I perched myself on the deck of a parked houseboat, eagerly waiting for the crowd to erupt into a deafening cheer again. The meaning of the running Malayalam commentary escaped me, so I concentrated on the athlete-laden boats before my eyes. Sleek, ornate and powered by a team of a hundred (or more) muscular men, these wooden wonders raised a storm on the tranquil backwaters of Kerala. The race towards the finishing line was straight out of an action thriller – a thriller that visits Champakulam, a village on the banks of Pamba River, every year as Kerala embraces the harvest season. The Champakulam event also marks the beginning of the boat race season in the state.
The snake boats, locally known as vallam kallis, were, more than 400 years ago, used during wars by armies that wanted to manoeuvre the meandering network of canals in the backwaters. The higher edge of the boat on the tail end worked as the captain’s spot to steer his army through. The legacy of this wondrous mode of travel continued in the form of races between villages. These races are not mere sporting events but occasions of great pride for the villagers. High prizes are at stake and everything comes to a standstill on the day of the race. Except for the flow of toddy, among the male population in the audience. The crowd can get a little rowdy; it’s best to be watchful but calm around the turmoil, as no one means harm!
Of the nine snake boat races that are held around Alleppey each year, the Nehru Snake Boat race is the most popular. It is held on the second Saturday of every August. The Champakulam race, which is held in July, is recommended for those who like a more authentic rural experience. Look for a room at a homestay close to the river. You can walk to the jetty when the boats are launched in the week hours of the morning, and join the locals as they sing a vallam kalli song.
Getting there: Champakulam lies 15km from Alleppey, which is the closest railhead to get into the village. Alleppey is well connected by trains and overnight buses from South India. The closest airport is in Kochi (98km/2 hrs).
Where to Stay:
Akkarakalam Memoirs: More than 150 years of history of the Syrian Christian family that owns the house, has been retained in the riverside homestay, Akkarakalam. The rooms have all the mod-cons you could ask for. The homestay lies very close to Champakulam. Book the Akkarakalam houseboat well in advance to watch the race from the confines of a shaded verandah and air-conditioned rooms. A constant supply of coffee is the added incentive.
Address: Akkarakalam, Chennamkary P.O., Alleppey
Tel: +91 477 2762345
Mobile: 094463 66066, 094471 97979
The Pamba Heritage Villa: The 110-year-old all-wooden mansion is the restored ancestral home of the Kanjooparambil family. The spacious, well-ventilated bedrooms have been fashioned out of the erstwhile paddy and grain storage rooms with low wooden doors. The host family loves to feed you interesting nuggets of history and culture of the region. Apart from those nuggets, there is mouthwatering Kerala food from the kitchen. Pamba Heritage is also close to the race circuit.
Address: Kanjooparambil-Umbukadu, Near Nedumudi Jetty, Alappuzha
Tel: +91-477-276 2109, +91-477-276 2806
Mobile: +91 98474 11483
- The boats are launched from their docks as early as 4 a.m., so that the entire team can go to a local temple to get it blessed. You will not find too many tourists trailing this activity, but go along if you want to get under the skin of this colourful event.
- The race starts post noon when the sun is overhead. Expect harsh light for photography –using a filter for the lens is recommended.
- Ask the homestay or hotel to arrange for a meeting with the team. This can be scheduled a couple of days before the race, when the teams are at practice. This is also a more peaceful time to photograph the boats.