Kerala is a verdant land of rich cultural history and enchanting natural beauty. Here, you can see swaying palm trees and the lofty Western Ghats in their absolute glory! From its culinary delicacies to the interesting tourist hotspots, everything about ‘God’s Own Country’ will keep you excited and craving for more. If you are planning to visit Kerala this monsoon, time your travel to not miss out on the bewitching Kerala Boat Race! People from across the world visit the state to see the grandeur of these events!
Kerala Boat Race, also referred to as ‘Vallam Kali’ is a traditional race that is usually conducted during the Malayalam month of ‘Chingam’. In the English Calendar, Chingam will be in the months of August and September. The race is held on the Kerala backwaters that get replenished with the onset of the rainy season. A long boat with a body that twists like a snake – ‘Vallam’ is used to compete with the opponents. Owing to the shape of the boat, this race is also popular as the ‘Kerala Snake Boat Race’.
A group of strong men take up the oars and settle on the boats. They aim to invest their full strength to row and reach the finishing line before their opponents. The palpable energy and the uplifting spirits of the people make Kerala Boat Race the most sought-after event in the Southern States.
What is the Snake Boat Race?
The Kerala Boat Race or Snake Boat Race is not just a sport or recreational activity. It signifies the happiness of Keralities and showcases their unity and community spirit. It is a way in which the people thank nature – both land and water – for keeping them prosperous and happy. Think of the race as a vibrant regional celebration!
The long snake boats look like the canoe boats you see on rivers and beaches. However, their ends twist like a snake and the other-worldly decorations make them look immensely gorgeous. They are called ‘Chundanvallams’ in Malayalam. Snake boats have a length of about 100 feet and can hold about 100 men. Some boats also have a capacity of holding about 150 men.
Each boat represents a team of 4 navigators, about 25 singers, and a total of 100-125 men rowing the structure. As the men row in unison, the people outside and the talented vocals on the ship sing the ‘boat song’ or ‘Vanchipattu’. This adds to the glorious festive ambiance and motivates the rowers.
During the Kerala Boat race, you will have to squeeze your way in and find a spot on the banks of the backwaters to get a glimpse of the competing champions. An overwhelmingly large crowd is sure to gather on this specific day!
Which is the Famous Kerala Boat Race?
Well, there are four main Snake Boat Races that take place every year in the state. All of them are equally famous, renowned and never fail to entertain the masses.
1 – Champakulam Kerala Boat Race
Champakulam Boat Race is one of the oldest snake boat races to be organized in God’s Own Country. In 1545 AD, the royal priests suggested Maharaja Devanarayana build a temple and install Lord Krishna’s idol in it. Initially, the idol which was brought was considered inauspicious and this was replaced with a sacred one from Karinkulam Temple. The King, his entourage, and villagers brought the holy idol in a grand procession of boats and installed the idol. To celebrate this event, Champakulam Moolam Boat Race is organized and hailed by the entire state of Kerala.
On the day of the race, people gather and greet each other. There is a huge feast with traditional food and ‘prasadam’ offered to Lord Krishna. Only after this will the race begin with thousands of people cheering for their favorite snake boat. This is one of the boat races that happens before the Chingam month begins.
Date: 3rd July 2023
Location: Champakulam – Alappuzha (Alleppey)
2 – Nehru Trophy Boat Race
The Nehru Trophy Boat Race is named after the first prime Minister of India – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. It is conducted on the 2nd Saturday of the month of August, and lakhs of people come to witness this event. There is a beautiful story associated with this Kerala Boat Race. In the year 1952, Nehru visited Alappuzha, and that’s when the first race was held to show him a glimpse of the region’s traditional practices. He was so involved in the event that he ignored the security protocols and leapt into the winning boat! He traveled to the jetty while interacting with the champions.
The ex-PMO later sent a Silver Trophy shaped like a snake boat to Kerala and appreciated their unity and way of living. This is the same trophy that has been changing hands from one champion snake boat/team to the other every year.
Date: 12th August 2023
Location: Punnamada Lake – Alappuzha (Alleppey)
3 – Aranmula Kerala Boat Race
Aranmula Boat Race is dedicated to the deity – Lord Krishna in the Sree Parthasarathy Temple of Aranmula. It is organized on the river Pamba, and the snake boats used for this event are called the ‘Palliyodams’. Their design is a little different from the snake boats you’d see in the Nehru trophy or the Champakulam Boat Race. These canoe structures are made of adjoining bamboo, and people believe that Lord Krishna himself gave the idea to build this marvellous structure. According to the legend, God appeared on the shores of Aranmula on a raft made out of six bamboo placed adjacently.
The trained warriors who row the ships work on their physical strength for months before diving into the race. Here, you will see that the Boats are being rowed in unison, and they almost look like they are traveling together. The people gather to cheer and celebrate the traditional practices of the region.
