The most fascinating event of the festival of Onam is the Snake Boat Race, also known as Vallamkali in Kerala. It pulls a lot of national and international crowd. It captivates the visitors, and is therefore promoted as one of the major tourist attractions. This boat race has now become an integral part of Kerala's identity. The race takes place at the Aranmula temple that is erected on the shores of the river Pamba. The spectacular snake boats or 'chundan vallams' that take part in the race are about 30 in number and are owned by the villagers residing in the settlements bordering the river. The stretch of the race extends from the hills to the low lying plains that measure up to about 40 km. A community event in itself, the race has over hundred oarsmen per boat dressed in white dhotis and turbans. They row the boats while singing traditional boat songs to the rhythm of the splashing of their oars in the water. In actuality, this Snake Boat activity is considered to be much more significant and pious than a mere game.
There is also an interesting legend attached to this enthralling event. The story goes like this: Once about 10 km up the river Pamba from Aranmula, the head of the Katoor Mana from Nambudiri family, offered his daily prayers. After the completion of ritual, he started waiting for a poor man to feed. After long hours of wait, Brahmin closed his eyes and started praying to Lord Krishna. The moment he opened his eyes, a ragged boy was standing before him. The Brahmin lovingly gave the boy a bath, a new set of clothes and lavish-wholesome meal. The boy disappeared after the meal. Brahmin searched for him and spotted him at the temple, but the boy vanished again. The Brahmin came to the conclusion that, it was no ordinary boy but the Lord himself. In the remembrance of this event and to honour it, he started bringing the food to the Aranmula Temple every year during Onam. To protect the food from river pirates, snake boats used to accompany him. As it gained popularity, the number of snake boats increased. This led to the tradition of the grand carnival called Snake Boat Race.
Arrangements For The Gala Event
Vallamkali boats have fixed measurements to them. With the length of 100 feet and the seating capacity of 150 men, the boats are made of either anjili (Artocarpus hirsuta) or teak and kadamb (Naucleacadamba) wood. The name of the boat has been derived from the curled ends of it, which are shaped like cobra hoods. A lot of hard work, skill and patience of craftsmen go into the making and decorating of the boat. Only men are allowed to touch the boat and that too bare-footed, as the boat is treated as God and holds a lot of emotional value for the villagers. Vallamkalis are brilliantly decorated with green and scarlet silk umbrellas and the number of umbrellas attached to a boat signifies the affluence of the family to which they belong. Also, gold coins and ornaments are also added to the boat to provide it with a glorious look. A carpenter repairs the boat on annual basis to upkeep it. It is lubricated with fish oil, coconut shell and carbon mixed with eggs, to keep the wood strong and boats slippery in water. To make sure that everything goes smooth, arrangements start several days before the event. The boats are launched a day before the grand race. Pujas are also rendered to Lord Vishnu and Mahabali by a priest to call upon blessings for the boat and the boatmen. Flowers offered to the God are also placed at the helm of the boat as blessings from God.
The Boat Race
Thousands of people assemble on the banks of Pamba River to witness the grand boat race. The boat race is conducted at a stretch of 40 km from the hills to the low lying plains on the fifth day of Onam and about 30 crafted Chundan Vallams or Snake Boats take part in the gala event. It is an absolutely mesmerizing sight to watch the beautifully decorated boats rowed by oarsmen dressed in white dhotis and turbans. The traditional songs, Vanchipattu that are sung to the tune of splashing water, add to the excitement of the event. Each boat comprises of 150 men, out of whom 4 are helmsmen, 25 men are singers and 125 are the actual oarsmen. The most praiseworthy feature of this event is the depiction of great team spirit, as a minute mistake by one person can lead to imbalance.
This boat race is historic in origin and is still instilled with rituals. One thing special about this boat race is that the racing speed is not of much importance, what is more important is the ritual.