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Houseboats of Kerala

Natural and cultural heritages are invaluable assets belonging to the whole humanity handed down from the past. Cultural heritages have evolved through centuries of human life and development. Natural heritages are what are left of the earth and the environment after heavy losses caused by climatic disorders and human intervention.

Kerala has a lot of natural aquatic assets like the 42 rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats and the chains of lakes and backwaters on the plains adjacent to the shores of the Arabian Sea. In the ancient times, when the transportation infrastructure over land was not very advanced, the rivers and the backwaters offered an easier facility for movement of people and cargo. Large boats, called kettuvallams, were used to ferry cargo and people across long distances. But, as vehicles and roads increased and transportation facilities over land became cheaper and easier, the kettuvallams fell into disuse and became obsolete.

During the early 1990s some people in the tourism industry thought of refurbishing the kettuvallams as houseboats and using them as tourist conveyances for cruising during the daytime and staying in a place at night. The first such conversion took place in 1992.

Gradually, facilities for more comfort and luxury were added to these houseboats like air-conditioning for the comfort of the guests, septic tanks to keep the refuse from spoiling the waters, a raised viewing deck on the front for a better view, an upper deck, facilities for small conferences and get-togethers and so on.

Now, within 25 years, the number of houseboats of various sizes and variegated facilities, are anywhere between one thousand and two thousand and the houseboat of Kerala is an easily recognised international brand icon of Kerala Tourism.

The cultural heritage of Kerala, the kettuvallam, in its renovated form of the houseboat, is the most popular means of enjoying the natural and cultural heritages of Kerala in the waters and along the shores. The innovation has changed the life of the people along the shores giving them more employment opportunities and income sources improving their economic prospects. The Government and private entrepreneurs are working in close cooperation to sustainably develop this tourism sector and make it more and more attractive to the global tourist looking for unexplored areas of beauty and adventure.

Looking back on the arduous and lengthy path we have already left behind will be the prime motive to move on. Such a review will also be the most dependable guide for our onward journey forward. That is why Heritage India Foundation is taking up the challenge of making a documentary, 'The Houseboat - Kerala's Moving Legacy', as a comprehensive documentation of all that is relevant to this historic innovation, starting right from the ancient times to the present, covering all the socio-economic circumstances then and now.

One of the prime focuses of the documentary will be on the challenges faced by the pioneers in the designing and operation of the first houseboats. The documentary will dwell on the technical issues related to the fitting of the engines and diesel tanks without destabilising the natural balance of the boats and the easy propulsion through narrow passages, the disputes with the people engaged in fishing with large fishing nets, the comfortable structuring of the roof with enough clearance from the bottom of the bridges, the availability of clean drinking water and fresh water for other uses inside the boats, etc.

The documentary on the houseboats of Kerala will be a reliable referential resource for the present and coming generations, a tribute to the pioneers in this innovative engineering marvel, an invaluable asset to the tourism industry and a great leap forward in the preservation and propagation of our natural and cultural heritages.