Every September, a few days after Onam, Aranmula, a placid village in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, plays host to a post-harvest boat race. I joined the thousands of spectators lining the banks of the tranquil backwaters of the Pampa River to cheer the sleek snake boats, representing various villages, slicing through the waters to a spectacular finish. The lilting strains of the vanchipattu (boat song) and the rhythmic beats, thai thai thaka thaka thai thom, to which the bare-chested, well-muscled crews rowed, filled the air. I watched a practice race—the traditional boat race will be held on 11 September, four days after Onam—but the energy and excitement from both onlookers and participants made it seem like the real thing.
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Beautifully adorned with flags and colourful parasols of glittering silk, these boats are a sight to behold. Initially used for post-harvest water-wars between kings near the backwaters, these boats were later used for religious pageants during the Onam season. From water wars to temple rituals to annual boat races, the boats have come a long way. The annual regatta is now a prestigious competition with participating groups vying to lift the coveted trophy.
Although the speed does not match the more famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race in Alappuzha, the Aranmula race is a more traditional, colourful carnival with caparisoned elephants, gaily decorated floats, and the temple-related rituals. It is a more traditional affair with villagers singing boat songs in praise of Krishna. The vanchipattu are based on Puranic themes, and the race recreates the legend of a devout Brahmin and a devotee of Krishna who used to take all the ingredients for the thiruvonasadya (Onam feast) on a boat to the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple, which gives the town its name. One day, the boat carrying the offerings was intercepted by rivals from another village, but the Brahmin’s neighbours came to the rescue on snake boats. From then, the custom of snake boats, from all neighbouring villages, accompanying the sacred boat came to stay. The event also commemorates the anniversary of the foundation of the temple.
The boats belong to the villages along the banks of the river Pampa. Each is named for one of the local villages, and is 100-feet long, accommodating four helmsmen, 100 oarsmen and 25 singers. The golden lace at the head of the boat, the flag and the ornamental umbrella at the centre make each one a visual delight.
Prior to the race the snake boats participate in a grand procession. Devotees hold these boats in reverence, considering them the divine vessel of the presiding deity of the temple. It is not the element of competition that makes the boat race so popular. Residents take pride in cheering the boat named after their village, and participate in the race to rejoice and celebrate.
After each boat race practice along the banks of Pampa, the crews of the 52 teams receive special honours. As they arrive at the temple, they are given a reception by the family that is sponsoring the sadhya for them. Before they tuck into the food, they pray at the temple with devotees while singing vanchipattu in praise of Krishna.
As we entered the oottupura (the temple’s dining hall), loud singing and clapping continued. There is no feast sans song and celebration. It is said to be one of India’s largest vegetarian feasts, with as many as 64 dishes at one meal. Any guest wanting a second helping has to sing their request in the vanchipattu style.
For more than seven centuries, the people living along the Pampa have made Aranmula the centre of their annual boat race—and to witness it is to enjoy first-hand the excitement of a community affair that remains a blend of sport, tradition, music and folklore.
Susheela Nair is an independent journalist.