The enduring charm of Kainakary in Kuttanad

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If there's one pastoral nook in Kuttanad tourists would love to revisit, it is Kainakary, a little Holland in Kerala surrounded by river, lake, ponds, and other water bodies. What adds to the island village's charm is the blissful absence of vehicles and blaring horns.

A place where everybody knows everybody else, the boat jetty is the hub of Kainakary's activities, where news gets disseminated and critiqued. Here's where the itsy-bitsy details of village life get talked about. Who goes where, who gets what and above all, who buys what are big topics of discussion at the jetty. Apparently miffed with one Lalichan are a few villagers who cannot digest the fact that the said Lalichan had bought a boat. Even the boatman is disconcerted. What if Lalichan himself started a ferry service? That would be the boatman's loss.

When city dwellers dream of buying that fancy car or vrooming bike, then it's every villagers' dream in Kainakary to own a boat of their own, the main reason being the connectivity the boat can give them with the world outside the waters. A tour of Kainakary where the river Pamba drains out to the Lake Vembanad and where the water-spread of the lake and river merge is an experience for keeps.

Unending expanse of the lake

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Kuttanad has been deified and given cult status in many a Malayalam movie. Emotions like desire, longing, betrayal and hope have had heroes and heroines emoting life stories written to suit the mood of the place. There's romance at every turn of Kuttanad with its scenic beauty, large spread of water, small canals, lush green paddy fields, small boats, houseboats, rustic songs and toddy shops dotting the entire landscape, whipping up waves of nostalgia, of a happy childhood spent and a place where time is hardly revered.

Kainakary is a small island eight kilometres east of Kuttanad, surrounded by the Pampa. No hurry, no vehicles and no scramble for existence here. As there’s no bridge across the river to connect Kanakary to the mainland, the place is an harbour of peace.

Regaling visitors with his stories is Vakkachayan, who was led the United Boat Club, Kainakary, to a 14-time win at the Nehru Trophy Boat Race.

There are jetties at several points of the river. The boats ferry people across at just Rs 2 per ride. The last trip for the day winds up by 7.30 pm. "You city folks have the KSRTC. We have the KSWTD. That's what the Government got for us. We have only these boats to take us to destinations that lie far across the river. Today, Kainakary is the most favoured tourist destination. And that’s why you see so many houseboats, country craft and shikar boats always bobbing up and down the Vembanad," he says.

Paddy is extensively farmed here with the water being drained out and bunds built around to keep the excess water out. "There used to be big-time landlords here who really lorded it over their extensive farm lands. They would supervise everything, right from draining out the water with the old-time 'chakram,' the wheel where men would manually drain out the water and bring it in when needed. Right from planting seedlings to plucking weeds and harvesting the paddy, all activities were controlled by renowned farmers.

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As time went by, these land stretches came to be associated with the men who owned and controlled all farming activities. The man who was in charge here was one 'Kanakan.' So the land became known as "Kanakante kari. Kari means land or region. That’s how the region came to be called Kainakary," says Vakkachayan, happy to enlighten everyone around with the history of the place.

Kainakary comes up with its true mettle when the people as a whole put their heads, hearts and bodies together for the Nehru Trophy, when the oarsmen and the cheering villagers feel a surge of emotional oneness.

"It's our club that participated and won the maximum number of times," says Vakkachayan, with an evident rush of adrenalin.

The boat ride criss-crossing lake, canals and river becomes all the more fun when another interesting character joins in. Sajayan chettan is guide-cum-boat driver and can maneuver his shikar boat to the tune and rhythm of country songs and the gentle waves of the waters.

The first destination was to the village where the saint Kuriakose Elias Chavra was born, a ten-minute ride from Kainakary boat jetty to Chavara jetty. From then on, it was a walk along mud-filled, mud-smelly roads well into the interiors. There were paddy fields on either side, tilled and ploughed, being readied for the next crop. Chavara Achen, who founded the CMI order, has left his footprints on the island and his saintly presence is visible at every turn. There stands his old home, finished completely in wood. The 225-year-old dwelling is a fine example of Kerala's traditional 18th century architecture. Today, it's a chapel with little or no changes made to the original structure.

A cellar storage for paddy and an 'aripathayam' (huge storage for rice) are items of old-day wood work. The room where the saint was believed to be born has been converted into a chapel and is revered by tourists, native and foreign.

The tour over, there was tender coconut juice to keep the body cool. All done, the boat glided out from Chavara jetty.

Fresh, live fish

The boat sailed along pushing water lilies and weeds away. Kainakary is beloved to the film industry with many a movie shot here at its pristine locations. Renowned Tamil film-maker Cheran had his hit film Autograph shot here. 'Sound Thoma,' 'My Boss,' 'Amen,' and 'Pullipuliyum Aattinkuttiyum' were but a handful of Malayalam movies that had their location here.

On the otherwise placid waters was a country boat now swaying under the impact of the waves from a houseboat that passed by. There sat an old man at the helm. Upon Sajay chettan's "koo" call, the man brought his boat closer. Inside the boat was a fresh catch of pearl spot (karimeen). Take it for Rs 500 a kilo, he said. He wouldn't part for less. So onward it was, without fish.

To the lake from the canals

The route to the lake from the canals had to be well charted. Sajayan chettan then came up with a declaration: Onward to the lake only after a solid good meal. Once you are on the wide expanse of the lake, food can only be a mirage. So it was, into a thatched hotel serving boiled rice, duck curry, karimeen pollichathu, dry fish fried and powdered and prawn roasted. What a spread! This was the taste of Kuttanad, pure and unadulterated.

As one looks back at the village, one can see its outline… a small island cocooned amidst surrounding waters. You can circumvent all the canals to reach Kainakary. Sail beyond Kainakary and you will reach R-Block where the Pamba and the Vembanad, the river and the lake merge. There are dwellings by the side of the canals that flow into the Pampa.

Fishing is a way of life here. The waters sustain the people. Women cast their lines into the water for a good catch with which to spice up lunch, while the men plumb the depths to gather clam.

There's the whiff of nostalgia again… of a childhood when mangoes were plucked and had with tamarind and chilly, of coconut trees used as swings from which a water launch was initiated and of a land where the peace of silence reigned. Kainakary is a frame of real-time images.

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