“11th August 2018, Saturday”
Mark your calendars and save the date for one of the most thrilling and exhilarating experiences of all time! For this day, Kerala will host the very popular annual snake boat race in Alleppey, also known as the ‘Nehru Trophy Boat Race’. You have always visited Kerala to admire its stunning natural beauty, to experience the serenity of its marvellous backwaters and to soak in the tranquil vibes of the local culture. But, how about visiting Kerala this time, to witness something unique, something incredible and something adventurous that speaks volume about the culture and heritage of this state? The snake boat races of Kerala have been a prominent feature of this state and a matter of pride and communal harmony for the people of the backwaters!
However, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is not the only snake boat race of this green state; Kerala is blessed with many such amazing boat races that define the very soul and character of ‘God’s Own Country’. Read on to find out the what, when, where, how, who of these incredible races and why you should head to Kerala in the monsoons to witness India’s very own ‘Olympics on Water’.
What is it all about?
Every year, the monsoon season in Kerala comes alive with a festive spirit, as the state celebrates the harvest festival of Onam and the colourful snake boat races. So, what are snake boats essentially? Snake boats are long canoe-style boats that are majorly used by people in the Kerala backwaters. Generally, snake boats are about 100 to 120 feet long and can easily accommodate up to 100 rowers on them. The history of these snake boats goes back almost 400 years! During those times, snake boats were traditional war boats, used by the kings of Alleppey (Alappuzha), Kottayam and other surrounding areas to fight with each other on the canals. The origin of the snake boat races, however, is a more recent one, where country boats which were earlier used for occupational reasons or religious occasions, were also used for enjoyment purposes and sporting events. These races were started in order to create enthusiasm and to inculcate a sporting spirit amongst the people of the villages.
Every village has a snake boat of their own and they take great pride in it! When a village decides to build a new snake boat, a committee is formed to raise sufficient money (ranges between 6 lakhs to even 60 lakhs) required for building the snake boat. The committee then appoints a skilled architect (Asari) to design/build the ‘snake boat’ and also begins their search for the perfect tree (Kadampu or Anjili) to construct this boat. The most popular varieties of racing boats are Chundan, Churulan, Odi (Iruttukuthi) and Parunthuvalan (Veppu). Each of these boats is different from the other in terms of the shape of the helm, prow and capacity to accommodate the crew. Some are as big as 100 feet in length with a capacity of about 150 rowers while some are 18 feet in length that can accommodate a dozen crew. The snake boat requires a lot of precision while building and several years of apprenticeship under a master architect are needed to finally master the art of building a snake boat independently.
How many boat races are there?
The Nehru Snake Boat Race is not the only boat race in Kerala but it is definitely one of the most popular races, that attracts people from all over the world. There are 4 major boat races and as many as 15 minor regattas that are organized through the months of June to September every year, in Alleppey and the surrounding regions. The 4 major boat races are as follows:
This boat race organized on the Punnamada River at Alleppey is, without doubt, one of the most spectacular boat racing events of the country! The race gets its name from the former prime minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited Kerala in 1952. An impromptu boat race was held for the prime minister and he was so impressed by the skill and mastery of the race and its participants that he donated a trophy to the races, which were held every year since then. Today, it is a huge commercial event held in Kerala and a major crowd-puller that highlights the locals, culture and the star-attraction, ‘Chundan’ (snake boats) of every village.
This boat race is the oldest amongst all races and is held along the river at Champakkulam, around 25 km away from Alleppey. According to legend, the boat race marks the day, the idol of Lord Krishna was installed in the Sree Krishna temple at Ambalapuzzha. The legend further narrates that, the people tasked with carrying the idol to the temple, stopped on the way, at Champakkulam. The next morning, thousands of colourful boats filled with people had arrived at the location, to pay respects to the idol and escort it to its final destination. Even today, this ritual is carried out and the beautiful procession replete with decorated boats, colourful water floats and various performance artists, is re-enacted before the race, every year.
Jalotsavam literally means ‘water festival’ and the Payippad Jalotsavam, true to its name, is a 3-day water festival that is held on the Payippad Backwaters, around 35 km away from Alleppey. It commemorates the installation of the deity at the Subramanya Swamy Temple in Haripad. The legend behind this boat race states that the villagers of the Haripad village decided to build a temple with Sree Ayyappa as the main deity. The villagers then had a vision that directed them to the Kayamkulam Lake, where an idol of Sree Subramanya was found under a whirlpool. This idol was then ceremoniously escorted by devotees and installed at the temple in Haripad with great fanfare and festivities. In remembrance of this event, the 3-day water festival of Payippad is held every year.
The Aranmula Boat Race held on the Pampa River is a 2-day religious occasion that resonates the ancient history of when snake boats were used to carry various offerings to the Aranmula Parthasarathy temple. This race is more of a religious festival than a sporting event and it expertly retains the flavours of ancient Kerala culture. The spectacular event marks the day Lord Krishna crossed the Pampa River and is celebrated with much exuberance and grandeur. The devotion, music, sheer artistry and the remarkable performances of the local artists make this event a memorable one and a not-to-be-missed attraction of Aranmula near Chengannur, around 50 km away from Alleppey.
