Vallamkali or the Snake Boat Race is the most enchanting facet of the festival of Onam. The event is promoted as a major tourist attraction of the state of Kerala and draws a large number of domestic and international tourists. Vallamkali has been going on for good number of years and its popularity is soaring with each passing year. Much credit for the success of Snake Boat Race can be attributed to Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru who was so enamoured by this colourful event that he instituted a trophy for the race.
There is also an interesting legend behind this very electrifying event. The story goes that once about 10 kilometers up the river Pamba from Aranmulla, the head of the Katoor Mana, a Nambudiri family, offered his daily prayers and was waiting to feed a poor man to complete the ritual. After waiting for long, Brahmin closed his eyes and started praying to Lord Krishna. As soon as he opened his eyes, he saw a ragged boy standing before him. The Brahmin lovingly gave a bath to the boy, a new set of clothes and also a sumptuous meal.
To the utter surprise of the Brahmin, the boy vanished after having the meal. He searched for the boy and spotted him at the Aranmulla Temple but the boy disappeared again. Namboodari concluded that it was no ordinary boy, but God himself. To commemorate the event, he began to bring food to the Aranmulla temple every year during the time of Onam. And, to protect the food from the river pirates, Kovilans or snake boats used to accompany the entourage.
As the tradition gained popularity, the number of snake boats increased leading to the custom of a grand carnival called Snake Boat Race.
About the Boat
Vallamkali boat are no ordinary boats and there are fixed measurements to it. It is about 100 feet long and has a seating capacity of 150 men. The boats are usually made of anjili (Artocarpus hirsuta), though sometimes teak and kadamb (Naucleacadamba) wood is also used. The curled ends of the boats are shaped like cobra hoods and it is from this shape that boat has derived its name. Each boat is meticulously crafted by skilled craftsmen and a lot of patience and hard work goes into making and decorating it. The boat is treated as a deity and a holds a lot of emotional value for the village folk. Only men are allowed to touch the boat that too with bare feet. Each boat belong to individual villages located near the river Pamba.
Vallamkalis are tastefully decorated with green and scarlet silk umbrellas. The number of umbrellas attached to a boat holds significance as it signifies the affluence of the family to which they belong. To render a more maginificient look to the boat gold coins, ornaments and tassels are also added.
Great care is also taken for the upkeep of the boat. A carpenter repairs the boat on an annual basis. The boats are lubricated with fish oil, coconut shell and carbon mixed with eggs. This also helps to keep the wood strong and boats slippery in water. This way one can always find a boat ready for a swim.
To make sure that everything goes smooth, arrangements start days before the event. The boats are launched a day before the grand racce. Pujas are also rendered to Lord Vishnu and Mahabali by a priest to invoke blessings for the boat and the boatmen. Flowers offered to the God are also placed at the helm of the boat as a good luck charm.
The Boat Race
To watch the grand gala race, thousands of people assemble on the banks of the river Pamba at Aranmulla where a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna is located. About 30 elaborately crafted Chundan Vallams or snake boats participate in the mega event.
The boat race is conducted on a stretch of 40 kilometers from the hills to the low lying plains on the fifth day of Onam. The sight becomes endearing when one looks at the beautifully decorated boats being rowed by oarsmen dressed in white dhotis and turbans. Traditional songs Vanchipattu, sung on the rhythm produced by splashing of boats furthers adds to the overall excitement of the team event.
Each boat comprises of 150 men of which four are helsmen, 25 men are singers and 125 are the actual oarsmen.
The most remarkable feature of the Snake Boat Race is the depiction of the great team spirit. It also displays the importance of being united and to be in harmony with nature. A single mistake by one person can produce imbalance and could lead to the overturning of the boat.
These day even women participate with lot of enthusiasm in the event and a separate race is conducted for them.
Another Legend Associated with the Race
Another tradition of the Onam is that all through the festival days to the eve of Thiru Onam, a boat laden with food, called Palliodam sails from Katoormana. This tradition owes its origin to a legend when a food laden boat got stuck in a turn of river. It could be maneuvered further only when a famished family living in a hut on the banks of the river was well fed with the food in the boat.
This is related to the Snake Boat Race as the winning boat gets the privilege to accompany Palliodam. The sight is wonderful to look at as the boats are lit with lamps and could be spotted from far. The colorful boat festival is held on the fifth day after Thiru Onam.
A lot of credit for the popularity of the Snake Boat Race can be attributed to the first Prime Minister of the country, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru. He was so enchanted by the spirit of the this traditional team event that he decided to promote it in a big way.
He instituted a trophy for the event, which came to be called Nehru Trophy Boat Race. This is an immensely popular event held on the Punnamada Backwaters of Alappuzha district on the second Saturday in the month of August. Started in the year 1952, in an impromptu fashion in honor of the late Prime Minister, Nehru Trophy Boat Race is the biggest team sport event in the world today. A spectacular boat pageantry held before the actual race is the other highlight of the event.
These days several other boat races are also conducted in the various rivers of Kerala and draw massive public attention.