Kerala boat race: Boatman’s song turns battle cry

| Last Updated: August 10, 2012 at 4:51 PM

Vallam Kali literally means boat play/game and competition of Chundan Vallams is the most popular event

My earliest recollection of Vallamkali or the snake boat race of Kerala is that of the entire pack of oarsmen singing Vanchi Pattu (Boatman’s song) while rowing the boats. Each year on Onam day, our family and friends would cluster around the radio to listen to Yesudas singing the evergreen movie song Kuttanadan punchayile.

As a young boy, the lyrics hardly mattered to me. What fascinated me was the Thi thi thara thi thi thai, the chorus at the end of each stanza. I dreamt of being on the Chundan Vallam and rowing with the mighty oarsmen.

It took me years to discover that Malayalam is the only Indian language or perhaps the only one in the world which boasts of a genre of boat songs. While it can’t be denied that Yesudas’s version of the Vanchi Pattu certainly comes foremost, the classical songs are no less popular. Unlike the movie version, classical boat songs were based on Hindu mythological stories most prominent among them being the Kuchela Vrittam Vanchi Pattu based on the poignant story of Kuchelan known as Sudama in north India.

My fascination increased on discovering that the songs had a utilitarian aspect. The songs helped break the monotony and offered respite from exhaustion that oarsmen experienced while rowing the massive boats. It also helped synchronize the actions of the oarsmen as only coordinated action helped the boat gain momentum.

Chundan Vallam literally means Beaked Boat and is one of the icons of Kerala

Why did the Chundan Vallams need speed? The need for speed and stealth can be better understood by taking a leap back into history. Unlike the colourful, benign images that Chundan Vallams now have, the snake boats were originally created as battle vessels. The boats were invented on the orders of a Kerala chieftain who wanted to defeat his arch rival by rapidly transporting a large posse of his soldiers.

Little has changed since the days of its invention and the boats continue to be created according to specifications of Sthapathya Veda, the ancient treatise for building of boats. The hull of Chundans, which vary from 100 to 138 ft in length, is built of planks precisely six inches wide and 83 feet in length. The rear portion and the front rise above the water and offers clear views of the enemy while sailing into battle. The Chundan resembles a snake with its hood raised and hence; called snake boats in English.

The boats can carry 90-110 rowers and combine that with immense speed; you had a sure shot battle winner in your hand. The Chundan Vallam holds the record as “the biggest water vessel used for sports purpose”?

Necessity is the mother of invention and it was certainly so in the case of Chundan Vallams.  After suffering defeat at the hands of his archrival, the Chempakassery Raja, who ruled a principality in Kerala, summoned the best boat makers in his kingdom to create a battle vessel which would not only transport large number of warriors but also with speed.

The Punnamada lake lake front is transformed into a sea of humanity with over two lakh people witnessing the spectacle

Kodipunna Venkida Narayanan Assari, who hailed from a family of traditional boat craftsmen, rose to the occasion and designed the first Chundan Vallam in 1614.

The Chempakaseri and Kayamkulam Rajas have become history; however, the Chundan Vallams continue to sail the lagoons and rivers of God’s Own Country. The tales of blood feuds have long been forgotten but the rivalry continues albeit in a friendly, gamely manner in the form of Vallam Kali or boat races. And Nehru Trophy boat race is the mother of all regattas in Kerala.

Vallam Kali literally means boat race. While most of the boat races are conducted during Onam, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is held in the Punnamada Lake near Alappuzha on the second Saturday of August every year.

Anyone who has witnessed the spectacle is sure to become a fan of Kerala boat races. Over 100 people rowing in perfect unison, the lithe boats gliding on the surface of the placid lake, the rising crescendo of the drums, the tumultuous crowd, all make the experience called the Vallam Kali infectious.

And it certainly impressed Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. During his visit to Kerala in 1952, was given a roaring public reception. After having sailed in a Chundan Vallam, Nehru was so impressed that he donated a rolling trophy to be awarded to the winner of the annual race.

Most of the boat races are associated with temple festivals in Kerala and oarsmen practice strict abstinence

The boat races though impressive, can’t replace the pleasure of riding on the Chundan Vallams as they prepare for the sporting event. Gliding at a slow pace, the oarsmen sing the Kuchelan’s song to prepare for the battle ahead. The lead singer’s baritone booms over the sound made by the oarsmen as they strike the serene lake with their paddles. Gods invoked, oarsmen ready, it is battle time again.

Epilogue to the Assari tale: When Raja of Kayamkulam heard of the Chundan’s prowess, the Assari was abducted and forced to make boats for the Kayamkulam army. Fear of death compelled the Assari to comply with the Kayamkulam Raja’s command.

When the Chempakaseri king came to know about it, he considered it high treason and ordered that Assari be put to death. Assari proved his loyalty by pointing out to his sovereign that while the Chempakaseri boats went forward when rowed, the Kayamkulam boats would go backward. Impressed with Assari’s cleverness, the Chempakaseri Raja showered on him presents and laurels.


First Published: August 10, 2012 at 4:51 PM

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