It feels like an eternity since I put on my travelling boots and when I eventually did, I realized I just struck-out one item from my places-to-be-before-I-die list. Kerala has always been close to my heart, not just for its beauty but also for it being my native land. So, it’s natural that everything about Kerala fascinates and excites me. But there are some things that excite any person irrespective of where you come from.
The annual boat races of Kerala is one such event that you would go any lengths to witness. So despite quite a few glitches, I was determined to experience it. And thankfully so, my determination paid of. A hurriedly arranged trip which involved getting stuck in Bangalore traffic for a good 2 hours before I ran on the wet and slippery platform of Yeshvantpur Railway station with two bags cumulatively weighing at least half my weight finally saw me witnessing the Aranmula Boat Race from the steps of Parthasaradhi Temple in Aranmula, Chengannur.
The Aranmula boat race is one among several annual boat races that live under the shadow of the more popular Nehru Boat Race. But unlike the tourist-oriented Nehru boat race, the Aranmula boat race is more a tradition than a competition and the oldest amongst the lot. The race coincides with the last day of Onam on which day the commemoration of the installation of the deity Lord Krishna is done. River Pamba on whose bank the temple resides is where all the action unfolds. The Chundan Vallam (Snake boat) is approximately 103 feet in length and have about 4 helmsman, 100 rowers and 25 singers.
The Vallamkali (boat race) have two categories. The first, where the Palliyodams (snake boats) from different villages of the surrounding areas compete against each other. The main singer leads the team with a vanjipaatu (boat song). The Oarsmen row the boat following the tune and rhythm of the singers. The first part of the competition is not a race, but rather a competition to decide the most synchronous and well sung team. After that comes the boat race to decide the fastest of them all.
Needless to say, it’s a real treat to the eyes watching these men in action. It’s unlike any sport in the world. It also happens to be the sport with the largest team size. The whole event takes about 3 hours to complete and at the end of it, you will be hungry for more. At the end of the race is the famous Valla Sadya (feast) to satiate your physical hunger. The whole charged-up atmosphere, the constant rhythmic vanjipaatu in the background, the lingering aroma of Valla Sadya and holiness of the temple makes it a trip that is truly unforgettable.
Getting-there: It’s a half hour bus ride from Changannur railway station. When in doubt, just follow the crowd.
Must-Do: Witness the boat race, take a boat ride and get a closer look at the Snake boats before the start of the race, eat the Valla Sadya, record a live vanjipaatu of a team.
Other Attractions: Buy Aranmula Kannadi – metal mirrors. Aranmula Kottaram (palaces).