Boat Racing in the Kerala Backwaters

The verdant green land of Kerala is amply endowed with its share of backwaters and golden beaches that have become a major source of tourism since the past decade or so. The peaceful laidback way of life that is so rich in tradition and culture along with natures overdose of amazing beauty make Kerala a popular tourist destination.

Come August and the harvest festivities start stretching out for the next few months; with its richness in water bodies, it’s expected that they form a major part of the festivities. Water sports like boat racing are a major part of the Onam celebrations and are associated with most of the big lakes in Kerala. During the harvest season the annual boat races using the slim snake boats (Chundan Vallams) suddenly take over the peaceful waterways with their warrior-like thrashing oars. These racing events are organized by social and religious organizations. Other types of boats that take part in boat racing are known as Churulan Vallam, Iruttukuthy Vallam, Odi Vallam, Veppu Vallam, Vadakkanody Vallam and the Kochu Vallam.

These boat races have become a major form of tourism attraction and have been a part of Kerala’s heritage since about 650 years ago when disputes between local kings were settled by boat races. Such peaceful ways of settling disputes must surely be why Kerala is known as ‘Gods own Country’! Many of these races are associated with temple festivals to give the sport an aura of religious sanctity. A few of these races have interesting myths and legends attached to them that make them even more interesting to watch.

These races are organized at different places in Kerala and are associated with specific trophies. The Nehru Trophy boat race is an important event in the Punnamada Lake near Alapuzha; likewise, the President’s Trophy boat race held in early November every year on the scenic Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam is a mega event where the big politicians come down to witness the adrenaline pumping race amongst hundreds of oarsmen. Another boat race is the Kallada boat race held on the Kallada River in Kollam during the Onam period.

In Kumarakom also, the serene Vembanad Lake comes alive during Onam with a spectacular regatta – The Sree Narayana Trophy boat race; the race is conducted in the center of the big canal near the market place. It is indeed amazing to watch thousand or so oarsmen thrashing their oars into the waters to the fast rhythm of their own full-throated singing as they race towards the finishing line. Thousands of people gather from all over on both sides of the shores to hoot and sing along with the team they are cheering for, making this truly an exciting sport for the red-blooded ones.

The Aranmula Uthrattadi Vallamkali boat race is the oldest known boat racing event in Kerala and takes place in Pathanamthitta during the Onam month known as Chingam. This race is dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna. The snake boats used for this event are huge with four helmsmen, 100 rowers and 25 singers who sing the local Vanchipattu songs in sync with the rowing.

So as to get the maximum enjoyment out of a trip to Kerala, do plan for the Onam season so you experience the unique backwaters boat racing events too!