Kerala has everything a tourist looks for- luxurious green vegetation, palm fringed beaches, snow capped mountains, a variety of water bodies, thick forest covers with rich flora and fauna, ancient monuments and worshipping places of almost all faiths, a rich heritage of performing and other arts, an educated and progressive population, spices and nature’s bounty for which travellers and traders from far and wide vied with each other. Moroccan scholar Ibn Batuta, Chinese trader Zheng Ho , Italian traveller Marco Polo, seafarers from Arab countries, Portugal, Holland, France and England were all here. Despite these foreign influences and interactions, the state remained fiercely independent, zealously guarding its rich heritage, and some of the cultural and artistic expressions have received international acclaim. Katha Kali, Mohini Attam, the Ayurveda traditions, Aranmula Kannadi or Metallic mirror, the Snake boats and boat races, the origins of all these are shrouded in mystery or legends. In fact there is a legend associated with Parashurama, who is believed to be the origin of the land of Kerala!
It is but natural that in a land blessed with 44 rivers and over thirty lakes and innumerous other water bodies, water transport or boats too have a hoary past. From being an essential means of transport, boats continue to be an integral part of people’s lives. It starts from the small rafts children assemble with the trunks of the banana trees which can float in water or the bamboo rafts people who collect wood from the forests use. These rafts incidentally have antique origin. Even today’s children continue to make bamboo rafts and use them at least to learn swimming.
In Kerala, in water logged areas like Kuttanad, considered to be the rice bowl of the state, most people have small wooden boats for personal transportation, for carrying materials or for fishing. These small boats can be for one or more people. For transportation of goods and passengers bigger boats are used and then there are huge boats traditionally known as rice boats or “Kettu Valloms”. With increased tourist activities, a large number of these traditional Kettu Valloms have been converted into House Boats for tourists and for those visiting Kerala a house boat journey is a must. The accommodations provided for tourists in these boats are luxurious ones and have even star classification. The food served is often excellent and for those who are non vegetarians can expect fish caught before their eyes by the boatmen or local ducks available in plenty en route for lunch or dinner. It is a fantastic experience to go for a cruise in a house boat through up to almost 1500 kilometers of backwaters, comprising lakes, lagoons, rivers, canals etc.
Boats have been used for military purpose by rulers of small kingdoms and principalities. Many types of boats were used for this. For example the large snake boats or Chundan valloms according to the official website of Kerala tourism, was used as an effort to strengthen the navy of a native king in Alappuzha who was routed in a war with another kingdom. This was over four centuries or more back and the new innovation of a boat with over a hundred oarsmen and soldiers was built according to our ‘Shastras’- “Sthapathya Veda” an ancient treatise for the building of wooden boats, a testimony for ancient Kerala’s naval architecture.
Before going into the details about the snake boats, it may not be out of context to mention that there still is a flourishing boat making trade by local carpenters [referred to us Asharies or Thachans in Malayalam] in the Beypore village, located in the south of the ancient port city of Kozhikode or Calicut and in some of the small islands dotting the Chaliyar river. Its antiquity dates back to over a millennium when the Arabs and Jews frequented the Malabar coast for spice trade. These large wooden boats or Dhows known locally as “Urus” were capable of crossing the seas and carried commodities and passengers; and were deployed in the navy of native kings like the Zamorin of Calicut. These huge boats are made entirely with wood[generally Kerala grown teak] and master craftsmen with no blueprints or drawings take a couple of years or more with say fifty workers to build one of these giant sized boats with a length and breadth of 140 feet and 30 feet respectively. They are still used in coastal trade in India and the Middle - East. There are also reports about some royal families in the Gulf importing them for use as their luxury yachts. Some of them are also used in the tourism industry and also as floating restaurants. It is also believed that some of these dhows were used by Admiral Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar in which Napoleon was defeated.
Back to the fabled Chundan Valloms or snake boats. Like the Beypore dhows, these magnificent boats are also hand crafted by local carpenters. There are few of these master craftsmen who only know the secret of building these boats which have long been associated with temples. As a school boy one had seen how massive but delicate boats were built which could balance itself to stay afloat on water. Such balance is possible only with expertise and the measurements are accurate. The wood used for this is from a tree that grows primarily in Kerala called ‘Anjili’ [Artocarpus hirsutus] also known as wild jack, a very huge, tall [45 meters with a girth of about 4.5 meters] evergreen tree which produces a small or miniature jackfruit like fruit; this fruit, though difficult pluck is a favorite of kids as it is very sweet. The timber of Anjili is very durable, resistant to white ants and fungus and can survive in saline water. No wonder this tree is used to build the snake boat. One had seen different stages of the boat building and how in the end they were applying a concoction of fish oil, eggs and ashes of coconut shells. The curious twelve year old asked why such a mixture was applied on the boat, an elder replied that it was to reduce the absorption of water. As part of the maintenance of the boat this treatment is repeated every year during the Onam season[August –September]. It is an elaborate ceremonial and devotional ritual when devotees come to push the boat to the hallowed waters of Pampa.
