did we set out to make the most of that forenoon. Alleppey Light House, still a manned station was our first destination. Hugh Crawford, the European engineer behind this vintage and beautiful structure definitely had something in his mind. Queen of chess! May be Alleppey looked like the queen of the Arabian Sea. The spiral staircase took us to a breath taking view of the entire place. Climbing down the 100 odd stairs, I could imagine Alleppey as the commercial capital of Travancore, the hustle and bustle too. No wonder Curzon called Alleppey the “Venice of the East”. 

Known to be primordial shrine, the Kidangamparambu Sree Bhuvaneshwari Temple in Alleppey is known for its majestic Rajagopuram (Entrance Tower). Depiction of Krishna Charitram on walls in the form of statues refreshed my memory of Kuchipudi which I learnt as a school girl. Popular among the tourists as much as the locals, the deity also called as Bhaktadaasi (maid of devotees) is believed to relieve devotees of their troubles. If I were to believe the locals then Alleppey is a place where religions coexist beautifully. Be it the ‘Manava Mythri Sangamam’ (convention for friendship in society) or Onam, people come together. The Muslim call to prayer fell on my ears as I walked out barefoot through the entrance tower and minutes later I found myself in Alleppey Juma Masjid. I found no one around for a chat. So I clicked a photo of the place and moved on.

I never thought this laid-back place would house an amazing museum until I heard the name Revi Karunakaran Memorial Museum. The grand building fronted by Greco- Roman columns seemed so welcoming with the manager Jagadish CT briefing us on the do’s and don’ts, the reason why photography isn’t allowed inside, collection of crystal, porcelain, ivory, furniture, antiques and artworks from around the world. Background of the museum was an eclectic mix of stories about the objects, three generation families and their passions. The best part is that we were trusted with a DSLR inside the museum and hence we lived up to his trust. A 1946 model steel grey ‘Buick Super’ exhibited the family’s affluence and I knew what more to expect. Inside we made slow progress not only because the museum had stuff of considerable interest and curiosity but because our guide, Akbar explained every painting, tapestry, ivory piece and lot more that treasure trove had assembled over the course of decades by three generations of collectors. When we climbed up or down a staircase, Akbar stopped every few steps to explain the historical background of one thing or the other with his never ending enthusiasm. A 200 square feet mural created by 4160 man hours using only vegetable dye gave me a behind-the-scenes look at the individuals who worked at the meaningful, transformative experiences they have had with art. “Kerala room” took me back in time as I spotted pieces that my parents and grandparents have been using. Now and then, our guide allowed us to look for some time at something before he spoke. With an amazing collection of Swarovski crystals, this museum can easily pass off as Swarovski Crystal World, India. To any visitor, everything the museum housed is beyond price and fortunately to the family also. The fact that the great mind behind this museum Betty Karunakaran’s love for beautiful things began ever since she was 13 years old demonstrated to me how important, enriching, and valuable it is to be exposed to ‘things of beauty’ at an early age. Her love for beautiful masterpieces grew after her marriage with Revi Karunakaran, the doyen of Kerala’s first coir export businesses. However, my mind could take home clear images of just three things; the lovers’ chair, the penny table and Belgian mirrors- love, wealth & beauty. Once the museum tour came to an end I felt as though I had too much to handle. Widely acclaimed creations of celebrated Israeli sculptor Sam Philipe decorated the museum courtyard. Unable to contain my penchant for posing, I attempted a perfect one beside a relatively small sculpture in the courtyard that might skip the attention of any visitor.

We headed to the International Coir Museum. The word ‘coir’ being synonymous with Revi as much as with Alleppey, thoughts of the Revi Karunakaran Museum still lingered on Karunakaran. Soon after I saw Lord Ganapathi figurine with his vehicle, there was so much more to see to enable a different type of experience. Coir figurines, coir artworks, miniaturized versions of the Seven Wonders of the World and coir installations perfectly reflected the art, culture and social life of Kerala and Keralites. But for this visit I wouldn’t have known that coir, which once upon a time was a daily utility to dangle a pail into the well, as a door mat or as a clothesline can be made into beautiful artefacts that would last a lifetime. More than everything, photography for a nominal fee was an added motivation for us to spend a little more time than we actually planned. A mug of cheer! Interns at the coir museum were always ready to explain anything to visitors making them more equipped to handle many a kind of visitor who would want to know what James Darragh was doing before he chose Alleppey to set up his first coir factory in 1859 or if he was the sole reason behind people becoming afflicted with elephantiasis. Meanwhile, I sat beside a seated figurine. She seemed as though she was contemplating alongside me on how a man with big ideas born in Lurgan, Ireland, emigrated to America as a boy, learnt the manufacture of coir mats and matting, sailed to Alleppey, set up a factory, employed thousands of natives, spoke their language, earned the “King of the Coast” title, handled the loss of his two children, decided to go back to New York in 1889, fell ill en route at Cairo, died and buried. Veni, Vidi, Vici suited James Darragh too, I thought. Soon it was noon. We had to literally rush through the souvenir shop to not miss the Kerala Thaali on banana leaf that awaited us back home. So! What! I had saved a beautifully framed picture of mine. In an unaccustomed slow pace did I relish the Ada Pradhaman (Kerala Kheer) and I enjoyed my taste buds falling in love with the dessert over and again.

My 3 days in Alleppey absorbed me completely also because Bowgain Villa fitted my moods in addition to tantalizing my taste buds with authentic Kerala recipes. Nibu packed our carry away dinner and we our memories. It wasn’t late to click a photo with Nibu, also my courteous caretaker turned untiring photographer.  One last time I wished to light a lamp, swing the tongue of the bell at the door and do a dab. 

The chugging of Chennai Express felt as though I was being taken away from the soothing ocean breeze, painted well, swaying hammock, colourful blossoms in hanging pots and lush green backyard of Bowgain Villa. Settled on my berth, all things bright and beautiful flashed in my mind’s eye lulling me to a good night’s sleep. 

Did I hear someone say, “There’s always a next time!”

A day after I reached Chennai, Shaji called me to say that “Payippadan Chundan” won the race. After all, earnest prayers are always answered. Even then, I knew mine was an earnest prayer in true faith, from the heart.


     
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