Visionary Babu Varghese, the father of Kerala’s famed Houseboats


“It was like one man versus the rest of the world, when I disclosed my plans in 1995 to introduce the Kerala version of the houseboats, employing local artisans and the age-old kettuvalloms, the rice boats, once the workhorses of our backwaters, now abandoned with the advent of the automobile age,” Babu Varghese, the tourism visionary and innovator par excellence of  God’s Own Country, was visibly excited and  slightly angry as he spoke to me in the cramped office of his firm, Tour India, in Thiruvananthapuram on that sunny forenoon of 1997.

Those days, I was in the process of putting together the pages of the inaugural issue of this magazine, scheduled for May ’97, and very much wanted to include a feature on Babu’s houseboats that helped re-discover Kerala as an exotic destination, and the backwaters in the State as a must-see beauty spot on the face of this green magic land.

“When my product, fashioned out of an old, dilapidated rice boat, and transformed by ace carpenter Kunjan Mesthiri and his band of artisans at Alumkadavu near Kollam into a fascinating new avatar, everyone predicted that it would sink the moment it began sailing. And, to the shock and dismay of those ‘everyone’, my boats, and a thousand-plus imitations of it are crisscrossing the backwaters now, bringing much money and fame to Kerala, till then known as the Kovalam-centric destination with limited choices.”

Instead of carrying a feature based on our conversation, Babu Vargese suggested that we reproduce an article that appeared in the Sunday Times of London, penned by renowned travel writer Mark Ottaway. I readily agreed. When, within a few hours, Babu secured the reproductionclearance from his ‘‘good and dear friend’’ Mark, my admiration for this one-man movement grew taller by a few inches. Ottaway’s feature detailing his voyage on Babu’s houseboat, comparing it to the Sydney Opera House riding the waves, appeared in our maiden edition under the title Vantage Point.

The advent of Babu’s houseboats marked the emergence of Kerala as a truly exotic destination, elevating it to the lofty levels of one of the 10 paradises on Earth, and one of the 50 must-see destinations of a lifetime. Perhaps, the one misjudgment made by Babu in this regard was his obstinate refusal to patent the design, throwing it open instead, and as a result, fake floatsams are today polluting the aqua environment of the State, their standards so low that we earn a lot of unwanted disrepute for the industry.

Our friendship, kick-started during that very first meeting, flourished and continued till his untimely passing away in 2011 at age 60.

It was also my privilege to spend a couple of nights in one of the tree houses, another of Babu’s crazy innovations, perched atop a 30-metre tall tree in the Kalladi forest in Kerala’s Wayanad district. He invited me to test-ride his Villuvandi, the luxury bullock cart that was one of the status symbols of the rich in Kerala, till the arrival of the automobile. I couldn’t make it, and by the time I was ready, Babu was gone.

He shunned awards, both state and private, like the plague. National and state tourism awards were his for the asking, but he refused to sign the mandatory application, because, according to him, ‘‘recognition should come looking for us, without we having to beg for it,’’ a principle I have borrowed from him and practiced in my line of work ever since.

As the houseboat celebrates its silver jubilee this year, here is placing on record our appreciation and gratitude for all that Babu Varghese did for the tourism industry in Kerala. I personally miss his jovial presence in our midst, and sincerely mourn for a friend who re-ignited the flame of dynamism in the tourism sector, giving it a fresh dimension no one believed could be attained and sustained.