Saturday, January 31, 2009

Memories: The boatmen of Olavipe Lake

The first time my wife Annie travelled by a vallom [Launch of a vallom (country boat)] was shortly after our wedding in 1961. She is from Kanjirapally on the foothills of Kerala’s High Range but had spent most of her life at Yercaud on the Shevroy Hills in Tamil Nadu.

There was no road to Olavipe those days. To reach home we had to either take a motor boat from Cochin or Vaikom to Poochakkal and vallom from there (Some memories of WW II, Cochin and the 1940s.). But the preferred route was to reach Kuthiathode on NH 47 and take a vallom to Olavipe.

The first 150 meters or so is a canal. Then the expanse of the lake. Our landing is bang opposite to the canal, to the east. It had no landmark visible from the other side. The crossing was easy during daytime. All that the boatman had to do was to set the course straight from the canal.

On moonlit nights the trip across was sheer pleasure. The water would be usually placid. The shimmer of moonlight on the lake surface was simply fascinating.

But on dark nights it was different. And Annie, resigned to the adventure, asked me how the boatman could see where we were going. There was no easy answer to that. Only the large cargo crafts and tiny fishing boats had lamps to mark their location. The passenger vessels went ahead blindly, so to speak. Sometimes the boatman would shout ‘vallom’ to warn traffic from the opposite direction.

During summer when the salinity in the lake was high, there was a friendly factor. Because of the high density of florescent plankton, any disturbance would make the water sparkle at night. One could easily identify moving objects. There was a bonus as well. From the vallom one could watch fishes swim around spreading glitter in their wake. Such a beautiful sight it was.

Steering to our pier in the shroud of darkness was a problem. There would no bearings to set the course. The route being straight across did not help because the tide factor had to be reckoned with.

The boat would stray from the desired path unless appropriate corrections were made to nullify the impact of the flow. There were several boatmen who could do that perfectly in the darkness. I suppose they had some intuition that comes with experience.

Once the road was opened in the early 1970s, the lake crossing became a thing of the past. After that some of the boatmen used to come home for customary presents during festivals or when they wanted some help. Slowly that too stopped. Some of them would have passed on. The others, I suppose, drifted off in search of other means of livelihood.

I do not recall hearing of a boat accident in the Olavipe Lake. That speaks for the skill of the boatmen.

P.S. When we reached home that night Ammachi (Oru Desathinte Amma.) was very angry with me for taking Annie across the lake on that dark night. I had not realized how frightened my wife was on her first vallom ride!


The silhouette in the photo by Karthiki (copyright reserved) is Shankunni, our senior valan (fishermen caste). Click to enlarge image.



That is a simply wonderful picture - almost poetic.


And a nice description of the ride.

Soul Searcher said...

Vallom... I have always wanted to see Kerala again and your poetic description of the moonlit boat ride has just renkindled the wish to be in the backwaters on a house boat and watch the world go by.

The nostalgia and the hint of romance in the post was lovely too.