Jun 18, 2009

Ashtamudi - A Lazy Midsummer Weekend Amidst Backwaters

When you really want something, the whole universe conspires to help you realise your desire.

These lines from Paul Coelho’s Alchemist, an inspiration for so many of our generation, have been often heard and used. This summer I also realised the profound truth behind these. Bertie Wooster might have used his wodehousean sense of understatement saying – Jeeves, the guy knew his stuff!

But, I am digressing.
Early this year, we decided not to travel anywhere during summer vacation as our son Siddharth was to appear for his competitive exam.s But by mid-April, despite knowing about impossibility of finding an accommodation in any of the Club Mahindra resorts, the tired body & mind started craving for its regular dose of travel and relaxation. That’s when a wholesome desire made the universe conspire. A chain of unrelated events created together an opportunity for us and on 1st May, we were on our way to Trivendram, to spend a week in backwaters – Ashtamudi, followed by Poovar.

The surging crowd at the Mumbai airport the day immediately after the voting day was a stark contrast not only to the empty voting centres but also to the cloudless empty skies of the city. The smouldering heat of midsummer afternoon was stinging the eyes as we boarded the aircraft on the tarmac.

The air route from Mumbai to Trivandrum, specially for those sitting on the right side of the plane, is monotonous as the only features visible of the terra firma are: a shore line and the vast sea, made further hazy due to rising heat.

Closer to Trivandrum, the pre-monsoon clouds in the sky surrounding the aircraft, were the first welcome change in the sky while the huge pool of backwaters were changing the landscape . Soon, the aircraft glided with flaps readying for landing towards the land, the sea changed its colour, waves could be seen rocking over the beach seemingly golden with evening sun, and first sight of Trivandrum was a land thickly carpeted green with canopies of coconut plantations. An apt sight while landing in Kerala – the land of Kera (coconut), this sea of tranquility seen on arrival at Trivandrum was a perfect precursor to an idyllic holiday in which our first destination was Ashtamudi.

Reaching Ashtamudi from Trivandrum is a reasonably safe & swift drive that takes one to Kollam (Quilon), situated at the bank of Ashtamudi Lake. Kollum, a historic port town, has been on travelers’ map for a long time. Established sometime in 9th Century, Kollum has been mentioned by venetian traveler Marco Polo in his travels (spelt as Coilum) during 13th century. Marco Polo had noted the presence of various faiths & nationalities, including jews & christians in the city and had also noted the presence of trade with chinese & arabs. Even today, Kollum is the hub of cashewnut trade.

The highway, smooth but a bit narrow, lined with paddyfields & palm plantations, was dotted with small lovely bungalows through out – coloured in bright & unusual shades of yellows, greens, purples, reds and blues. The gulmohur and copper pod trees with their lovely blossoms of scarlet & yellow were providing a different hue to the combat between red flags of communists and the congress tricolour – a remainder of the general election process.

The only interruption in our journey we faced was a huge temple procession midway to Kollam. The colourful mechanized tableaus of hindu idols on the huge vans & trucks and people on both sides of the roads in festive mood with their coloured clothes – rather I should say females of all age with bright coloured clothes, while the male population was attired largely in whites & creams - made the interruption worthwhile, though as a result by the time we reached Club Mahindra resort at Ashtamudi Lake, it was almost dark.

The Ashtamudi Resort of Club Mahindra located at Chavara south on the bank of Ashtamudi lake is smaller in size compared to other resorts of Club Mahindra, and has cozier rooms but in amenities as well as hospitality, it matches the standards of all other resorts.

Ashtamudi, a lake with eight arms, is the second largest and deepest wetland ecosystem of our country and is also known as the gateway to the backwaters of Kerala. My first view in the morning of Ashtamudi Lake and resort was through the foggy lenses – not so much because of the fog on the lake but more because of the high humidity that was prevalent, obviously due to heat and huge expanse of water. I got to know that during monsoon, it worsens further with anything that absorbs moistures becoming moist instantly, even if kept indoors. So for once the chalk and cheese may really not differ much here. Incidentally, Marco Polo had also noted the extreme here and in his most interesting, and sometimes exaggerated, manner described it as under:

And I assure you that the heat of the sun is so great there that it is scarcely to be endured; in fact if you put an egg into one of the rivers it will be boiled, before you have had time to go any distance, by the mere heat of the sun!

The Lake, while not exactly capable of boiling an egg, has a character that changes with day. Serene in the morning hours with fog enveloping the traffic & muting the sound of fishing boats all around, mid-morning sun transforming it with its rays during the day into a bee-hive of activity, approaching dusk bringing out a melancholic mood with people & feathered-folks returning to roost and nights with only the sound of small ripples of water as a few ferries continue with their activity– in essence time can be a blur here as one sits and gazes across.

Keeping in mind the extreme humidity that saps the energy, we spent most part of the day indoor. The early mornings & evenings were though well-utilised with exploring the lake through cruise, taking a walk in the small villages nestled among islands in the lake or strolling through the town. The banks of the lake & the islands full of coconut plantations – also of cashew, bananas, toddypalm but chiefly coconut palms due to its multipurpose utility.

The random explorations of ours at Ashtamudi culminated in entire montage of memories – morning sunrays weaving their way through numerous Chinese fishing nets, Brahminy kites taking a flight at the break of dawn and intermittently wheeling overhead eyeing the catch of fishermen, small houses with thatched roofs on both sides of the lake using lake for regular transportation the way we use roads, a couple of ferries working late in the night - their reflection in dark waters resembling mumbai’s local trains on a day of heavy rains, bright eyed children with unbridled joy in the surroundings devoid of anything resembling comforts, a couple of fishermen fishing barehand after the dusk with the help of a petromax lamp submerged into the water, an old lady working on her coir making equipment converting a shade full of coconut husk into coir, another lady rowing a boat on her own making her own statement about women empowerment, sounds emerging of a choir singing in the church on one of the evenings, elephants decked up and readied for the procession of the temple festival at Chavara South or wonderful rendering of hindi movie songs – new as well as of yesteryears, by guest singer Mr. Shibu at the Resort.

As the weekend ended, we started the manic monday drive to Poovar - biding audieu to the lake & sea-shore of Kollam,

with images of the lazy holiday– some my camera could capture while most of them remain captive to the memory. More of the images captured by camera during this part of our trip can be seen on the following link: