The Kumarakom Lakes Area, and a Visit To a Unique Driftwood Museum in Kerala, India

The Kumarakom Lakes Area, and a Visit To a Unique Driftwood Museum in Kerala, India

The taxi ride from Varkala Beach northeast to the Kumarakom lakes area took about four hours.

Kumarakom is a backwater, a fertile, green area with large lakes.
We are staying on the shores of Vembanad Lake, which is a Great Lake.
It is so large that it has its own internal wave patterns, and the other shores are barely visible from our shore.
There are a few passengers ferries crossing the waterways, but vehicles must drive around the lakes, using bridges to cross between them.

Technically, it is not a lake, although it is surrounded by land.
At its northernmost point, it opens to the Arabian Sea, which makes it technically a huge bay or a harbor.

The Great Vembanad Lake is famous for its beautiful houseboats, which are made traditionally from wood and bamboo and are roofed by coir (woven coconut fronds).
Village life along the lake and its many tributary canals, which has the feel of island life in Polynesia, has been ongoing in Kerala for centuries.

The area is very lush, green and beautiful.
Coconut trees provide Kerala its number one agricultural crop.
They are at the heart of the State’s economy, even ahead of tourism.

Our hotel, the Aveda Resort and Spa, is located on the southeastern shores of scenic Vembanad Lake.
Along the shores, a vast array of fisher birds, frogs and lizards live between the water lilies and lake vegetation.

The hotel has a 150 meter long swimming pool, and two or three men clean the pool all day long.
Because the pool is surrounded by trees and flowers, with lovely planters in the middle, their job of keeping the pool clean is never ending.

The rooms are comfortable cottages, all facing the lake.
Some cottages have a private plunge pool, although we did not use ours even once, preferring to enjoy the lovely, big and quiet swimming pool.

Similar to most resorts on the lake, the guests spend most of their day in the resort.
On the day we arrived, we took the sunset cruise on the lake, in one of the traditional houseboats.
It was a lovely slow cruise, and we got to meet and chat with other guests.

In the evening, we watched a traditional Kerala dance performance, which was very beautiful.
The dancer dressed in traditional dress with tiny bells attached to her ankles.
Her neck movements, facial expression and hand gestures were fabulous, as she dramatized for us the traditional story of the song.

We got to try a few new South Indian dishes, which we enjoyed, including a
fried prawns Kerala style, in which the prawns were dipped in coconuts and chilly.
We ate it with a vegetable Biryani, which helped mellow the spices a little.
It was crispy and tasty.

We also enjoyed a dish called Karimeen Pollichathu, a Kumarakom Pearl Spotted fish wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked with Kerala spices.

A fish Biryani, with a mix of Masala and Kerala spices cooked with coconut oil, coconut milk and fresh curry leaves with long grain Kerala rice, was also delicious..

We tried two different kinds of young coconut and rice desserts, including an Elaneer Payasam, rice cooked in coconut milk and spiced with cardamon and jaggery, (a kind of brown sugar molasses made from palm trees.)

Everyday we swam and played in the pool and took walks.
During one of our walks, we stopped to drink fresh coconut juice from a roadside stand, looked at the oils and spices that some of the stores sell, and refused lots of rickshaw drivers who were puzzled as to why we wanted to walk.

We came upon the “Bay Island Driftwood Art Museum” on our way to the bird sanctuary.
As the sign requested, we removed our shoes at the door.
All shops, even the most dingy ones, ask you to leave your shoes at the door.

The owner, wearing a traditional Sari, introduced herself as Raji Punnoose and asked us to please come in.
We paid the 80 rupees per person entry fee, and she asked us to sit so she could tell us about this one of a kind museum.

She had a theatrical voice, stretching out the end of her sentences for a long time, in order to emphasize what she was trying to say.
She was a delight to listen to, and we found ourselves riveted with joy.

First she asked us what were our ‘good’ names and where we were from.
When we said that we were from New Zealand, she said that her niece, her sister’s daughter, had moved to NZ and that she now works as a therapist there.

Then she started in on a highly entertaining hour long monologue, in which she blended intimate details about her life, her husband’s cancer and miraculous healing, her twenty four years of collecting driftwood, bits of prose and poetry, praises of Lord Jesus Christ and questions about things that she wanted to know about in New Zealand.
We were highly entertained.

She said:
“All that you see is made of driftwood.
You have never seen anything like this in the whole world….dddddd.
Old wood turned into stone with the spirit of a wonderful lady turned into eternal life….fffffff

Just observe and enjoy the heart touching art of nature…..rrrrrrrr….
Driftwood that has become fossilized….ddddddd
The wonders of the wild sea…..eeeee
Fossilized wood…..ddddd shaped into art by Mother Nature and the passing of time and the salty sea….eeeeee…

Only Rosewood can become fossilized…..ddddddd….
Other kinds of wood when submerged in water get rotted and decay…..yyyyy.
In the Bay of Bengal, near the Andaman and Nicobarese Islands,
There are whole forests of Rosewood which are submerged in the sea……eeeee.

