Kerala’s Boat Races: Not for the Faint of Heart!


Photo by Arun Kumar Sinha

Kerala’s position as the jewel of the tropical Malabar Coast and the number of holiday deals available to the region have cemented it as a tourist favourite in recent years, but many tourists don’t know that one of the most amazing sights to be seen in the area is to be found tucked away in the region’s backwaters.

The Vallam Kali, literally “boat race” in Malayalam, is a succession of fast paced, exciting races that take part on the rivers in the Kuttanad region, usually during the Onam harvest festival in the autumn. The tradition of the boat races stems from times when local rulers used the long boats to transport soldiers during waterfront wars. This has changed and adapted in modern times when four of the boats were sent to receive a statements and a boat race was organised for his amusement. He was so impressed by this that upon his return to Delhi he sent back a silver trophy so that the boat race may be held again every year. This heralded the beginning of the Vallam Kali boat races, with teams from neighbouring towns and villages pitted against each other to win the coveted Nehru Trophy.

The most thrilling of these races is undoubtedly the Chundan Vallam, or snake boat, race. The snake boats can be over 130 feet long; with a raised prow that stands 10 to 20 feet above the water. The snake boat moniker comes from the appearance of the prow, which resembles the hood of a snake. Each boat holds around a hundred oarsmen at peak physical condition and is constructed according to ancient specifications handed down in the Sthapathya Veda, a traditional treatise for the building of these boats. The boats are extremely important to villagers and each boat is treated as a sacred object – only the men of the village are allowed to touch the boat and must be barefooted to do so.

The races are regarded as similarly significant and competition for the trophy is fierce making these races one of the most exhilarating sporting events in the country. The pomp and pageantry surrounding the events are also a must-see as the villagers sell local cuisines and items of interest to visiting tourists and neighbouring villagers. Kerala’s boat races are definitely not to be missed!

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