In Kuttanadu, the land of lakes and rivers, snake boat racing is something of cult, just as bull fighting is in Spain . Sleek and immaculately poised, the snake boats are the pride of every village. These race boats dominate the thoughts and actions of the people of this region during the months of August and September, when newly 20 minor and major regattas are held.
The water festival in Kuttanad is unique. No other country in the world has such festivities. The large number of participants in a racing boat marks still the uniqueness that no other sport in the world has such a large number in a team. The synchronized way of rowing needs long and devoted training and inherent aptitude. Those who steer the vessel need through knowledge of water current, observation power of high order, and they must be well versed in the different aspects of boat racing. The most notable fact in the races of boats is that a single neglected act of a single participant will lead a boat to lose in the race.
Most of the major water festivals of the region are associated with legends connected with famous temples like champakkulam (Ambalapuzha), Payipad (Haripad) and Aranmula. These festivals best retain the flavour of ancient Kerala culture, especially the Uthrithathi boat race on the Pampa , in Aranmula, where devotion, music and the sheer artistry and grandeur of the boats, known as Palliyodams , make it a unique experience for the spectators.
Kuttanadu is a vast expanse of water at certain seasons. This part consisting of water-logged area of central Travancore is a region extending to 34,443 acres of agricultural land. It is traversed by different rivers, namely Pamba, Achankovil and Manimala . These rivers wash into Vembanadu Lake . Some Years ago, the present Kuttanadu was part of the Vembanadu Lake . The adventurous and illustrious people of this particular part of the country were engaged in the process of reclamation of water immersed land for the last one thousand and four hundred years. The reclamation of land still continues.
The inhabitants of Kuttanadu are by occupation agriculturists. They engage themselves in the cultivation of paddy and coconut trees on reclaimed land. As natural conditions allow raising only one crop of paddy, the rest of the time the people get immersed in festivities.
As country boats are sheer necessities in the life of the people of Kuttanadu and a large area of garden land is prohibitively luxurious to organize other sports, it is no wonder that they found out boats as their means of enjoyments. The origin of the present boat races is very recent. Formerly people used to assemble in boats like Chundan, Oadi, Veppu, etc., to perform a colorful and musical procession. Later only to create enthusiasm and to inculcate the sporting spirits among the people of the area, the race systems were introduced. The snake boats festival in Aranmula is still a religious procession. The present boat races in Kuttanad have their own history connected to the rulers of the time. Chambakulam Moolam Boat Race is considered to be the most ancient.
The story of these battling boats goes back 400 years in history when the rajas of the erstwhile principalities of Chempakasseri (Ambalappuzha), Kayamkulam ,Thekkumkoor (Changanacherry) and Vadakkumkoor (Kottayam) in the old Travancore area, which are part of the present Alappuzha district and Kottayam district, frequently crossed swords on the backwaters of Kuttanad. The Chempakasserry troops suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the superior navy their rivals commanded. It soon dawned on the Chempakasserry Raja that the real defect was with his war boats, which were sluggish and cumber.
He called all the boat architects in the land to his court and told them of his desire to have better, faster boats for the troops. After days of hard labor, a man who was reputed to be the best boat architect in Chempakasserry, Koduppunna Venkitanarayanan Asari, came up with a specimen which satisfied the raja's requirements. It had speed, maneuverability and capacity to carry 100 able-bodied warriors on board and its eel-like construction was most ideal for launching an ambush since it could be easily kept concealed behind the overhanging bushes on the river banks. The Asari was generously rewarded and in the subsequent battles, the Chempakasseri Raja emerged victorious.
The story goes on to tell how the defeated Kayamkulam Raja sent a spy to Chempakasserri to learn the secret of the new war boat. The spy, a handsome youth, succeeded in seducing Asari's daughter. The girl's mother was overjoyed by the prospect of getting him as her daughter's bridegroom and persuaded her husband to teach him the construction of the boat.
Needless to say, the deceitful youth disappeared the moment the thought he had learnt the secret. Asari was imprisoned by Chempakasserri Raja for treason. But he was released and showered with many honors when the snake boats built by the Kayamkulam Raja proved to be no match for the war boats of Chempakasserry in the next battle. The subtleties of the snake boat's design are hard to pick and even today it requires years of apprenticeship under a master boat architect before one could independently undertake the construction of this ancient boat.
