Kerala is a cultural potpourri, continuing to amaze and charm the newcomer and the native alike with her bounties. Vallamkali refers to the lively, exhilarating boat races held along the rivers and backwaters of lush green Kerala around the monsoons, during the months from June to August.
With forty four rivers or so, boats have always been a mode of transport in Kerala and so it’s no surprise that long boats and canoes play an important role in her culture. The shimmering surface of these tranquil waters sets the stage for these exciting and energetic sporting events. Though most of these races have a religious background, people from all walks of life, faith and communities join the celebrations. As in everything else with Kerala, vallamkali is a perfect mix of austere devotion and spirited passion, making the events impressive and a must watch.
In Malayalam, vallam means boat and kali translates to play or game. Now, the word vallamkali, or boat race might give one a sense of playfulness about these colorful, spectacular events, but they are highly traditional, ritualistic and follow certain strict schedules. In fact, there is nothing simple or casual about these, as they take months of planning and preparation.
Roars, oars and more
From the first enthusiastic aarppo irrro shout to the last push of the oar that sends the boat through the finishing line, the races are a real treat for the senses, their colors and sounds adding to the anticipation and feel of the moment. The boats usually belong to the people of a locality and so the public turn up in hundreds to help and cheer their team. The sight of these long, graceful boats sliding through the water with the hundreds of oars spurring them ahead, and thousands singing and shouting their support is incredible.
The oarsmen under the leadership of the karanavan or captain who mans the adanayampu, the main rudder-oar, sing a particular kind of song called vanchipaattu. These songs are set to a distinct meter and the rowers synchronize their rowing with the song’s energetic rhythm. Usually, panchavaadyam or panjaari melam, traditional percussion music, accompany almost all religious festivals. The brightness of the oarsmen’s costumes against the contrasting darkness of the boats, the colorful umbrellas and decorations, the team spirit, the cheering crowd- everything about the spectacular race gives you an adrenalin rush.
Many vallamkalis are held during the Onam season, from June to September, but three of the major ones worth watching are the Champakkulam Moolam vallamkali, Nehru Trophy Boat Race and the Aranmula vallomkali. The usually quiet rivers and lakes of Kerala like Pampa, Punnamada, Aranmula and Payippad are transformed to lively arenas for these colorful events.
Champakkulam Moolam vallamkali
The vallamkali season is kicked off in July by the Champakkulam Moolam vallamkali held on the Pampa river. It is one of the oldest boat races in Kerala with long tradition and interesting history of religious relativism attached to it.
Around 1545 A.D., while building a temple for the Raja of Ambalappuzha, the temple idol was kept at a Christian household at Champakkulam for a night. The people of the family and the area and the Church honored and accompanied the idol and the King to their destination. In order to honour the people, the grateful King started the water carnival. The place where the idol was kept is still considered a devasthanam, a sacred place, and a lamp is kept lit there perpetually. The boat race continues its unbroken tradition as a symbol of religious harmony.
Nehru Trophy Boat Race, which is not tied to a temple or myth, started in 1952 as an exhibition for the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The race and the finish were so exciting that Nehru could not stop himself from jumping abroad the winning Nadubhagom chundan. He was so enthralled by the event that he gifted a silver miniature of a snake boat as a trophy.
The race is held at the Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha on the second Saturday of August. Not only the race, but the spectacular boat processions and floats held before the race is another crowd puller, not to be missed. Though this vallamkali features many types of boats, Chundans or snake boats are the stars of the event. Other types of boats that participate in various events of the race are Churulan Vallam, Iruttukuthy Vallam, Veppu Vallam, Odi Vallam, Vadakkanody Vallam and Kochu Vallam.
Aranmulla vallomkali is more a religious and social endeavor and celebration than a competitive race, with nearly 30 chundan valloms participating in the festival. The two day festivities end with the race in the second day afternoon. As per tradition, the thiruvona sadya, the traditional onam feast, is brought to the 1700 year old Aranmula Parthasarathy temple in the thiruvonachilavu thoni accompanied by boats called palliyodams who take part in the friendly race, where the winning boat gets the honour to accompany the idol.
The legend goes that once upon a time a nambudiri from Kattur near Aranmula, had to feed a poor person to complete his prayer ritual. Since no one came by for a long time, the devotee ardently prayed to Lord Krishna, the presiding deity at Aranmula. To the brahmin’s surprise, a young, famished boy turned up immediately. The happy man fed the boy who promptly disappeared just the way he had come. To the nambudiri, the boy was none other than Lord Krishna himself and so he decided to bring the thiruvonasadya to Aranmula temple every year at the same time. The oarsmen are seen as the god himself and is treated to a sumptuous feast, vallasadya, by the devotees. As time went by, the tradition gained popularity and the number of boats that used to accompany the thiruvonachilavu thoni for protection, or palliyodam kept increasing and became the present day vallamkali.
Bit about the boats
The chundan vallams which are about 100 feet or so in length can carry up to150 men. They are skillfully carved from the woods of anjili or teak and need arduous maintenance. They are designed and made according to specifications from the Sthapathya Veda. With a towering tail end and tapering front end, the snake boat justifies its namesake. Once a suitable tree is located, construction of the boat begins on an auspicious day under the leadership of a chief craftsman and carpenters. When the boat is completed, it is introduced to the water amidst great celebrations and gaiety at a ceremony called neeranial, which could be loosely translated as being anointed with water.
Among the people, the ownership of the boat is a matter of great pride and it is revered like a deity. A club or a team representing the people row for the locality. The boat belongs to a locality called kara and usually carries the name of the place like Kavalam chundan or Karichal chundan. The money and care for its upkeep is usually raised from the public.
As a participant, a win is highly honored and cherished, justifying all the effort that has gone into the preparation for the race. As a spectator, the race has all the elements that one wants- entertainment, culture and a glimpse into the rich past of this wonderful land.