On the great waterways of Kerala, fierce Vallom Kallies (boat races) and water carnivals erupt every year in a dramatic spectacle and hold tens of thousands of people spell-bound, cheering the action, laying bets, goading the boatmen to row faster.
At Aranmula on the Pamba river in the Kuttanad region, at Papiyad near Quilon, at Thayathangadi near Kottayam, the water carnivals and snake boat races herald the week of the great harvest festival of Onam. It is Kerala’s most important celebration and in scores of villages spread across central Kerala, competitive races featuring the smaller churulans, oadis, and irrutukuthies provide expression to the spirit of an intrepid, athletic people, born and bread near water.
On the appointed day, with the mist still on the river and dew drops sparkling like hundreds of tiny diamonds littered on the grass, the boatmen make their way down to the boats. Working in rhythm and combining their energies, the crews smear the snake boats with coconut oil to smooth their passage through the water.
Over the years, roads, railways and aircraft have stifled the romance of river traffic and inland water warfare has passed into the annals of history. But for the boatmen of Kerala, the romance is still alive and they think in nostalgic term as their boats glide to some favorite shrine in the soft, muted light of the morning.
The gentle priests who murmur a prayer and confer a blessing are all conscious of the sentimental links with a rich, eventful past and a fragile mood made permanent by years of celebrations.
The stately snake boats of Aranmula form part of a hoary temple ritual. In days gone by, it is said, bandits once plundered a small boat carrying offerings to a Krishna temple. Lord Krishna, goes the legend, appeared before the distraught devotee in a dream and advised him to build larger boats which, when rowed by a hundred to hundred and fifty oarsmen, could glide swiftly and outstrip any pirate, and so the speedy chundan or snake boat was designed.
These graceful black boats, once decorated with glittering gold ornaments and the coat of arms of a prince or chief, are upto a hundred feet in length and can accommodate from a hundred to hundred and fifty people. Both ends of a snake boat curl out of the water – the flared stern as much as 15 to 20 feet.
The towering sterns are shaped like menacing cobra hoods and so the boats came to be known as snake boats. They caught the fancy of the region’s daring rulers and when mounted with cannon, tilted the scales in many a blood curdling encounter on the waterways of Kerala.
In time, the slim snake boats with their superior maneuverability took to piracy. Ponderous merchant ships plied the area’s intricate waterways, carrying valuable cargoes of ivory, gold and silver, coconut, rubber and spices as well as silks and incense to Kerala’s busy coastline dotted with the important trading outposts of Quilon, Alleppey, Calicut and Cannanore. These merchant ships were easy targets and after raiding them the snake boats could slip away to safety.
Long after piracy became a thing of the past and swashbuckling pirates reluctantly applied themselves solely to farming and tamer pursuits, the cult of the snake boats continued and stylish boat pageants became a part of the harvest festival.
However, memories of the grand old days of the rivers and waterways still colour the thoughts of the boatmen and tens of thousands of people lining slopes studded with coconut palms, endow the boat races with an aura of rooted traditionalism. The boat races are an affaire d’honneur, and illustrious families, big business concerns, clubs and villages enter the fray with their own boats.
The snake boats take shape in the skilled hands of inspired shipwrights or master boat builders – proud guardians of time honored boat building techniques conscientiously passed on from father to son. Everything is handmade and crafted with great care by the shipwrights. Volunteers from the community are willing assistants and thousands throng the water’s edge to watch the first critical trial run of a new boat.
A phalanx of carved oars strokes the water faster and faster as the pace setters vigorously stamp the crucial mood and rhythm. After each tumultuous practice run, people exchange thoughtful, appraising comments before placing their precious bets. Two days prior to the race, all practice runs cease and speculation on boat favorites runs high.
On the day of the race, the excitement is almost palpable when the time comes for the boats to line up. Under the protection of ancient gods, the boatmen row towards the starting line. Children, thrilled to the core, watch with big black wondering eyes and spirited women sporting red, white or mauve or yellow flowers in their hair jostle for vantage points.
