Vallamkali or the Snake Boat Race is the most enchanting facet of the festival of Onam. This event is promoted as a major tourist attraction of Kerala. Vallamkali draws a large number of domestic and international tourists. Vallamkali has been going on for several years; its popularity is soaring with each passing year. Much credit for success of Snake Boat Race can be attributed to Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru. He was so enamoured by this colourful event that he instituted a trophy for the race.
There is an interesting legend behind Vallamkali, very electrifying event. The story goes that once about 10 kilometers up the river Pamba from Arasnmulla. The head of the Katoor Mana, a Nambudiri family, offered his daily prayers. He 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, set of new clothes and a sumptuous meal.
After having the meal the boy vanished so the Brahmin was utterly surprised. The Brahmin searched for the boy. The Brahmin spotted him at Aranmulla Temple but, the boy disappeared again. Hence, Namboodari concluded that it was no ordinary boy, but God himself. In order to commemorate this event, Namboodari brought food to Aranmulla temple every year during Onam. Kovilans or Snake boats were used to accompany the entourage. Thus, the food was protected from the river pirates.
The tradition gained popularity. The number of Snake boats increased. This lead to the custom of a grand carnival called Snake Boat Race.
About the Boat:
Vallamkali boat is no ordinary boat. The fixed measurement of the boat is about 100 feet long. The boat has the capacity of 150 men who can be seated. These boats are usually made of anjili [Artocarpus hirsute]. Sometimes, teak or kadamb [Naucleacadamba] wood is used. The curled ends of the boats are shaped like the cobra hoods. It is from this shape that boat has derived its name. Each boat is meticulously crafted by skilled craftsmen. A lot of patience and hard work goes into making and decorating it. Vallamkali is treated as deity and holds a lot of emotional value for the village folk. Only men are allowed to touch the boat and that too when their feet are bare. Each boat belongs to an individual village located near the river Pamba.
On Vallamkali Boat Race event, Vallamkalis are tastefully decorated with green and scarlet silk umbrellas. The number of umbrellas attached to a boat holds significance. These depict the affluence of the family to which the boats belong. In order to render more magnificent look of boats, gold coins, ornaments and tassels are added.
Great care is taken for upkeep of the boat so annually a carpenter repairs the boat. The boats are lubricated with fish oil, coconut shell and carbon mixed with eggs. This process helps to keep the wood strong and boats remain slippery in water. In 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 race. Pujas are rendered to Lord Vishnu and King Mahabali by a priest. These pujas are offered to invoke their blessings for the boat and the boatmen. Flowers from pujas are placed at the helm of the boat as a good luck charm.
The Boat Race:
People crowd to watch the grand gala boat race. Thousands of people assemble on the banks of the river Pamba at Aranmulla. Here at Aranmulla, there is a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna. About 30 elaborately crafted Chundan Vallams or snake boats participate in the mega event.
On the fifth Onam day, the boat race is conducted on a stretch of 40 kilometres. The boats start from hills and continue to low lying plains. The boat race scenario is very endearing. The beautifully decorated boats are rowed by oarsmen wearing white dhotis and turbans. Traditional songs, Vanchipattu are sung to the rhythm of splashing of the oars of the boat. This further adds to the overall excitement of the team event.
Each boat accommodates 150 men of them 4 are helmsmen, 25 men are singers, and 125 are oarsmen. Most remarkable feature of the Snake Boat Race is the depiction of the great team spirit. Also, Snake Boat Race displays importance of being united and of having harmony with nature. A single mistake made by any person could cause imbalance and lead to overturning of the boat.
Present days’ women also participate with lots of enthusiasm in the Snake boat race event. There is even a separate race that 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. The food laden boat had got stuck in a turn of river. This boat could only be manoeuvred only after the food in the boat was used. On the banks of the river, there lived a famished family in a hut. The family was well fed with the food in the boat.
Vallamkali Boat Race is related to the Snake Boat Race. The winning boat gets the privilege to accompany Palliodam. The sight is wonderful to look at. All the boats are lit with lamps and could be spotted from far. The colourful boat festival is held on the fifth day after Thiru Onam.
Lot of credit for popularity of Snake Boat Race can be attributed to Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru. He was the first Prime Minister of India. He was enchanted by the spirit of this traditional team event. Hence, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru decided to promote the Snake Boat Race in a major 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. This Boat race is held on the second Saturday in the month of August. In 1952, event began in impromptu fashion in honour of late Prime Minister. This Nehru Trophy Boat Race is the biggest team sport event in the world today. Spectacular boat pageantry is held before the actual race. This is the highlight of the event.
These days several other boat races are also conducted in the various rivers of Kerala. Each race draws massive public attention.