God’s Own Boatmen

As Kerala’s annual boat race season kicks off at Champakkulam, Suchayan Mandal tells us why this is the best time to visit the region 

The downpour has paused but that doesn’t guarantee a rain-less day in this part of the country. At Alappuzha district’s Champakkulam jetty on River Pamba, a crowd has been gathering since the wee hours of the morning. Today is the moolam day in the Malayalam calendar, which marks the beginning of the annual boat race season in Kerala. The tranquillity of the river is punctured as the crowd gains strength and the otherwise serene village gets ready for the Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race. Over a dozen chundan vallam or snake boats are participating in the historical carnival, which takes place annually. As advised by my hotel’s receptionist, I rush to the jetty right after breakfast to get a seat with a good view of the race’s starting point. The air is heavy with anticipation of a noisy crowd and it seems as if life has come to a halt! If you want to witness a traditional festival charged with pride, this is the place to be.

The boats

Interestingly, it’s not the race alone that demands attention. These boats, which slither like snakes across the water are equally unique. Enormously long – ranging from 100 to 140 ft – these boats were used around 500 years ago during wars by the armies of local kingdoms to manoeuvre the meandering network of the backwater canals. The legacy of these wars is celebrated by the modern-day races. Another story says that the festival is connected to the installation of the idol of Lord Krishna in the Ambalapuzha Sree Krishna Swamy temple in the vicinity. It is said that the celebration started when king Pooradam Thirunal Devanarayanan rewarded his Christian subject Mappilassery Itty Thommen who provided shelter to his men who were carrying the idol of Lord Krishna to be set in the altar of the royal temple.

On the day of the race, the boats are launched from their docks at around 5 am. The participating teams seek divine blessings at temples. Rituals are also performed at other temples and a church. It takes about 100 heavily muscular men to man the oars and each boat has a captain, who stands at the head of the chundan vallam to direct and boost his men during the race. While the race lasts a few hours, the preparation starts months in advance.

The preparation

The able oarsmen are carefully selected and under the supervision of the leader, the team practices hard for around six weeks. Villagers take turn in feeding the oarsmen on practice days at mass feasts on the river banks. The boats are expensive and the villagers contribute for their maintenance. Today’s boats are longer to accommodate more oarsmen! As the race day draws near, the boats are smeared with sardine oil for smooth sailing and more speed.

Method in madness

After waiting for a couple hours, the race finally begins a little after noon. There are drum rolls, whistles, songs and cheers – all overlapping with the high-pitched commentary in Malayali. I don’t need to be wellversed in the language to understand that this is not just a sporting activity; it’s a matter of pride! In front of me, hundreds of men are rowing the elegant boats in a magical rhythm – a well-choreographed oar-dance one may call it. Like a drummer juggling his drum sticks, the men juggle their massive 12-ft oars from one side to the other in absolute harmony.

Adding technology

An elderly gentleman seated next to me informs that since last year, an Olympic standard marking system has been put in place to avoid discrepancies at the finish line. Multiple cameras with high FPS (frames per second) have also been installed to nullify any dispute. As the race nears its end, the tension is almost palpable and the air is charged with the enthusiasm of a multitude of people who have gathered. The anchored houseboats and fishing boats too have become galleries for the audience. A few children, unable to find a suitable viewing spot, are swimming in the river. As the race ends and the sun dips behind the palm trees, the crowd breaks up into smaller groups. I head back to my hotel, promising myself to return next year for another rush of adrenaline!

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