When a village decidesto have a new snake boat, a committee is formed to raise the Rs.6 lakhs it requiresnow to build the boat. The boat architect is summoned and the search for the "anjili"tree of the required size often takes the villagers to the high ranges of Kerala.As the snake boat takes shape out of the huge trunk, the 'asari' relies mainly onhis instinctive estimates.
Of late, the boat builders' prime concern is to make the snake boat as long as possibleso as to seat more and more rowers for speed. The Nedumbhagom snake boat recentlyentered the Guinness Book of Records as the longest rowing boat in the world. Butits 135 feet length has since been overtaken by Vellankulangara snake boat, whichis 140 feet long.
Kuttanandu is a place of boats. Different kinds of boats are seen always roamingover the waters of this part of the Kerala State . The boats of Kuttanadu are ofvarious types, according to their purpose.
Kochuvallams are Small boats used to cross rivers and lakes. They also range intheir sizes.
Kettuvallams arelargely cargo movers.
Churulans are pleasure boats and they are considered to be the conveyance of richpeople in olden days. The Churulan Boats vary in length from 12 ½ to 20 ¼ Kolesand their crew ranges from 10 to 36.
Chundans are supposedto be Navy boats of Chempakasserry rulers. It has got a length of more than a hundredfeet and usually more than a hundred people are on board. Both the ends of the boatsare raised from water level. The rear end has a height of about twenty feet fromthe surface of water. Nearly eighty six persons are rowers, ten to fifteen are togive the rhythm, four are to steer the vessel. It is to be specially noted thatthe Chundans have the maximum maneuverability among all sorts of race boats.
The Chundan (SnakeBoat) variety of Race Boats is usually 38 ½ to 48 ½ koles (One koles being equivalentto 24 inches) long and accommodates 100 to 150 persons.
Veppu Vallams (Parunthuvalans)are said to be boats that were used to carry stores for the soldiers on board theChundans. "Vaipu" became Veppu" by usage. Vaipu in Malayalam means cooking. Thedesign and appearance of these vehicles differ from all other race boats. The lengthof Parunthuvalan varies from 28 ¼ to 32 ¼ Koles and it accommodates 28 to 36 rowers.
Oadis or Iruttukuthieshave a different origin. They were used for smuggling. It is to be noted, they areseen in plenty in the costal areas near Cochin and suburbs. Their very design isfor speed. Both the ends are alike. Maneuverability is little, practically nil.They are never turned and rowed up only in shuttle between, by turning round therowers.The Odi, also called Cheru Chudan has a length of 28 ¼ to 32 ¼ Koles andhas 40 to 60 rowers.
Various types ofBoats, all home-made out of indigenous materials are used for the boat races, rangingfrom the magnificent Snake Boat (Chundan) nearly a hundred feet long and with 150rowers, to the smallest one which measures 18 feet and accommodates a dozen crew.The boats are scooped out of single tree trunks, usually Kadampu and Anjili (ArtocarpusHirsuta). A lot of skill, labour, time and money, go into the making of these boatswhich are objects of envy and wonder from ages past. The most popular varietiesof Racing Boats are called Chundan, Churulan, Odi (Iruttukuthi) and Parunthuvalan(Veppu) and each differs from the other in the shape of the helm and prow, and capacityto accommodate the crew. The differences in the construction of the remaining partsof the Boats are not, however, very pronounced though the build naturally varieswith the boats intended for the placid waters of rivers and lakes, and the vesselswhich have to ply over the open backwaters, where waves and currents have to beencountered. Easy and swift maneuverability is the principal concern with the makingof boats, which race over rivers and lakes. The cut water is reduced to the minimumin these Boats. Their prows and helms are raised considerably high and the streamliningis equally horizontal as well as vertical. The Chundan and Odi are such racing boats.In the construction of Boats in tended to negotiate open backwaters, care is takento see that the cut water descends almost to the keel and top heaviness is avoidedby keeping the helm and prow quite low. At either end, the gunwale is curved upto prevent waves dashing in , as in the Churulan type of boats. The prow and helmof these boats are of identical build to facilitate easy maneuvering.
