We were recently traveling by houseboat from Kumarakom across Lake Vembanad, the largest backwater in Kerala, toward Cochin and therefore the Arabian Sea. This route requires passing through the Thannermukkom Bund, the largest mud regulator in India.
This barrier essentially divides Vembanad in half – separating the brackish waters that flow from the Arabian Sea from the sweet river water that feeds into the lake. For six months a year the dike is left open, particularly during the monsoon season, but historically the gates are closed on December 15th to assist agriculture in the Kuttanad District, where farming is done below sea level.
Like many areas of the world with significant geographical elements that effect both country and culture, the watery landscape is defined as either north of the bund or south of it. These discriptors are as elemental as global coordinates for people in the region.
We’d made this journey from North to South last year when the gates were still open, but this second, opposite journey required negotiating with the gatekeepers in order to continue our passage.
Even without understanding a word of Malayalam the process was fascinating.
Like most lock systems there are two gates, and after an initial discussion between those on land and those on board the first gate was opened. The boat captain and all hands on deck carefully maneuvered the large house boat into the narrow canal and the gate was closed behind us.
Around the time the back gates closed was when things got really interesting!
The boat captain handed rupees to the dock captain. The dock captain did a classic Kerala chin wobble and pushed the bills back. There was much clicking of tongues and raising of eyes. The dock captain walked away and some fishing ensued while we on the boat watched the drama unfolding.
Although it appeared to be a stand-off, there must have been an unspoken understanding of the process, because after some time the negotiations began again. Eventually the money was accepted and two men approached the oxidized iron gear system on each side of the canal to begin the arduous task of turning the cranks that would open the back gate.
The gate slowly swung open with their efforts, and the moment the space was minimally wide enough for its passage the fishing canoe slid through, leaving us to enjoy the rest of our journey on the houseboat in the late afternoon sun.
(All photos by Milo Inman)