Do note that many of Kerala's snake boat races have been postponed or canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Further details are provided below.
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 canoe-style boat used by the people of Kerala's Kuttanad region, in the heart of the Kerala backwaters.
It's a traditional war boat of Kerala. Typical snake boats are 100 to 120 feet long, and hold up to 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 to race the boats along the lakes and rivers.
The History of 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 these 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 the Races are 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 the Races are 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.
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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 or September, particularly the Aranmula Boat Race, which takes place midway 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 Boat Race is held in late August or early September. Important dates for 2020 are listed below.
- Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race: July 4, 2020. Canceled.
- Nehru Trophy Boat Race: August 8, 2020. Canceled/postponed.
- Uthradam Thirunal Pamba Boat Race: August 30, 2020. Likely to be canceled or postponed.
- Payippad Boat Race: September 2, 2020. Likely to be canceled or postponed.
- Aranmula Boat Race: September 4, 2020. Likely to be canceled or postponed.
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.
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 online or from the tickets stands on the way. They cost from 100 rupees for standing room on makeshift bamboo decks, up to 3,000 rupees for Gold VIP access. Do bring an umbrella in case of monsoon rain! More information is available on the official Nehru Trophy website.
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 Parthasarathy 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, holding pretty parasols and accompanied by large groups of singers, are cheered on by an exuberant crowd.
Champions Boat League (CBL) Races
Old tradition meets modern sporting style, with snake boat races that aren't associated with religious customs to become part of a new commercial Champions Boat League (CBL) tournament, which was launched in 2019. The Kerala government aims to add glamor and prestige to the state's snake boat races, and plans to market the tournament to tourists internationally. It's billed to be the world's largest team sport!
The tournament has a series of races held in different places in Kerala, starting with the Nehru Trophy and concluding with the President’s Trophy Boat Race. Out of all the boats participating in the Nehru Trophy race, a selection qualify to compete in the League based on performance.
Champions Boat League races will not be held as planned this year. A revised schedule may be announced in the future, depending on the outcome of the COVID-19 situation in Kerala.
How to Get There
The closest airport to Alleppey is in Kochi, 85 kilometers (53 miles) away. A pre-paid taxi from the airport is reliable and hassle-free and will cost about 2,300 rupees. Taxis are available 24 hours a day, although you may have to pay an extra charge at night. Uber and Ola app-based taxis are also available. Travel time is approximately two hours.
Alleppey has a railway station, located a short distance southwest of the town center. The railway station closest to Kochi airport is Aluva (spelled Alwaye with code AWY), opposite Aluva Rajiv Gandhi Bus Station about 20 minutes away. Alleppey is also readily accessible from Ernakulum South (about an hour from Kochi).
The bus is another inexpensive option for getting from Kochi to Alleppey. Kerala State Road Transport Corporation fast bus services depart regularly from the transit area between the airport terminals. However, a schedule isn't followed. If you arrive at a time when there are no buses, you'll find more services departing from Aluva Rajiv Gandhi Bus Station, and the modern Vytilla Mobility Hub located 45 minutes away in Ernakulam.
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.
Where to Stay
Here are some suggestions for homestays in an around Alleppey. In addition, 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 ideal 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.