Of all the Race Boats, the most imposting picturesque and coasty is the Chundan,Snake Boat. The stern of the Snake Boat rises about 15 feet from the water level,and is embellished with exquisite ornamental designs in burnished brass and wood.The extent of elaborate and expensive ornamentation, characteristic of the localcraftsman's skill, indicate the wealth and eminence of the owner of the Boat, Longand narrow, the Snake Boats cut across the water with majesty and grace.
The Race Boats,in use in Kerala, have much a common with the war canoes of the old American Indian,the Maoris of New Zealand and some of the aboriginal tribes of the Tropical countries,especially in regard to the shape and build, and the manner and contrivances ofpropulsion.
Many of the race boats belong to the joint ownership of the people of the locality.Further, even the single owner boats are often hired out by a group of people belongingto a particular locality for the purpose of participating in a boat race. Infact,they spend money in the order of lakhs of rupees for participating various boatraces in a season. The money required is often raised through public contribution.In fact they consider it as a matter of pride to participate and win a boat raceunder the label and jercy of their locality (Kara). As such boat race season bringsout an occasion for enriching the warmth of friendliness and brotherhood in thelocality, which is deteriorating in these days due too various reason. Each boatrace is being celebrated as the festival of the locality. It often enables a gettogether of family members and others of the locality. Festivals have that effectof making the individuals settled at distant places to return to their native placeat least once in a year. The boat race being celebrated as the festival of the 'Kara',the sons of the village will experience an irresistible temptation to be the partof the festivities. The nostalgic feeling that these boat races create, makes everybodysettled far and near to return to their home village to participate in the boatrace festivities. The social impact of the boat race is very high. In the Regattas,the different Karas owning Race Boats enter, and with determination, inspired bylocal patriotism, strive their best to knock off the prize. The competition is austereand keen, in spite of the mirth and revelry enveloping it.
During the fifteenth century A.D., a part of the Travancore State , including Kuttanadu,was ruled by Chembakassery Devanarayana Dynasty. The rulers of this dynasty werehighly religious. The origin of Chambakulam Moolam water festival is connected tothe installation of the famous idol of Lord Krishna in the Amabalapuzha Sree KrishnaswamyTemple . It is considered that the Moolam Boat festival is celebrated in commemorationof the bringing of the idol of Lord Krishna from "Karinkulam" temple, Kurichi nearKottayam. It is conducted every year on the Moolam day of the Mithunam month ofthe Malayalam era.
Payippad Jalotsavam is held on the Payippad Lake, which is 35 Km from Alappuzha,to commemorate the installation of deity at the Subrahmanya Swamy Temple , Harippad.Legend says that the villagers decided to build a temple with Sree Ayyappa as thepresiding deity After the temple was built, they had a vision directing them toa whirlpool in Kayamkulam Lake where they would find the idol of Sree Subramanyawhich was to be installed at the temple. Accordingly, the elders of the villagewith divers and swimmers rowed to the spot and found the idol which was escortedback ceremoniously by devotees from the entire region in colorfully.
The annual boat races held at Aranmula, and Champakulam in old Central Travancore,are the pre-eminent and most typical of the Boat Festivals in Kerala. On the riverfront of the Vaishnava Temple at Aranmula, ninety miles to the north of Trivandrum,idyllically situated on the left bank of River Pampa, with which sacred memoriesare associated, the famous Aranmula Boat Race is held every year on the UTHRITTATHI,the fourth day after the THIRU ONAM. The Aranmula Boat Race is, in fact, a partof the ONAM festival. A health and bathing resort during summer months, Aranmulais famous for its Temple , Boat Race and Aranmula Metal Mirror. On the UTHRITTATHI,asterism, the colorful Regatta is held at Aranmula, amidst all pervading mirth andnature's splendor.
Tradition says that the Boat Race at Aranmula is held every year, in commemorationof the crossing of the Pampa River by Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers. The storygoes that, following a long period of penance and austerity, Arjuna was on his wayback to his native city with the image of Sri Krishna. When he reached the northernbank of the river Pamba, he found it in high floods. The great warrior stood aghast.A low caste, poverty stricken, Hindu offered to ferry Arjun across the swellingriver in a fragile canoe. Arjuna was all joy and thankfulness. On crossing the riverArjuna installed the image of Sri Krishna (Sri Parthasarathi) he was carrying, atthe sport where the present temple stands. To honor the timely service renderedto Arjuna by the lowly boatman, boat races have ever since been conducted on theriver, in front of the temple.
