Saturday, 4 May 2013

Kumbalangi - Kerala from another time

In Kumbalangi, a boat is mired in a waterway choked with water hyacinth

Time is frozen still in Kumbalangi, a fishing village of crab ponds and ancient Latin Catholic Christians fast vanishing against the rising skyline of God's Own Country. 

It started to rain heavily just as I stepped into the car. My driver smiled when I told him my destination was Kumbalangi, a small hamlet on the outskirts of Kochi.

“I studied there,” he said, and his grin became wider as he spoke about his childhood. I asked him for more information and he gave me a brochure which called it “an integrated model tourism village which promised authentic rural experience.” I just hoped it would not be another tourist trap as we drove down, crossing St Josephs School and church into an entire green country.

Kumbalangi lived up to its promise of being part of God’s Own Country. Ringed by Chinese fishing nets, the backwaters painted a pretty picture. A lone cormorant basked in the sun, while a woodpecker chipped away at the bark of a coconut tree. A few houses were scattered around unused coir units lost amidst the farms.

There was no one in sight. Amid small lanes intersected with canals we roamed aimlessly. My driver asked me what I wanted to "do." I had no real agenda and wanted to meet a few locals and talk to them. He looked puzzled, but drove towards the village. We met a fisherman who asked if I was interested in, well, fishing. As I walked with him to the jetty, we talked about Chinese fishing nets and karimeen (Pearl Spot) fishing. “Sometimes we cover branches of small trees that are immersed in water by nets. After weeks, we find a variety of fish caught in them,” he added.As I wandered the village speaking to local people, I noticed that almost every house had orchids growing naturally in their gardens. I learnt that Kumbalangi is known for pokkali farming. “It is an organic way of cultivation,” translated my driver, explaining that the farming is normally done in waterlogged areas. The farmers alternate between rice and fish or prawns, based on the salinity of the water. 

The streets were quiet and the houses were separated by tracts of greenery or backwaters. We visited a crab farm, which was essentially a couple of big ponds adjacent to each other. Here we met Das, who was happy to show us his collection of crabs and explain the process of “njandu krishi” or crab farming. 

“In these ponds alone, there are close to 200,000 crabs,” he mentioned as he carefully caught a crab only to throw it back in. “It has only water as of now, not meat,” he explained as another small crab crawled near his leg. He had a basket full of them. Das added that crabs were exported to Hong Kong, USA and many other countries and business was rather good.

We spent a few more hours talking to locals who were amused at the attention given to them. Old Elizabeth was happy when I took her picture and mentioned that a couple of foreigners had done the same as well. She cracked up as a couple of other women urged her to pose, and she mentioned how pretty she was in her youth. Her golden earrings, she said, were characteristic of her community - the Latin Catholics – and so was the dress she wore. I asked them about Kumbalangi and they said there was nothing really here. Just walk around, relax, they said. There is fishing and lots of foreigners come over.

But they all had one lament: “You hardly find any village in Kerala now; everything has changed,” they muttered as I took their leave. It was indeed true as the skyscape changed in a matter of minutes, with real estate and industry threatening to take over the green cover. “Now we will only have model villages for tourists,” added my driver wistfully. “It is no longer a way of life.”