Posted June 4, 2015

With a bow that rises five feet above the water level, the snake boat’s resemblance to hooded snakes has earned them this nickname. This particular boat’s legend goes back 400 years to when the local kings of the Alappuza region would fight one another in the backwaters of Kerala. After losing heavily in a number of these skirmishes, one particular king is said to have hired specialist boat architects to build him a superior vessel. The resulting vessel was a snake boat, which was said to have remained undefeated.

Whatever the truth behind this legend, the encounters between the numerous chundan vallam in these races capture the energy and excitement that one of these backwater skirmishes would have once had.

It’s during Onam, a Hindu harvest festival celebrated in autumn, that the backwaters are most alive with snake boats. The cultural extravaganza of the various vallum kali races (literally ‘boat game’) has come to be synonymous with Onam. There are over 30 different vallum kali competitions that take place throughout Kerala, but the most popular by far is the Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race.

The Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race is always held on the second Saturday of August, near Alappuzha in the Punnamada Lake.  The large number of participants that each snake boat possesses is unrivalled in any other sport. In addition to the 100 rowers that each boat possesses, 4 helmsmen and 25 singers are also present. The helmsmen control the 12-foot long rudder while the singers, placed in a row running down the middle of the boat, chant boatsongs known as vanchipattu, for the oarsmen to row in unison to.

Weeks before the event, the black boats are decorated with colourful trimmings that indicate what village they belong to. Traditionally, they’re also smeared with fish oil to help them glide smoothly through the water of this 1370m long race.

On race day, the great sense of occasion for this vallum kali is brought to a climax as thousands of spectators take to the banks of Punnamada Lake. The 100-foot long snake boats order themselves at the start-line, with crews desperate to become champions and lay their hands on the prestigious Nehru Trophy.

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Spirit of South India


Temple towns of Tamil Nadu to backwaters of Kerala

£2,395 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
14 days
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