The snake-boat charmers

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Every Onam, Kerala’s backwaters play host to wooden serpents that hurtle towards a trophy with 150 men sitting on their backs. Scroll through some pictures to get a sense of what this looks like.

Think Kerala.

Isn't ‘backwaters’ the first word that jumps to your mind?

Kochi,23/09/12. LIFELESS WATERS: Pollution from residential and commercial buildings has sounded deathknell to fish in Chilavannoor backwaters near Kadavanthra. Water hyacynth too has posed problems for fisherfolk. Photo:H.Vibhu.



^ The Chilavannoor backwaters near Kadavanthra are a sight for tired eyes with its hyacinth foliage and glassy surface. | H. Vibhu



The word ‘backwaters’ may sound becalming, placid, stagnant, quiet. But every Onam, the calm backwaters...

Kochi, Kerala, 16/08/2016: ( For Sunday Magazine ) Oarsmen splash water as they take part in the prestigious Nehru Trophy race in Punnamada Lake in Kottayam district. Photo : Thulasi Kakkat #boatrace



^ Oarsmen splash water as they take part in the prestigious 64th Nehru Trophy Boat Race at Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha on August 13, 2016. | Thulasi Kakkat



... roil with intensity, passion, and excitement as longboats snake across the Pamba, ferried by men and cheered by hundreds of vociferous onlookers.

Alappuzha, Kerala: 31/09/2015 : Aranmula Boat Race in Aranmula backwaters at Pathanamthitta district of kerala on Monday Photo : Special Arrangement

The Vallamkali, literally ‘boat games’, give Onam a rustic charm, incorporating a 650-year-old tradition into the festival of abundance. Among the various types of paddleboats that feature during the festival, the Chundan Vallam (snake boats, thus called because of the raised hull, resembling the hood of a cobra, of the boats) is the vessel that stands as the icon of the festival. It also happens to hold the world record for being the largest “water vessel to be used in sports”.

Kochi, Kerala, 16/08/2016: ( For Sunday Magazine ) Oarsmen of a 'Chundan Vallam' (Snake boat) practice for the prestigious Nehru Trophy Boat Race at Punnamada Lake in Mutherimada in Kottayam district. Photo : Thulasi Kakkat #boatrace



^ Oarsmen of a 'Chundan Vallam' (Snake boat) practise for the prestigious Nehru Trophy Boat Race at Punnamada Lake in Mutherimada in Kottayam district. | Thulasi Kakkat



A major tourist attraction, the races involve quaint-yet-intimidating boats carrying up to 150 men cleaving through the backwaters to the blaring soundtrack of the vanchipaattu (boatman‘s song). Traditionally, the boats carried food on Onam to the Aranmula temple on boats that could hold their own against pirates.

Kochi, Kerala, 12/08/2016: Oarsmen of 'Chundan Vallam' practicing for the Nehru Trophy Boat Race in Alappuzha. Photo : Thulasi Kakkat

Each boat is a display of harmony and cooperation, 125 oarsmen working in tandem, under 4 helmsmen, to propel the vessel forward with 25 singers galvanising them with spirited vanchipaattu.

Pathanamthitta, Kerala, 01/09/15. ( File Photo) Aranmula Boat Race in Aranmula backwaters at Pathanamthitta district of kerala on Monday. Photo: Leju Kamal

Each boat is commanded by the karanaadhan, or leader of the village to whom the boat belongs. The helmsmen and paddlers sit two to a row and paddle synchronously with 13-foot oars, or Adanayambu. Along the middle of the boat’s back-half is a wooden platform on which eight men (representing the divine guards of the eight directions) stand.



^ Each Vallam is meticulously constructed by skilled craftsmen and painstakingly decorated. | Wikipedia





The boats are deemed to be divine vessels, conveyances of Sree Parthasarathy, and decorated with garlands, ornate scarlet umbrellas, golden lace and tassels.



^ The structure and design of the Chundan Vallam draws from the ancient Vishvakarma’s expertise in naval architecture. | Wikipedia



The Chundan Vallam is made of wood — from the Anjili (Artocarpus hirsuta), teak or the Kadamba (Naucleacadamba) — and can span up to 100 feet in length. It is crafted in accordance with an ancient treatise on architecture called the Sthapathya veda (not, not the ‘Rig’ Veda, even though it has to do with rigging). Being a divine vessel, the boat’s body is maintained with care, and gets regularly swabbed with a blend of fish oil, coconut shell and eggs to strengthen the wood and ensure that the boat is slippery enough to glide through the water.

Snake-boat race in river Pamba at Aranmula on Uthittathi Day celebration on August 25, 1975.(Published in The Hindu on August 22, 1975)PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES



^ The archive image shows an early edition of the Vallam Kali races featuring spartan boats, in 1975. | The Hindu Archives



The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, reportedly took a liking to the sport. Seeking to popularise it, he instituted a tournament, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, in 1952, which is considered one of the biggest team sports events in the world. It is held on the second Saturday of August along the backwaters of the Punnamada.

Kochi, Kerala, 16/08/2016: ( For Sunday Magazine ) Snake-boats participating in the Nehru Trophy Boat Race line up for a mass drill before the 64th Nehru Trophy Boat Race in Alappuzha. Photo : Thulasi Kakkat #boatrace



^ Snake-boats participating in the Nehru Trophy Boat Race line up for a mass drill before the Nehru Trophy Boat Race at Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha on August 13, 2016.



The race traverses a 1.4-km stretch of the lake, lined with spectators and tourists. The winner is presented with the rolling Nehru Trophy, which is inscribed with the words, “To the winner of the boat-race which is a unique feature of community life iin Travancore-Cochin”. The team to have won the event, which is telecast annually on Doordarshan, the most number of times is 14-time champion Karichal Chundan.

Alappuzha, 10/08/13. A moment from one of the exciting contests during the 61st Nehru Trophy Boat Race in Alappuzha on August 10, 2013. Photo:H.Vibhu.



^ Paddlers give it their all during the 61st Nehru Trophy Boat Race in Alappuzha on August 10, 2013. | H. Vibhu.



The oarsmen plough the water with an intensity that bespeaks the energetic beginning of a harvest festival. Doesn’t it?

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