Vallamkali in Malayalee means boat race. Vallamkali includes a lot of races of traditional boats in Kerala. However, during Onam, the most famous boat race is the Chundan Vallam race. These Chundan Vallam boats are shaped like a snake and these boat races are one of the highlights of Onam. They have gained immense popularity over the years and have become an integral part of Kerala.
Snake Boat Race also has a legend attached to it. According to the legend, a long time ago, a man named Katoor Mana offered his daily prayers on the banks of river Pamba in Aranmulla. One day, to complete his rituals, he waited to feed a poor person. He waited for a long time but nobody came. The tired man closed his eyes and prayed to lord Krishna.
When he opened his eyes, a small poor boy stood in front of him. Katoor Mana happily offered him a delicious meal. However, the boy suddenly disappeared after finishing his meal. Katoor Mana searched for the boy and spotted him at the Aranmulla temple but he disappeared again. Katoor Mana realized that this was no ordinary boy but God himself.
To mark Vallamkali, Katoor Mana brought food to Aranmulla temple every year during Onam. He asked the snake boats to escort him to protect the food from thieves. This news became well known in the region and soon many snake boats joined to protect him in his journey to carry food to the temple. This began the custom of snake boat races during Onam.
The Chundan Vallam Boat
These boats are different from other boats and are built with specific standards and scale. They are about a 100 to 138 feet long with a seating capacity of 100 men. They are made from special wood from Artocarpus hirsuta or Kadamb trees. The front ends of the boats are designed in the shape of cobra hoods and that is why they are called Snake boats. Skilled craftsmen who can work painstakingly and meticulously are used to build these boats. These boats are revered by the people and only men are allowed to touch it and as a mark of respect and regard, they can enter the boat only with bare feet.
The snake boat races are an exciting event during the Onam festival. The races take place in the Pamba River near Aranmulla temple. A huge crowd of onlookers gather at the banks of Pamba to watch this amazing event. The participants in this race are locals living along the shores of Pamba and other villagers living nearby. The number of participating boats can be as high as 30 and the race distance is about 40 kms starting from the hills and extending to the lower plains.
The boats are decorated are usually decorated with gold lace and a flag. The oarsmen are dressed in traditional white dhotis and turbans with no shirts and footwear. They row the boats to the rhythmic beats of boat songs sung by the singers who sit in the middle of the boat. These boats are revered by the people and respected like a deity and hence Vallamkali (Snake boat race) is considered as a pious event.