In the spice-fragrant hinterland of Kerala’s Malabar Coast, David Stott encounters an endangered river culture and finds deliverance aboard a bamboo raft.
With one meaty arm resting on a plastic paddle and a lifejacket puffed out over the barrel-like bulk of his chest, Captain Lukose Francis stands like a rooster on the river bank, his chin jutting imperiously at the crowd of local boys who’ve poured down to the shore to gawk. He looks every inch the rugged adventurer, fresh from some death-defying feat of exploration. A crossing of the Arabian Sea by canoe perhaps, or maybe a solo circumnavigation of the Antarctic ice sheets.
Not quite. But he has valiantly steered a vessel made from nine sticks of bamboo and three inner tubes through the rain-swollen rapids of the Thuthapuzha River. And he’s done it while manhandling the weight of a mutinous crew, who’ve spent the first half of the trip figuring out which way round to hold our oh-so-rustic bamboo oars, and the rest of it filling them up with water to tip over each others’ heads. Welcome to the not-so-extreme sport of monsoon rafting, Kerala style. The Thuthapuzha may be the wildest tributary of one of South India’s most storied rivers – the much-mythologised Nila – but in a proper rubber raft its rapids would struggle to rate Grade One. Yet when your feet are braced against bamboo struts lest they get crunched by submerged rocks, and when even the gentlest riffle can slosh up through the inner tubes to give your nether regions a complete soaking, this most primeval form of river travel gives you a joyous sense of not just floating along on top of a river, but actually flowing along in it. The credit for rejuvenating the formula of wood plus rope plus something buoyant equals a sodden good time belongs to Gopi Parayil, a native of the banks of the Nila. Gopi experienced an epiphany when he returned from London to tend his ailing father, and found his beloved river to be faring no better herself.
“We believe that bathing in the Nila frees the soul of its liabilities,” he explains, as we gaze out across a sluggish, sandbank-lined reach of the river. It’s the third week of July, supposedly the peak of India’s southwest monsoon, and still the river barely manages to cover its sandy bed. “It broke my heart that there was hardly enough water in the river for my dad to take a dip.”
Its modest 290-kilometre length utterly belies the place the Nila holds in Kerala’s spiritual and cultural life. Many of the state’s signature performing arts have been fostered along its banks, from the outlandishly costumed solo dance spectacle of Thullal to the cacophonous classical music that soundtracks lavish temple festivals like Thrissur’s Pooram.
In the village of Cheruthuruthy, Gopi leads me through the leafy grounds of the Kerala Kalamandalam, a university for the performing arts, where the drummers, temple dancers and Kathakali artists of tomorrow study their art in open-sided classrooms. It all feels very industrious and idyllic. Yet just as the river has come under assault from sand miners, dams and deforestation, the Nila’s culture is fighting its own battle for survival. Youngsters, lured to the city by the chance of a lucrative IT or call-centre career, are no longer willing to accept the often impoverished life their parents may have endured in the name of art.
“Kids need modern education, but that doesn’t mean you need to say no to what you know,” Gopi tells me. “Once you lose what you’ve inherited, you can’t make it again on a day-to-day basis.” Hence his mission: to rebuild pride in traditional culture and prove to local families that the old ways, activated by the participation of interested travellers, can still carry an economic imperative. That’s why the next morning, rather than loading into a standard-issue imported rubber raft, I find myself sawing and chopping and lashing together lengths of bamboo – bought from local growers at rates that make them sit up and take notice – while Captain Lukose carves away at a pair of elegant, organic oars. Once the inner tubes are made fast to the frame, and with a bag of jackfruit chips lashed on for sustenance, the Bamboo Pearl is ready to set sail. Grabbing a corner each, we heave her into the shallows then paddle hard for the middle of the river, where the current sweeps us up.
To call the Thuthapuzha a raging torrent would be to somewhat stretch the point. For the most part it bubbles along merrily, occasionally breaking into a canter where the river runs over submerged rocks, at other times slowing to an ooze and offering the chance to flop over the side for a swim. At one point the sky goes black and a moist monsoonal wind whips up white horses, forcing us to paddle madly into the teeth of a majestically intense downpour that stings our cheeks and makes the water around us fizz like acid.