Aged by millions of years and seasoned in the ocean for centuries,
The wood is molded and sculptured through hydrodynamic process by the sea waves….ssssss

It is with the sea I slept
But the view thy kept
Cuddled, caressed in thy wanton depth
With the sculptor that mended my worth
Drifting down the ride I gained,
A wizard with melody played.
Smoothing with the pensive hand
Galore I,
A figurine born.
Who am I ?
Driftwood reborn!….nnnnnnnnn

All you see here are driftwoods that I collected when small tsunamis washed upon the islands.
When the earthquakes occurred, the earth would shake shake shake,
Those fossilized pieces of driftwood would come up….ppppppppp
From the depth…..thththththt

While my husband was in the army, we used to live south on an island in the Bay Of Bengal.
Little Andaman was the name…eeeee….
Many lovely little islands around the Bay of Bengal…lllllll…

You need a lot of little islands to collect the driftwood.
The islands block the driftwood from being washed into the sea….eeeeeee
If there were no little islands, it would all go into the sea…eeeeee.

The driftwood may look like wood, but it is like metal, not wood…dddd.”

At that point she took a four foot long metal stick and seriously banged it on one of the driftwood sculptures.
The sound of metal striking metal reverberated in the room.
She continued to bang on each and every sculpture in the room, to reassure us that they were all made from fossilized wood.

Above each sculpture she had hung a short explanation of where and when she had found the wood, and a small poem about the animal that it resembled.

“No human hands can create such masterpieces that God has created from these wood…ddddd…..

How can a human hand create such beauty as the petals of the rose you see before you now…..wwwww…..
Can human hands make a cut such as you see in the mouth of the dolphin here? …..
No human hand can do this…..sssssssss.

Please, ma’am, stand exactly over there and have a look here and see the snakes.
The cobra rising, the Python snake climbing, the green snakes that we see in the trees here in Kerala all the time….mmmmmmm
See the snake garden?
I called it the snake garden….nnnnnnnnn

For Twenty four years, I have collected these fossilized driftwoods…..ssssss
It was my hobby.
I worked as a secondary teacher with minimum qualifications….sssss
I had no money for education, and being a young woman I needed money for dowry and gold to offer my husband’s family…..yyyyyyy…..

I could only get the minimum qualifications to become a secondary teacher.
I’ve been a teacher, but my hobby was collecting driftwood art….ttttt
I never dreamed that it would become a museum one day….yyyyyy
Never DARED to dream that it would be a museum one day….yyyyyy

One day a gallery owner from Calcutta said it is the BEST art he ever saw….wwwww
He said that the world MUST see these masterpieces of nature….rrrrrr…..

So after my husband retired from the army and his father got sick, we moved here to Kerala to help his father….rrrrr….

It was good.
He was a good man and now he is gone….eeeeee
We stayed here and opened this museum….mmmmm
A dream come true….uuuuuuu
A lotus that had germinated inside my soul and now the time has come for it to bloom, blossom and grow…oooooooo

I have a hundred and thirty eight sculptures on display….yyyyyy
I’ve collected them all.
After a small tsunami, I would go looking for the driftwood….ddddddd.
It is heavy.
I saw the eyes of the dog, or the camel, or the monkey, calling to me to fish it out of the mud….dddddddd

I took them and just cleared a little bit here and there, allowing the form of the sculpture to tell me what it was….ssssss
What kind of soul was inside it…..”

At that point, she had changed her tone and no longer spoke with the stretched drawl of a preacher.
She asked in a normal, no nonsense tone of voice:

“Tell me something, my niece who lives in New Zealand, her husband is a lawyer here in India.
He wants to get a working Visa to New Zealand, and move to NZ and get hired to work there as a lawyer.
Can he do that?
Can he become a lawyer in New Zealand?”

Jules and I said that we thought that he would have to first study British law and pass the bar exam in NZ in order to become a licensed solicitor in NZ.

She looked at us sideways and asked how much did the bar exam cost?
We said we had no clue.
She asked us to approximate.
We said we really have no clue.
We know that in the USA, the bar exam costs a small fortune.

She said:
I will tell my sister that the exam is very, very expensive.
That you need a fortune!
My niece’s husband is not a very good man.
He is a lawyer but he is a spendthrift.
He spends all the money.
He earns money as a lawyer, and then he spends it quickly and irresponsibly.
He is a spendthrift!

He is also a man of low morals,
A despicable man
Not a good man.
A trouble maker.

This is why my niece, who is his wife, left to live in New Zealand.
She left to get away from him.
She even left her child behind and ran away from him.

There is a child.
A child exists.
My sister raises their child.

He is not a very good husband and not a good father.
He is a spendthrift.
But he does not harm the child,
My sister has the child.
And now he wants to go to NZ.
I am sure the exam costs too much money….”

