The history of Chundan Vallam or snake boats in Kerala is a depiction of Kerala’s prowess in naval architecture. They are called snake boats because their raised hull resembles the head of a hooded snake. According to historians, four centuries ago, when a king from Alapuzha succumbed to a big defeat in the waters against his rivals, he was determined to find the perfect solution to build the best boat. He turned to ancient scripts and writings, and apparently, that’s how the Chundan Vallam was born.
Commissioned by King Devanarayana of Chembakassery during the war between the feudal kingdoms of Kayamkulam and Chembakassery, the boats continued to play a significant role in the lives of many people after the war. Now, during the monsoon season, which is also the harvest season that we celebrate as Onam, the snake boats are used in boat races. It also holds the world record for being the largest “water vessel to be used in sports”.
How is it made?
It is said that Chundan Vallams are built to the specifications of the Sthapathya Veda, an ancient treatise for the building of wooden boats. It takes nine months to complete the making of one snake boat, and it requires at least 15 people to work on a single boat. Traditionally, the snake boats are hand-crafted. Manual labor is needed is required to get the shape of the boat right. It is crafted in a manner where it is thin from top to bottom using local wood from teak or anjili trees.
What are boat races?
Boat races or Vallam Kalli is widely celebrated in Kerala and is considered as one of the major attractions of the year. There are two types of boat races – The one that is a competition, incorporating a 650-year-old tradition, such as the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, and the other one that is used for ritualistic purposes, like the Aranmula Boat Race, where devotees of Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple consider snake boats as a vessel of the deity.
During the competition, people love watching the Chundan Vallam race against each other in the fresh backwaters with a green backdrop. 125 oarsmen working in tandem in accordance with the Vanchippattu (songs of the boatmen) sung by one of two men who stand in the central portion of the boat. You can find the strongest oarsmen in the bow portion, and six muscular Amarackars who stand at the stern of the boat to help steer it in the right direction. Each Chundan Vallam also has a chief oarsman, who stands at the highest point of the boat. He is kind of like the captain.
So, if you’re in Kerala, head over to Alapuzha during Onam, and you can witness the magic play out. Of course, we will have to wait till the pandemic dies down before we get to see the Vallam Kalli again.