On Sunday, we joined our River Escapes colleagues and went to the annual Champakulam Moolam Boat Race. Champakkulam is a serene village in the district of Alleppey and this boat race is one of the most ancient in Kerala. During our lunch on board of the Pallanayar, a River Escapes houseboat, we saw, flocking on the river Pamba, numerous vallam (boats) including the famous chundan :the snake boat. About 250 years ago, the kings of Ambalapuzha and Kayamkulam were at war. The sovereign of Ambalapuzha asked his architect Devanarayana to design a sleek boat that could carry many soldiers and also fire cannons. Devanarayana designed the chundan vallom or snake boat, named after the chundu (raised prow) that rose 10 feet above the water, just like the hood of a snake. Over time, wars ended and the snake boat remained a symbol of competition.
As travel writers Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy explained in Time Out Explorer:
The cannon is nowadays replaced by two people who rhythmically beat the odithatta (the fire platform) with logs while 25 singers sing the vanchipattu (Song of the Boatman). A man chants ‘arpu irroh’ sending the hundred or so oarsmen into synchronized frenzy. The strongest oarsmen sits at front to set the pace while the rear is controlled by 6 amarakara (helmsmen). At the highest point stands the chief oarsman, who controls the movement of the boat through hand gestures. If an oarsman gets up and rows, the entire team is disqualified.
There were nine snake boats competing in the race, and the team in white, the oarsmen of Star Boat Club in Haripad, won. But more than the competition, I was stricken by the general excitement: men jumping into the Pamba river to get near the boats, bright festive umbrellas to wait happily in the monsoon rain, the roaring of the crowd.
Next year the annual Champakulam Moolam Boat Race will take place on 11 July 2014. Will you be there ?