I've been talking a lot recently about the Onam festival here in Kerela and no account of this festival is complete without some mention of the famous snakeboat races that only happen during this time of year, some in conjunction with the holiday. Last Friday, we hired a car for the day and drove a couple of hours north to the small town of Aranmula where the end of the Onam festival is celebrated with a big snakeboat regatta. So what is a snake boat, or better yet, why are there snakeboats? The pictures will take care of the what, but as for the why, a quick history lesson is needed. I'm going to be lazy here and just clip a summary from an Indian web site http://goindia.about.com/od/whattosee/p/snake-boat-race.htm:
What's a Snake Boat:
Fortunately there's no need for concern, as snake boats get their name from their shape rather than anything to do with live snakes! A snake boat (or chundan vallam) is actually a long traditional canoe style boat used by the people of the Kuttanadu region, in south India's state of Kerala. Typical snake boats are 100 to 120 feet long, and hold around 100 rowers. Each of the villages in the region has its own snake boat, which they take great pride in. Every year the villagers get together and race the boats along the lakes and rivers.
What's the History Behind the Snake Boat Races:
The battling snake boats of Kerala have over 400 years of history associated with them. Their story can be traced back to the kings of Alleppey (Alappuzha) and the surrounding areas, who used to fight with each other in boats along the canals. One king, who suffered heavy losses, got boat architects to build him a better vessel and the snake boat was born, with much success. An opposing king sent a spy to learn the secret of how to make theses boats but was unsuccessful as the subtleties of the design are very hard to pick up. These days boat races are held with much excitement during various festivals.
So there's the background. When we arrived in Aranmula, we were a couple of hours early (or so we thought), so we had our driver drop us off at the big Hindu temple in Aranmula, the Parthasuraty Temple, because the guide book said to check it out. There were a lot of people in town for the races so it was more crowded than normal. The path to the temple was lined with the kind of peddlers one might expect to find at any festival event with a lot of tourists. Along the way, we also crossed a line-up of beggars with a wide range physical afflictions and deformities that could only be described as biblical. The memory of one particular man haunts me still - he was laying in rags on a piece of cardboard with no legs and deformed arms and he had somehow covered himself in ashes. There were others as downcast and the experience left Mari a little shaken (you can see the video from the temple steps that she's upset). I took one picture of a couple of guys that I later gave some money to but I couldn't bring myself to take pictures of the others - it seemed a violation of what little dignity they had.
Once we reached the temple and were about to climb the stairs, a raucous noise emerged from the doorway and a parade of shirtless, singing, paddle-carrying men paraded down the steps having just completed their pre-race visit to the temple. Here they are:
When we made it inside, there was another team, or perhaps the other half of the first group, heartily singing their heavily rhythmic song around some temple artifacts. Take a listen:
It was easy to imagine the song being used to keep time among a boatload of 100+ paddlers striving to keep in sync.
Rowers at temple
Rowers singing at temple
View of Aranmula from temple steps
We walked around the temple grounds and experienced some great people watching, though we were probably being watched by the others even more. For such a famous and grand event, a could count two hands the number of non-Indians we saw among the many thousands of people. Still, we feel quite comfortable - some people might take a prolonged look our way but otherwise go about their business as normal. All in all, we've been very comfortable in this regard since we arrived.
Barefoot in the temple
Line up for a ritual temple meal
Shopping for a good Ganesh
We got conflicting info on the start times for the race. We had purchased relatively expensive tickets for the event (this was our one chance) for reserved places so we had a very tasty lunch (for about $8.00) and headed to the reserved viewing area for the race. We had been told that the races began at 1:00 and by another person at 3:00 pm and discovered that there was truth to both times. While the actual event started at 3:00, we needed to be there by 1:00 to get a seats in the reserved section. When we arrived at 2:00, the place was packed and standing room only. Fortunately, we have a native New Yorker travelling with us who started asking questions and pleading our case to police and apparent big shots and before long, we had places in the VIP section of the tent a few rows behind the dignitaries and event sponsors. It was one of those cases, I think, where being non-Indian worked in our favor - I'm not sure a local family could have pulled it off.
These are all thumbnails from the races - click on the picture for a bigger view
A day at the snake boat races
Each boat carries up to 130 rowers
Front end of boats
It's good to be the lead dog
Row, row, row your boat
Riding low in the water
Plotting a strategy
Steering the boat
Some paddle, some chant
There were some slow parts
The contestants en mass
Another close finish
A boat about to capsize
As for the boats themselves, the photos approach doing them justice. They were truly impressive in the size and elegance and in the coordination and spirit of the paddlers themselves. This was a big event in Kerela - it was televised live across the state and with elections coming up, not politician missed the chance to get a little face time in from of the microphone. In fact, the boats paraded by in groups of three then turned upriver and paddled until they were out of sight. We were all left listening to an unending stream of speeches in Malayalm that no one was listening to for about an hour and a half before the boats reapppeared plowing ahead in full stride to the finsish line right in front of us. They came down the river in heats of three boats each, the winner being towed back upstream for the next round. Here are scenes from both the parade and a couple of the heats:
We stayed for a number of heats before feeling satisfied that we experienced what we had come for. With the conclusion of the race, Onam 2010 was all but over and we feel fortunate to have been in Kerela at this time to experience it.
A Kerela postcard