Kuttanad in Kerala has now earned recognition as a major travel destination, attracting visitors from around the world. However, before World War II, the topography of the area was full of backwaters and shallow lagoons. The person who transformed this place into a thriving agricultural land was Joseph Murickan.
Murickan was born at Kavalam. During the World War II, poverty and hunger gripped the people of Kuttanad. "Maharaja of Travancore Chithira Thirunal wanted to save the people from their plight. He suggested that farming should be launched in a wider area of Kuttanad. Murickan was inspired by the Maharaja's call and decided to follow it up with action. He mobilised workers and set out to reclaim the backwaters in order to make it suitable for paddy cultivation," tells Thommichan, a senior citizen of Kuttanad who is also a veteran farmer.
"The present generation has no idea about the struggles Murickan and his compatriots faced. They fixed trunks of the coconut tree in the muddy floor of the backwaters over which bamboo was laid. This served as a bund which was strengthened by growing shrubs," continues Thommichan, who is fondly referred to as Thommichayan by the people of Kuttanad.
A wooden water wheel was used to drain the backwaters. It was operated manually by the labourers. "All the strenuous efforts finally paid off and the first paddy yield from the Kuttanad fields was obtained in the year 1940," said Thommichan.
Murickan and other farmers built several more bunds and named the paddy fields that came up on land reclaimed from the backwaters after members of the royal family of Travancore. While Chithira 'kaayal' extended to 716 acres, Marthandam was 674 acres and Rani 568 acres. There were two crops in these paddy fields. While the first crop in which paddy was sown during May and harvest took place in September was known as 'virippoo,' the second crop in which seeds were sown in November and the harvest was carried out in November was termed 'puncha.'
There are several interesting landmarks in Kuttanad about which tourists have little or no idea about. One such place is the Chithira Church built by Murickan. It is the first religious place to come up in the Kainakary area of Kuttanad and has witnessed several reconstructions. However, regular prayers are not held in the church these days. Surprisingly, no display boards have been set up in the area highlighting the significance of the church.
This area is also noted for a houses in which only elderly people live. Gopi and Sannamma are among them. The couple, both of whom are aged above 60, reside in a house on a bund and have no neighbours in a radius of 2 km. However, they are not much concerned over their situation. "We travel to Kainakary once every two weeks to buy provisions," said Sannamma.
The children of such elderly couples are settled in Alappuzha town or other places. During the floods, rescue workers had reached the house of Gopi and Sannamma last. "Till the time they arrived, we stayed on top of a coconut tree where we had climbed when the flood waters submerged our house," added Sannamma. In fact, there are several such aged people in this area.
Mooledathu Augustine of Kuttamangalam, a farmer, reveals more interesting aspects of Kuttanad. "In the past, the Vembanad Lake, the Pamba and paddy fields were under the control of the Chembakassery king. Those days, the paddy fields were referred to as 'karis.' There are 18 karis in Kuttanad and farming activities in each of them was supervised by the head of the Pulaya community. Subsequently, the karis came to be known after the name of the head man. So, the kari of Kanakan became Kainakary and that of Chennan became Chennamkary," explained Augustine.
The most populated place in Kainakary is Kuppappuram, where a post office, Orthodox Church, school and the boat jetty are located. The birthplace of Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara is also nearby. Now the Kuttamangalam Church exists in the area and it has been built by preserving the house where the Saint was born.
There are more paddy fields in the region which had witnessed vigorous paddy cultivation in the past. "Wooden sawdust was burnt in boilers and its steam was used to work a motor which pumped out the water in the backwaters. However, people from other lands can never realize the importance of such activities," said Thommichayan.
Variety of boats
Every family in Kuttanad owns a boat. There are tiny canoes, medium-sized boats, big boats, shikara boats, rice boat, houseboat and jankar, among others. A relatively affluent family would use a boat with an engine.
"There was widespread poverty in the past. The condition of the people improved only when the youths went to Alappuzha town in search of work. As a result, all the thatched houses turned into concrete buildings. However, floods are still a cause for concern during rains," said Iype, who earns a living harvesting mussels.
Till a year ago, Iype dived deep into the waters to pick up the mussels. But now he uses an implement named 'palli' for the purpose which is the latest modern fishing equipment to arrive in Kuttanad. It comprises a net around a wooden stick and helps people like Iype to harvest clams without diving.
Except for the houseboats which take tourists around, time has brought about no change in Kuttanad. Elderly people gossip sitting on culverts while housewives exchange news by the banks of the lake. The kids still play with the mud. Such scenes thrill foreign tourists like Sue from London. "When Kuttanad is provided facilities like tube trains and rope car, it will become a top destination like Thames," felt Sue.
The English tourist was also bowled over by the cuisine of Kuttanad. "We served them tapioca, fish curry and mussel," said Biju, the restaurant owner. There are eateries like that of Biju in every corner of Kuttanad.
After persistent demands were raised, an anchoring area was built for the houseboats at the Meenampalli Lake. An place on the lake was also arranged for seaplanes to land. However, the houseboats still remain at their old spot near the highway as it is better for their business. A bridge has been built for the residents of Kainakary, but the approach roads are yet to come up. As a result, there is no change in the secluded status of Kainakary. "Kuttanad will always remain the same," declares Thommichayan philosophically.