It has been about 25 years since the houseboats have hosted guests from across the world. This icon of backwater tourism in Kerala has always fascinated trippers from across the world. “How could these bulky boats float on water so safely, without ever toppling?” is perhaps one of the questions that pop into your mind. But, if you pose this question to a master boat maker in Alleppey, he would cast aside these doubts with an enigmatic smile – a smile that radiates a beam of confidence in his craftsmanship.
The strength of the houseboats relies on its expert manufacturing. This brilliance in the making is what lures hundreds of tourists from around the world to the backwaters of Alleppey. There are houseboats differing in size and facilities, ranging from one room to ten rooms. The faultless calculations of the boat making carpenters ensure perfect houseboats that never falter.
Ask a carpenter about the process of making the houseboat, and he would reply in his typical slang and terminology: “If you build the boat leaving equal distance from the ‘Erav’, the boat is never going to topple!” the carpenter ensures as we stare at him bewildered by the term ‘Erav.’ Sensing our embarrassment, he would clarify: “Erav is the long wooden plank that serves as the foundation of the whole manufacturing process.” The chief carpenter directs his assistants throughout the process. Usually, there would be six or seven of them.
The first and the most vital part of houseboat manufacturing is to find out a perfect Wild Jack tree (Anjili), says Albin Valiyaparambu, a native of Maruvakkad in Kochi. Pieces of wood will be chopped out from the tree trunk as per the requirement. The manufacturing process starts with a ‘pooja’ (a customary prayer ritual) as with the construction of homes. ‘Erav’, the foundation of the boat, is pierced thrice with a sharp chisel; allowing the flakes to fall on the ground. The chief carpenter detects any obstacles in the manufacturing by studying the position in which the flakes have fallen. According to the belief, they perform certain rituals in order to get rid of all the obstacles before commencing the carpentry work.
The preliminary part consists of deciding the number of rooms, and estimating the dimensions of the houseboat. Erecting the ‘Erav’ is the first step. In the words of the carpenters, Erav is the backbone of the boat. Then ‘Thada’ (the piece of wood that curls in from the Erav) is glued on the Erav.
In the middle of the boat, ‘Embram’ (the wood that envelopes the Erav) is fixed with ‘mattam’ attached to it. In the fourth stage, wooden planks are joint with the ‘mattam’, on which ribs are fixed. Later, the wooden planks are fastened together with ‘thara’ (copper nails). The foundation and the cover board are set in the middle of the boat.
The next stage consists of perfecting the boat’s exteriors. The leakage is checked by pouring in diesel (200 litres for three roomed houseboat). Tar is applied on the outer surface of the boat, followed by tar sheet coating. Aluminium sheet is glued over this layer upto the water level. The completion comes with the fixing of the curly wooden tips. In the last ten years’ period, Albin has constructed 20 houseboats in Kumarakom.
Old boats are given a face-lift and redesigned into houseboats. The construction of a new boat with three rooms costs about Rs. 18 lakhs. Another Rs 20 lakhs are needed for setting the roof and other add-on luxuries.
At this point in Kumarakom, houseboats varying from one room to five rooms are available for rent. One night in a single room houseboat (two persons) is charged Rs. 7500. For two rooms (four persons), it is Rs. 9,000; while for three rooms (six persons), charges vary from 12,500 to 13,500 for a night stay. Boats with four rooms (eight persons) cost 16,000 - 18,000; and for five rooms (10 persons), you need to pay Rs. 20,000 - 22,000. Food is included in the package. You can hire a boat at 12 noon and stay in the boat till 9 am next day. Apart from this, you can hire a boat exclusively for the day with rent on hourly basis. For an hour, you need to pay around Rs. 1000 – 1500 with Rs. 400 additional for food.