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September 1, 1997


A boat race taking place during Onam The Aranmula Boat Race

Shobha Warrier

Rivers and water are a part of the lives of all Keralites. With two, very heavy monsoons every year, Kerala never faces any shortage of water. There are countless rivers dancing down the hills and plains of the state.

In fact all ancient houses in Kerala, the tharavadu, had at least a couple of ponds and wells in their back yards.

Keralites, in fact, have a deeply reverent attitude to rivers. So, it is but natural that water carnivals of Jalotsavam are many in the state. Boat races or Vallam Kali used to be held after the harvest... when all the rivers are overflowing with water... when there is greenery all around... when all the granaries are full. It is an event to celebrate and display the physical might of the people who are happy and content.

The most famous boat race in Kerala is the Aranmula Vallam Kali conducted on the Uthrittathi day of Chingam, the month in which Onam is celebrated. Aranmula is known all over the world for its aranmula kannadi or ornate mirrors... and for its boat race.

The snake boat carnival on the Pampa river is actually the crossing of the river of Lord Krishna. The participants believe that Lord Krishna is there in all the boats. Earlier the boat race was held without any competition. There was no prize or trophy for the winners.

Inhabitants of Aranmula participated in the race to rejoice and celebrate. They would row up and down the river to the accompaniment of folk songs. The spirit of Onam was reflected in this too. Though the festival was of Hindu origin and was associated with the Krishna temple nearby, it used was a regional affair and people from all communities living in and around Aranmula would take part in it. In fact it was a 'national festival' for the people of Central Travancore. The folks would arrive in Aranmula is special boats and buses just to take part or witness the event. During the race, people used to throng in thousands on the banks of the river, covering a distance of about three kilometres. Of late, people come from all over the state and even from outside India assemble to watch the event.

The snake boats of Aranmula have an extraordinary shape. They are about 100 ft long with their ends curving upwards with the front portion tapering gradually. The rear end would be towering to a height of about 20 feet. The boats got their name from their shape ---similar to snakes with their hoods raised.

The snake boats can have a crew of at least 150 members including rowers, singers and ruddermen. Beautifully decorated, with their occupants bearing aloft ornamental umbrellas of silk and gold, the boats are an unforgettable sight. As the boats moved, splashing water, its occupants sing loudly. Kerala has special songs and tunes called vanchi pattu penned for such occasions. Boat racing is after all very much part of the Kerala culture.