As she continued her monologue, I was thinking to myself: “Great, this is just what New Zealand needs, an Indian lawyer who is a despicable man of low morals with a bad character…..”
I nodded my head in agreement, saying that I also thought that the bar exam would probably be very, very expensive and beyond his reach…

“I will just tell my sister that it is just too expansive.
The man is a headache, troublemaker, a spendthrift….
Look here,
Can you see the lion?
The crocodile is the pride of my collection.
Listen to the metal sound….ddddd
It just look likes wood…ddddd
But it is all fossilized……zdzdzdzd
Also it is very heavy.
Here lift this up,
I told you!
Now madam,
You stand over there and look sideways,
Doesn’t that look JUST like my very own Lord Jesus Christ, the lord of Love and life and miracles and all good blessings?

Miracles are real!
We got a miracle as well.
My husband was very sick a few years back.
His prostate cancer was 99 grams big.
He also had very large kidney stones.
Very painful.
Nearly died.

May 7th!
May 7th was the date scheduled for his operation to remove the prostate cancer.
We gave fifty thousands rupees as a deposit.
First installment of many installments for what the operation costs.

May 6th, the lord Jesus gave us a miracle…LLLLL
The doctors ran to his room, saying we cannot operate,
Where did the cancer go?
Big cancer, now gone….nnnnnn

My husband was cured from kidney stones as well.
We got our fifty thousand rupees back and went home.
Cancer, never returned….ddddd.

Can you see my lord Jesus Christ in that wood?
Now, you stand here by my Lord Jesus,
Both of you.
Stand by my Jesus and I take a photo.

Madam looks very nice in her dress.
Is that the official dress of New Zealand?
Is that what women in New Zealand wear?
What you are wearing now?”

I looked down at my busy shirt of Lord Shiva and Parvati with their son little Ganesh which I got in Varkala Beach, and the sarong printed with Hindu scriptures which I got in Varanasi, and smilingly admitted that it was NOT the traditional dress of NZ, nor the outfit that most women in NZ wear…

Jules and I stood next to the driftwood of Jesus while she took our photos with my camera.
Then she wanted to take a photo of us with her at the entrance to the museum exhibit. She said:
“Now, madam, I wish to take a photo with you both together.”

She took out of her dress pocket an old mobile phone and tried to take a selfie of herself with us.
The phone’s camera was directed out, and she did not know how to invert it to take a selfie.
She tried a few dozens times to take the photo, but was not successful.

She finally gave up and called over the old man who was sitting quietly in the other room.
He was wearing a Lungi (sarong) and no shirt.

I asked if he were her husband, and she said:
“No, no, he is just an old man who I am feeding twice a day for many years now.
He comes every day and stays here for hours.
I give him food.
He will take our photo.”

But pressing a button on a mobile phone, was more than the old man could manage.
The first time he tried, he brought up google search.
The second time he opened an application, and so it went, on and on.

Jules was laughing so hard, it was delightful.
He said that this was not a simple act of taking a selfie or a photo on a mobile phone, this was bringing a man who lives in the eighteen century, into the twenty first century, and that it would take some time….
He was trying not to laugh out loud, but he could hardly hide his amusement.

After dozens of unsuccessful attempts, the lady gave up and asked Jules to take her photo with me.
She hugged me, mentioning again how much she liked my dress.

Before we left and thanked her a dozen of times, she asked us to help her to get the Indian government to sponsor and pay for audio guide headphones for the museum.

The museum was one room, and no doubt she would not be able to handle the technology of audio guide headphones, but she was convinced that this was what the future generation needs, after she would no longer be here to give lengthy private tours.

She said:
“You help me!
You write an email to the Indian government and tell them that the museum will benefit greatly from Audio Guide headphones.
Help me to get audio commentary headphones.
Not for myself, but for future generations.
I am sixty five.
I will not be here forever.
I do not wish to see this art treasure disappear.
I want future generations to understand and appreciate the soul of the place.
You write the Ministry Of Culture Government Of India and tell them what an important museum it really is.”

We promised to write and try to help.

Later in the day, when we were having a late lunch at the Zuri Resort, I thought about that woman’s niece and her “spendthrift” husband.

The way Raji Punnoose at the Driftwood Museum was quickly shutting off the lights after each sculpture that we already saw, made me think that perhaps her idea of what a wasteful behavior was, and what a spendthrift is, is that he leaves the ceiling fan on when he leaves the room for five minutes….

But I was sure that she would not say that he was of bad character, if he were a good man.
In general, Indian people seem to be much more forgiving of character flaws than other cultures.

We’ve enjoyed our visit to the Kumarakom area.
It was a relaxed stay in a green and fertile land.
The lake was beautiful and clean and the houseboats truly magical.

The rain came every night, falling late at night and drying up by morning, making it a true paradise, in which the rain does not affect your enjoyment of the place, but falls at night, filling the lakes and watering the flowers and the trees.

The water plants on the lake are free floating and when it rains, they scatter over the lake in green batches.
When the waves come later in the day, they rearrange themselves by the shoreline like hedges of grass.
It is a lovely sight.

On another afternoon walk along the quiet village streets, we met many people who were so happy to meet and greet us or introduce us to their kids.
In that village nobody had mobile phones, and people gathered in the evenings to talk to their neighbors.
Life seems pleasant and slow here in the backwaters of Kerala….

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