Festivals of Kerala - Boat Racing

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Boat Race

Festivals of Kerala – Boat Racing

Fascinating history and tradition come together at the boat race festivals of Kerala

During monsoon season, there is another reason to visit Kerala: the snake boat races! There are four main ones to visit: Nehru Trophy on Alleppey’s Punnamda Lake; Champakkulam Moolam along the river at Champakkulam (Changanassery); Payippad Jalotsavam on Payippad Lake and the Aranmula Boat Race along the Pampa River at Aranmula, near Chengannur. Additionally about 15 others also take place around the same time of year.

What’s so special about the boat races?

The snake boat is the key element of the races and what makes them unique. A typical one is 100 to 120 feet long and it takes 100 rowers to manoeuvre it. This makes the event a big participation sport, alongside all the spectators that come out to cheer on their village team. Each village owns its own snake boat and every year, the best rowers come together to compete in these races, creating one of the most original festivals in Kerala.

Each event is made more special by their organisers, as each seek to stand out in one way or another. For example, during the Aranmula Snake Boat Race, rowers are dressed in traditional clothing and accompanied by 25 singers as they make their way onto the water.

History of boat race festivals

The boat race festivals in Kerala started over 400 years ago. At the time, they were a proxy for kings of different regions fighting for supremacy, instead of conducting a battle on land. As such, the legend has it that one king suffered heavy losses in one battle on their boat, and asked an architect to improve the design and aerodynamics of it. The latter came up with the snake design used today.

Best races to attend

  • Champakkulam Boat Race – this is the oldest Snake Boat Race in Kerala and kicks off the annual racing season in July. This race has a unique atmosphere, with rowers singing ancient songs, and lots of people coming out to cheer on the boats and their rowers.
  • Nehru Trophy Boat Race – this is one of the most prestigious races, held on the second Saturday of August every year. It’s named after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who came to see this race in 1952 and was so impressed that he wanted to be part of the rowers. He snuck out from his security crew and joined the team of one of the boats! Later on, he donated a silver snake boat trophy to be awarded to the winner, hence the name of the race today. There are lots of water floats and other boats who join the waters at the same time as this race, for processions and celebrations additional to the main event too.
  • Payippad Boat Race – this commemorates the installation of the idol of Sree Subramanya at the temple and takes place every year in September. This idol was discovered by villagers in a whirlpool, after having a vision telling them to go to Kayamkulam Lake. They brought it to the temple and a race is run every year in its honour.
  • Aranmula Boat Race – the most revered boat race in Kerala, held on the day of the Uhrittathi asterism in the Malayalam month of Chingam (between 15th August and 20th September), this a grandiose race which attracts large crowds every year. It has its origins in a legend according to which a devout Brahmin was bringing the requirements for the feast of Thiruvona Sadya in a boat, and was attacked just as he was approaching Aranmula Sree Parthasarathy temple. Snake boats from the villages around came to help him, so in honour of this the race is now organised and dedicated to Lord Krishna of Sree Parthasarathy Temple.
    • The snake boats used in this race are called Palliyodams and the legend has it that Krishna himself designed them, after appearing on the shores on a raft made of six bamboos. The Six Bamboos give the name of the village – Aranmula.

Depending on your Kerala itinerary, there are 15 more minor races held as well. You should check in advance if you need to buy tickets to attend.