The monsoons are here, bringing with it a host of excitement, especially in Kerala. It’s the time when people take a break from the daily work to be part of, watch and cheer on, and enjoy the boats race along Kerala’s famous water bodies. And if you’re in God’s Own Country during the monsoon, the thrilling boat race is an event you should not miss. Here are the state’s most famous boat races for you to choose from,
Vallam Kali, now a famous attraction, is more than just a sport for the people of Kerala
An ancient tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years, boat races are still organised and celebrated with great enthusiasm in the state. For the locals, vallam kali or boat races, are not just a thrilling sport but an experience unlike any other. The calendar of boat races starts on June 26th, 2017, with Kerala hosting the Champakulam Boat Race, a major annual event in the state. However, there are other boat races held through the year, take a look!
History & Rituals Associated With Boat Races
Boat racing in Kerala can be traced back to the 13th Century, when races on paddled canoes were organised as a way to settle any disputes between the feudal kings and chieftains. The name used was Vallam Kali, which translates to ‘boat game’, and this is the name locally used to refer to these even now. However, each race comes with its own specific legends and folklore.
Participants hard at work during a thrilling boat race in Kerala
Along with a historic and cultural element to these races, there is also a religious connotation to the events. The boat races are organised around temple festivals in the state, and come complete with specific rituals. The races are marked by the boatmen singing Vanchipattu, a type of song/hymn in Malayalam, with about 25 singers sitting in the midst of the oarsmen to add a melodious and peppy element to the sport. These popular songs hold a special place in Kerala’s culture and tradition, and impart an unforgettable aura to the race as the brightly decked vessels make their way through the calm waters, trying to overtake each other. Cheering the participants on in the company of thousands of people standing on the shores is a must-have experience!
Boat Racing in Kerala – Types of Boats & Events
Mostly held around the monsoon and the Onam festival (harvest season) in the famous backwaters of Kerala, as well as a few other major lakes, the boat races involve more than one type of boat like the Iruttukuthy Vallam, Churulan Vallam, Kochu Vallam, and Odi Vallam. But the most popularly used ones are the Snake Boats, known locally as Chundan Vallam.
The centuries-old design of the snake boat is still popular in Kerala’s races.
The snake boats were first designed around 650 years ago by skilled craftsmen as a war boat for a fight between Kings Chembakassery and Kayamkulam. Used by a Kuttanadu region community, these boats are massive vessels of up to 120 feet length and can accommodate more than 100 rowers. Their streamlined shape is what gave the snake boats their name, and you can instantly recognise the magnificent vessels from their narrow, long design with pointed ends that are decorated beautifully for the races.
Currently, most villages in the region have their own snake boat that they maintain and take great pride in. Annually, about 90-128 rowers from each village take part in the races, giving it their best to beat the competition. You can watch these snake boat races in places like Punnamada in Alappuzha (Alleppey) and on the Pamba River in Aranmula.
The Most Famous Boat Races in Kerala
The beauty of this annual event is that it is not just one race, but numerous boat races held across the state. This gives visitors a higher likelihood of experiencing a race in case you cannot make it to a particular one. Since the list of Kerala’s boat races may look overwhelming and confusing for the first-time traveller, here are our recommendations of the most popular ones that you can consider joining while in God’s Own Country.
#1 Champakulam Moolam Boat Race
Among the ancient and most famous races, the Champakulam Moolam was traditionally held to mark the day when a new idol of Lord Krishna was brought by boat to the Ambalappuzha Sri Krishna Temple. The race is held in June or July on the Champakulam Lake. Before the race begins, performing artists display their skills on the colourfully decked boats, marking a lively start to the festival.
#2 Aranmula Uthrattadi Vallamkali (Aranmula Boat Race)
The snake boats in the Aranmula race carry singers and helmsmen in addition to 100 rowers
A two-day event held on the Pampa River during Kerala’s famous Onam festival (August-September), the Aranmula Boat Race is among the oldest races in the state. More than 25 massive traditional snake boats, called Palliyodams, participate in this event that is dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna. The boats get a makeover for the festival as well, with each being decorated with golden lace, colourful umbrellas, and flags.
#3 Payippad Jalotsavam
This boat race is a three-day-long annual event held during Onam, usually in the month of September on Lake Payippad. Legend has it that the idol of Lord Subramanya for the Subramanya Swamy Temple in Haripad was found in the Kayamkulam River, from where it was carried on a boat to its current location. The Payippad Boat Race marks the Prathista (installation) ceremony of the idol.
#4 Nehru Trophy Boat Race
The Nehru Trophy Boat Race is a major annual event in Kerala
There is an interesting history behind this name. When India’s first Prime Minister Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru visited the state in 1952, the enthusiasm of the rowers and the welcome that he received impressed him so much that he awarded a rolling trophy to the race winners. Since then, the event has become a famous commercial affair drawing hordes of people each year. The race takes place on the Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha on the second Saturday of every August.
With so many events through the year, the boat races of Kerala are easily accessible for visitors who plan their holiday at the right time. Kerala is best visited during the monsoon months, between June to October, when the greens are greener, the backwaters are fuller and the people are more in a celebratory mood. So plan your trip accordingly!
Kerala Fact File:
Location: On the Malabar coast in South India
How to Reach: Three international airports in Calicut, Cochin, and Trivandrum; Southern Railway line of Indian Railways has stations at most major cities and towns.
Official Language: Malayalam
Time Zone: UTC+05:30
Climate: Maritime tropical
Food & Drink: Fish Moilee, Thalassery Biryani, and Appam with Stew, are the dishes to try.
Interested in witnessing these exciting boat races of Kerala?