The Backwaters of Alleppey, India


To label Kerala's Alappuzha (the Malayalam name for Alleppey) the ‘Venice of the East' might today appear a far-fetched cliche of travelogue writers, but this quaint little town is certainly the Venice of India. Nowhere else will you find, spread out across the center of town, a unique crisscrossing network of canals on which thatched country boats punt along leisurely. The proximity of lakes adds to the Venetian ambience.

But when Raja Kesavadasan, the Dewan of Travancore, founded the town in 1762, there was just one canal through the strip of sand between the backwaters and the sea. This soon grew into a bustling waterway, with shops, factories and commercial establishments springing up on either bank of the canal. This attracted merchants from other parts of the country.

By the mid-19th Century, the sea had receded a mile, offering more land along the sand strip. Trading vessels soon began to call on Alleppey. In 1859 the first organized coir factory was started here and began producing mattings from coir yarn on a loom developed by an English sea captain. Soon other British-owned weaving establishments followed. Meanwhile, in 1816, the Church Missionary Society set up its local headquarters in Alleppey and three years later the first Anglican Church was built. In 1851 Alleppey had the honor of housing the first post office in the erstwhile Travancore State.

The commercial importance of Alleppey began to decline after the late 1920s with the development of Cochin into a major port. However, today Alleppey is still a major centre for trade in coir, copra and coconut oil. Thanks to its long coast, Alleppey is also a centre for fishing and marine products processing activities.

For tourists Alleppey is the pivotal point for trips into Kerala's famed backwaters and the state's lush rice bowl, Kuttanadu, Between Quilon to the south and Kottayam to the east lie some of the most entrancing scenery of palm-lined banks, quiet water-bound villages and little boats taking the local people to and fro-everything framed in green.

Apart from the boat trips through the town's many canals and lakes, Alleppey offers glimpses of the coir manufacturing process-from the coconut husk tot the final rope/coir yarn stage. There are also several shops selling coir matting and carpets, often at prices cheaper than elsewhere.

The long sandy beach at Alleppey has a lighthouse and a pier jutting out into the sea, once active in the unloading of goods from ships calling at Alleppey. Children can romp in the Vijay Beach Park.

The not-to-be-missed spectacle in Alleppey is, of course, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race which began in 1952 on the occasion of the visit of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to Alleppey, It is now a major event held on the second Saturday of every August and features the gigantic snake-boats of Kerala, the chundans, once the battleships of the Malayalee kings of yore. Today the Boat Race has grown into Alleppey's single most important tourist event, with each boat being sponsored by a different village. Competition is severe as the boats, with over 100 rowers in each, race to the finish to the accompaniment of rousing music.