Snakes on the water

It’s that time again when you should be in Kerala. For one the fabulous lush countryside, thanks to India’s legendary monsoons, will remind you why its iconic tagline “God’s Own Country’ still endures– and resonates so deeply in the heart of visitors. The second compelling reason to be here is for the annual Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race, a classic that always has a pride of place in the country’s event calendar. Did you know there’s another snake boat festival held around the same time in Kerala. The second, much older and steeped in history and spiritual nuances, is the Aranmula Uthrittathi Vallamkali or Aranmula Boat Race. It is held in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district on the day of the Uthrittathi asterism in the Malayalam month of Chingam (15 August and 20 September)

What you will love is that the Snake Boat Festivals are an aligned with the 10-day Onam festival, one of the biggest in Kerala; it is dedicated to the Vamana Avatar of Lord Vishnu (Krishna) and the return of the legendary King Mahabali. You will get to take home indelible memories of the racy atmospherics of this popular sports event. But do remember that you can also indulge all your senses in the grand offerings of Onam– particularly that famous culinary staple the thiruvonasadya – a banquet of dishes served on a traditional platter– banana leaf-, which reflects the emerald shades of a Kerala rainy season. More about this later.

Let’s get back to the Snake Boat Festivals. The Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race festival is held at Punnamda Lake in Alleppey, the jump-off point for your backwater cruises. You should try and take time to take a guided walk titled “Alleppey on Foot”, of this heritage backwater town organized by the Preserve Alleppey Project, which was started by the Lion Ladies Club in 2000. This all-women initiative was launched to help preserve the character of this town which is at the heart of Kerala’s backwater eco-system.

Sorry, we digress…but it’s for something really important. So, now let return once again to Kerala’s Snake Boat Festivals held in August/September. The venue…or rather venues. While there’s the Punnamda Lake in Alleppey and the other, as mentioned earlier, is the village of Aranmula, which nestles by the banks of the Pampa River.

When Nehru Danced in Delight

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race draws its inspiration from no less a personality than independent India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru. During his visit to Kerala in 1952 he was so blown away witnessing the sleek, ebony black snake boats in a race held in his honour at the Punnamda Lake near Alappuzha, he couldn’t resist jumping into the one called Nadubhagom Chundan, as the competitors approached the finishing point in his excitement. Back in Delhi, in time he donated a silver trophy, shaped like a snake boat as a memento of that wonderful experience. The inscription on the trophy reads: "To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore Cochin."

The regatta was later named the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, as a salute to his sentiments. Today the fiercely competitive race is preceded by riveting ceremonial water processions and beautiful water floats, much to the delight of the estimated two lakh people, including tourists from abroad cheering on their favourite teams. The Nehru Trophy Boat Race is known as "Kuttanad's Olympics on water", the national festival of the people of Kuttanad.

Homage to Lord Krishna

The Aranmula Boat Race, is a more intimate community affair, and marks the founding of the Sree Parthasarathy Temple, whose presiding deity is Lord Krishna. The design, of the gaily decorated palliyodams or snake boats used for this race, was given by Lord Krishna himself, as local lore has it.

The four men who are at the helm and the 100 oarsmen (two in a row along the entire 100-foot length) of each snake boat (Chandun Vallam in the vernacular) synchronise the rowing in fantastic rhythm; they are traditionally bare chested and attired in white mundu (loin cloth) and turbans; the singers, about 25 of them) on board sing traditional boat songs known as Vanchippattu, inspired by Puranic themes. Boats, sponsored by various groups in the district now participate in competitive spirit for the trophy.

To wrap up this exciting tour you should definitely sample the delights of the traditional Onam feast known as thiruvonasadya.

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