Beyond the commotion and tumult of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore in the north, between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats mountain range, lies the socialist state of Kerala. Famously nicknamed ‘God’s Own Country’ for its rectifying beauty; travellers in this green, meandering land will stammer and continue to rub their eyes at the natural wonder that stretches out before them. National Geographic named Kerala as one of the ‘ten paradises of the world’, and it is easy to see why.
Kerala is networked by forty four rivers, forty one of which begin along the borders between the neighbouring regions of Karnataka and Tamilnadu, and then continue westerly on into the Arabian Sea. Consequently a map of Kerala looks something like a ladder, with each step a river. This centrality and focus on the map works also as a metaphor for the centrality and importance the forty four rivers have and have had on Kerala’s political and cultural life, dating back to pre-history. The rivers played a huge part in the region’s trade, and thus all the major towns in Kerala are found on the banks of rivers.
In the harvest season along the usually calm zigzagging backwaters, a rippling anticipation passes over as the preparation of the Vallam kali festival begins. Vallam kali is boat racing, and with hundreds of war canoes being paddled into position and thousands of local participants taking oars in hand, it is boat racing at its most exciting. The boats that are raced in Kerala today are created using the technical methods and craft that were used when the first of these boats were built, almost 650 years ago.
There are four major races and up to fifteen minor races every year, each with their own history, legends and traditions. The Champakulam Moolam boat race is one of the oldest of the races that takes place during the season. The race commemorates a Kerala legend, of a temple idol of the Hindu God Krishna being brought to Champakulam from Kurichi by boat, and so the king declared that water sport will be organised on the date of this event every year. The Nehru Trophy race is a younger and more recent race when compared to its counterparts, dating back to 1952 when the Prime Minister was welcomed by a race, and has continued ever since, furthermore it is dubbed the most exciting by the locals. The Vallam Kali season has become more than a series of races; they are major cultural affairs and a spectacle that attract people from across India and the world.
As the sun glistens on the Pampa River, the third longest in Kerala, thousands of locals and travellers flock the banks, and the nervous chatter before the race begins. Some daring enough climb high up into the canopy to gain a better vantage point of the boats as they are prepared, and the 100 man crews assembled. They are called snake boats because of their huge sterns that curl up like the hood of a cobra at the end of their 100 foot length. The ceremony starts with a procession of exotic water floats, decorated boats, colourful parasols, singers and dancers. The race itself is a darting contrast; a rush of energy, of oars splashing and flailing, shouting, and the boats gliding with immense speed down the river. Children will attempt to run alongside the boats as they soar past cheering on their heroes.
Vallam Kali in Kerala is an immensely popular sport, and gruelling too, it is considered the ultimate test of endurance and skill in India. The season for boat racing is a special period for the local people of Kerala, and an extraordinary sight and experience to behold for the traveller.
How has learning of Vallam Kali inspired you?