Sitting on the front row on wooden benches around the Pampa River, I adjusted my camera gear to capture one of the oldest boat events which turned into a sport in 1972. For the month of September, It was too hot and to ensure a seat, I had to reach early. I saw a couple of boats parading up and down, probably for warming up or to show –off their mesmerizing boats. My craving interest to witness this continuing tradition of snake boat race was about to turn into a reality, of which I had seen a little on TV in Doordarshan cultural programs.
From far, I could see the long garlands of marigold flowers swing from the head of the tiny black boats. As the boats came closer, I could hear their full throated singing with a beautiful rhythm and was stunned to see the size, shape and beauty of these boats. I saw the boatmen dressed in white turban and mundu, wearing no footwear or shirt, roaring like lion with their energy on peak. The golden lace, the flag and the ornamental umbrella at the center make it a show of pageantry too. There were a few people standing with the bigger oars on their hand navigating the boat, while there were many oarsmen sitting crossed legs who gave the acceleration, a man in red turban was the captain of the boat. The captain and the singers were cheering the oarsmen and the energy was just fabulous. In my zoom lens, I could see the faces full of sweat and blood, as their muscles moved with the circular movement of oars. The boats sailed like a huge snake on the surface; splashing the water around and creating a beautiful imagery in my mind.
The boat race seemed like a well-managed event and people from different villages came to participate. There were loud speakers to let the audiences hear live commentary; however those loud speakers were too loud for me as I could hardly understand a word of Malayalam. I spotted a local girl dressed in beautiful white and golden sari, hoping that she could help me understand the event. I started a conversation with her and she turned out to be an ex-Mumbaikar. What a relief and there I got involved more into the competition and understood the nitty-gritty of the event. On sighting the man in the attire of Mahabali who was cheering the boats, she started about the legends related to the event and the famous King.
The Aranmula Boat Race is the oldest river boat fiesta in Kerala, the south western State of India and is held during Onam . It takes place near a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna. Palliyodams are Aranmula’s unique snake boats which devotees hold in reverence, considering it as the divine vessel of the presiding deity in Sree Parthasarathy temple. Locating a suitable tree preferably Anjili, cutting it down and bringing to the location for construction is the first step. Selecting an auspicious day and time work begins. All these are according to Vedas, an ancient treatise on building of wooden boats. These boats are about 100 to 138 ft in length, with the rear portion towering to a height of about 20 ft. and a long tapering front portion. When completed, it resembles a snake with its hood raised. Its hull is built of planks precisely 83 feet in length and six inches wide. Every year the boats are oiled mainly with fish oil, coconut shell, and carbon, mixed with eggs to keep the wood strong and the boat slippery in the water. The village carpenter carries out annual repairs and people take pride in their boat, which is named after and represents their village. The singers lead the ‘’Vanchipattu’’ (song) which the oarsmen will repeat and they move the oars in circular form according to its rhythm.
The river turned into orange color gradually as the sun cooled down and now we had the three finalists to fight against each other after multiple rounds of race. The boats looked even more beautiful contrasting the color of river and the men dressed in white clothes looked like studded diamonds on the boat. The cheering and signing is now even louder and I also step down at the bank of river to share the joy. The boys from crowd were now half inside the water and started dancing splashing and signing. At the last race everyone’s eyes are hooked on the winner boat and their huge trophy as they won it with a great margin. I too forgot about all the barriers and joined them all to sing, dance and celebrate the victory. The festival was a visual treat and one of the most amazing events I have visited, can’t compare the beauty of this event with any other sport.