There is insistent drumming and whistling coming from somewhere among the dense assembly of people and the vibrant haunting strains of the vanjipatti, the boat song, are already floating over the water. There is a split second of spell-bound silence and stillness as the starter drops his flag.
Then a wild whooping cheer goes up from the ecstatic crowds and the snake boats, their cobra hoods rearing, dart through the water, sending the spray flying as they zip down the course, oars dipping and flashing in unison.
For both the spectators and the boat crews, the moment is supreme. The snake boats, their pennants whipped by the wind, cut a shimmering swathe through the water and the bare backs of the boatmen shine in the brightness of a perfect, cloudless day.
The thumping men or pace setters in the boats, coiling and uncoiling like so many tightly wound springs drive their teams to greater efforts by a compelling combination of rhythm, voice and action. Frenzied drumming, shouting, whistling, clapping and the rousing clash of cymbals induce that extra winning pull at the oars from each member of the crew.
The scene is a wonderful spur to the imagination and the audience can picture it all as it must have been 400 years ago – a paradise for bloodthirsty pirates. A new rustle of excitement stirs the crowd as desperate, perspiring boat crews put in a final, searing burst of muscular energy and surge across the finishing line. The oars slacken, the snake boats slow down, the applause turns into a sustained roar and the boat race is over.
As the palm trees sway gently in the wind, the joy of Onam with its colorful tempestuous boat races recedes over the backwaters and rivers of Kerala. The bright eyed festive crowds packed on the edge of the palm girt watercourses disperse, thinking perhaps of bets to lay again next year, dreaming perhaps, - as I was – of owning a snake boat – the sauciest, swiftest, most fascinating snake boat that ever roved the great waterways of Kerala….
THE STORY OF ONAM
Once upon a golden time, a kind, able and loving king called mahabali ruled Kerala with its misty mountain ranges, unbroken 550 kilometre long coastline, golden beaches, lazy backwaters, blue lagoons and green paddy fields. King Mahabali’s popularity with the people and ability to govern such a diverse tract of land made the Gods envious. So they banished him to the nether world. Mahabali asked for a boon : that he should be allowed to visit his people once every year.
Today, King Mahabali, it is believed, returns every year on Thiruvonam – at the end of August – beginning September when the life imparting monsoons have departed and the harvest has been gathered. On the occasion, virtually every house in Kerala celebrates the return of King Mahabali and indulge themselves in week long festivities known to the world as Onam. There are festival feasts, traditional dances, boat races, including the world famous snake boat races. Pomp and pageantry mark the entire week of Onam.
SREE KRISHNA TEMPLE UTSAVAM
More than 40 elephants have always, in recent memory, been part of the famous Sree Krishna temple at Guruvayoor. However, legend has it that once upon a time, it so happened that no elephant could be found to carry the idol of the lord for the annual festival. The temple priests wrung their hands in despair and began praying to Sree Krishna.
Just before the ceremonies were to begin, the strongest elephant belonging to a neighboring ruler broke its fetters, ran to Guruvayoor, and knelt before the Sree Krishna temple. Ever since then, it is said, the elephants at the temple race each other towards the end of February early March for the privilege of carrying the lord’s idol. The elephants run three rounds round the temple, and the elephant which touches the flag post first after the three rounds is declared the winner who will have the honour of carrying the deity during the wonderful festivities of Utsavam that takes place every year in the month of kartik (October-November) when people from all over the country flock to the temple to offer prayers.
The beautifully decorated golden idol of Lord Krishna or Guruvayurappan is taken out in a procession on a caparisoned elephant. The elephant – the winner of the earlier race – and its sacred idol goes round the famous temple three times. The magnificently carved image of Krishna in the form of a charioteer carries a whip in the right hand and a conch in the left hand. Throughout the festive days, elaborate rituals are performed in accordance with the norms laid down in the 8th century by the Adi Shankaracharya (religious head of the Hindus) and Lord Krishna is portrayed in the different stages of his early life.