Date: 2nd September 2023
Location: Banks of Pampa River, Pathanamthitta
4 – Payippad Jalotsavam / Payippad Snake Boat Race
The Payippad Jalotsavam is a three-day event where the rowers paddle with great fervor, captivating the spectators! According to ancient legend, the residents of a remote village saw a vision that asked them to row their boats toward a storm within the waters. Gathering the courage, they started off on their snake boats and noticed an idol of Lord Subramanya there! Seeing it as a divine blessing, they installed the idol in an auspicious place and to date, worship God for good health and prosperity.
Every year, a three-day event with boats coming from different villages of Kerala is celebrated to commemorate the installation of the idol. The team spirit of the participants coupled with the excitement of the crowd makes this one of the best Kerala boat race that you must visit!
Date: 8th to 10th September 2023
Location: Payippad Backwaters – Alleppey
Other Popular Kerala Snake Boat Races
The Snake Boat Race is so popular in Kerala that different versions of the same have popped up over the years. Though the 4 we have discussed above are the main and most sought-after races, there are other Kerala Boat races that are equally exhilarating and fun!
As soon as the heavy gray clouds cover the skies, the people anticipate the downpour and wait for the official dates of the different races. The State Government also go out of its way to accommodate people who come from other states or countries. Keralites take great pride in showcasing their culture, and people are not shying away from viewing the heartwarming spectacle.
That being said, here are some other Kerala Boat Races that are sure to pump up the adrenaline levels in your body. Along with the snake boats, you will also find other kinds of canoe boats in these races.
5 – Kallada Boat Race
The Kallada Boat Race, or the Kallada Jalotsavam is a renowned boat race that is held on the rippling waters of the Kallada River in the Munroe Islands. The banks are adorned with palm trees and green grass. People gather to see the different boats, including Iruttukuthi, Veppam, and snake boats, compete with each other, and one winner emerges.
Kallada Kerala Boat Race is held annually post the monsoon showers. On the 28th day of Onam, the Munroe residents make all the arrangements to make the event successful. Yes, the rowers are elated about winning and walk around with their heads held high for months to come! Along with that, they also win a trophy and an impressive cash prize!
Date: 29th September 2023
Location: Kallada River, Munroe Thuruthu
6 – Kumarakom Boat Race
You will also see people referring to this Kerala Boat Race as Sree Narayana Jayanthi Vallam Kolli. It is held on the Vembanad Lake during the Onam festival every year. This event is a celebration that commemorates the arrival of Sree Narayana Guru to Kumarakom, along with the sacred idol of Lord Subrahmanya. That very same idol now stands in the Kumara Mangalam Temple.
You will see at least 4 different types of boats participating in the event – Veppu, Churulan, Iruttukuthi, and Chundan Vallam.
On the day of the snake boat race, prayers, and prasadam are offered to the idol of Lord Subrahmanya. People thank him for the right guidance, support, strength, and wealth. Following that, there is a procession of boats that hold a huge frame of Sree Narayana Guru and travel from the temple to the starting point of the race.
Date: 14th August 2023
Location: Vembanad Lake, Pathiramanal Island
7 – President’s Trophy Snake Boat Race
The President’s Trophy Boat Race is the most popular race after the Big 4 that we talked about in the beginning! This enchanting event celebrates the foundation of Kerala, or Kerala Piravi, and attracts people from across the state!
If you are traveling from other states, you will be excited to know that this race will be conducted on Ashtamudi Lake, which is very close to the airport! It is a treat to watch about 16 different boats compete in 5 different categories to win the final trophy. The race is named after the President of India, who occupies the highest office in the country and often visits the race to award the winners.
There are 5 categories – 2 grades of Veppu Vallam, 1 for Chundavallam or snake boats, and 2 grades of Iruttukuthi vallam. In 4 different rounds, the boats would compete to reach the final and bag the trophy along with a 10 lakh cash prize.
Date: 1st November 2023
Location: Ashtamudi Lake, Kollam
8 – Uthradam Thirunal Pamba Boat Race
The waters of River Pamba are usually pristine and serene, but not during the Uthradam Thirunal Pamba Boat Race! The splashes dance to the tunes of the rowers, and people cheer while being awe-struck by the immense strength and coordination that the boat riders display.
The Boat Race commemorates the last ruling Maharaja of the Travancore Kingdom in Kerala – Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. He proved to be a great asset in the past and made significant contributions toward the well-being of the villagers and propagating Kerala’s culture to the world. His Philanthropist approach has led to the development of society, and people were happy in their best health and living conditions.
The boat race celebrates the benevolent spirit of the past ruler and his rules that transformed the community conditions. This Kerala Boat race provides an opportunity for the residents to come together and show their camaraderie. The deserving winner bags the prestigious K.C. Mammen Mappillai Trophy.
Date: 28th August 2023
Location: River Pamba, Alappuzha (Alleppey)
If you are coming from other Indian states to see the Snake Boat race, prefer booking your affordable rooms at Treebo Hotels for an elevated travel experience.
Kerala leaves you spellbound, wide-eyed, and no one really wants to get out of that trance. It is a surreal feeling to be amidst nature and see so many people come together to enjoy an event. The boat races are not just sports competitions but a means through which Keralites display harmonious living and unity. For many individuals out there, it is a dream come true to witness this grandeur!