When & Where are the boat races held?
The exact dates of the boat races are listed on the Kerala tourism website every year. With the exception of the Nehru Snake Boat Race, which is held on the 2nd Saturday of August every year, all other boat races are conducted during the monsoon season (June – September) and the exact dates are decided according to the phases of the moon. The date chart of the major boat races of this year (as per the Kerala tourism website) is as follows:
Who rides the snake boats?
It is said that, if the snake boat races of Kerala were a part of International Olympics, they would easily be the largest team sports event in the whole world. Each team participating in the race has about 110 players who manoeuvre 1 wooden snake boat. The rowers bring down their oars in perfect harmony to synchronize the forward movement that rhythmically and systemically progresses the boat towards a win! There are chanters and drummers on the boat as well, who sing songs and beat the drums in frenzy to cheer the oarsmen and put them in high spirits. It takes about 4 minutes for a boat to reach the victory line on a watery track that is about 1 km in length.
The synchronized way of rowing requires a special skill too! It takes years and years of practice, devoted training and inherent aptitude to row the snake boat in perfect sync. Just to be able to steer the boat and move the oars is not enough; skilled rowers also need a thorough knowledge of water currents, observation power of the highest order along with being well-versed with the different aspects of boat racing. The most important aspect of these races is teamwork! A mistake in coordination or an act of negligence by even 1 player can lead to a loss in the boat race. It’s all about synchronized rowing and coordinating your movements to those of your team players!
Now imagine these colourful boats rowing in perfect harmony across the still waters of the river and you will understand why these boat races are so special and spectacular! Each team has about 110 players and every race has about 20 boats; so at any given time, the spectator is treated to a sight of almost 2200 players rowing and competing against each other in one single race. No wonder, it is regarded as one of the world’s largest team sporting events and for the people of the backwaters it is their own, ‘Olympics on Water’!
Why are the boat races so special?
The boat races hold a special place in the hearts of the people that belong to the backwaters! It forms an integral part of the culture and community of the people that live in a place that is completely surrounded by water. In a way, it represents the beautiful relationship that exists between the people and the backwaters. The snake boats are usually owned by entire villages with joint ownership by the people of the community. Even single-owner boats are hired by groups of people belonging to a particular village or locality in order to participate in the races. In such cases, the responsibility of the boat is shared by everyone equally and so is the expense, which is often raised via public contribution.
The snake boat is the pride of every village and participating in these boat races is considered to be nothing short of an honour for that particular locality or village (Kara). The boat race season brings out the joyful atmosphere, friendliness, camaraderie and a feeling of mutual brotherhood and understanding amongst the people of the various communities. The boat races are a chance for all families to get together and enjoy an event with the company of near and dear ones. It gives an opportunity for people who are scattered away from their villages and living far away from their homes, to come back and revel in this festival along with their close friends and family. The boat races perform the all-important task of instilling a sense of pride, patriotism, determination and teamwork, all the while bringing an individual closer to his or her roots! Sure, there is competition but along with it, there is joy, excitement and pure fun. The Kerala snake boat races are special because they can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone…
Did You Know?
Starting 2018, Kerala government in a bid to commercialize and popularize the boat races even further have organized an IPL-like league tournament for the boat races in the state. The tournament will be called ‘Kerala Boat Race League’ (KBRL) and all boat races that are not associated with any religious customs will be a part of this league. The government aims to increase the glamour quotient and prestige of these races while making it more appealing for national as well as international tourists by means of promotion and marketing. The tournament will have a total of 12 races, starting with the Nehru Boat Race Trophy on 11th August 2018 and ending with the President’s Trophy Race in Kollam on 1st November 2018. Around 20 snake boats will compete against each other in the Nehru Trophy Boat Race in August, for qualification into the leagues. Only 9 boats will qualify and further battle it out over 12 races, concluding with the finale i.e. the President’s Trophy Race in November. The league races will take place across the districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam, Kollam and every team that qualifies for the league and further wins in the league races and the finale, will be awarded handsome cash prizes.
The Kerala snake boat races will not only give you a glimpse of the age-old traditions of Kerala but will also enable you to experience the true glory of this place. With remarkable history and religious tradition tied to it, the snake boat races of Kerala have gained prominence over time and have become one of the most spectacular events of the country, today. A race which was initiated only to inculcate the sporting spirit amongst its participants soon became the pride of the community, the state and the country! So, pack your bags and make your way to ‘God’s Own Country’ to be a part of this boat race celebration along with Veena World’s special festival tours. Let the rhythmic chants and frenzied beats of the drum reverberate in your ears as you witness the majestic spectacle of the Kerala Snake Boat Race!
keralatourism.org, tripsavvy.com, alleppeysnakeboatrace.com, bbc.com, thebetterindia.com