Kuttanad: The Rice Bowl of Kerala

by Goutham Krishna

Kuttanad is a region covering the Alappuzha, Kottayam, and Pathanamthitta Districts, in the state of Kerala, India, well known for its vast paddy fields and geographical peculiarities. The region has the lowest altitude in India and is one of the few places in the world where farming is carried on around 1.2 to 3.0 meters (4 to 10 ft) below sea level. The Kuttanad region is broadly classified into Lower, Upper, and North Kuttanad. Some of the well-known villages that form Kuttanad are Kainakary, Ramankary, Chennamkary, Nedumudi, Kumarakom, Edathua, Kavalam, Pulinkunnu, Kidangara, Muttar, Neerettupuram, Thalavadi, Champakkulam, Payippad, Karichal, Cheruthana, Karuvaatta, Narakathara, Mamkompu and Thayankary. The villages of Kuttanad are gorgeous and a photographer’s and birdwatcher’s paradise. Rice cultivation is the main source of income in this region. Locals in Kuttanad use the backwaters and canals in the region to transport goods and people.

Country boats ranging from the size of small canoes to that of huge rice barges are used for water transport. According to Census, the Kuttanad region is completely rural with 100% of the area’s population is rural. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared the Kuttanad Farming System as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS). Four of Kerala’s major rivers, the Pamba, Meenachil, Achankovil, and Manimala flow into the region.  It is well known for its boat race in the Punnamada Backwaters, known in Malayalam as Vallamkali. Kuttanad in Malayalam means ‘small town‘.

According to historical notes, the Kuttanad region was formerly a forested area that was later devastated by a forest fire, earning it the name Chuttanad (burnt spot). Kuttanad is thought to have evolved into Kuttanad through time. Kuttanad was a region under the Chera dynasty, which ruled over ancient Kerala, according to history. Cheran Chenguttavan, one of the dynasty’s most prominent monarchs, is claimed to have controlled his enormous realm from Kuttanad. At the time, the location was also a well-known Buddhist center. As a result, there are arguments that suggest it’s also known as Buddhanad, which may have evolved into Kuttanad later.

The importance of Kuttanad can be numerous but the fact that Kuttanad is below sea level stands out, Kuttanad Wetland Agriculture System is unique, as it is the only system in India that favors rice cultivation below sea level in the land created by draining delta swamps in brackish waters. Kuttanad is a delta region of about 900 sq. km situated on the west coast of Kerala State, India. The area is a larger mosaic of fragmented landscape patches and varied ecosystems such as coastal backwaters, rivers, vast stretches of paddy fields, marshes, ponds, garden lands, edges, corridors, and remarkably networked waterways. The Kuttanad Below Sea-level Farming System (KBSFS) is unique, as it is the only system in India that practices rice cultivation below sea level. The major land use structure of KBSFS is flat stretches of rice fields in about 50,000 ha of mostly reclaimed delta swamps. The rice fields, which are popularly known as “Puncha Vayals” exist in three landscape elements:  Karapadam (upland rice fields), Kayal (wetland rice fields), and Kari (land buried with black coal-like materials). Farmers of Kuttanad have developed and mastered the spectacular technique of below sea level cultivation over 150 years ago. They made this system unique as it contributes remarkably well to the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services including several livelihood services for local communities.

Traveling to Kuttanad is a must for visitors who don’t want to miss the scenic beauty of this verdant backwater destination in Kerala. Kuttanad is crisscrossed with waterways that run alongside fields of cassava, banana, and yam, as well as emerald green fields of paddy. A unique feature of Kuttanad is that many of these fields where farming is done are below sea level. The fields are surrounded by earthen bunds and crops are grown on the low-lying ground. This is similar to the polder regions of the Netherlands where land is reclaimed from the sea and crops are grown. You have to see the amazing below-sea-level fields of Kuttanad to get an actual feel of the place. Kuttanad is a backwater paradise and an ideal destination for a backwater cruise in Kerala. Its innumerable streams, channels, waterways, and lakes make it possible to drift along in a houseboat and enjoy the scenic view of the Kerala countryside to take back home a memorable holiday experience.

Kuttanad is a region that has made a stamp of its own in the cultural domain of Kerala. It continues to captivate the minds of people from different walks of life. And travelers invariably find Kuttanad a land that never ceases to amaze them. Cruises on houseboats, the scenic beauty of paddy fields and coconut groves, flocks of local as well as migratory birds, paddling of domesticated ducks cruising on the backwaters, a refreshing swig of toddy, backwater delicacies, the many facets of backwater villages and their people, all make Kuttanad a unique land with never-ending vistas and experiences.

Published by LakesOfIndia

Lakes of India is an E.F.I initiative aimed at sensitizing the larger public on freshwater habitats across the country. A blog platform where one can read about lakes across India. You can become a guest blogger to write about a lake in your hometown and initiate an action to protect that lake.

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