After gliding across a silent lily-choked waterway in a traditional thoni canoe, I step off a wooden jetty and into mud. Deep, black sticky goo, veritable quicksand that swallows my shoe up to the ankle.
Messy it may be, but this nutrient-rich sludge is actually the life-force of a rare and increasingly important Keralan crop – pokkali rice. The story of this ancient, salt-tolerant grain is a fascinating one, and the inspiration for a new, grassroots tourist venture that provides an important income source for the farmers, as well as a valuable insight into a traditional way of life in southern India.
Pokkali is a rare type of wild rice grown only in three districts of Kerala – Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Thrissur. Said to have washed down from the Western Ghats during a great flood in the 14th century, this 1.5 metre-high plant evolved naturally in the southern coastal region, adapting to the saline backwaters.
An organic crop, pokkali requires no pesticides or manure to grow; instead, its cultivation works in symbiosis with shrimp production, with the two crops raised in the same fields during different seasons. The rice plants draw nutrients from the dried scales and poop of the shrimp; while the decaying stems provide shelter and food for the baby prawns.
With just one harvest a year, however, pokkali is low yield; and in a modern world of mass production, its farmers were struggling to remain viable, and the rice threatened with extinction. Enter Gopinath Parayil of the Blue Yonder, a company offering responsible travel experiences with meaningful interactions with local communities.
"This is where we thought we could work with the community, by creating a responsible tourism product and linking it with storytelling." Gopinath says. "It's a win-win situation – the guests are getting an experiential holiday, hotels are interested in buying the rice because it has a story, and the farmers are getting higher than market rates."
While pokkali's long history is fascinating, its future is what really excites Gopinath.
"Because of climate change, sea levels are rising: and the agricultural sector is going to see unprecedented crisis leading to increased food insecurity. However, Kerala is sitting on a goldmine with a rice like pokkali, which is highly tolerant to salinity. This is probably an answer for the future."
To visit the community-based model-project in the village of Ezhikkara, we set off by ferry from Kadamakkudy, an island suburb on the outskirts of Kochi. Exploring the backwaters of Kerala – a massive system of lagoons, lakes, rivers and canals that lie just beyond the coastline – is the quintessential travel experience of Southern India; and whether on a traditional kettuvallam rice barge or via chugging public transport, it's a dreamy journey through this drowned wonderland into a slower pace of life.
In Ezhikkara, we are met by a pokkali farmer who walks us through the village, visiting its vegetable market and an interpretative centre where the inspirational story of pokkali's survival is documented. We are then led around the waterlogged rice fields where this year's crop is in its infancy, greeted with broad smiles at every step, language differences no barrier to hospitality.
After fresh coconuts are retrieved from palm canopies and slashed to quench our thirst, we are then invited back onto the water, paddling through lily-strewn canals in rickety thoni dugouts, spotting elegant egrets and black-capped kingfishers – just some of the 174 bird species that call this hypnotic waterworld home.
Back at the rice fields, we are met by the wafting scent of frying spices; the local women have been hard at work, preparing our lunch. Jumping in to help out for the final touches, we then sit down with our gracious hosts to feast on aromatic fish curry, served, of course, with the hero of the day – pokkali rice.
Red, plump and tasty, pokkali is high in protein and is said to be beneficial for health. Climate change never looked so heartening!
The tour starts from Kochi, in Kerala state. Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi via Singapore. From Delhi, flights to Kochi are available with Air India (airindia.in) or several budget airlines.
A Mantra Wild 7-day Pokkali Rice and Boutique/Intimate Backwaters Experience, including a pokkali rice tour with The Blue Yonder and accommodation at Kayal Island Retreat, costs from $1899 for travel up to September 30, 2019, or $2749 after October 1, 2019. See mantrawild.com.au
Julie Miller was a guest of Mantra Wild.