It’s not surprising that with all the great number of water bodies within the verdant state of Kerala, a water sport like ‘Vallamkali’ meaning ‘Boat game’, is very popular. This adrenaline-pumping boat race uses especially-designed snake boats or ‘Chundan Vallams’.
The snake boat races are a mega event attended by thousands of spectators and held on many of the numerous large lakes of Kerala around the time of the famous harvest festival of Onam. This is the times when schools, institutions and all businesses come to a standstill and everyone is in a festive mood. These races have been in existence since about 400 years, and involve numerous long snake boats or canoes, each with its own team. The boats have a steep stern shaped like a snake’s hood and were first designed for use in warfare during the 13nth century, between the feudal kingdoms of Kayamkulam and Chembakassery.
Some of the other forms of boats used during the Vallamkali include the ‘Churulan Vallam’, ‘Iruttukuthy Vallam’, ‘Odi Vallam’, ‘Kochu vallam’ and Vaddakanody Vallam’.
Out of all the boat races held in Kerala, the Nehru Trophy boat race is the most famous, having a history that goes back to 1969. It all began in 1952 when India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru first visited Kerala and was given a rousing welcome in Alleppey escorted by huge snake boats. Experiencing the roaring excitement of a snake boat race, he donated a rolling trophy to be awarded to the winning team of the boat races each year. The distance raced here is about 1.4km in 100-120 feet long canoes with 90-110 rowers per team. This eye-catching event is held on the Punnamada Lake near Alleppey and is an event never to be missed.
Some of the other popular boat races conducted during the monsoon season include the Champakkulam Moolam boat race held on Champakkulam Lake, 25 km from Alleppey; it is held in honor of the day when the Krishna idol was installed at the Shree Krishna temple at Ambalappuzha. Then there is the Aranmula Vallamkali boat race held over two days where Lord Krishna is first honored before starting the races in ‘Palliyodam’ boats. Then there is the Payippad boat race held on the Payippad Lake over a three-day festival to inaugurate the Prathista ceremony.
There are many other snake boat races held over the large lakes connected to Kerala’s backwaters including the Ashtamudi Lake at Kollam. The rhythmically beating oars of the contestants as they turn the lake waters into a furious foam are accompanied by traditional boat songs called ‘Vanchipattu’; this eggs on the spectators into a frenzy of excitement that isn’t easy to forget.