My earliest memory of the Snake Boat Race in Kerala is from my school textbook. I remember a picture in black and white with a longboat that almost looks like a snake with its hood raised. That image made its way to a dream in my eyes. One fine day I would visit the backwaters of Kerala to see this unique boat race with my own eyes. It took a few decades for that to materialize, but it did happen.
I was in Alappuzha or Alleppey to see the 67th Nehru Boat Race as well as the maiden race of the just-launched Champions Boat League.
History of Snake Boat Race in Kerala
Alappuzha is water dominant or a Jal Pradhan district of Kerala. It has the backwaters crisscrossing the land as they look towards the Arabian sea. No matter where you stand, you are never away from water. People grow up with water as part of their lives. They learn to swim as most of us learn to walk. Each house has a boat and everyone in the family knows how to row a boat.
Jalotsav or Water Festivals of Kerala Temples
Boat races were traditionally a part of temple festivals. Deities were taken out for a boat ride processions on the backwaters, that lasted up to 3 days. With deities as the witness, people used to have boat races. There were also a lot of water festivals that the region used to have. In good old days, the time of the boat races was decided by the astrological calculations.
Vallam Kalli is the Malayalam name of the snake boat race. Traditionally, these races are conducted around the festive season of Onam.
About 500-600 years back, these boats were also used by neighboring kings as war boats to fight the battles.
In the 20th Avatar, a rolling trophy was announced by the then PM Nehru. Since then, Nehru boat race trophy is a coveted event among Kerala Boat racing community.
Champions Boat League
The latest avatar of Snake Boat Race in Kerala is Champions Boat League that has been launched this year in 2019. 9 teams would be auctioned in a league format and the league season would run for good 3 months when boat races would happen in water bodies across Kerala.
This format would allow more people to participate and watch the sport. It is also timed with the relatively low tourist season in the state. To allow people from outside Kerala, 25% of the team composition is allowed to be from outside the state. I did see the team members from North East India.
Kerala tourism is also planning a boat museum to complement the boat races.
Kerala Snake Boat Race Schedule
Nehru Trophy Boat Race is held at Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha. It is held on 2nd Sunday of August, though this year it was postponed due to floods.
Champakkulam Moolam boat race also in Alappuzha district is held as part of Sri Krishna Temple festival located at Ambalapuzha. It is believed that when the temple idol was being carried to the temple, it stopped here for a while. Boats lined up all around it for a darshan. The same is repeated every year even now. This is probably the oldest traditional race and also the first one that takes place in a year. It happens around June/July, just at the beginning of the monsoon season.
Aranmula Boat Race on Pampa River as part of Aranmula Parthasarthy Temple annual festival is one of the oldest water festivals. It commemorates the crossing of Pampa river by Sri Krishna.
Payippad Jalotsava or the 3 day Water Festival of Swami Subramanya Temple in Haripad. It is believed that the Murti of Ayyapa Swami was found at Kayamkulam lake and the festival celebrates the installation of the same at the temple.
Indira Gandhi Memorial Boat race, Marine Drive Ernakulam during Onam season.
President’s Trophy Boat Race in Ashtamudi lake, Kollam
Kallada Boat Race in Kallada River, Kollam
Kumarakom Boat Race
Kannetty Sree Narayana Boat Race in Karunagappally, Kollam
Thazhathangadi Boat Race, Kottayam
Gothuruth Boat Race, in the Periyar, Ernakulam
Piravom Boat Race in Piravom
I am trying to get the Tithis or lunar dates of these races so that you can calculate the dates yourself every year. Kerala Tourism publishes the dates annually on their website festival calendar.
A list of minor boat races can be seen here.
Champions Boat League is the latest and statewide entry to this list of boat races in Kerala.
Chudan Vallam or Snake Boats
What we popularly know as snake boats are called Chudam Vallam in Malayalam. It is a narrow long wooden boat anywhere between 100-150 feet in length. The rear part can rise up to 20 feet, giving it the look of a snake. The art of making these snake boats goes back to ancient Indian scriptures or Sthapatya Shastras. For example, the hull is made of wooden planks for certain size only.
Chudan Vallam belongs to a community, usually the whole village. They are treated with the utmost respect, to an extent, most people would remove their shoes before touching them. With proper maintenance, it lasts for generations in the community.
Boats are made with Aanjali wood that is found locally. Oars are made with Coconut wood. You can see the boats parked in the villages. A day before the race, the boats are cleaned and polished, for it is the pride of the village.
There are many other types of boats, slightly smaller in size. We saw women racing on smaller boats. Palliyodams is another name for snake boats.
