The Kettuvallam (House Boat in Kerala) is a large floating structure with high loading carrying capacity was a part of Kerala’s culture and heritage over the past years. Kettuvallam could sail harnessing wild energy. A journey through the lagoon is interesting, passing through sleepy villages, busy boat jetties and vibrant celebrations. The boat glides across the shimmering blue waters with gorgeous green and fringed edges.
For centuries Kettuvallam have been roaming in the backwaters transporting men and materials to different destinations. Due to its sheer size and shape, Kettuvallam can carry load, which is more than thrice that of a cargo truck. It was the important mode of transportation in coastal Kerala just because of its accessibility to the most remote areas. As time passed, the scene changed gradually. Motorized road, rail and air transportation scored over the slow and staid country boat, with people opting for speed over charm.
With Kerala becoming an increasing popular destination for tourists, Kettuvallam have been given a new lease of life. A cruise in the backwaters of Kerala is a remarkable experience, an opportunity to enjoy and contain an unhurried pace of life. Floating along on cool tranquil water one can experience at hand the unusual representation of Kerala life. Nowadays environment friendliness has become the yardstick gauging the efficiency of transportation. Kettuvallam is not only economical but also non-polluting and environment friendly. It thus became imperative that this mode of transportation be developed further and encouraged.
The tourist demand for an experience to get a feel of the Kerala shores brought the Kettuvallam back to the waters in the restored form as Houseboat. They were attracted by the simplicity and the originality of the form.
The hull is a series of wooden planks, long cut and carved by the expert hands of the carpenter, tied together using coir with coconut fibers stuffed in between. Kettuvallam is steered by two persons in deep waters by means of oars. Long bamboo poles or ‘punts’ are used to propel in shadow areas. Bamboo beams sprouting off on the sides are used as foot holds for the same a senior oarsman and a helper control the Kettuvallam by singing songs and chants for inspiration. A box of sand, a few bricks in interior facilitate cooking on lower racks, with storage on the upper ones. Food and necessary items are stored in shelves sleeping quarter is on the uppermost racks, which have the best ventilation and accessibility. The interior space can also be used for the same when there is no cargo. Fresh water is stored in earthenware pots.
Basically Kettuvallam was designed to transport cargo to various destinations in Kerala. When it was used for tourist purpose, there new problem cropped up like – No free movement was possible because the floor area of the hull was very less. The space below the hull was more compared to the space above. There were no openings, which provided enough of light, air or view towards outside. The tourist felt it difficult to walk through the length because the curved shape of the hull with Manikals coming across. The roof was made of thatch, which was not properly done so during rain leakage was likely. Due to the low head clearance of the Valavara it was only possible to sit on the padi of the hull. Since the Valavara was low, the airflow through the Vallam minimum. The hull is curved and for the beginners it was very difficult to balance when the vallam was in motion.
Due to these difficulties it becomes necessary to make some changes in the form so that a comfortable cruise was possible. The body was redesigned and remodeled to adapt for the new demands and functions. Certain elements had to be added and others removed to make it good enough for comfortable cruise. Height of roof was increased to get sufficient headroom. A plank was laid all through the length to reduce the disadvantages of curved shape of the hull for walking and comfortable seating. Windows and other openings were provided for light, airflow and view. The entrance is provided in the center of the linear axis with a top hung panel, which was supported by poles on either ends of the Valavara.
Most of the latest designs have incorporated 3 bedrooms with a common toilet, a living space and kitchen. Now some of them have come with lesser number of bedrooms but with large living space and may be a deck balcony at the roof level. The platforms that cantilever from the hull are used as balconies. For fixing the toilet seats, shower tray and ceramic floor finish a concrete slab is laid at the floor level. The soil outlet of the toilet seats are taken through the hull and let out to the following water beneath, The water is stored in a plastic tank kept at the top portion of the Valavara taking connection to the kitchen and toilets. The pipes, tank and other synthetic materials are covered with coir or panambu to maintain the aesthetic quality of the eco friendly materials. The air cylinders, which are of the metal body, are fixed to the underside of the cantilevered platforms at the entry points of Valavara. These cylinders help to balance the structure on water reducing its tilting to the sides to a minimum. Since the circulation inside the Vallam is more in the new function more stability is required.
The colour of the Valavara is yellowish brown, which is the colour of the natural materials like panambu, coir and bamboo. It is a warmer colour comparing to the colour of the surrounding atmosphere. This gives a nice feeling of being inside the Vallam.
The interior furniture are either of cane or wood, floor carpeted with coir mat or wood panels. Valavara of panambu, mula and coir all colours matching each other but bring the depth and variations in vision.
Light and the patterns of light and darkness it creates can call our attention to one a rear of our room de-emphasize others and thereby create division of spaces. At night the traditional hurricane lamp is used to light the interiors. Usually each one is hung from the ridge of Valavara one at front, one at rear and one or two accordingly for the living spaces. And mostly for half of a month there will be moonlight, which gives enough light, reflected on water.
Modern Houseboat uses Generator sets or Solar power to provide lighting and other power requirements inside the Houseboat.
Bamboo is used for the framework of the roof and splits of Bamboo are used for weaving mat for roofing. Bamboo poles are used for punting the Vallams. It is strong fiber and absorbs more carbon.
The Kettuvallam has been so much a part of Kerala’s culture and heritage for years. Although it faced a period of decline with the advent of surface transport it has now come back to the scene as tourist attraction, it is a space adapted for the present, from the past to be used in the future and it plays a significant role in the social and economic aspects of the life e of the people of Kerala. The slow moving Houseboat splitting the serene backwaters flanked by greenery provide an enchanting experience to any visitor. Floating in these backwaters in a country craft Kettuvallam (Houseboat) to explore the unusual representation of Kerala through the intricate maze of canals conjures up a surreal existence devoid of any time sense.