Think houseboats. Think Kumarakom. This sleepy little town, off Lake Vembanad, and a part of Kerala’s legendary backwaters, is one of the best places to take in Kerala’s famed houseboat experience.
Once a part of the Thekkumkur kingdom, Kumarakom is known for its Chundan Vallam and Kettu Vallam boats, which moved at lightning speed in defence of their kingdom. That old tradition lingers on in the thatched houseboats, which dot Kumarakom’s backwaters.
One of the best times to visit Kumarakom is in August, as the city loses its laidback, languid pace and begins to move to a different drum. This is the season of the Nehru Trophy boat race, and Kumarakom is among its fiercest competitors. If you are lucky, you might even spot its snake boats out on practice runs, as a thousand oarsmen move together at a rhythmic pace, in pursuit of the ultimate prize.
WHAT TO SEE Lake Vembanad: Set against the backdrop of Lake Vembanad, Kumarakom is also the gateway to Kerala’s largest lake. Your experience of the backwaters here is authentic and unparalleled.
Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary: Also known as the Vembanad Sanctuary, the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary draws many migratory birds such as gulls, teals, terns, and flycatchers. But it’s also where you can spot local birds like the Brahminy kite, the heron, and the egret. The sanctuary was first set up by an Englishman George Alfred Bake in what was then a rubber plantation.
St John the Baptist church: This hundred-and-fifty-year-old church is the oldest church of the Syriac tradition in this part of the world. The current building was rebuilt in 1956.
Thazhathangady Juma Masjid: Among the oldest mosques in India, the Thazhathangady Juma Masjid is over a thousand years old. The mosque known for its ancient, intricate architecture stands on the banks of the Meenachil river.
Bay Island Driftwood Fossil Museum: Just off Kumarakom Beach, this unique museum curates a unique collection of driftwood sculptures. Set up by a school teacher from these parts, it is an assortment of the art that routinely washed up on the shores when she lived and worked in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
WHAT TO DO
Kumarakom is among the best places in India to experience Kerala’s backwaters. But it’s also a great location for serious birdwatchers. WWF-India is known to have also run a birdwatching programme here. So, make sure to visit the interpretation centre at the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary to understand this region’s unique natural heritage and keep a pair of binoculars handy when you are visiting the sanctuary.
What to eat: You can’t leave Kumarakom without trying its fish preparations made in traditional Malayali style. Kumarakom is best known for its preparations of karimeen, prawns, and poovalan chemeen.
What to buy: Spices, oil, and masks are the things to pick up at most tourist destinations in Kerala. But in Kumarakom, the art most representative of the city is its famed houseboats and snake boats.
Getting around: Since this is a remote part of Kerala, drive down in a car. Otherwise, arrange transport with your local host.
Where to stay: In Kumarakom, it’s best to book your stay at one of its many houseboats to truly savour the backwater experience.
The best time to visit: Most tourists visit Kumarakom during the summer months between March and June.
How to get there: Kumarakom is connected to the rest of India by road. By rail, the closest railway station is at Kottayam, which is just 10 kilometres away. By air, the closest airport is the Cochin International Airport, which is approximately 80 kilometres away.