Houseboats in Kerala have a distinctive place in the state economy. Natives have monetized through the backwater bounty of ‘God’s Own Country’ by offering thrilling and relaxing rides on the houseboats or Kettuvallam. Kettuvalam term was derived by joining Kettu (tied with ropes) and vallam (boat). It has come to dominate the rich cultural heritage of Kerala by being one of the most popular means of transporting cargo over the years, in the past. Kettuvalams with thatched roof covering the wooden hulls have been a common sight for villages fringing the backwaters for many centuries.
The first construction of houseboats in south-western India started around 3,000 BC. They were primarily deployed for merchandise transportation, particularly spices and rice apart from transporting passengers. They used to span about 100 feet on an average and ferried across the backwaters connecting remote villages colleting merchandise from them and supplying to traders. A standard Kettuvalam could ferry about 30 tons of merchandise with ease. Most of the houseboats used to ply between Cochin port and Kuttanad ( a place famous for its delicious marine dishes).
The body of the houseboat never featured any nail. The hull was made from elongated wooden planks and secured tightly with other parts through coconut fibre made coir ropes. Cashew nut shells were boiled and the resultant greasy resin, black in colour, was used to coat the body. This additionally served to waterproof the wooden part and prevented premature rotting due to prolonged exposure to water. Bamboo poles were used for manoeuvring the kettuvalam along the aquamarine backwater. The top portion of the houseboat was prepared by weaving of natural products such as coir, bamboo and panambu. The upper part was fashioned into vaulted shapes which allowed creation of spacious interiors and elevated ceilings. The furnishings inside the boat were manufactured from products similar to the aforesaid to facilitate optimum comfort, luxury and tranquil ambience. Just like the present day, houseboats were used in the days of the yore to enjoy best backwaters trips in Kerala. True holistic backwater experience can only be availed of by staying overnight in a houseboat exuding traditional fervour and fragrant with the appetizing aroma of marine cuisine. Royalty of Cochin and Travancore used to sponsor the construction of robust houseboats in order to engage in profitable trading with the Arabian and African countries. The design of houseboats also appealed to other nations to which these boats were used for shipping of cargo and architects becoming inspired from traditional designs started copying its distinctive construction methods.
Nobles and members of the regal or affluent society used to float around on houseboats to enjoy the finer moments of the life. Chefs were appointed on boat to prepare gourmet cuisine to appeal to the distinctive palate of the royalty. As the houseboat made its way through the network of winding routes of lakes, canals, lagoons and rivers, the members of the nobility derived extreme pleasure. The privilege was reserved for a few in the ancient Kerala. After India gained independence in 1947, the erstwhile princely states of Cochin and Travancore were merged to form Kerala. Houseboats became a major medium to allure tourists and earn revenues for the state as well as provide gainful employment to natives. Luxury tour packages were designed and customized to suit the tourists on different budgets. Houseboats were also used to provide tourists a close view of the thrilling snake boat race, which was later renamed to Nehru trophy. Many cargo boats of large shape were converted to houseboats to capitalize on the latest tourism trend. Lagoons with mirror still water, lakesides resembling the serene beauty of picture books, canals fringed by palm trees and the shimmering aquamarine water all combine with the grand houseboat to offer a memorable holidaying experience on the backwaters of Kerala. Kettuvalam has always been verily the mascot of Kerala’s intrinsic tourism quotient.