The story of Kuttanad is all about an agrarian community striking a chord of harmony with its distinctive geographical features. This rice bowl of Kerala, comprising parts of three districts – Alappuzha, Pathanamathitta and Kottayam – has vast stretches of verdant paddy fields interlaced with enchanting backwaters. If that doesn’t sound unique, then what is it that makes Kuttanad a special place? It is one of the few places in the world where farming is carried out 2.5 to 3 metres below the sea level.
Geographically Kuttanad is a large mosaic of fragmented landscape, marked by rivers, vast stretches of paddy fields, backwaters, marshes, ponds, coconut groves and network of canals. The history of paddy cultivation in Kuttanad can be traced back to centuries.
The paddy fields of Kuttanad are locally known by the name puncha vayal. These paddy fields are found in three types of land: Karapadam (upland rice fields), Kayal (wetland rice fields) and Kari (land buried with black coal like materials). The paddy fields of Kuttanad with coconut trees on bunds and crisscrossed by canals offer a delightful sight.
Amid the waterlogged land it was difficult for the farmers to find an ideal piece of land for cultivation. But with their persistence and ingenuity they reclaimed large farming areas from the Vembanad Lake. The farmers here built huge bunds to keep the saline water away and bailed out water from the waterlogged area. Earlier, water was bailed out of the land manually with the help of large waterwheels. As years passed by these waterwheels gave way to a motorized version called pettiyum parayum.
These indigenous techniques developed by the farmers of Kuttanad have several similarities with the Dutch (Netherlands) Polder system. But the concrete bunds used in Netherlands were substituted here with bio-bunds made of coir, banana waste, bamboo, clay and other locally available materials to keep away the saline seawater. They made this system unique as it contributes remarkably well to the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem, including several livelihood services.
In 2013 the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations formally declared the below sea-level farming system in Kuttanad as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). This prestigious Heritage Status is a true recognition of the traditional and indigenous farming practices of Kuttanad.