Chundan vallams or snake boats are narrow boats over 100 feet (30 m) long, with a raised prow that stands 10 feet (3.0 m) above water and resembles the hood of a snake. Traditionally these were used by local rulers to transport soldiers during waterfront wars. In modern times, it has spawned a new sport – the Vallam Kali (boat race). Each chundan vallam accommodates about a hundred muscular oarsmen.
Boat races are occasions of great excitement and entertainment with thousands gathered on the banks to watch and cheer. Most of these races are held in the Kuttanad region of Alappuzha.
The boat races starts with Champakulam Moolam Boat Race which is held on the Pamba River in the village Champakulam on Moolam day (according to the Malayalam Era M.E) of the Malayalam month Midhunam, the day of the installation of the deity at the Ambalappuzha Sree Krishna Temple. Very interesting stories lie behind the origin of Moolam Boat Race.
When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Kerala in 1952, four traditional chundan valloms went to receive him. A snake boat race was organised for him. He was so impressed that when he went back to Delhi, he sent back a gleaming silver trophy for a boat race. Even today, the 1.5 km Nehru Trophy Boat Race is the most prestigious. It is held during the Onam harvest festival in August in Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha.
The Thazhathangadi boat race held every year on Meenachil river, at Thazhathangadi, Kottayam is one of the oldest and popular boat races in the state.
Other renowned boat races are: Indira Gandhi Boat Race, Champakulam Moolam Boat Race, Aranmula Uthrattadi Vallamkali, Payippad Jalotsavam, kallada Boat Race and Kumarakom Boat Race.
For a few months every year during the monsoon season, the state of Kerala comes alive with colorful snake boat races.
Fortunately there's no need for concern, as snake boats get their name from their shape rather than anything to do with live snakes! A snake boat (or chundan vallam) is actually a long traditional canoe style boat used by the people of the Kuttanadu region, in south India's state of Kerala. Typical snake boats are 100 to 120 feet long, and hold around 100 rowers. Each of the villages in the region has its own snake boat, which they take great pride in. Every year the villagers get together and race the boats along the lakes and rivers.
The battling snake boats of Kerala have over 400 years of history associated with them. Their story can be traced back to the kings of Alleppey (Alappuzha) and the surrounding areas, who used to fight with each other in boats along the canals. One king, who suffered heavy losses, got boat architects to build him a better vessel and the snake boat was born, with much success. An opposing king sent a spy to learn the secret of how to make theses boats but was unsuccessful as the subtleties of the design are very hard to pick up. These days boat races are held with much excitement during various festivals.
Four main snake boat races (and as many as 15 minor ones) are held each year, in and around Alleppey.
- The spectacular Nehru Trophy is held on Alleppey's Punnamda Lake.
- The oldest and most popular race, the Champakkulam Moolam, is held along the river at Champakkulam (Changanassery), around 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Alleppey.
- The Payippad Jalotsavam is held on Payippad Lake, 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Alleppey.
- The Aranmula Boat Race is held along the Pampa River at Aranmula, near Chengannur, around 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Alleppey.
Snake boat races are mostly held from July to September, with the exact dates varying each year depending on the phase of the moon. The exception is the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, which is always held on the second Saturday of August. Snake boat races are the highlight of the Onam Festival in August/September, particularly the Aranmula Boat Race, which takes place mid way through the 10 day celebrations. Many other boat races are also held during the festival along the backwaters at Kottayam, Payippad, and Champakkulam. The Champakkulam Moolam is held in June/July, and the Payippad Jalotsavam is held in September.
The Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race marks the day that the idol of the Hindu God Krishna was installed in the Sree Krishna Temple in Ambalappuzha, not far from Alleppey. According to the legend, those carrying the idol stopped over in Champakkulam on the way. The next morning, thousands of colorful boats were assembled there to honor the event and escort the idol to the temple. This procession is re-enacted before the Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race takes place. It kicks off with exotic water floats, boats decorated with colorful parasols, and performing artists.
The Nehru Trophy snake boat race is undoubtedly the most exciting race of the year. This race is held in memory of India's late Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru. An impromptu snake boat race was held in 1952 when the Prime Minister visited Alleppey. Apparently he was so impressed with the welcome and the race, he donated a trophy. The race has continued on ever since. It's a commercial event and you'll need to buy tickets from the tickets stands on the way. They cost less than $1 for for standing room on makeshift bamboo decks, up to $25 for VIP access. Do bring an umbrella in case of monsoon rain!
The Aranmula Boat Race is a two day, predominantly religious, occasion. Rather than being a contest, it's more about retracing the time offerings were carried on snake boats to the Aranmula Parthasarthy Temple. This was done to protect the offerings from rivals from another village. The whole occasion is a celebration of the day Lord Krishna crossed the river. Position yourself on the banks of the Pampa River near the temple in Aranmula to witness the spectacular event. Traditionally dressed rowers, accompanied by groups of 25 singers, are cheered on by an exuberant crowd.
The closest airport to Alleppey is in Kochi, 85 kilometers (53 miles) away. Alleppey has its own railway station, located a short distance south west of the town center, and is readily accessible from Ernakulum (neach Kochi). The nearest railway station to Aranmula is Chengannur, 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. It's easy to get a train there from Ernakulum, and likewise all major trains between Kochi and Trivandrum stop at Chengannur. However, Chengannur is on a different line to Alleppey, so it's not possible to travel by train between the two places. A taxi is often the best solution to travel around the region.
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