For a few months every year during the monsoon season, the state of Kerala comes alive with colorful snake boat races. Here's what you need to know about them.
What's a Snake Boat?
Fortunately there's no need for concern, as snake boats get their name from their shape rather than anything to do with live snakes! A snake boat (or chundan vallam) is actually a long traditional canoe style boat used by the people of the Kuttanadu region, in south India's state of Kerala.
It's a traditional war boat of Kerala. Typical snake boats are 100 to 120 feet long, and hold around 100 rowers. Each of the villages in the region has its own snake boat, which they take great pride in. Every year the villagers get together and race the boats along the lakes and rivers.
What's the History Behind the Snake Boat Races?
The battling snake boats of Kerala have over 400 years of history associated with them. Their story can be traced back to the kings of Alleppey (Alappuzha) and the surrounding areas, who used to fight with each other in boats along the canals. One king, who suffered heavy losses, got boat architects to build him a better vessel and the snake boat was born, with much success. An opposing king sent a spy to learn the secret of how to make theses boats but was unsuccessful as the subtleties of the design are very hard to pick up. These days boat races are held with much excitement during various festivals.
Where are the Races Held?
Four main snake boat races (and as many as 15 minor ones) are held each year, in and around Alleppey.
- The spectacular Nehru Trophy is held on Alleppey's Punnamda Lake.
- The oldest race, the Champakkulam Moolam, is held along the river at Champakkulam (Changanassery), around 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Alleppey.
- The Payippad Jalotsavam is held on Payippad Lake, 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Alleppey.
- The Aranmula Boat Race is held along the Pampa River at Aranmula, near Chengannur, around 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Alleppey.
When are the Races Held?
Snake boat races are mostly held from July to September, with the exact dates varying each year depending on the phase of the moon. The exception is the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, which is always held on the second Saturday of August. Snake boat races are the highlight of the Onam Festival in August/September, particularly the Aranmula Boat Race, which takes place mid way through the 10 day celebrations. Many other boat races are also held during the festival along the backwaters at Kottayam, Payippad, and Champakkulam. The Champakkulam Moolam is held in late June or early July, and the Payippad Jalotsavam is held in September.
Kerala Tourism has a calendar of snake boat race dates each year on their website.
Champakkulam Moolam Snake Boat Race
The Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race marks the day that the idol of the Hindu God Krishna was installed in the Sree Krishna Temple in Ambalappuzha, not far from Alleppey. According to the legend, those carrying the idol stopped over in Champakkulam on the way.
The next morning, thousands of colorful boats were assembled there to honor the event and escort the idol to the temple. This procession is re-enacted before the Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race takes place. It kicks off with exotic water floats, boats decorated with colorful parasols, and performing artists.
Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race
The Nehru Trophy snake boat race is undoubtedly the most exciting race of the year. This race is held in memory of India's late Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru. An impromptu snake boat race was held in 1952 when the Prime Minister visited Alleppey. Apparently he was so impressed with the welcome and the race, he donated a trophy. The race has continued on ever since. It's a commercial event and you'll need to buy tickets from the tickets stands on the way. They cost less than $1 for for standing room on makeshift bamboo decks, up to $25 for VIP access.
Do bring an umbrella in case of monsoon rain!
Aranmula Snake Boat Race
The Aranmula Boat Race is a two day, predominantly religious, occasion. Rather than being a contest, it's more about retracing the time offerings were carried on snake boats to the Aranmula Parthasarthy Temple. This was done to protect the offerings from rivals from another village. The whole occasion is a celebration of the day Lord Krishna crossed the river. Position yourself on the banks of the Pampa River near the temple in Aranmula to witness the spectacular event. Traditionally dressed rowers, accompanied by groups of 25 singers, are cheered on by an exuberant crowd.
How to Get There
The closest airport to Alleppey is in Kochi, 85 kilometers (53 miles) away.
Alleppey has its own railway station, located a short distance south west of the town center, and is readily accessible from Ernakulum (neach Kochi). The nearest railway station to Aranmula is Chengannur, 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. It's easy to get a train there from Ernakulum, and likewise all major trains between Kochi and Trivandrum stop at Chengannur. However, Chengannur is on a different line to Alleppey, so it's not possible to travel by train between the two places. A taxi is the most convenient way to travel around the region.
Where to Stay
Here are some suggestions for homestays in an around Alleppey. In addition, Nova Homestay is recommended. Double rooms start from around 2,500 rupees per night. Vedanta Wake Up! offers groovy hostel style accommodations on Punnamada Finishing Point Road. Palm Grove Lake Resort and Malayalam Lake Resort Homestay are both near the starting point of the Nehru Trophy snake boat race. Punnamada Resort is popular if you don't mind paying 7,000 rupees upwards per night. Alternatively, you can stay on a traditional houseboat and cruise along the canals.