It soon becomes evident the Bamboo Pearl has the potential to be a perfect raiding vessel. Several times we drift out from behind a boulder or a clump of trees to startle a half-undressed woman standing in the shallows beating the stuffing out of her sari. One elder casts an unimpressed eye over our vessel; she’s seen our like before, when real-life pirates swooped in on a similar bamboo raft and stole all her ducks. The Pearl enters a tunnel of dark forest, and a group of children run to the riverbank and begin singing to us. Lukose sings back, leading them down the river like a waterborne Pied Piper. The rest of us are so absorbed in the lilting melody and the beauty of the scene that we momentarily let our oars drag in the water. Our leader turns around to sternly admonish us: “I sing. You paddle!” A stocky, bronzed water buffalo that’s mooched down to the shore for a quiet drink shoots us an offended look. Just when the trip is in danger of becoming too languid for its own good, the stone bridge at Thootha lumbers into view, accompanied by the ominous roar of what sounds like a mini Niagara. Lukose, shoulders tensing, motions that we need to shoot for the middle arch. But we’re hopelessly off course to the right, the current quickening with every second, and a crowd of onlookers begins to gather on the bridge, eagerly waiting to see us get smashed to pieces against the piers. Suddenly the crew of the Bamboo Pearl meshes together. Spearing our oars into the rollercoaster waves we pull desperately towards the centre channel, groaning and swearing like a team of navvies digging a ditch, as the stone pillars loom menacingly close. With seconds to spare the boat catches the current funnelling under the main span, and our howls of triumph echo off the walls of the Gates of Deliverance, dampened not at all by the tidal waves of muddy brown water erupting from under the floor. The crowd on the bridge stays mute; it’s not every day you get to see a raftload of foreigners chomped to bits, and we’ve cruelly denied them.
Sore and blistered but triumphant, we row the brave Bamboo Pearl to the left bank and haul her out of the water, to be greeted by a volley of questions from the lungi-bedecked welcoming committee. Where have we come from? What are we doing here? Have we, perchance, any ducks for sale? As for the boat, like a bamboo Titanic, her maiden voyage is also to be her last. As Gopi and Lukose squash the air out of the inner tubes, a couple of local guys shoulder the bamboo frame off down the street – perhaps to be turned into scaffolding or firewood, or maybe, just maybe, to be treasured as an heirloom and displayed to the wondering eyes of grandchildren for generations to come.
That evening we’re invited to a feast of spicy dal and flaky flatbreads in the grounds of an old Keralite mansion outside Arangottukara. The house belongs to a member of the Vayali folklore group, who got together in 2003 to revive the songs and dances native to their rice-growing villages. As the purple clouds of a monsoon dusk slowly fade to black, Vayali’s singers – porters and labourers during the day, gods and goddesses of the paddy field by night – unleash a sequence of rustic and hypnotic campfire songs, each one delivered by a choir of soaring voices to the accompaniment of the staccato boom-tap of the chenda (drum). Then, as raindrops spit into the dust, the ferocious demon Dharika, dressed for battle with a serrated brass moustache, squares off against the goddess Kali, herself resplendent in a crown of palm fibre arrows, frilly shoulder pom-poms and a metre-long beak fashioned from coconut palm.
Bare-chested drummers strike up a rhythm as the combatants begin to circle; Dharika’s blackened eyes wear an expression that verges on psychotic, as though his eyeballs have flipped inside out to gaze inward at some unseen horizon. As the drumming rises to a crescendo, the dancers lunge at each other, the homemade swords in their hands flashing wildly, forcing those of us in the ring of spectators to lurch backwards to save our skins. It’s a raw and wild spectacle, and a far cry from the predigested tourist-friendly product that passes for cultural performance in more travelled parts of Kerala. Back at my hotel I sit out on the veranda into the early hours, watching vibrations of yellow lightning in the distance and listening as rainclouds sweep across the coconut palms like stealth bombers: approaching with the whoosh of an express train, unleashing pandemonium for a minute or two, then ceasing just as abruptly to leave a loud chorus of frogs in their wake. It rains all night and through the next day. The Nila bursts out of her sandy chains and, for the first time in years, fills her channel to the brim. Gopi walks around grinning under a broad umbrella and calls all his friends. His river has returned, at least for now, and I can’t help sharing his joy. Having given myself up to the Nila’s flow and song, it’s become my river, too.
Air Asia offers the most economical route to South India, flying from Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast via Kuala Lumpur to Kochi, Kerala’s biggest city. From Kochi, buses or trains head north to Pattambi and Shoranur, the main gateways to the River Nila, but the best way to explore the area is to organise a car and driver. airasia.com
The Blue Yonder runs adventure and cultural tours throughout South India. Apart from bamboo rafting on the Nila, activities include excursions to meet classical musicians, hauntingly authentic folk performances and moonlit cruises. theblueyonder.com
River Retreat in Thrissur has air-conditioned, antique-laden rooms in the much- extended former summer palace of the Maharajas of Kochi. The best rooms have great views over a large tree-filled garden that backs onto the River Nila. Double rooms from about US$75. riverretreat.in
In the hills to the north of the Nila, Maranat Mana offers a rare chance to stay in an unaltered Kerala Brahmin household. Hosts Praveen and Vidya have sensitively converted the 160-year-old guesthouse attached to their ancestral home into three cool and airy rooms, with delicious vegetarian meals included and tours of their organic farm available. Double rooms from about US$75. maranatmana.com