The truly national character of the Boat Race is witnessed in the joy-impartingfact, that though the Aranmula Regatta, organised as a purely Hindu Festival, is associated with the Temple, the participants in the Regatta include members of all classes and communities inhabiting the neighbourhood of Aranmula. A healthy andloving exists between the different communities towards making the Boat Race an unprecedented success, every time. Here is the finest flowering of co-operativeenterprise, actuated not by profit-making motives, but solely inspired by warm human understanding, and love of sport.
During the Aranmula Boat Race, the banks of the river, for a distance of about three miles, would be one seething mass of humanity. Visitors, who have come in small canoes and boats, will be clustering round the Race Boats. The Boat Race at Aranmulais not conducted for any prize or reward but the crews consider the Regattas asa fitting and also as an act of adoration to THIRU ARANMULA APPAN, the presiding deity in the temple. All the rowers of the different varieties of Boats are sumptuouslyfed by the temple authorities, before the commencement of the race. At the finishof the Race handsome rewards are also awarded. The Race commences in the afternoon popular belief is that the Deity Himself graces all the participating Boats with His presence, at the time of the beginning of the Race. The People, at and near about Aranmula, have such implicit faith in the infallible efficacy of taking partin the Regatta, as a means of conferment of health and wealth for the rest of the year, that no one dares to belittle the importance of the festival. The pious folk believe that the God never fails to inflict condign punishment on doubters and detractors, who ridicule the religious significance of the Boat Race.
Associated with an act of gratitude and divine worship, sanctified by national custom adored by popular will, and lovingly fostered by successive generations, the Aranmula Boat Race, the most spectacular Boat Festival in Kerala, forms the subject-matter of two outstanding poetical works in the Malayalam language namely, Vilavattathu Raghavan Nambiyar's ARANMULA VILASM, and perumpara Vasudeva Bhattathiri's UTTARITTATHICHARITHAM. Kunchan Nambiyar, the greatest poetic wit of Kerala, has put it tersely that the charm and majesty of the Boat Race at Aranmula, on the lovely Pampa River defy description. Rev.W.J.Richards, one of the earliest Westerners to witness the Aranmula Boat Race, has described the scene as follows in his book 'NATIVE LIFEIN TRAVANCORE'.
"Aranmula, 18th August, 5.A.M., finds us opposite the great temple steps, on whichan immense and exited crowd stands, some holding long lighted cressets which are reflected in the water, making a weird appearance in the grey night of morning. The river is alive with canoes, big and little, which are objects of great interest, to those on the bank. There goes a stately racing boat with its prow nine feet outof the water and manned by a hundred rowers, besides a large number of singers, standing up and keeping time with hands and feet to the plash of the oars. These boats are reported when full to contain 200 persons, each. How proudly they stand, how exultingly they sing, how gracefully they sway to and fro Mark the feathering of the oars, and the musical motion of the paddles, stretched far from the boats and brought to the water, at the end of a circular sweep. How fine the boat looks ornamented at head and stern, by plates of burnished brass and large silver-headnails, which they call 'Buddles'! This is ONAM, the great festival season of Travancore, and these are high caste people performing their national boat game. These five great boats abreast, make the air ring with their songs as they glide in state, down the river. If we could but wait till next Monday, the 23rd, we should see, twenty five, together".
Few individuals, only the wealthiest landlords, own Snake Boats for they are very expensive, costing are owned by Karas (part of a village), the cost of construction and maintenance of the Boats being met by the Karakkars, people of the locality. In the Regattas, the different Kara owning Race Boats enter, and with determination, inspired by local patriotism, strive their best to knock off the prize. The competitionis austere and keen, in spite of the mirth and revelry enveloping it.
Neerettupuram Boat Race.
Rajiv Gandhi Boat Race.
Pulimkunnu Boat Race.
Karuvatta Boat Race.
Haripad Boat Race.
Mannar Boat Race.