Snake Boat Race Team
We spoke to Sunil and Pramod of United Boat Club, the oldest boat club of Kerala, in existence since 1955. They are 14 times winner of Nehru Boat trophy, with 3 hattricks to their credit. In 2013, they even had a woman captain of the team called Haritha Anil. They explained to us the team structure of the boat race team.
A team has as many as 110 odd people. About 85 of them are oarsmen called Tuzhakars who row the boat with a small oar that weighs around 2-3 kgs.
There are 5 people who steer the boat from front and back called Valiyaveedu. They have long and heavy oars weighing as much as 15 kgs.
About 11 musicians called Tazhakars are on the team. This includes two drummers who play music and 9 who sing and cheer the team. Vanchipattu is the name of the boat songs sung for cheering the team. Different members of the team come from all walks of life – farmers, fishermen, students, IT professionals. Most of them are in the age group of 18-30. There are a few extra people, who act as substitutes in case needed.
You have to see the rhythm of these boats to believe it. One wonders if they are actually dancing to the music being played on the boat or really fighting a sporting battle.
For roughly a month before the competition, the teams start preparing for it. They practice for 3 hours in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. Practice includes not just rowing the boat in perfect synchronization, but also building stamina through other exercises, running, weight lifting and yoga.
It is fun to see the teams practicing in the backwaters around their villages. We saw one team working on polishing their oars, another one was giving finishing touches to the paint on the boat and yet another was listening to the coach, a retired army captain.
Once the race is over, you would see the teams jumping in the water, and shouting – Aarpo-Roro or Swami-Ayyapa or Jai Sri Ram or anything that they believe in.
Rituals of Vallamkali or Snake Boat Race
The snake boat race is now taking the shape of a professional sport. However, being a traditional game, it can not be away from rituals of the land or should I say water.
On the day of the race, the teams visit the temple early morning around 6:30 AM. Team UBC visits the Paneckal Shivan temple but each team would visit its own temple. Post which they visit the church before having a healthy breakfast and a regular meal by 11:00 AM. By 2:00 PM they are ready for the race or Vallamkali.
At the inauguration ceremony, the traditional drums are played, kathakali and tiger dancers dance on the boats as the trophy is unveiled for the public. Puja is done on a boat carrying a small temple. An atmosphere of joy and celebration is created through colors in the sky.
Crowds line up on either side of the Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha, all along the 1.25-kilometer track of the race that finishes close to the Nehru Island in the lake.
Witnessing the magic of Kerala Boat Race
To watch the snake boats literally move swiftly like a snake is nothing less than magic. The music and songs of the Tazhakars or musicians dampen every other sound. The rhythmic movement of the oars as they splash the water in one go is sheer poetry in motion.
With everyone on a boat wearing a color-coded uniform, it is like watching the colors compete with each other. As a viewer, it did not matter who won or lost as long as I could witness this boat moving like a song being played on the waters with coconut trees being the connoisseurs enjoying their long strides.
Champions Boat League & Nehru Boat Race at Alappuzha
On the day of the Nehru Trophy boat race on Ponnumada lake, the venue was full of people and vendors selling blow horns and whistles. This time it was even more special as the Nehru Boat Race and Champions Boat league both were taking place at the same venue. Sachin Tendulkar was the guest of honor and the crowds simply went crazy as he went around on a boat waving to his fans.
Lake waters had colorful flags marking the tracks for racing boats to follow. Tall coconut trees stand like a curtain between the waters and the rest of the world. They embrace you in their greenery in a way that you are away from all the harsh realities of life. On the other end, houseboats were lined.
Practice to Perfect
In the morning the big and small snake boats were going up and down on the waters, most of them practicing for the big race in the afternoon. Along with them, there were Jet Skis, Motorboats and bigger boats which ferried the VIPs and ticket holders from one end to the island. Some had the security personnel on them overlooking the event.
Around 2 PM, the heats begin. Boats take around 4-5 mins to cover the distance of 1.25 km. However, depending upon where you stand, you can see only a part of the race. Fortunately, I was sitting right in front of the finish line, so I could see the photo finish of many races.
As the boats race towards the finishing line with their rhythmic oars cutting the waters, there is excitement all around. Crowds are cheering their teams, but all the action finishes in a Jiffy. Blink and you miss the action. However, the celebrations of the win make up for it as they go on for a long time after the races are over.
Smaller races happened in between like the women’s race that had women in colorful Saris rowing the boat.
Tropical Titans won this time and their celebrations were as much a treat as their photo finish.
Travel Tips for Kerala Boat Races
Nehru boat race happens on 2nd Sunday of August. For other races check the Kerala Tourism website.
Tickets are available online as well as on the venue. Price ranges from Rs 100/- to Rs 3000/-, the later lets you be on the island along with the VIPs.
The place gets very crowded, so be prepared to deal with the crowd.
Basic food is available on the venue & banana chips are never far in Kerala.