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A Brief History of the Houseboat

August 19, 2011

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of having lunch aboard one of the houseboats in the Raxa Collective fleet of comfortable crafts: buoyant examples of luxury as defined in a recent post. That is to say that these are unique vessels upon which one’s thirst for experience can be quenched and one’s hunger for life can be satiated… as can one’s hunger for a delicious meal. And it was this most basic and natural hunger that brought about the building of the boats in the first place. Originally used for the transport of rice and spices, the houseboats are currently used as a means of authentically enjoying the backwaters of Kerala, a labyrinth of about 40 rivers that intertwine to form a natural space unlike any other.

The local name for the houseboat is kettuvalam (kettu meaning “tie” in Malayalam and valam meaning “boat”). This name is derived from the pre-industrial method of building the boats, which made use of coconut fiber rope, called “coir,” to tie together the planks in a way that creates an almost seamless exterior. The fused planks and rope would then be fortified with fish oil for durability and water resistance. The frame was traditionally built of Jack wood and the roof of bamboo.

At an average length of about 100 feet long, Kettuvalams have a very high carrying capacity (about 30 tons for a boat 100 feet in length) because they were used for cargo, facilitating the agriculture industry in Kerala dedicated mostly to rice. The rice farming industry is one of the major ways of life in the area, among others like fishing, duck farming, spice cultivation and making coconut products. With the exception of very few rudimentary roads, the only way to navigate the area around the backwaters up until the early 1990′s was to use the backwaters themselves.

Crews of five to six people would man the boats, transporting heavy shipments of rice and spices from Kottayam across Vembanad Lake to Alleppey, or even farther to Cochin. A one-way trip would take a full day, plus a day for the loading or unloading of the cargo, making each journey at least a three-day jaunt. Thus, as the workers were boat-bound for these three days, the kettuvalams were equipped with kerosene stoves upon which mud pots would be used for their meals of rice and fish and tapioca.

The early 1990′s welcomed two major trends to Kerala: the rise of a more educated generation; and the beginnings of a flourishing tourism industry. Along with these things came the development of roads and infrastructure, rendering the kettuvalams essentially useless as they were replaced with trucks that could do the same job in a fraction of the time. But these noble vessels were not forgotten. The tourism industry gave the new generation inspiration for a new use for the kettuvalams, which were converted into houseboats upon which travelers could experience the area from the inside out.

Now what used to be a kerosene stove is a fully-equipped kitchen, and what used to be cargo space is a one- to three-bedroom floating suite aboard a Goldstar certified craft. Now modern comforts combine with ancient traditions and the magic of these backwaters is shared comfortably with travelers who want to experience Kerala in a uniquely authentic way. One would hardly guess that it was tourism itself that revived an otherwise extinguishing element of the local culture and way of life, but then again, we at Raxa Collective are used to things being done in unorthodox ways.

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