Kerala is the only Indian state of beaches, backwaters, lakes, houseboats, wildlife, waterfalls and watersports. Snake boat races are major watersports of Kerala. Boat racing is not just a sport but a traditional festivity, unique to the religious being of Kerala India. Though more or less religious in origin, the Kerala boat races used to be held as part of competition or settlement between two rival communities in the bygone eras. Boat racing being organized during temple festivals throughout the year, every month and every season is the best time to visit Kerala for tourists as well as sports enthusiasts. An interface between sports and festivity, most of the boat races are held on Kerala backwaters.
The battling snake boats of Kerala have over 400 years of history associated with them. Their story can be traced back to the kings of Alleppey (Alappuzha) and the surrounding areas, who used to fight with each other in boats along the canals. One king, who suffered heavy losses, got boat architects to build him a better vessel and the snake boat was born, with much success. An opposing king sent a spy to learn the secret of how to make these boats but was unsuccessful as the subtleties of the design are very hard to pick up. These days’ boat races are held with much excitement during various festivals.
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Nehru Trophy Boat Race
The Nehru Trophy snake boat race is undoubtedly the most exciting race of the year. This race is held in memory of India’s late Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru. An impromptu snake boat race was held in 1952 when the Prime Minister visited Alleppey. He was so enthralled by the event and the gusto of the participants that he announced the Nehru Trophy to award the winning team. Since then, this Kerala boat race has been an annual event. The trophy is a silver replica of a snake boat. The race is a visual extravaganza on the backwaters of Punnamada in Alappuzha district as several groups of oarsmen fight for the trophy. The race is always held on the second Saturday of August.
The Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race marks the day that the idol of the Hindu God Krishna was installed in the Sree Krishna Temple in Ambalappuzha, not far from Alleppey. According to the legend, those carrying the idol stopped over in Champakkulam on the way. The next morning, thousands of colorful boats were assembled there to honor the event and escort the idol to the temple. This procession is re-enacted before the Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race takes place. It kicks off with exotic water floats, boats decorated with colorful parasols, and performing artists. June or July being the month of this festive watersport is the best time to visit Kerala.
Payippad Jalotsavam is not just the best snake boat race in Kerala but also an attraction of Kerala tourism in South India. A grand festivity for three days, Payippad Jalotsavam is held on the Payippad Lake at a distance of 35km away from Allappuzha, in honor of the presiding deity of the Subramanya Swamy Temple. According to the folklore, the inhabitants of Haripad Village had dreamt that an idol of Swamy Subrahmanya was lying on the bed of the Kayamlulam River before the temple was constructed. The idol was surprisingly found there and brought in a boat to where the temple is located today. This Kerala boat race is annually held to commemorate the event in the month of September.
Aranmula Uthrattadi Vallamkali
The oldest boat racing in Kerala, Aranmula Uthrattadi Vallamkali is part of the cultural extravaganza during Onam Festival in August. The Kerala backwaters brim with excitement and enthusiasm of the rowers in hundreds, who oar the boats at a breakneck speed making it a gripping spectacle of energy and madness on the Pampa River. Dedicated to Lord Krishna and his devotee Arjuna, Vallamkali is characterized by embellishment of boats with ornamental umbrellas and flags. 25 folk singers also accompany the rowers during the racing festivity. The racing boats are locally called ‘Palliyodams’. Rather than being a contest, it’s more about retracing the time offerings were carried on snake boats to the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple. This was done to protect the offerings from rivals from another village. The whole occasion is a celebration of the day Lord Krishna crossed the river. Position yourself on the banks of the Pampa River near the temple in Aranmula to witness the spectacular event. Monsoon being the season of Onam Festival and Vallamkali celebration is the best time to travel to Kerala.
Champions Boat League (CBL) Races
Old tradition meets modern sporting style, with snake boat races that aren’t associated with religious customs to become part of a new commercial Champions Boat League (CBL) tournament, which was launched in 2019. The Kerala government aims to add glamor and prestige to the state’s snake boat races, and plans to market the tournament to tourists internationally. It’s billed to be the world’s largest team sport!
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