As a kid, one grew up on the banks of Pampa, quite close to the famed Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple[ in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala], where the annual Vallom [boat] Kali [a game] takes place on the fourth day of the main Onam or Thiruonam, on what is called “Uthrattathi” day according to the Malayalam Calendar, Kolla Varsham in the month of Chingam, the first month of the year. The sounds – the rhythmic falling of the oars in the water, the lines from the Kuchela Vrutam Vanchi Pattu [Vanchi is boat and Pattu is song] sung by the singers of the boats rowing upstream long before dawn on Ashtami Rohini, the birthday of Krihna, used to have a haunting effect; one would run to the riverbank to see and hear a few boats going up stream to have a ‘Darshan’ of Lord Krishna or Parthasarathi, the divine charioteer of Arjuna.
The devotees who go in snake boats to the Aranmula temple on the day of Ashtami Rohini are treated to a sumptuous lunch or Valla Sadya after the noon Pooja. This is considered to be a great spiritual experience for the devotees to partake a meal in the presence of their beloved deity. Of course this sadya or feast is a gastronomical delight with 45 or even 90 vegetarian items. Devotees also give as offering, sadya to one or more specially invited boats. Old timers had told me that a person sitting at a Sadya can ask for any dish! Throughout the period of Onam and beyond the Sadyas become a regular daily feature. This year it was on from 31st July and will go on till 2nd October. Devotees can also book a Sadya in advance on payment for a minimum of 200 people.
There are many legends about the antiquity and origin of the Aranmula Vallom Kali or boat race. One popular legend is about a devout Brahmin whose offering of oil for the Onam feast or Thiruona Sadya in what is known as the Thiruona Thoni [Thoni is another term for boat in Malayalam]. The boat was threatened to be attacked and looted by a rival group and hearing this villagers from nearby villages rushed in their snake boats and saved the situation. It is believed that the custom of accompanying the Thiruona Thoni originated then and the snake boats from all the villages assembled there for a ceremonial procession before the deity of Sri Parthasarathy. The tradition of the Vallom Kali or boat race in Aranmula started thus. Even today, the boat shaped as a Garuda carrying offerings to their favourite deity is accompanied by snake boats or Palliodams [divine boats] from villages on the bank of the river Pampa.
It was during one’s tenure as a broadcaster in Delhi that one was at one’s ancestral home during the Uthrattathi boat race. Expressed a desire to be in the snake boat and record a running commentary from the boat of our village, to a childhood friend who was one of the local community leaders. My childhood friend and classmate Unni or Karunakaran Nair [now unfortunately no more] readily agreed and asked me to wear only a white Dhoti and a small Kerala towel as a headgear and not to have any footwear.
That gave one a ringside view of a snake boat from inside. There were over a hundred oarsmen sitting two to a row and four helmsmen at the stern which is at a height of about twenty feet with over a dozen foot long heavy oars each [called Adanayanpu in Malayalam] propelling the boat. As for decoration there was a golden coloured” Nettipattam” or caparison on the stern and a few colorful umbrellas or “Muthukkuda” in Malayalam. The stern and the tapering bow like the beak of a bird give the boat the appearance of a snake hence called a snake boat. There were almost two dozen singers on a small platform singing verses from what is called “Kuchela Vruttam” “Vanchi Pattu”or boat songs, a special genre of Malayalam poetry pioneered by poet Ramapurathu Varrier eulogizing the friendship between Sri Krishna and Kuchela or Sudhama.
Varrier, an eighteenth century poet had gone to Vaikom temple to meet Maharaja Marthanda Varma, considered to be the maker of modern Travancore. The Maharaja asked him to recite some of his poems which he did. Pleased with the poet the Maharaja is believed to have asked Varrier to sing what is called “Kuchela Vruttam “ like a boat song or “Vanchi Pattu” while accompanying the King during the long return boat journey to Thiruvananthapuram. This Vanchi Pattu by Ramapurathu Varrier is even today sung by the devotees on the snake boats during the Aranmula boat race on the fourth day of Onam. These songs are melodious, rhythmic, brimming with vitality and enthusiasm to keep up the spirits of the oarsmen who repeat only the refrains. The singing by the people on the snake boats is indeed a treat.
The Aranmula boat race is unique in many ways and there are also boat races during Onam in different parts of Kerala, many of them associated with temples. They include boat races at Champakkulam, Payippad, Thriprayar, Neerettupuram, Kottayam , Alleppy, Kollam and Kandassakkadav. In these boat races other than snake boats, there are many other types of smaller boats called Veppu, Irittukuthy, Odi, Churulan, etc. While Aranmula boat race is the most ancient, the Nehru Trophy boat race in the Punnamada kayal in Alleppy on the second Saturday of August every year is probably the most popular one because of its competitive nature and the publicity it gets from the media. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India witnessed the boat race in Alleppey in 1952. It is said that enthusiastic Nehru jumped on to one of the snake boats and was mighty impressed by the experience. After returning to Delhi he got a silver trophy made and presented it to the organizes of the Alleppey boat race and later this annual feature was named the Nehru Trophy which is all fun and frolic unlike the Aranmula boat race which is more of a water pageantry with a devotional angle where competition is not the prime criterion..
Today the Nehru Trophy boat race is known internationally and the competition is really fierce. The oarsmen take off from their jobs and professions and go through a long and strict regimen of practice and physical training.
The government and the tourist industry need to promote and market all the boat races in Kerala from Aranmula, Alleppey, to all others. They all have their own distinct features and for tourists from home and abroad these will be thrilling experiences.