- Benjamin John
The Iconic Aranmula Snake Boat Race and the ritualistic "Vallasadhyas"
Certain beautiful moments in our lives would be sometimes associated with events and stories that come across our childhood. For me, one such event was our visit to the banks of the River Pamba, where the spectacular Aranmula boat race was held. Our ancestral home in Maramon was where everyone used to come home for holidays and a visit to the Aranmula boat race which falls mostly during the Onam season is a fun trip. Lots of people gather on the banks of the river to witness the beautiful movement of these large snake boats.
Aranmula boat festival is the oldest boat fiesta in Kerala. The entire festivity revolves around the Parthasarathy temple located at Aranmula, dedicated to Lord Krishna. Even though the race took shape a few decades ago, Aranmula has a long-standing history associated with the Parthasarathy Temple. The belief is that these snake boats are considered to be the vessels of Lord Krishna, and the oarsmen are the Lord's people. There is a very iconic ritual that happens at the temple every year for around forty days, it is considered to be a mega vegetarian banquet. Oarsmen arrive the temple from different villages on the banks of the River Pamba. They arrive at the temple on the banks of the river, singing songs and rowing to the rhythms of these songs. The songs are essentially praising the Lord as they row towards the temple. On arrival at the temple, the oarsmen move into the temple in a procession. There would be a banquet arranged by a family, an individual, or a group of people for oarsmen, which is an offering to the Lord. The vegetarian feast is so large that around 10 to 15 boats arrive each day and each boat could handle a capacity of approximately 60 to 100 men.
The singing does continue throughout banquet session in different parts, even a second helping is asked in the form of a song. It is a combination of folklore, songs, food, boats, River Pamba, and the Parthasarathy Temple. It is not just the oarsmen, many invitees of the person who offers the meal would be present for the Sadhya. It is called the "Vallasadhya" one of the largest vegetarian banquets in the world. The Vallasadhya has more than forty different dishes that make is a very peculiar feast served on banana leaves and is consumed with bare hands.
The Palliodam is owned by villagers or more prominent families who are on the banks of the river. The boat is pretty long in size and comes in different lengths based on the category they belong. Technically they are called "Palliodam" in the local language. Once upon a time they were considered to be the Navy boats of the Travancore Kingdom, these boats can easily transport hundred of the people at a go. During historical emergencies and wars, these boats commuted soldiers and ordinary people to different places where the river flows through before reaching the sea. It is considered to be a holy vessel, and you are allowed to enter the boat only on bare feet. Each boat will have 4 helmsmen, plus rowers and singers, totaling 100 men or more. There will be a flag and 2 or 3 ornamental umbrellas. Only men of the villages are allowed to be in the boat. The dress is white loin cloth (Mundu) and white turban. No shirt or footwear. As a tradition, it is commanded by a village elder man, and under him, there will be 3 main oarsmen who control the course of the boat with 12 feet long main rudder-oar (Adanayampu).
The real tradition would be the Valla Sadhya, it was never a race, a ritual religiously followed by the people of Aranmula. The Aranmula Uthrittathi Vallam Kali is what comes a boat race during the festive season of Onam. There were processions of Palliodams during Onam, and it was later converted into a race with a trophy awarded to the winner of the competition. The race commenced only from 1972 and today is an organized event that happens at Aranmula during Onam. It is to add more excitement and richness to Onam. There would be a pavilion where you could sit and watch the race comfortably. This year 2018, the race was canceled as the river was overflowing as part of the terrible extended monsoon in Kerala. At Green Earth Trails we try to organize an accommodation at the nearby homestay called the Manaas Veedu, a plan a visit to the Temple to see and participate in the feast and motorboat ride through the river to have a more closer view and proximity to the Palliodams.
Apart from the boat race, there is this interesting concept called Aranmula Kannadi which is a mirror which does not follow the usual concepts of mirror making. They polish the alloy to get a crystal clear reflection. Something that was used only by the affluent, but today is made and sold as a souvenir. Probably it has scope for another blog. Thanks for reading folks!