Essential Guide to Snake Boat Races in Kerala

Monsoon and Onam Festival Fun in Kerala

Snake boat race in Kerala.
Jagdish Agarwal/Getty Images.

For a few months every year during the monsoon season, the popular south Indian 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 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.

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 or 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 Boat Race is held in late August or early September.

Kerala Tourism has a calendar of snake boat race dates each year on their website.

Important dates for 2018 are:

  • Champakkulam Moolam -- June 28, 2018.
  • Nehru Trophy -- August 11, 2018.
  • Uthradam Thirunal Pamba Boat Race -- August 24, 2018.
  • Payippad Boat Race -- August 27, 2018.
  • Aranmula Boat Race -- August 29, 2018.

    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, or online here. 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!

    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 large groups of singers, are cheered on by an exuberant crowd.

    Commercialization of Snake Boat Races in 2018

    Old tradition meets modern sporting style in 2018, with those snake boat races not associated with religious customs becoming part of a new commercial Kerala Boat Race League (KBRL) tournament. 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.

    The tournament will have 12 races, starting with the Nehru Trophy on August 11 and concluding with the President Trophy’s Race in Kollam on November 1.

    Out of the 20 boats participating in the Nehru Trophy race, nine will qualify to compete in the following races. Six of these races will be held in Alleppey district, two in Ernakulam district, and one each in Thrissur, Kottayam and Kollam districts.

    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. Travel time is approximately 2 hours.

    Alleppey has its own 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 from the transit area between the airport terminals at 9.15 a.m., 9.30 a.m., 10.40 a.m., 4.10 p.m, and 4.20 p.m. However, the schedule isn't always 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.