Get ready for the excitement of ‘Vallam Kali’ or the Kerala snake boat races this autumn. An annual affair held during the Onam harvest season, it involves at least four major and fifteen minor races. The event attracts crowds of several hundred thousand people, both locals and foreigners.
Major attraction: Snake Boat Races
Vallam Kali is literally translated as “boat race” in Malayalam. It is a major event that is held in Kerala usually from July to September. The exact dates of the races are determined by the phases of the moon. Various kinds of traditional canoes or paddled longboats are used in the races. But the most renowned is the Chundan Vallam or ‘snake boat’. The curled ends of the boats are shaped like cobra heads. That’s where the snake boat gets its name from, and not the slithering reptile! Some other boats used in various events include the Churulan Vallam, Odi Vallam, Vaipu Vallam and Kochu Vallam. Over the years, snake boat races have become the most popular tourist attraction at the event. Hence Vallam Kali is also known as Kerala Snake Boat Race in English.
Medieval origins of the Snake Boat
The Chundan Vallam was originally created as a war boat in the early 14th century. It was commissioned by King Devanarayan of Chembakassery kingdom and made by a famous carpenter of the day. Even to this day skilled craftsmen build these boats using techniques developed 650 years back. Just that they are now used at the Kerala snake boat races instead of in battle! A typical snake boat is about 100 feet long and seats 150 men. Of these, 4 are helmsmen, 25 singers, and the rest are oarsmen. It takes a lot of hard work and time to build every such boat. It is given the status of a deity and is revered and cared for all year round. Every snake boat is the pride of its owners and the entire village folk.
Oldest Snake Boat Race in Kerala: Aranmula
The oldest snake boat race in Kerala is held at Aranmula, on the river Pampa, on the fifth day of Onam festivities. It is generally a two-day affair that marks the crossing of the river by Lord Krishna. More than thirty Chundan Vallams take part in it, competing furiously over a 40-mile stretch from the hills down to the plains. Thousands of people cheer from the river banks near a famous temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna. Oarsmen don white dhotis and turbans for the occasion. The boats are lovingly decorated with red and green silk umbrellas and other adornments. Traditional Vanchipattu songs are sung in rhythm with the splashing of the water and heaving of the oars. Earlier, women weren’t allowed to go near the boats or participate in the event. But now special races are being organized exclusively for the women as well.
Nehru Trophy Boat Race
Another huge attraction of Vallam Kali is the Nehru Trophy boat race. The race is named after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, who visited Kerala in 1952. He was so enraptured by the Kerala snake boat races that he donated a rolling trophy to the event in his name. The race takes place on the second Saturday of August every year. Thousands of locals as well as tourists gather on the Punnamada backwaters near Alappuzha to watch the event, often touted as “Kuttanad’s Water Olympics”. The 63rd edition of this prestigious cultural and sports even is all set to unfold this year on the 8th of August. The Nehru Trophy boat race is undoubtedly the most famous of all Kerala snake boat races.
Kerala is widely considered as God’s Own Country. Its placid backwaters and lush greenery make for a peaceful retreat into the lap of nature. But come Onam, the tranquil waters are transformed into battlegrounds for paddle boats and the state’s best oarsmen. It is a treat to watch the rhythmic rowing of the oars in perfect sync with each other. The traditional songs being sung in unison by hundreds of men also add to the entertainment value. The energy in the air is palpable, the mood festive. Kerala’s snake boat races are an inextricable part of its cultural and social thread. They serve to bring together people from faraway districts to revel in the magic of the occasion and to celebrate the harvest season.
The races also showcase the unparalleled team spirit and enthusiasm of the people of Kerala. A single mistake can break all synchronization and even cause the overturning of a boat. That’s what makes the Kerala snake boat races all the more enthralling and entertaining. Kerala is a must-visit during Onam celebrations to witness this phenomenal event and enjoy the sights and sounds. Majestic boats decked up like newly-wed brides snaking past your eyes – it isn’t a sight you’d like to give a miss.
If you have already planned your trip to Kerala for August, include the Nehru Boat race to your itinerary and if you haven’t selected your next destination, check our program « Nehru Boat Race Kerala » http://www.shantitravel.com/en/the-shanti-breaks/4-5-days/kerala-nehru-boat-race/