The frenzied sounds of hundreds of oars hitting the water as war cries pierce the afternoon skies could be seriously unnerving for those unfamiliar with the rituals surrounding Kerala’s famed boat races.
Boat races, specifically, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race are part and parcel of the festive spirit that Onam fosters in Kerala. It arises from a tradition and culture that goes back centuries, to the kingdoms and dynasties that ruled Kerala in ancient times. For instance, there have been times when disputes between kings or army chieftans were settled not through war but through a boat race. And while today’s boat races might not hold a king’s empire to ransom, the passion and revelry associated with these spectacular shows of human endurance and skill possibly match up to the frenzy associated with the races of yore.
GN Focus highlights three of Kerala’s famed boat races and the reasons behind their popularity.
Nehru Trophy Boat Race
Venue: Punnamada Lake, Alappuzha
One of the most watched boat races in Kerala and around the world, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is usually held on the second Saturday of August every year. The story behind this event’s name goes back to the visit of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952. India’s first prime minister was evidently so enchanted by the sight of the majestic snake boats that he boarded one of the snake boats himself. Nehru later donated a silver trophy in the form of a snake boat as a gift for the memories of the time he spent there, reason why the race now bears his name.
While a variety of races sporting traditional boats in various categories are held over the course of the afternoon, viewers of course queue up for the snake boat races, huge but graceful vessels that see its oarsmen, sometimes close to a hundred per boat rowing in perfect symmetry to war chants voiced by their captains. It’s a thrilling spectacle, not to be missed.
Aranmula Boat Race
Event date: August 25
Venue: River Pamba
If the Nehru Trophy Boat race is one of Kerala’s most popular boat races, the Aranmula Uthrittathi Vallamkali or Aranmula Boat Race is among its most revered. Held on the day of the Uthrittathi asterism in the Malayalam month of Chingam, it is well known for its grandeur and unique history. Aranmula is a heritage village on the banks of the river Pampa in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. Legend has it that a devout Brahmin promised to provide all the requirements for a Thiruvona Sadya or Onam feast. These were to be delivered to Aranmula Sree Parthasarathy Temple in a boat called the Thiruvona Thoni. Unfortunately, it is said the boat was waylaid by enemy factions, but luckily snake boats accompanied by warriors from the surrounding areas came to its rescue, and so the legend of the Aranmulla Boat Race was born. The snake boats used for this race are called Palliyodams.
Champakkulam Boat Race
Boat races are synonymous with Kerala’s identity and Champakkulam is a name that resonates loudly. The oldest snake boat race in the state kicks off boat racing season. The Pampa River plays host to this race held in Champakkulam, a village in Alappuzha district. Held normally in June or July, the crowds it draws are enormous. Massive boats split the waters as ancient boat songs are hummed, presenting an exhilarating experience. This is the event that starts the boat racing frenzy, which reigns over Kerala for the next few months.