Atop a hillock near Thrissur, as twilight drops its soft mantle on the Shiva temple of Vadakkunathan the Pooram festival – one of the most spectacular of the temple festivals of Kerala begins in mid-April. Later, thirty richly caparisoned elephants carrying ceremonial umbrellas and fanned by white whisks lumber out majestically through the door of the gopuram (temple gate) and line up in the open ground. An elephant in the center carries the image of Lord Shiva. To the accompaniment of drums, pipes and trumpets, the elephants go round the temple.
During the afternoon, a vast crowd assembles to witness an unusual competition between the Paramekavu temple and the Thiruvambadi temple, each of which can field upto 15 caparisoned elephants. The two elephant teams face each other, backed by their own individual orchestras. As the drums beat an exciting tattoo, colourful umbrellas, designed secretly so that the other temple team does not get wind of innovations, are whipped and unfurled atop the elephants in quick succession. This scene of colour and beauty and sound, backed by the applause of the crowds is difficult to erase from one’s memory. Specially appointed judges award a prize for the most spectacular display.
The Pooram festival comes to an exciting close at night in a blaze of colour and sound once again as fireworks explode and bathe the hillock in an extravaganza of light.
THE GREAT ELEPHANT MARCH
Elephants in splendid regalia, people from all age groups and ancient arts and abiding traditions come together at Thrissur during a three day festival which has a flavour and splendour all its own.
More than a hundred fabulously caparisoned elephants, beautiful umbrellas and peacock feathers held aloft by stunningly attired bearers parade before the public in a stadium in Thrissur. Spectators are garlanded by elephants, and then, for a short while, the traditional kavadi – wallahs – people who are voluntarily undergoing penance or seeking a boon from the gods, or expressing their devotion to a chosen deity, take over.
Carrying colourful beautifully crafted bamboo towers – often replicas of a favourite shrine – which contain sacred offerings on their heads or shoulders, these kavadi – wallahs, dwarfed by the structures they carry, are distinctive as they must always walk on foot, no matter how long the distance to their chosen shrine – while they are carrying the kavadis (bamboo towers). In the stadium, the kavadi-wallahs dance ecstatically.
After the kavadi-wallahs leave, elephants carry people to the top of a hill where they witness an impressive display of some of the oldest martial arts of Kerala.
On the second day, people move to the canals of Alleppey where the snake boats race along the waters amidst the excited cheers of the crowds.
The action shifts to Kovalam with its golden beaches on the third day. People are taken for elephant rides along the sun kissed beach and then onto Trivandrum for a stunning re-enactment of the umbrella display part of the Thrissur Pooram festival. Nightfall brings with it the grand conclusion of this amalgam of festivities as the beach at Kovalam becomes the scene of a stunning fireworks display.
THIRUNAKKARA MAHADEVA TEMPLE UTSAVAM
While the wind whispers softly amongst the coconut palms of Kottayam, a mesmerizing Peacock dance holds spectators captive and takes them on an aesthetic voyage of art and performing skills at their purest. A part of a nine day Temple Festival at Kottayam, the rare Peacock dance is but one of the many traditional facets that are re-enacted and recreated during the Thirunakkara Mahadeva Temple Utsavam held in mid-March.
The spirited, war like performance of the velakali and kathakali (a world-famous traditional dance form of Kerala) performances all through the night heighten the ambience of the festival. Processions of richly caparisoned elephants and drummers in large numbers enhance the powerful visual effect of the festival. Inside the temple, age old rituals are performed as devotees offer prayers and thanksgiving.
ST. MARY’S CHURCH FEAST
At Pazhanji, approximately 105 kilometres from Cochin, people from the neighbouring countryside and surrounding churches congregate in memory of a Christian Bishop who came to Kerala from Syria. St. Mary’s Church Feast is a grand occasion spread over two days (October 2nd and 3rd) and marked by music and festivities and a colourful procession in which more than 40 caparisoned elephants participate.
SHRINE FESTIVAL OF ST. THOMAS DIDYMUS
One of the twelve apostles of Christ, St. Thomas Didymus came to India, it is believed, in 52 A.D. and established Christianity in the country earlier than almost anywhere else in the world. St. Thomas sought solitude at Mount Mayaltoor in the mist-shrouded, forested Western Ghats with their deep ravines, sheer drops and steep ridges. In the course of time, a hunter chanced that way and discovered the Cross on the Mount.
