Kerala Houseboat Cruises
A journey on a Kerala houseboat has been feted by the BBC as one of the world's top ten journeys. Karma Kerala is one of the leading houseboat companies in Kerala offering everything from deluxe to standard boats. We have a wide range of cruises but if you want some advice, contact us and we will do everything we can do to help!
We have tramped over the decks of 100s of boats inspecting cabins, kitchens and meeting staff. We assign ratings for each boat depending on age, design, hygiene, crew and general "ambiance". We try to match boats so that each customer gets what they want at the right price.
Kerala Houseboat Categories
Our Favourite Houseboat Cruises for Kerala Backwater Tours
About the Kerala Backwaters
Kerala's Backwaters are a chain of brackish canals, lagoons and lakes running parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (historically known as the Malabar Coast) of Kerala in South West India. This network includes five large lakes linked by a series of canals, both man-made and natural, these in turn fed by some thirty eight rivers that drop down from the inland hills or Southern Ghats. The backwaters extend almost half the length of Kerala although many are not navigable per se by riceboats. Ecologically, the backwaters were formed by the action of ocean waves and shore currents that created a series of low barrier islands across the mouths of the rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats range which formed a complete coastline comprised of low lying dunes anchored by trees and scrub.
Kerala has over 900 km of interconnected waterways, rivers, lakes and inlets that make up the Kerala backwaters. In the midst of this beautiful landscape there are a number of towns and cities, which are the starting and end points of backwater cruises. National Waterway No. 3 from Kollam to Kottapuram, covers a distance of 205 km and runs almost parallel to the coast line of southern Kerala facilitating both cargo movement and backwater tourism.
The backwaters have a unique ecosystem - freshwater from the rivers meets the seawater from the Arabian Sea. In certain areas, such as the Vembanad Kayal, where a barrage has been built near Kumarakom, salt water from the sea is prevented from entering the deep inside, keeping the fresh water intact. Such fresh water is extensively used for irrigation purposes.
Many unique species of aquatic life including crabs, frogs and mudskippers, water birds such as terns, kingfishers, darters and cormorants, and animals such as otters and turtles live in and alongside the backwaters. Palm trees, pandanus shrubs, various leafy plants and bushes grow alongside the backwaters, providing a green hue to the surrounding landscape.
Vembanad Kayal is the largest of the lakes, covering an area of 200 km², and bordered by Alappuzha (Alleppey), Kottayam, and Ernakulam districts. The port of Kochi (Cochin) is located at the lake's outlet to the Arabian Sea. Alleppey, "Venice of the East", has a large network of canals that meander through the town. Vembanad is India’s longest lake.
Kerala Houseboats or Kettuvallams
The traditional Kerala houseboats are huge, slow-moving, exotic barges now used only for tourist cruises.
Keralan Rice Boats are simply a re-worked model of the Kettuvallams (in the Malayalam language, Kettu means "tied with ropes", and vallam means "boat"), which were used to carry the agricultural harvest such as rice and spices from the fertile rice growing paddy fields of the Kuttanad to the sea coast at Alleppey or Cochin. Kerala houseboats were considered the most convenient means of transportation in the absence of any meaningful roads. They have thatched roof covers over wooden hulls which protect the cargo from the sudden tropical rains of Kerala.
Boats in a variety of shapes and sizes have traditionally been the main means of transport of men and materials in the Kerala Backwaters since olden days. In particular, the house boats were used to ship rice and spices and other goods between Kuttanad and the Cochin port. It was a three-day affair in those days. A standard house boat, which could be about 100 feet long, can hold up to 30 tons, and that is as much as three big lorries can.
For the royalty these boats even became comfortable living quarters. It was the important mode of transportation in coastal Kerala just because of its accessibility to the most remote areas.
It took the vision and enterpreneurship of a couple of enterprising young men to refurbish one of these leviathans, hoisting on to it a wooden super-structure incorporating a huge bed room, a toilet, a kitchenette and an open balcony. The ancient houseboat with a modernized interior became a hot favourite with tourists.
As the houseboats glide over the Kerala backwaters at a leisurely pace, the sights are new, the sounds are new, and every sensation is new every passing moment. A cruise along the mirror-still lagoons, picture-book lakeside, palm-fringed canals and shimmering rivulets of `God's Own Country' is the most enchanting holidaying experience in the country. With a cruise along the palm-fringed waterways turning to be part and parcel of holidayers' itinerary, the traditional kettuvallam has emerged as the mascot of Kerala Tourism
A houseboat is about 60 to 70 feet (about 18 to 21 meters) long and about 15 feet (about 5 m) wide at the middle. The hull which is made of hundreds of fine but heavy-duty planks of jack-wood is held together absolutely by coir knots (not a single nail is used). This framework is then coated with a caustic black resin extracted from boiled cashew kernels. And it lasts for generations. The roof is made of bamboo poles and palm leaves. The exterior of the boat is painted with protective coats of cashew nut oil.
The kettuvallam is motorised and is steered in deep waters by means of oars or a rudder. Long bamboo poles or 'punts' are used to propel in shadow areas. The crew of a kettuvallam comprises two oarsmen and a cook or chef. Fresh food, cooked in inimitable Kuttanadan style is the rage of the international tourists.
Basically the kettuvallam was originally designed to transport cargo and as such many design changes had to be made to make it a tourist vehicle. The height of the roof was increased to get sufficient headroom. A plank was laid all through the length to reduce the disadvantages of the curved shape of the hull for walking and comfortable seating. Windows and other openings were provided for light, airflow and view. The entrance is provided in the centre of the linear axis with a top hung panel.
More than 500 kettuvallams cruise the Kerala backwaters now, of which 100 are superior and maybe 10 to 15 are actually deluxe. Alappuzha is the main embarkation point for house boats with another significant jetty at Kumarakom. The house boats have most of the creature comforts of a standard hotel: well-furnished bedrooms, modern hygienic toilets, a well appointed living room, a beautiful kitchen and in some cases even a balcony for angling.
The Houseboats of Kerala are converted Kettuvalloms. (In the Malayalam language "kettu" means tying and "vallam" means country boat - the two together make the local name "kettuvallam". Each houseboat is constructed using the ancient principles and techniques of boat building by the local carpenters using Anjali wood. Coir ropes are used for tying the wooden boards together.) In the past Kettuvaloms were the major method of cargo transportation in the backwaters of Kerala, especially rice from the highly fertile paddy fields to the major port of Alappuzha.
The Kettuvalloms were also used for general transport purposes, primarily in the Travancore and Kochi regions of Kerala. They were punted across the backwaters to the sea where the goods were offloaded. A trip from the Kuttanad to Cochin port was about three days of travel. A traditional boat might carry as much as 30 tons of goods which is the equivalent of three modern lorries. With the backwater area of Kerala so waterlogged, other forms of transport were both inefficient and difficult
How Kerala Houseboats are Built
The hull is a series of wooden planks, long cut and carved, tied together using coir with coconut fibers stuffed in between. The hull which is made of hundreds of fine but heavy-duty planks of jack-wood is held together absolutely by coir knots (not a single nail is used). This framework is then coated with a caustic black resin extracted from boiled cashew kernels. And it lasts for generations. The kettuvallam is motorised and is steered in deep waters by means of oars. Long bamboo poles or 'punts' are used to propel in shallow areas. Bamboo beams sprouting off on the sides are used as foot holds for the same. Bamboo is used for the framework of the roof and splits of bamboo are used for weaving mat for roofing.