>>>On the Back of the Snakes of Kerala

On the Back of the Snakes of Kerala

The water of the lakes of southern India dances to the rhythm of ores. The choreography for the regattas of Kerala is the country’s most populous dance.
00 years ago, conflicts between the kings of Kerala were resolved on the water. They would fight to the death on board a boat that travelled through the city’s channels. The most powerful weapon was the most resistant boat. Devanarayana was the name of the architect who designed the first chundan vallam or snake boat. Its prow is reminiscent of a cobra raising its head to intimidate its prey. This is the traditional war boat of Kerala.
Only men are allowed to touch snake boats and they have to be barefoot.

Land of Water

The backwaters of Kerala extend throughout the region, forming more than 900 km of navigable channels. It is a salt-water ecosystem. You can visit it by hiring a kettuvallam, a traditional boat, formerly used to transport grain from the paddy fields.

Nowadays, while not a bloody battle, the reputation and prestige of the different towns is still in play. Snake boat regattas are annual contests held in Alappuzha–also known as Alleppey and the Venice of the East–and the surrounding area. The most important race is the one for the Nehru Trophy, named in honour of former Prime Minister of India, Sri Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
The August sun warms the waters of Punnamada Lake. Crowds have gathered on its shores, but the best views are reserved for those who have paid the highest entry fee. The silence is abruptly broken. The rowers chant the Vanchipattu (the boatman’s chant) to mark the rhythm. It is the only day of the year when the tranquillity of the waters of the Punnamada is disturbed. There is one team per boat, and each team consists of a hundred men. They are wearing shorts and their torsos are bare. They sink their oars into the water, in perfect time, and then the snakes, from 30 to 36 m long, slither through the lake. The strongest rowers are positioned at the front. The coxes can be distinguished from the rest because they are standing up. Some carry umbrellas for protection from the sun. All are barefoot, as a sign of respect. The trophy is a silver replica of a snake boat, but the true prize is the pride of belonging to the town that is first to cross the finish line.
Onam brings together people from all different castes, religions and communities.
Yamir works as a carpenter in the town of Aranmula. All year long, he is responsible for maintaining the boats. “I grease the wood with a mixture of fish oil, coconut oil and eggshell, to make it waterproof.” But the décor is not his responsibility. The inhabitants of each town adorn their chundan vallam by divine vocation, using golden rope, fabrics and coloured flags.
The boats that travel the backwaters are made out of coconut palm and covered with bamboo.
The regatta for the Nehru trophy may be the biggest, but the oldest is the Champakkulam Moolam. It is held about 25 km from Alappuzha, and marks the start of the racing season in Kerala. The Payippad Jalotsavam regatta, 35 km away, boasts that it is the longest. For three days, rowers stir up the crystalline waters of Lake Payippad, but they compete only on the third day. For the first two days, the snake boats create a display on the water, a colourful procession accompanied by song. Then, there is no hurry or rivalry, just the water of Kerala vibrating to the rhythm of the oars.

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