Vallam Kali – The Ancient Festival of Boat Racing  

Vallam Kali - Kerala Boat Racing Festival
Each Vallam Kali boat has a team of people behind it, from its making to its journey on the waters of Kerala.

Boat racing as a sport is famous around the world; however, India’s very own boat race is different from others. It isn’t a sport; it’s a festival and is celebrated with not just sportsmanship but as an ode to the gods. Kerala is called God’s own country, and people participate in the race to honour these gods. Every year Vallam Kali is celebrated around Onam – the festival’s rich history adorns it with the sentiment of the people of the land. 

Table of Contents 

  1. What is Vallam Kali?
  2. Why is it celebrated?
  3. How is Vallam Kali celebrated?
  4. Where is Vallam Kali celebrated?
  5. How to reach?

What is Vallam Kali?

Boat Racing Festival of Kerala - Vallam Kali
Umbrellas are used as decorations for the Boats of Vallam Kali

In layman’s terms, Vallam Kali is a boat race where the boats are vast and snake-like. It is celebrated during the harvest festival – Onam. Vallam Kali is the umbrella term for boat races held in Kerala. It is celebrated in different parts of the state.

The central legend associated with Vallam Kali dates back to the 13th Century of war when one of the kings of the feudal kingdoms commissioned the construction of a war boat. The boat was called Chundan Vallam. The methods of creating the boat thus trace back to 13th Century. Out of all the vessels made since then, the Parthasarathi Chundan is the oldest. This is a festival with its roots in age-old local legends but is celebrated even today with unparalleled zeal. Perhaps it’s this passion among the people that attracts tourists in huge numbers from around the world. 

The heritage of the festival makes it an unmissable event. There are many boat races held in Kerala. Among them are the famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race in Punnamada Lake of Alappuzha and the Aranmula Snake Boat Race. Both these races have decades-old history and reasons for the celebrations. It is a once-a-year festival and happens around Onam. The exact date is according to the Malayalam calendar and is subject to change. However, it’s mainly held in August and September.

Also Read: Things to Do in Alleppey – A Complete Travel Guide

Why is it celebrated?

Nehru Boat Race Trophy allows women participants - as shown in the picture.
Vallam Kali has boats led by women too

It might be just a race to a layman, but Vallam Kali’s history defines it. The Nehru Trophy Boat Race and Aranmula Boat Race are the most revered of the many boat races conducted in Kerala. 

  • Nehru Trophy Boat Race – This boat race gets its name due to the events that transpired in 1952; Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was in attendance that year, was so transfixed by the snake boats that he leapt into one to experience it first hand. He donated a silver trophy in the shape of a snake boat, and since then, the boat race has been named the Jawaharlal Nehru Trophy Boat race. The name is a mouthful, but the story behind it beautifully justifies it. 
  • Aranmula Boat Race – This happens amidst the celebration of Arjun’s birthday. However, the race is also considered an offering to Lord Krishna. The tradition started as an ode to the snake boats that saved a devout brahmin. While delivering the food for a feast at the Shree Parthasarathy Temple, enemy factions attacked him. The snake boats of this race are called Paliyodams. Krishna gets credit for the design of these boats. Krishna is said to have come to this town in a raft of six bamboos called Aranmula. 

How is it celebrated?

Some Vallam Kali boats can be hundreds of feet long as shown in the picture.
Nehru Boat Race has boats that stretch up to a hundred feet sometimes

The rowers wear a mundu and a turban and sing Vanchipattu– the traditional songs for the festival. As the air brims with the music of the rowers, it infuses the atmosphere with excitement and people cheer for the best snake boat to win. As a result, locals and tourists flood the banks of the river. 

The Aranmula Boat race owing to its extensively traditional background, does not allow women to participate. These boats are so huge that some can simultaneously contain up to 140 people. Very conventional and Vedic practices are used in the making of these boats. 

On the other hand, The Nehru trophy boat race includes men and women, and various boats can participate in the competition. Moreover, during this season, the region comes to life with processions around the heavenly backwaters. The best way to experience this is by hiring a local cab from Kochi and beholding this unforgettable sight in person without the hassle of driving.

The boat race is more than a sport; it’s an art form. The mesmerizing synchronization with which the rowers move spellbinds the audience. In addition, their cacophony of singing voices alleviates the atmosphere to a fascinating extent. These elements throughout the festival,  show how this race is a pure art form of the land.  

Also Read: Rural Tourism: Exploring the cultural roots of our nation

Where is Vallam Kali celebrated?

Vallam Kali is a high stake game for a lot of the participants
Vallam Kali is a competitive game with prize money going up till lakhs.

The Nehru trophy Vallam Kali happens in the lake of Punnamada in Alappuzha and brings countless footfalls to the region. Kerala’s most booming industry is tourism. It is festivals like these that don’t just get the people to witness the world-famous snake boat race but also to take the blessings of the local gods. 

The Aranmula Boat Race happens near the 1700-year-old Sri Parthasarathy Temple, honouring the deity Krishna and hero Arjuna. Every year thousands of people stand on the banks of river Pampa to witness this grand event. 

Schedule of 2023 races in the order they are held

Nehru TrophyPunnamada, AlappuzhaAugust 12
Champakkulam Moolam Boat RaceChampakkulam22nd June
Aranmula Boat RacePampa River at AranmulaMid-way through the 10 day celebrations of Onam Festival in August/September
Payippad JalotsavamPayippad LakeAugust/September
President’s TrophyAshtamudi lake, KollamNovember 26

How to reach

You can take a flight or train to attend the Nehru Trophy in Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha. The closest airport is the Cochin International Airport which is 85 km from Alappuzha. Alappuzha also has its railway station, only 7 Kms from Punnamada Lake. You can take a cab to Alappuzha from either of the places and enjoy the grandeur of the festival. 

To attend the Aranmula Boat Race, you can take a flight or train to the nearest airport or station and take a cab to cover the rest of the distance. Aranmula is 10 km away from the nearest railway station Chenagannur. However, the nearest airport is Trivandrum International Airport, some 117 km from Aranmula. Witness the splendour of the festival by booking a car rental with a local driver. Install the Savaari cab booking app for offers and discounts on outstation rentals.

Last Updated on January 18, 2024 by Swati Deol

A quick summary
Vallam Kali - The Ancient Festival of Boat Racing  
Article Name
Vallam Kali - The Ancient Festival of Boat Racing  
In layman's terms, Vallam Kali is a boat race where the boats are vast and snake-like. It is usually conducted during the harvest festival - Onam. Vallam Kali is the umbrella term for boat races held in Kerala. It is celebrated in different parts of the state, each with its history. 
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