Kerala Travelogue: Snakeboat Racing

Chundan Vallam (Beaked Boat) is known to the outside world as Kerala snake boat. They are the icons of Kerala culture used in the Vallamkali (boat race). A snakeboat racing event was arranged as part of our conference.

The history of these battling boats goes back 400 years in history when the rajas of the erstwhile principalities in the old Travancore area, which were part of the present Alappuzha district and Kottayam district, frequently crossed swords on the backwaters of Kuttanad. The Chempakasserry (Ambalapuzza) 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 cumbersome. He called all the boat architects in the land to his court and told them of his desire to have better and faster boats for the troops. After days of hard labor, Koduppunna Venkitanarayanan Asari, a man who was reputed to be the best boat architect, came up with a specimen which satisfied the raja’s requirements.

It had speed, manoeuverability and capacity to carry 100 able-bodied warriors on board. 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. Asari was generously rewarded and in the subsequent battles, the Chempakasseri Raja emerged victorious.

Snake boats are constructed according to specifications taken from the Sthapathya Veda, an ancient treatise for the building of wooden boats. These boats are about 100 to 138 ft in length, with the rear portion towering to a height of about 20 ft. and a long tapering front portion.

It resembles a snake with its hood raised. Its hull is built of planks precisely 83 feet in length and six inches wide.

Traditionally each boat belongs to a village and the villagers worship that boat like a deity. Only men are allowed to touch the boat and to show respect they should be barefooted. To make the boat slippery while in water it is oiled with a mixture of fish oil, coconut shell carbon and eggs.

The boat will be commanded by a Kaarnavan / Karanaadhan (Village leader) and under him there will be three main oarsmen who control the movement of the boat with 12 feet long main rudder-oar (Adanayampu). Sitting two in row along the length of the Boat there will be 64 oarsmen, representing 64 art forms (or sometimes there will be 128 oarsmen). They row in rhythm of the vanchipattu (boatman’s song). There will be around 25 singers in a row at the middle between the oresmen.

And in the middle of the second half of the boat is a platform for eight people to stand from where the main singer will lead the song.They represent the Ashtadikpalakas (the Devas or Gods who guard the eight directions). A colourful and decorated umbrella also will be there.

With this background, here are some photos of the racing event.

Two teams ready for the race with their boats……..

The war cry goes out…….

Row…row…row…your boat, fiercely down the stream…..

go…go…go…row…row…row…GO…ROW…

AND, the winner is…….

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Text derived from various web-sites on Kerala.

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One thought on “Kerala Travelogue: Snakeboat Racing

  1. Though Nehru Boat Race at alleppey is the most famous and most grand, there are several other races in different parts of Kerala. It can get crazy but worth all the trouble.

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