I experienced vallam kali for the first time in Kollam. Famously known as the Kerala snake boat race, vallam kali is a much-photographed and popular event. In fact, major Vallam Kali events are the highlights of many travel itineraries, and the Kollam and Allepey districts known to hold the best races. The one I attended was a small event, attended mostly by the locals. They came to cheer, boo, drink, flirt, and in general, be merry. Even though the prize money was insignificant in comparison to the big events, the banks of the rivulet in which the boat race was held were jam-packed. Excited children holding balloons and pinwheels ran along the banks while cheering their village boatmen. Women in rainbow coloured saris and flowers in their hair dipped their feet in the water and slightly inebriated men in mundus loudly clapped at a passing float of a pot-bellied actor dressed as Mahabali.

vallam kali or the Kerala snake boat race goes back to hundreds of years.

Kerala snake boat race goes back hundreds of years.

Vallam Kali is the annual snake boat race of Kerala

Though not grand, that vallam kali was a lot of fun. The locals accepted me within their folds and the entire experience felt very intimate. It is one thing to enjoy a spectacle as a tourist and the feeling of being a part of a celebration with the locals from another place is a different affair altogether. There is a lot of novelty in the second experience; a feeling of being accepted and I prefer this over anything else. Vallam kali or the snake boat races are among the grandest traditions that thrive in Kerala. A large number of people attend these events to watch these snake-shaped vessels glide through the water. The air gets filled with the rhythmic old traditional boat songs as scores of hefty men paddle furiously in synchronized unison. These snake boats are called ‘chundanvallam’ and they measure up to 100 feet in length. It is a long canoe-style boat that can hold up about 100 rowers.

Some of these snake boats can hold up to 100 oarsmen.

History of Kerala’s snake boat

In the history of Kerala, the snake boat race or vallam kali has been long associated with the state. It has been like this for over 400 years. This unique legacy can be traced to the ancient king, Alleppey. He was known for fighting battles with the kings of nearby regions lying along the canals. Once during the time of war, the king suffered heavy losses, and his only chance of winning depended on better boats. So he commissioned a boat architect to build one for him and thus the famous snake boat of Kerala was born. Today, these boats are used only during vallam kali and every village has snake boats of its own.

The serene Kuttanad baclground of vallam kali.

The serene Kuttanad baclground of vallam kali.

Vallam Kali in Kuttanad

It is believed that the best vallam kali is held in Kuttanadu. At certain times of the year, especially during monsoon, Kuttandu becomes a vast expanse of water. The water-logged area consists of 34,443 acres of land and is traversed by different rivers, namely Pamba, Achankovil, and Manimala. These rivers end into Vembanadu Lake and the inhabitants of Kuttanadu use boats as their means of enjoyments. That is why, every year during the months of August and September, nearly 20 minor and major regattas are held in this region. Most of these races are associated with legends connected with famous temples like Champakkulam, Payipad, and Aranmula. The highlight of them all is the Uthrithathi boat race on the Pampa, in Aranmula, where the grandeur of the boats, known as Palliyodams , makes it a unique experience. The vallam kali festival in Aranmula is a religious procession and the Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race is considered to be the most ancient.

In vallam kali, The oarsmen chant the vanchipaattu (boat songs) and beat their oars on the waters in unison to propel their boats to the finishing point.

The oarsmen chant the vanchipaattu (boat songs) and beat their oars on the waters in unison to propel their boats to the finishing point.

Energy, synchronization, and boatmen sons

These are indeed sheer spectacles and need to be experienced personally. There is a certain energy in the whole environment surrounding the vallam kali. The air crackles with excitement and energy as hundreds of oarsmen row in frenetic synchronization to the orders of their helmsmen. The oarsmen chant the vanchipaattu (boat songs) and beat their oars on the waters in unison to propel their boats to the finishing point.  Not a single participant misses a step as these huge snake boats glide over the swollen waterways of Kerala in monsoon.

Vallam Kali is held every year during the Onam festival sometime during August to September.

Vallam Kali is held every year during the Onam festival sometime from August to September.

The most famous vallam kali in Kerala

There are many important races that occur during this time and I have listed below some of the most famous vallam kali.

  • Nehru Trophy Boat Race – August 10 – Held every year in the month of August or September, it is one of the premier snake boat races that draws crowds from all over the country. The venue of the boat race is Punnamada lake and each year, hundreds of people crowd this region to watch the competition.
  • Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race – July 15 – Champakkulam Boat Race kicks off the boat race season of Kerala. Held on 15th July 2019 in the sleepy hamlet of Champakkulam in Allepey, this vallam kali draws a massive crowd to River Pamba.
  • Payipad Boat Race – 13th September – Jalotsavom or Payipad Boat Race, held on the Payipad river, in Allepey is organized to celebrate the installation of the idol of Lord Subramanian at Haripad Subramanya Temple. This race is held during the festival of Onam.
  • Aranmula Boat Race – 15th September – A two-day festival held during Onam, Aranmula Snake Boat Race is the annual celebration of Sri Parthasarathy Temple. It is a religious ritual in which over 25 palliyodams or snake boats, with 100 rowers, 15 helmsmen, and 25 singers participate. Vibrant umbrellas, colourful tassels, and flags are used to decorate the boats.
  • Kumarakom Boat Race – Kumarakom boat race takes place on the Vembanad Lake in September during the Onam Festival. This vallam kali celebrates the arrival of the famous Sri Narayana Guru at the Kumara Mangalam Temple.
  • Indira Gandhi Boat Race – This annual boat race is held along the backwaters of Kochi in December.
  • Kallada Boat Race – This is the last boat race performed after 28 days of the Onam festival and it takes place in the Kallada River.
  • Uthradom Thirunal Pampa Boat Race – This is held at Neerettupuram in Allepey in August.

Most famous Vallam Kali dates

  • Nehru Trophy Boat Race – August 10
  • Champakulam Moolam Boat Race – July 15
  • Payippad  Boat Race – 13th September
  • Uthradom Thirunal Pampa Boat Race
  • Aranmula Boat Race – 15th Septembervallam kali in kuttanadFollow the rest of the Kerala series