Paddling the Malayali way – a Look at Kerala’s Boat Races

If you ever get an opportunity to visit God’s Own Country Kerala in the months of August and September, DO NOT think twice!

As Kerala’s monsoons hit its peak in the months of August and September, its backwaters become more than a mere spectacle. Uniquely designed snake boats pave their paths around the lagoons in a most rhythmic fashion. Not to mention, the pride and enthusiasm displayed by each residents of the surrounding villages; boosting their morale.

The snake boat races in Kerala. These races take place as part of the Onam festivities. Photo: Jubin Jacob

Legends that are known to a few

There are several stories associated with some of Kerala’s popular boat races. One such story includes the tale of the Chempakulam Boat Races.

This even can be traced back to the days of the Chembakassery king, approximately 400 years ago. He used to reside in the kingdom of Ambalapuzha (currently situated in Kerala’s Aleppey district).

Legend says that the kingwanted to establish at temple here as instructed by his astrologers. However, it was found that the idol, that was meant to be placed in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, was not ‘pure.’ His minister had then suggested that the idol could be replaced with the idol placed at the Karinkulam Temple located in Kurichi (part of present day Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu). This idol was said to have been given by the Pandava warrior – Arjuna.

On their way back, they halted at a village called Champakulam (part of Aleppey district). The idol was kept safely at house which belonged to a Syrian Christian family. The head of the family Mappilassery Itty Thommen was, in fact, the king’s loyal subject and confidant. The following day, the king, his ministers and a large number of subjects as well as Itty Thommen’s family headed towards the Ambalapuzha temple to place the deity. As a token of his gratitude, the Chembakassery Raja had conducted a grand carnival which showcased the boat races.

The snake boat races in Kerala. These races take place as part of the Onam festivities. Photo: Jubin Jacob

Popular boat races in Kerala

There are about 47 boat races conducted in Kerala during the months of August and September. These races take place at several areas situated across the state of Kerala.

The most popular race is the Punnamada Boat Race at Aleppey. This race is conducted in conducted in August (on the second Saturday). It is also called the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, named after the former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. These races are characterized by the unique boats known as Chundan Vallams (which translates to beaked boats). They are also called snake boats. This event is also funded by the state government.

Why is it called the Nehru Boat Race?

In the year 1952, a group of people had organised a boat race at the Punnamada Lake during Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru‘s visit to Kerala in the month of December. The unique display was widely appreciated and a silver trophy was sent from New Delhi by the former Prime Minister and handed over to the winners of the race.

The snake boat races in Kerala. These races take place as part of the Onam festivities. Photo: Jubin Jacob

The other popular boat races include:

  1. Champakulam Moolam Boat Race, Aleppey district
  2. Kumarakom Boat Race, Kottayam district
  3. Uthradam Thirunal Pamba Boat Race, Aleppey district
  4. Aranmula Boat Race, Pathanamthitta district
  5. President’s Trophy Boat Race, Kollam district
  6. Thazhathangadi Boat Race, Kottayam district
  7. Uthara Malabar Boat Race, Kasargod

The art of boat racing

Kerala’s boat races are unique in several aspects, especially the design and rowing techniques. This is an art that is most often passed on from one generation to another. Boat racing to the local residents is more than a mere sport. It is a matter of pride and perhaps the one way in which they strive towards upholding certain traditions.

At present, Uma Maheshawaran and Sabu Narayanan, the sons of ace snake boat designer Kozhimukku Narayanan Asari, are said to be the best designers.

According to a senior radio commentator and a former participant of the Punnamada Boat Race, Mr. Joseph Elamkulam, this is unlike any other competitive sport. Participants are trained to row according to the beats of the Vanji Pattu (boat song). Each race has a specific music genre for the race. While the songs of the Punnamada Lake display the flavours of folk music, the music at the Aranmula Boat Races is devotional in nature.

There aren’t any fixed rules concerning the number of participants per team. Interestingly, the winner of the 2016 Nehru Trophy, Team Karichal, that consisted of 79 members defeated a team that had 102 participants. “It should be noted that those rowing in the backwaters cannot necessarily row as effectively in a river or at sea. The techniques are different, so are the structures of the boat,” explains Mr. Elamkulam.

The snake boat races in Kerala. These races take place as part of the Onam festivities. Photo: Jubin Jacob

The future of boat racing in kerala

Efforts have been made to popularize this ancient sport. It is delightful to know that the fan base for Kerala’s boat races has widened every year. These events do attract tourists from various parts of the globe. Organisers and former participants of the boat race have also taken the initiative to promote the sport by conducting training programmes for children in various parts of the state. “The government has specified a certain set of rules regarding the age limit of the participants, i.e they have to 18-years-old or above. This is primarily due to the reason that today’s children are not accustomed to age old practices such as bathing in the river or even swimming in the river. Hence, they may not be able to take care of themselves in case the boat topples or some other mishap occurs,” Mr. Elamkulam adds. Then again, the enthusiasm to be part of one of the most celebrated sports of Kerala continues to grow with each generation.

So are you geared up for this year’s boat race?

Quick facts

Months: August – September

Popular destinations for the races: Aleppey, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta

Means of transport: Most of the venues are well-connected by buses. You could also resort to a train journey up to the nearest railway station and make arrangements for your own means of transport up to the venue.

Tickets: Do contact your travel agent or the organizers for these details. You may also speak to the local residents for more information. Reference:

Must haves: An umbrella, raincoat, monsoon footwear

Remember: Though the presence of tourists does not frighten the local residents, Kerala’s villages follow a conservative lifestyle. Appropriate and comfortable clothing is adviced for men and women. It would be wise to wear clothes that dry quickly for the races take place during the monsoons and the surrounding areas are marshy.

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