Every year during monsoons the state of Kerala, in the south of India, is witness to its many popular snake boat races. A snake boat or the Chundan Vallam is actually a long canoe style boat used in these boat races, which is now part and parcel of the rich and traditional heritage of this beautiful state.
The Aranmula Boat Race is one of the most widely attended boat races of Kerala. One of the oldest boat race events, it is a two-day affair held annually during the harvest festival Onam in the month of September. Not just a contest it is also a religious occasion to carry offerings on the snake boats to the Parthasarathy temple in the Aranmula district, dedicated to Lord Krishna. Legend has it that a devotee was once carrying offerings for Lord Krishna in his boat and his boat was looted. Inconsolable and heartbroken he had a dream in which Lord Krishna advised him to build bigger and stronger boats that could be rowed by several oarsmen and could easily make its way smoothly across the water. This is how the famous Snake boats or Palliyodams came into existence.
The Aranmula Vallamkali refers to this traditional boat race competition which is more a part of the festive celebration than an actual fiercely contested competition. There is more fun and amusement involved and the rivalry is healthy. Conducted on the river Pampa in the Aranmula district of Kerala, the participants are the villages situated on the banks of the river, each village has its own boat which they take great pride in as it represents their respective villages. Spectators position themselves on the banks of the river near the temple to witness this spectacular event.
The competition celebrates the anniversary of the installation of the idol of Lord Krishna, who is said to have crossed the river Pampa in the vicinity of where the Parthasarathy temple is now.
A series of songs called the Vanchipattu are sung enthusiastically during the course of the race both by the participants and the audience. Traditionally dressed rowers accompanied by a group of 25 singers are cheered on by an exuberant crowd. Each boat, with a capacity of 120 people including helmsmen, singers, and oarsmen , is about 100 feet in length with a raised hood and a narrow front. The rear portion can tower to a height of around 20 ft.
Amidst loud cheering and enthusiastic singing by the crowds, the race begins in the afternoon after morning rituals and prayers. All the boats gather near the temple for blessings before the race. The excited spectators are equal participants as they encourage the boatmen belonging to their respective villages.
Boat repairs and maintenance are carried out months before the race. Built by master builders the technique is passed down to each generation. Beautifully decorated with colourful flags, parasols, and other trimmings the Aranmula boat race is an experience in itself and you have to see it for yourself to really experience the enthusiasm, excitement and fervour of the locals.