For a few months every year during the monsoon season, the state of Kerala comes alive with colorful snake boat races. Here’s what you need to know about them.

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. It’s a traditional war boat 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.

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.

Four main snake boat races (and as many as 15 minor ones) are held each year, in and around Alleppey.

  • The spectacular Nehru Trophy is held on Alleppey’s Punnamda Lake.
  • The oldest race, the Champakkulam Moolam, is held along the river at Champakkulam (Changanassery), around 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Alleppey.
  • The Payippad Jalotsavam is held on Payippad Lake, 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Alleppey.
  • The Aranmula Boat Race is held along the Pampa River at Aranmula, near Chengannur, around 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Alleppey.

Snake boat races are mostly held from July to September, with the exact dates varying each year depending on the phase of the moon. The exception is the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, which is always held on the second Saturday of August. Snake boat races are the highlight of the Onam Festival in August/September, particularly the Aranmula Boat Race, which takes place mid way through the 10 day celebrations. Many other boat races are also held during the festival along the backwaters at Kottayam, Payippad, and Champakkulam. The Champakkulam Moolam is held in June/July, and the Payippad Jalotsavam is held in September.

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race is perhaps the biggest of the boat festivals in Kerala. Thousands of people look forward to this festival. The festival is held in Alappuzha and the venue is the Punnamada Lake. The participants decorate their boats which are of various shapes and try to row to their fullest to in over the other.

The Champakulam Moolam Boat Race is also another popular Kerala Boat festival. It is the oldest snake boat race in the state. It is held on the Champakulam Lake on the moolam day of the Malayalam month of Midhunam and is dedicated to the installation of the deity of the Sree Krishna Temple at Ambalappuzha.