When this momentous discovery became known many people visited the spot, despite the difficult terrain. Before long, a chapel was erected and the place became a center of pilgrimage for Christians and others from all parts of India.
However, because of the rugged nature of the area, easy accessibility remained a problem. Therefore, the chapel opens mainly for eight days every year in memory of St. Thomas – “The Apostle of India”. During these eight ceremonial days, which start on the first Sunday after Easter and last till the next Sunday, people in thousands travel to the shrine from all parts of India.
In Kochi there lives a community of Jews whose roots go back to the Diaspora. The jewish Synagogue, constructed in 1568 A.D. is the oldest Synagogue in the Commonwealth. The festival of Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first day of Tishri (September-October), the first month of the Jewish calendar. Every member of the Jewish community visits the synagogue to offer prayers and thanks to the Almighty. New garments are worn and there is feasting and rejoicing. After prayers in the evening, a traditional meal is shared by the worshippers.
THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES
Celebrated in memory of Jews in ancient times who, when escaping from the wrath of the Egyptians, had to wander from place to place before reaching Palestine, the feast festival of Tabernacles lasts for eight days – from the 15th to the 23rd of Tishri, the first month of the Jewish calendar. Some Jews still pass one or two nights in temporary shelters specially erected for the occasion near a Synagogue.
When going to the Synagogue during the festival, the Jews are meant to carry with them a citron, a branch of a palm tree, a willow of the brook ad a myrtle branch – each representing different kinds of Jews in the World.
The seventh day of the festival witnesses a grand feast known as the “Feast of Rejoicing of the Torah”. On the eighth day, the Scrolls of Law (scriptures) are carried ceremonially round the central reading platform.
PUTHUR MUSLIM JUMA AT CHANDANAKUMAM
Spread over two days, the most important annual festival of the Puthur Mosque at Changanacherry is known as the Chandanakuman. Arresting folk performances and a procession in which caparisoned elephants form a striking part mark the first day of the festival.
On the second day too, an elephant procession starting from another mosque winds its way through the streets and culminates towards late evening at the Puthur Mosque.
SHRINE FESTIVAL OF ST. TERESA OF AVILE
They come rolling along the road. They drag themselves on bended knees to seek her blessings. They come by modern means of transport from overseas and within India to reach the magnificent Catholic shrine of St. Teresa of Avile at Mahe. The Roman Catholic Christians visit the shrine between October 5 and October 22 every year. A grand feast-festival is celebrated on October 14 and 15 Special prayers are said and sermons and benedictions feature during the day. A grand procession is taken out on the eve of the feast on October 14 and 15 at the Shrine Festival of St. Teresa of Avile.
Held in four places in Mahe during different months, the Thira festival is wreathed in prayers, music where the effects of several types of musical instruments blend together to create a rare effect, and a variety of impressive dances. A particular deity is specially selected for the festival and installed on an elevated platform around which the devotees dance and sing with fervent abandon. The Thira Festival commences in the evening and ends the next evening.
The festival is held for three days at Koyyadan Koroth in the Malayalam month of Makaram (January – February); at Mahe Puthalam for four days in the Malayalam month of Kumbham (February-March); at Pando Koolam for two days in the months of Meenam and Medam (March – April); and a Pando Kava for two days in March-April.
SREE PARASURAMA TEMPLE BALI
Bedecked with garlands of marigolds and sweet smelling sandal wood, a procession carrying palanquins with idols of Lord Vishnu and elephants leading the way sets out from the Sree Parasurama Temple in Thiruvallam on the 9th day of the festival held in mid-August. The Sree Parasurama Temple is dedicated to Parasurama – the legendary founder of Kerala and the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the preserver in the Hindu Trinity.
The procession wends its way to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum, stopping once to bathe the idol of Lord Vishnu in the sea. After an overnight stay, the procession returns to Thiruvallam.