Present day houseboats are huge, slow moving exotic barges used for leisure trips, and are in fact a reworked version of the Kettuvallams of olden times. The original Kettuvallams were used to carry tons of rice and spices. A standard Kettuvallam can hold up to 30 tons of goods from Kuttanad to the Kochi port.
In Malayalam language Kettu refers to ‘dwelling structures’ ‘Vallam’ means boat. These are boats with a thatched roof cover over wooden hulls. The boat is made of planks of jack-wood joined together with coir. This is then coated with a caustic black resin made from boiled cashew kernels. With careful maintenance, a Kettuvallam can last for generations.
A portion of the Kettuvallam was covered with bamboo and coir to serve as a restroom and kitchen for the crew. Meals were cooked onboard and supplemented with freshly cooked fish from the backwaters.
When modern trucks replaced this system of transport, people came up with a new way that would keep these boats, almost all of which were more than 100 years old, in the market. By constructing special rooms to accommodate travellers, these boats cruised forward from near-extinction to enjoy their present popularity.
Today these are a familiar sight on the backwaters and in Alappuzha alone, there are as many as 500 houseboats.